The Raw Emotion of Tahereh Mafi

Her new YA novel, intense almost to a fault

Best-selling Iranian-American YA author Tahereh Mafi has strategically, and agonizingly, been revealing the progress of her second realistic fiction novel, An Emotion of Great Delight, on her traffic-heavy Instagram over the last year. Mafi’s highly curated posts are as much, if not more, about her amazing “complicated fashion” sense—to use a term from her first realistic fiction novel, A Very Large Expanse of Sea—and her impossibly difficult workout routines, as they are about her writing. 

Mafi

AVLEOS was a major literary shift for Mafi, who burst on the YA scene a decade ago with her hugely popular and prolific dystopian Shatter Me series. She deftly made the shift. The novel was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2018 and the film version is imminent. 

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

There are a number of overlaps between AVLEOS and AEOGD. Mafi set both during the post 9/11 timeframe, AEOGD when the United States has entered into a war with Iraq. Both focus on hijab-wearing first generation Iranian-American teenage girls. But AEOGD is a very different story. It takes place almost wholly in the thoughts of the protagonist, Shadi—which in Farsi, the Iranian language, means “an emotion of great delight.” 

Mafi tells AEOGD in flashbacks and flash forwards of the previous year and the present year—not dissimilar to Nina LaCour’s Michael Printz Award-winning novel, We Are Okay, where we meet the main character after a traumatic event that has reshaped her.  There are three major storylines: Shadi’s internal painful family situation, her disintegrated relationship with her best friend Zahra, and the external backdrop of racism and alienation. Each of these is so heavy and so complicated and steeped in so much emotion, it needs its own book.

We arrive at a moment where Shadi is desperately sad, lost and alone, and while it’s not explicit, she’s also grieving. The source of a lot of Shadi’s unhappiness and isolation, her family is a central component of AEOGD. Her father is in the hospital, possibly terminal, and Shadi wants him to die. Her mother is incoherent with grief and self-harming. She horrifyingly reveals how her older Mehdi brother died. And her older sister, Shayda, is perpetually angry and frustrated with Shadi.

Shadi doesn’t have any friends now that her friendship with Zahra has ended. Not only is the friendship over, but Zahra considers Shadi a top enemy. There is much hatred coming from Zahra toward Shadi, mainly stemming from jealousy. Then you have Zahra’s brother, Ali, who might be the main reason why Shadi and Zahra are no longer friends. 

There is an opacity about what exactly is going on with Shadi and what happened to make her such a troubled and burdened person. It’s obvious that she’s in a lot of pain and crippled with guilt, trying to balance out the incidents in her life in a mental barter between herself and the universe.

The reveals in AEOGD are slow to arrive and ambiguous when they do. Shadi has a heightened awareness of her surroundings, a common characteristic of protagonists who are experiencing inner turmoil. There are a lot of detailed descriptions, often excessively poetic, of everything around her and within her. Too many times Shadi finds hers caught in the rain or the cold. She’s constantly wet and the book overflows with descriptors of these scenes.

Grief, abandonment, hatred and confusion come to a head and the book resolves them, at least somewhat, very quickly. It’s a breakthrough for Shadi once she’s able to forgive herself, and then her family members. But Mafi leaves her readers reeling, particularly at the implied “happily ever after” on the very last page. 

Speaking about AEOGD, Mafi shared on Instagram, “I left behind a great deal of my heart.” In a recent IGTV Q&A she said that the book “took a lot out of me to write and I cried quite a bit when I wrote it.” She also said “it came from a personal place,” and, “I experienced the immense sadness that Shadi experiences.” 

The storytelling in AEOGD reflects the raw emotion of its author. The difficulty to definitively speak of these topics is perhaps why there’s a degree of withholding in the book. Fragmented and subtle with minimal dialogue, plus flowery language, AEOGD would have worked extremely well as a novel in verse. 

(Harper Collins, June 1, 2021)

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Lily Moayeri

Los Angeles-based Lily Moayeri has been an avid reader since 1975, a freelance journalist since 1992 and an educator since 2004.

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