Tahereh Mafi's new novel powerfully tackles Muslim-American relations
The best-selling author shares the cover and an excerpt for 'A Very Large Expanse of Sea,' set in the post-9/11 moment.
Tahereh Mafi’s next novel promises to hit close to home: a portrait of a Muslim teenager facing not only stereotypes, but threats, as she comes of age in the immediate post-9/11 period.
In A Very Large Expanse of Sea, it’s 2002, a scary time politically for someone like 16-year-old Shirin, who deals with rude stares, degrading comments — even physical violence — on a daily basis, merely because of her race and the hijab she wears to school. She’s built up protective walls and defense mechanisms, but when she meets Ocean James, who actually seems genuinely interested in her, it terrifies her. The question arises: Can she finally let her guard down?
A sensitive and nuanced portrait of Muslim-American identity in a perilous political time that echoes our present moment, Expanse of Sea marks the latest novel from Mafi, best known for the Shatter Me series — and maybe her most political yet. The best-selling author has shared an exclusive preview of the novel, in the form of a cover reveal (designed by Rodrigo Corral Art + Design) and excerpt debut, which you can see below. It may make the wait until Oct. 16 feel that much longer, but at least A Very Large Expanse of Sea is available for pre-order. Check out the preview below.
Excerpt from A Very Large Expanse of Sea, by Tahereh Mafi
We always seemed to be moving, always for the better, always to make our lives better, whatever. I couldn’t keep up with the emotional whiplash. I’d attended so many elementary schools and middle schools I couldn’t keep their names straight anymore but this, this switching high schools all the time thing was really starting to make me want to die. This was my third high school in less than two years and my life seemed suddenly to comprise such a jumble of bullshit every day that sometimes I could hardly move my lips. I worried that if I spoke or screamed my anger would grip both sides of my open mouth and rip me in half.
So I said nothing.
It was the end of August, all volatile heat and the occasional breeze. I was surrounded by starched backpacks and stiff denim and kids who smelled like fresh plastic. They seemed happy.
I sighed and slammed my locker shut.
For me, today was just another first day of school in another new city, so I did what I always did when I showed up at a new school: I didn’t look at people. People were always looking at me, and when I looked back they often took it as an invitation to speak to me, and when they spoke to me they nearly always said something offensive or stupid or both and I’d decided a long time ago that it was easier to pretend they just didn’t exist.
I’d managed to survive the first three classes of the day without major incident, but I was still struggling to navigate the school itself. My next class seemed to be on the other side of campus, and I was trying to figure out where I was—cross-checking room numbers against my new class schedule—when the final bell rang. In the time it took my stunned self to glance up at the clock, the masses of students around me had disappeared. I was suddenly alone in a long, empty hallway, my printed schedule now crumpled in one fist. I squeezed my eyes shut and swore under my breath.
When I finally found my next class I was seven minutes late. I pushed open the door, the hinges slightly squeaking, and students turned around in their seats. The teacher stopped talking, his mouth still caught around a sound, his face frozen between expressions.
He blinked at me.
I averted my eyes, even as I felt the room contract around me. I slid into the nearest empty seat and said nothing. I took a notebook out of my bag. Grabbed a pen. I was hardly breathing, waiting for the moment to pass, waiting for people to turn away, waiting for my teacher to start talking again when he suddenly cleared his throat and said—
“Anyway, as I was saying: our syllabus includes quite a bit of required reading, and those of you who are new here”—he hesitated, glanced at the roster in his hands—“might be unaccustomed to our school’s intense and, ah, highly demanding curriculum.” He stopped. Hesitated again. Squinted at the paper in his hands.
And then, as if out of nowhere, he said, “Now—forgive me if I’m saying this incorrectly—but is it—Sharon?” He looked up, looked me directly in the eye.
I said, “It’s Shirin.”
Students turned to look at me again.
“Ah.” My teacher, Mr. Webber, didn’t try to pronounce my name again. “Welcome.”
I didn’t answer him.
“So.” He smiled. “You understand that this is an honors English class.”
I hesitated. I wasn’t sure what he was expecting me to say to such an obvious statement. Finally, I said, “Yes?”
He nodded, then laughed, and said, “Sweetheart, I think you might be in the wrong class.”
I wanted to tell him not to call me sweetheart. I wanted to tell him not to talk to me, ever, as a general rule. Instead, I said, “I’m in the right class,” and held up my crumpled schedule.
Mr. Webber shook his head, even as he kept smiling. “Don’t worry—this isn’t your fault. It happens sometimes with new students. But the ESL office is actually just down the—”
“I’m in the right class, okay?” I said the words more forcefully than I’d intended. “I’m in the right class.”
This shit was always happening to me.
It didn’t matter how unaccented my English was. It didn’t matter that I told people, over and over again, that I was born here, in America, that English was my first language, that my cousins in Iran made fun of me for speaking mediocre Farsi with an American accent—it didn’t matter. Everyone assumed I was fresh off the boat from a foreign land.
Mr. Webber’s smile faltered. “Oh,” he said. “Okay.”
The kids around me started laughing and I felt my face getting hot. I looked down and opened my blank notebook to a random page, hoping the action would inspire an end to the conversation.
Instead, Mr. Webber held up his hands and said, “Listen—me, personally? I want you to stay, okay? But this is a really advanced class, and even though I’m sure your English is really good, it’s still—”
“My English,” I said, “isn’t really good. My English is fucking perfect.”
I spent the rest of the hour in the principal’s office.
I was given a stern talking-to about the kind of behavior expected of students at this school and warned that, if I was going to be deliberately hostile and uncooperative, maybe this wasn’t the school for me. And then I was given detention for using vulgar language in class. The lunch bell rang while the principal was yelling at me, so when he finally let me go I grabbed my things and bolted.
I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere; I was only looking forward to being away from people. I had two more classes to get through after lunch but I wasn’t sure my head could take it; I’d already surpassed my threshold for stupidity for the day.
I was balancing my lunch tray on my lap in a bathroom stall, my head in a viselike grip between my hands, when my phone buzzed. It was my brother.
And then he told me to get the hell out of the bathroom and come have lunch with him, apparently the school had already sent out a welcome wagon full of brand-new friends in celebration of his pretty face, and I should join him instead of hiding.
No thanks, I typed.
And then I threw my lunch in the trash and hid in the library until the bell rang.
My brother is two years older than me; we’d almost always been in the same school at the same time. But he didn’t hate moving like I did; he didn’t always suffer when we got to a new city. There were two big differences between me and my brother: first, that he was extremely handsome, and second, that he didn’t walk around wearing a metaphorical neon sign nailed to his forehead flashing CAUTION, TERRORIST APPROACHING.
I shit you not, girls lined up to show my brother around the school. He was the good-looking new guy. The interesting boy with an interesting past and an interesting name. The handsome exotic boy all these pretty girls would inevitably use to satisfy their need to experiment and one day rebel against their parents. I’d learned the hard way that I couldn’t eat lunch with him and his friends. Every time I showed up, tail between my legs and my pride in the trash, it took all of five seconds for me to realize that the only reason his new lady friends were being nice to me was because they wanted to use me to get to my brother.
I’d rather eat in the toilet.
I told myself I didn’t care, but obviously I did. I had to. The news cycle never let me breathe anymore. 9/11 happened last fall, two weeks into my freshman year, and a couple of weeks later two dudes attacked me while I was walking home from school and the worst part—the worst part—was that it took me days to shake off the denial; it took me days to fathom the why. I kept hoping the explanation would turn out to be more complex, that there’d turn out to be more than pure, blind hatred to motivate their actions. I wanted there to be some other reason why two strangers would follow me home, some other reason why they’d yank my scarf off my head and try to choke me with it. I didn’t understand how anyone could be so violently angry with me for something I hadn’t done, so much so that they’d feel justified in assaulting me in broad daylight as I walked down the street.
I didn’t want to understand it.
But there it was.
I hadn’t expected much when we moved here, but I was still sorry to discover that this school seemed no better than my last one. I was stuck in another small town, trapped in another universe populated by the kind of people who’d only ever seen faces like mine on their evening news, and I hated it. I hated the exhausting, lonely months it took to settle into a new school; I hated how long it took for the kids around me to realize I was neither terrifying nor dangerous; I hated the pathetic, soul-sucking effort it took to finally make a single friend brave enough to sit next to me in public. I’d had to relive this awful cycle so many times, at so many different schools, that sometimes I really wanted to put my head through a wall. All I wanted from the world anymore was to be perfectly unremarkable. I wanted to know what it was like to walk through a room and be stared at by no one. But a single glance around campus deflated any hopes I might’ve had for blending in.
The student body was, for the most part, a homogenous mass of about two thousand people who were apparently in love with basketball. I’d already walked past dozens of posters—and a massive banner hung over the front doors—celebrating a team that wasn’t even in season yet. There were oversize black-and-white numbers taped to hallway walls, signs screaming at passersby to count down the days until the first game of the season.
I had no interest in basketball.
Instead, I’d been counting the number of dipshit things people had said to me today. I’d been holding strong at fourteen until I made my way to my next class and some kid passing me in the hall asked if I wore that thing on my head because I was hiding bombs underneath and I ignored him, and then his friend said that maybe I was secretly bald and I ignored him, and then a third one said that I was probably, actually, a man, and just trying to hide it and finally I told them all to fuck off, even as they congratulated one another on having drummed up these excellent hypotheses. I had no idea what these asswipes looked like because I never glanced in their direction, but I was thinking seventeen, seventeen, as I got to my next class way too early and waited, in the dark, for everyone else to show up.
These, the regular injections of poison I was gifted from strangers, were definitely the worst things about wearing a headscarf. But the best thing about it was that my teachers couldn’t see me listening to music.
It gave me the perfect cover for my earbuds.
Music made my day so much easier. Walking through the halls at school was somehow easier; sitting alone all the time was easier. I loved that no one could tell I was listening to music and that, because no one knew, I was never asked to turn it off. I’d had multiple conversations with teachers who had no idea I was only half hearing whatever they were saying to me, and for some reason this made me happy. Music seemed to steady me like a second skeleton; I leaned on it when my own bones were too shaken to stand. I always listened to music on the iPod I’d stolen from my brother and, here—as I did last year, when he first bought the thing—I walked to class like I was listening to the soundtrack of my own shitty movie. It gave me an inexplicable kind of hope.
When my last class of the day had finally assembled, I was already watching my teacher on mute. My mind wandered; I kept checking the clock, desperate to escape. Today, the Fugees were filling the holes in my head, and I stared at my pencil case, turning it over and over in my hands. I was really into mechanical pencils. Like, nice ones. I had a small collection, actually, that I’d gotten from an old friend from four moves ago; she’d brought them back for me from Japan and I was mildly obsessed. The pencils were delicate and colorful and glittery and they’d come with a set of adorable erasers and this really cute case with a cartoon picture of a sheep on it, and the sheep said Do not make light of me just because I am a sheep, and I’d always thought it was so funny and strange and I was remembering this now, smiling a little, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. Hard.
“What?” I turned around as I said it, speaking too loudly by accident.
Some dude. He looked startled.
“What?” I said quietly, irritated now.
He said something but I couldn’t hear him. I tugged the iPod out of my pocket and hit pause.
“Uh.” He blinked at me. Smiled, but seemed confused about it. “You’re listening to music under there?”
“Can I help you?”
“Oh. No. No, I just bumped your shoulder with my book. By accident. I was trying to say sorry.”
“Okay.” I turned back around. I hit play on my music again.
The day passed.
People had butchered my name, teachers hadn’t known what the hell to do with me, my math teacher looked at my face and gave a five-minute speech to the class about how people who don’t love this country should just go back to where they came from and I stared at my textbook so hard it was days before I could get the quadratic equation out of my head.
Not one of my classmates spoke to me, no one but the kid who accidentally assaulted my shoulder with his bio book.
I wished I didn’t care.
I walked home that day feeling both relieved and dejected. It took a lot out of me to put up the walls that kept me safe from heartbreak, and at the end of every day I felt so withered by the emotional exertion that sometimes my whole body felt shaky. I was trying to steady myself as I made my way down the quiet stretch of sidewalk that would carry me home—trying to shake this heavy, sad fog from my head—when a car slowed down just long enough for a lady to shout at me that I was in America now, so I should dress like it, and I was just, I don’t know, I was so goddamn tired I couldn’t even drum up the enthusiasm to be angry, not even as I offered her a full view of my middle finger as she drove away.
Two and a half more years, was all I could think.
Two and a half more years until I could get free from this panopticon they called high school, these monsters they called people. I was desperate to escape the institution of idiots. I wanted to go to college, make my own life. I just had to survive until then.