New York Times best-selling author Tahereh Mafi delivers a shockingly personal account of high school as a Middle Eastern teen in her newest book “A Very Large Expanse of Sea,” closely based off of her own experiences.
The novel exceeds expectations, as Mafi’s previous works in the realms of fantasy and dystopian fiction had been critiqued as too cliche and overly similar to other young adult novels of the time.
Whether or not these reviews were true, Mafi’s newest work is anything but unoriginal. It perfectly reflects the struggle between identity and safety, complete with cute boyfriends and breakdancing crews.
In the novel, sixteen year old Shirin finds herself in another small town after spending her entire life moving from one place to another, encountering the ugliest parts of America along the way, like the intense racism and xenophobia that pervades our country.
Yet it isn’t another tragedy, but a celebration of strength that pushes the story forward. Shirin had always isolated herself, denying anyone entrance into her life for fear of being vulnerable; or worse, that her status as a second-class citizen would hurt the people she came to love.
This isn’t without reason, though. As the school grows increasingly uncomfortable with her existence as a blip in their carefully crafted reality, the harassment escalates to the point where even school staff become violent.
This is the dilemma she is faced with when Ocean, a strangely named but undeniably adorable classmate, finds his way into Shirin’s heart. She’s left with two options: stay with Ocean and put him in danger from the people targeting her or continue to keep herself separate from those she cares about.
As she lets Ocean into her life, Shirin slowly begins to truly connect with others in a way she had never allowed herself to before.
While the plot may seem melodramatic, it is executed with heartbreaking honesty. The reader is enveloped in the story so completely that none of it seems out of place.
This rings especially true for brown students who have had firsthand experience with balancing race and safety.
Dealing with racists continues to be a simple fact of life for people of color, but it is the uncompromising determination to let ourselves love and be loved that makes it possible to stay afloat.
Mafi delivered a truly powerful novel without sacrificing the awkwardness of high school romance or the pain of feeling alien. “A Very Large Expanse of Sea” is a must-read, not only for Muslim teens but for anyone who has ever felt the need to be accepted.