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Sixteen-year-old Shirin is the American-born daughter of two Irani immigrants. Her family moves often — as her parents do their very best to climb the ladder professionally — going where the better jobs are, starting afresh in small towns as often as is needed for them to earn more, save more and to improve the futures of their two children. For Shirin, moving often has become a way of life, as has dealing with the constant racism and humiliation hurled her way by her fellow students. Shirin wears a hijab, and though she is smarter, more aware and even much more fashionable than her peers, the hijab is all they see when they look at her. It’s all they define her by.

And so Shirin shuts down. She doesn’t engage with anyone outside of her family. She coasts through her classes even when the teachers, too, assume that she won’t be able to speak English or keep up. She keeps her head down and moves from school to friendless school, just biding her time until she can get to a more liberal college environment. That is, until a year after 9/11, when Shirin starts at yet another small-town school and faces even more hostility than usual but, to her surprise, develops a very unexpected friendship with a boy named Ocean in her biology class.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is the New York Times’s bestselling writer Tahereh Mafi’s latest Young Adult novel, and has been long-listed for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Unlike her bestselling Shatter Me series, though, A Very Large Expanse of Sea is not fantasy or speculative fiction; it is essentially a YA romance, intelligently complicated by, and with a valid commentary on, growing up a visibly Muslim girl in small-town America.

An incredibly endearing Young Adult novel with a sweet, sad, hopeful heart deals sensitively with Islamophobia and racism

Shirin and her brother have vastly different experiences in high school — her brother thrives in the easy attention he receives as the ‘exotic’, good-looking new student. He finds friends quickly at each school and forms a breakdancing troupe with a few of the other male students at the newest school where the narrative is set. Shirin is just as interested in breakdancing as her brother, so is thrilled to join the crew and learn from them, regardless of how odd it seems at first to the others to have a hijabi breakdancer. She slowly forms friendships with her brother’s friends and, at the same time, lets her guard down around Ocean, except Ocean is evidently interested in her as more than just a friend.

A tentative romance starts between the two, with Ocean wanting to know and understand Shirin better, while Shirin — as a result of her vehement indifference to the school’s community — is unaware of Ocean’s status as the school’s basketball star. Shirin has never had anyone interested in her beyond seeing her as the ‘other’, and Ocean has never had anyone talk with him without the filters of his star athlete status. It’s a revelation for them both: this idea that each could be interested in the other regardless of where they have been pigeonholed by society. It’s a sweet, slowly blooming romance as the two get to know each other. Consequently, Shirin is forced to acknowledge that perhaps she’s not as okay being alone as she likes to pretend, while Ocean is forced to check his white privilege and learn what it’s like to be an outcast.

But the school’s bigoted attitude towards Shirin takes full hold once her relationship with Ocean becomes public. Shirin has always been aware of the racism hurled her way, but it is shocking to Ocean, who refuses to give her up even after things take a turn for the worse. Shirin’s connection to music and dance is what keeps her sane, giving her a protective armour against the awful absurdities of high school drama.

Shirin — unapologetic, brash, intelligent and deeply insecure — is a jewel of a protagonist, one we can immediately relate to and care for. We watch her navigate the headiness of a dramatic first love, all gushing hormones and fiery words and heart-hitches, alongside the fears that come with going public with a relationship that warrants so much attention of the bigoted kind. Her understanding of the world is just cynical enough, though, as Mafi fills us in on the reasons for Shirin’s cynicism, from a horrible racist attack on her after 9/11 by male classmates who are all let off easily by the police while Shirin is told that perhaps her hijab is to blame, to the casual slurs thrown her way by random kids who pass her in the hallway. We see her struggle, grow and face the Islamophobia so many of us know, and so many readers of the book will understand the impact of for the first time.

A major vein running through A Very Large Expanse of Sea is that of agency, Shirin’s in particular. She is constantly having to fight for her own rights, her own choices, whether they be about her appearance, her hijab or her breakdancing. She’s forced into corners to defend her religious and cultural beliefs and, when someone forcibly takes a picture of her without her hijab, she explains, “Whoever did this had wanted to unmask me without my permission, to humiliate me by intentionally undermining a decision I’d made to keep parts of me for just myself. They’d wanted to take away the power I thought I had over my own body.” Mafi doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to feminism either — via Shirin it is made clear that everyone’s interest should be in what is inside a woman’s head, instead of what is on it.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea is an incredibly endearing book with a sweet, sad, hopeful heart. This isn’t just another teen love story — it’s a valid and sensitive narrative about a young woman struggling with Islamophobia and racism, struggling to stick to her own choices and struggling for her voice to be heard.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

A Very Large Expanse of Sea
By Tahere Mafi
HarperCollins, US
ISBN: 978-0062866561
320pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 3rd, 2019