A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.

Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons breakdancing with her brother.

But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down. [Taken from the publisher’s blurb.]

I really enjoyed this YA contemporary about a Muslim high school student who is the victim of constant microaggressions. 

The main character, Shirin, is the best part of this book for me. She is such a complex and fantastic character. So used to being disappointed, she has given up on her fellow human beings, and even stops looking at the people around her, out of fear. But she’s so smart, beautiful, and badass that she intimidates everyone. So the irony of the shell she’s built up around herself is that she’s put it up for her own protection, but everyone else thinks they need protection from her.

Everything about me—my face, my fashion—had become political. There was a time when my presence only confused people; I used to be just a regular weirdo, the kind of unfathomable entity that was easily disregarded, easily discarded. But one day, in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy, I’d woken up in the spotlight. It didn’t matter that I was just as shaken and horrified as everyone else; no one believed my grief. People I’d never met were suddenly accusing me of murder. Strangers would scream at me in the street, in school, in the grocery store, at gas stations and restaurants to go home, go home, go back to Afghanistan, you camel-fucking terrorist.

I wanted to tell them I lived down the block. I wanted to tell them I’d never been to Afghanistan. I wanted to tell them I’d only met a camel once, on a trip to Canada, and that the camel was infinitely kinder than the humans I’d met.

She is the perfect character to deliver commentary on social justice and gender politics because she feels deeply and is so relatable. This story is also a harsh indictment of everything we all love to hate about high school—cliques and social strata and jock culture and sports mania.

At its heart, this book is primarily a romance. Not my favorite kind of story, especially when it comes to interfaith relationships. I would have liked to see more of the other parts of the story: Shirin’s breakdancing, the really wonderful (non-romantic) relationships she has with her crew, and her faith. 

I’m thrilled to add this book to the recent slew of YA books featuring Muslim protagonists. I think it’s great that they show many different ways of identifying as Muslim. Shirin’s hijab is important to her, as is fasting Ramadan. Prayer not so much.

Something really wonderful about Shirin’s character is the way that she embraces her faith on her own. Her brother is perfectly nonjudgmental about her choices, and we never see her parents influencing her in either direction about her faith. To have a younger character living their faith and committing to it (as she commits to her hijab) on their own is so refreshing. 

The ending (don’t worry, no spoilers) is so sad and perfectly realistic. 

You can:

  • See a Readers’ Group Guide here.
  • Read an excerpt of the first chapter here. (In it, Shirin’s new Honors English teacher takes one look at her and tells her that she must be in the wrong class; ESL is down the hall.) 
  • And get a copy here: Harper Collins | Amazon

Let me know if you’ve read it yet and what you thought of it.

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