Book Review/Reaction: A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

Status: Finished Reading (2 November 2018)

Edition: Amazon Kindle

Rating: ★★★★★

Image Source: Goodreads

I was fortunate enough to receive a sampler for this book a couple of months ago and I immediately knew it had been a mistake – because it was impossible for me to read the first chapters of the book and not crave the rest of it right that minute. As a fan of Mafi’s previous work, when I heard that she was going to be writing a contemporary I was beyond excited. She has a way with words and prose that promised me an excellent story even if it was a different genre than I was used to seeing from her.

Shirin’s story is moving in a way that is difficult for me to fully put into words. For one, Shirin is a name I associate with strength and positivity, and working hard and keeping your chin up (the emotions inspired in me by my high school French teacher who had the same name, and was one of the few good teachers I’ve had amidst a string of absolutely terrible ones).

This Shirin’s story is obviously different. It’s about a delicate but difficult game of survival in a post 9/11 world as a Muslim teenager in America. I’ve studied East-West Encounters post 9/11 at university: read tons of poignant papers by POC and Muslim academics, written essays, analysed books and movies and media about the Middle East and how the West continues to treat “the Orient”.

No amount of library books can capture what it feels like. None of it can ever compare to a lived experience.

While I’m not Muslim myself, I distinctly remember what it was like being a visibly South Asian, brown-skinned kid in 2002 America. At 7 years old, there is an odd understanding of the world that is clinging to the innocent beliefs of childhood and the harsher grip of reality trying to pull you away. I remember 9/11 very vividly because it was a very horrific memory imprinted in my brain, one we witnessed live on television in the middle of the night (we had returned to India in 2000). I also remember going back to America in 2002 and suddenly becoming painfully aware of the colour of my skin and how people looked at me.

I cannot attempt to equate my experiences with that of Mafi’s or Shirin’s, or that of hundreds of thousands of young Muslim teens in America. I am not Muslim, nor was I exposed to the American public school system, and I was brought back to South Asia within a year. My parents tried to shelter me as much as they could but even they couldn’t stop every person from saying something under their breath or looking at me like I was a small potential for big trouble.

As a young, brown Asian WOC who has become a victim of racial profiling at the hands of Western authorities and general public often enough, there were certain aspects of Shirin’s story that hit so hard. Funnily enough, I was actually travelling through Europe while reading this book. Every time I got pulled aside for a “random” check, had my bag opened despite following every security code, was intimately frisked publicly with white people staring at me in shock and paranoia, was subject to the scrutinising, disgusted, suspicious glances, I would hold my Kindle tighter in my hand and try to gain some strength.

One of the things I love about the book is how there is an excellent balance between the story of Shirin’s life and the story of the society around her. I suspected this might be the case because Mafi has the skill to eloquently explain the effects of the surrounding environment on the main character while keeping the narrative fairly introspective. Shirin has a very sharp understanding of the things that happen around her, the world she’s forced to see in a way others have the privilege not to – yet a lot of her perspective of the world is informed and clouded by the intense anger and pain (very valid reactions, mind you) she feels towards it. It’s a complex and layered understanding of the people around us and the society we live in, and Mafi executes it so well.

At the same time, the book isn’t just about the struggles Shirin faces because of her ethnic, racial, and religious identity/choices. It’s about family. It’s about school. It’s about young romance. It’s about dance. (This is something that touched me because I use dance and choreography as an emotional outlet, and used to be on my school dance team. When Shirin said: I had a natural feel for the beats in the music, I felt that.)

It’s about the struggles of a teenager with a big heart and a large mind stuck in a small town in a small school with a small world. It’s about relationships with mentors and peers and the people we let into our lives. It’s about how small but violent actions on behalf of privileged folks can turn the lives of minorities upside down while they have the privilege to walk away from it unblemished.

Neither of these trains of thoughts are independent from one another. Shirin’s social struggles affect how she reacts to things in her personal life; just as her personal life affects how she projects herself to society. One cannot be separated from another because these are all different parts of the people we are – and Mafi successfully peels back all these layers of Shirin without completely disconnecting them from one another.

For that exact reason, I think, the passage that stood out to me the most, the one I felt like I related to the absolute most, the one that had me putting down my Kindle and closing my eyes as I choked up, was this one:

The checkout lady at the grocery store would be rude to me and her simple unkindness would unnerve me for the rest of the day because I never knew – I had no way of knowing – Are you racist? Or are you just having a bad day?

I could no longer distinguish people from monsters.

I looked out at the world around me and no longer saw nuance. I saw nothing but the potential for pain and the subsequent need to protect myself, constantly.

In so many words, Mafi explains exactly what it feels like navigating a world that has hurt you enough times for the skin you wear, for the voice you use, for the choices you make for yourself that it becomes a dizzying, confusing vortex of pain and potential suffering you just want to escape. Mafi has a talent for accurately painting that emotional picture, and she does it again here.

This book is a must-read. I can only imagine the impact it has had on Muslim teens in America who want to be represented (especially those who wear hijabs and have a new main character to relate to), especially at the hands of such a skilled author. There are many reasons to pick this one up: a fresh take on romance, a dry but funny narrator, a realistic portrayal of youth, a stark picture of the society we live in. Each and every one matters, and propels this book to the top of my favourite 2018 reads shelf.

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