Not An Easy Thing To Be In 2002
Shirin has been through it all before.
The slings and arrows of high-school social dynamics are amplified for her, a Muslim in America just after 9/11. No matter that she grew up in the States, is an avid reader, an aspiring break dancer and possesses a vitriolic sense of humor. Everyone simply reverts to their reductive presumptions about her religion and her politics.
Tahereh Mafi lived this reality. Now she’s written about it in what she’s called her most personal novel to date, A Very Large Expanse of Sea.
Shirin is a Muslim, yes, but she’s so much more in Mafi’s portrayal. “Sea” grapples with everyday prejudices and assumptions, yet it’s also a dizzying teen romance with all the outsize feelings that come with first love, a potent critique of how the deck is doubly stacked against her as a girl compared with her brother’s experiences (“the handsome exotic boy all these pretty girls would inevitably use to satisfy their need to experiment and one day rebel against their parents”), and an indictment of the weight of parental expectations.
Shirin’s first clue that this year will be different is Ocean, the unusually named boy she’s paired with for biology lab. “Meet cute” in this case means over feline dissection, and she does everything but swing a dead cat at him to rebuff his attempts at getting to know her. She knows how this story ends, and she’s not going to allow herself an iota of vulnerability.
But Ocean won’t be thwarted by Shirin’s coldness. Over messages exchanged in now-antiquated AOL Instant Messenger, they forge a friendship that quickly turns into something more. Ocean’s well-meaning obliviousness to the racism Shirin deals with on a regular basis gives Mafi a platform to explore privilege, along with the more expected jabs from classmates at her headscarf.
“I wrapped my scarf a little loosely, which made it so that a little of my hair, at the top, sometimes showed, and some people were obsessed with this detail,” Shirin explains. “I wasn’t sure why, but they loved pointing out to me that they could already see an inch of my hair, like maybe that would be enough to nullify the whole thing. I found this fixation kind of hilarious.”
Ocean gets woke for real once he and Shirin come out as a couple, but by then we’re ready for the more overt prejudice Mafi outlines, as she’s deftly woven in aggressions both micro and macro.
Reading a book like this could easily feel like a classroom assignment, but Mafi knows her subject and Shirin is such a badass (admittedly one about to melt under Ocean’s relentless good nature) that the lessons feel less like scolding and more like a sorely-needed window into a world too few of us know. Bonus task: Go check out Mafi’s book trailer for video of her impossibly fashionable self breakdancing just like her heroine.
(Harper Collins, October 16, 2018)