Shirin is angry — and as a 16-year-old Muslim navigating a post-9/11 America, she has reason to be. Her immigrant parents relocate each year for a better job and better school district, forcing her to start over. That also means repeatedly acclimating to a new group of peers and teachers, waves of Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric crashing into her daily.
With a country on the verge of war and a hijab wrapped around her head, fading into the masses is nearly impossible for Shirin. But she’s also learned to adapt. She is careful not to speak up or make new friends and tries her best to disappear into the sea of adolescent faces populating her school. Apart from some unwanted hallway comments and ignorant teachers, Shirin nearly succeeds in her mission — until she meets Ocean.
Ocean, the school’s golden boy and star basketball player takes Shirin by surprise; in spite of her resolve to be alone, she falls in love with him. However, as Shirin and Ocean navigate the difficulties of their intercultural relationship, it becomes alarmingly clear how little tolerance has grown over the past 15-plus years.
In the current political climate, Tahereh Mafi’s early 2000s period piece feels especially relevant. A Very Large Expanse of Sea hits all the well-worn beats readers have come to expect from teen romances, but it’s able to reframe a familiar story through the lens of a culture too rarely humanized on page or screen. The result is a singular (and, rightly, National Book Award-longlisted) new novel from one of YA’s brightest voices.
Expanse is at its best when examining the nuances of Shirin’s cultural identity. During a weeknight dinner, the reader quickly understands how important it is for her family to preserve their Persian traditions, with descriptions so detailed one can almost smell the steaming basmati rice and fesenjoon on the dinner table.
Mafi successfully presents the division and conflicts that exist within the religion as well. Shirin’s brother Navid comments on the fit of his sister’s newly-hemmed jeans; Shirin is shamed by a non-Hijabi Muslim classmate for her romantic relationship with Ocean. By allowing Shirin to express her frustration with the sexism she experiences within and beyond the Muslim community, Mafi successfully illustrates these chasms.
Indeed, Mafi (best known for Shatter Me) doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter, constructing scene after scene which reveals how Shirin is seen and treated by those around her. One of Expanse‘s most impactful passages arrives via flashback: In the weeks after 9/11, as Shirin walks home from school, she’s physically assaulted by a pair of male classmates; rather than arresting them, the police officers on the scene infantilize the assailants and minimize the impact of their actions. Turning to Shirin, one cop recommends she remove her hijab so she’s no longer a walking target and asks, “Do you speak English?” The trauma informs Shirin’s present-day struggles, lingering over the remainder of the narrative.
Like any good teen love story, a second love interest is introduced, but this is where the book’s one weakness comes into view. Fellow Muslim student Yusef bonds with Shirin over matters of identity, from their culture of faith to their love of breakdancing (which their author shares). Yet the character is ultimately a missed opportunity. Described as always smiling and socially unaware, Yosef is more of a lukewarm distraction than a compelling romantic alternative.
These are small quibbles, though. Stories of an American Hijabi remain few and far between, and Mafi’s thoughtful, personal, and powerfully emotional novel delivers a strong argument for why we need more. A-
More on Tahereh Mafi: