A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
Published: October 16th, 2018 by Harper Teen
Rating: 5/5 *bonus point for the amount of times I yelled “YES SAME” throughout the entire book*
Summary: 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 break-dancing 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.
This book has been SUCH an anticipated read of mine ever since Tahereh announced that it would be coming out back in February. I mean, one of my favorite authors??? Most autobiographical novel??? BREAKDANCING??? An MC I can FINALLY I D E N T I F Y W I T H??? My book prayers have been answered. And if that couldn’t get any better, one of my best bookish friends SNAGGED ME AN ARC FOR MY 21ST BIRTHDAY LIKE WHAT KIND OF PURE ICON. I was very near tears when she gave it to me (so thank you so much Brooke, ily a milli). I can’t emphasize enough how strong the impact of being represented in the book community can be. It can make you feel less alone in this big, scary world and also serve as a warm hug for the soul.
“‘I’ve been trying to educate people for years and it’s exhausting. I’m tired of being patient with bigots. I’m tired of trying to explain why I don’t deserve to be treated like a piece of shit all the time. I’m tired of begging everyone to understand that people of color aren’t all the same, that we don’t all believe the same things or feel the same things or experience the world the same way.’ I shook my head, hard. ‘I’m just– I’m sick and tired of trying to explain to the world why racism is bad, okay? Why is that my job?’”
Growing up as Filipino/Iranian in America, despite me being born in the US, it was hard at times for me to find people to really relate to in that aspect. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great childhood, loving parents, and lots of friends in and out of school, but much like Shirin, with the highs come the lows. Granted, I don’t wear a hijab like her because that is my own personal choice so a lot of the hardships that she went through were more severe. But that didn’t stop the rude and disturbing comments mentioned in the book from hitting home sometimes. You can still feel people looking at you as if they can tell that you “don’t belong” or that you’re “exotic and just another immigrant.” It got to the point for me that someone sat next to me one day in class and said “So is your family from the desert?” to which I turned around and ignored them. If that wasn’t signal enough, they said “Oh I guess her grandma and her family teach her how to be a terrorist since they all are” to which I responded, hella pissed off: “You don’t even know me, so don’t even start to act like you do.” Thankfully that shut him up. I was so hurt that day and there were no peers around that could relate to what I was going through at the time. Although I thankfully haven’t gotten any direct comments like that in recent years, the current political climate hasn’t really done anything to improve it to put it lightly. Reading what Shirin went through throughout her high school years following 9/11 were hard to read but it was also very liberating to have someone to sympathize with. Although some of her struggles were that of a typical 16 year old, the underlying themes of xenophobia and racism were still very much evident throughout the book.
Okay so let’s move on to what made me smile sO HARD MY CHEEKS HURT OMG. I haven’t read any books that feature bilingual MC’s and boy was I having field day. Every time there was a Farsi word or phrase, I would instantly know what it meant I would flail with the book in my arms and give myself a mental high-five when I read the following translation. Yes very weird but let me live, okay? Okay. Besides the Farsi tidbits Tahereh sprinkled throughout like Salt Bae, she would mention little things that wouldn’t make sense to everyone unless they have actually lived through and experienced it. Showering guests, including every friend you bring over, with food and it being absolutely disgrACEFUL if you didn’t take some food to go. Using Persian food as a type of currency because it’s that good. Coming home to the smell of onions frying and saffron rice from the kitchen and feeling instantly at peace. These little easter eggs just made my little heart so happy. I just love how Tahereh was able to relate these aspects of the book not only to Persians, but also to people who may not understand certain customs in a way that they could get in on the “inside joke” if you will. The representation of a biracial couple and the differing cultures/outlooks that come with it was scarily accurate but was also very liberating because it showcased a POV that not everyone is used to seeing. I, for one, can very much relate to the struggles that come from dating someone not from an ethnic background and forgetting sometimes that not everyone thinks or approaches situations in the same way that you do. Side note: Ocean James is a pure bean and he and Shirin deserve all the love in the world. That is all on that topic.
Overall, this book could not come out at a more appropriate time in our history. At a time where in many instances we all feel alienated and isolated in our own rights and bodies, it is possible to be able to learn to coexist peacefully and spread the love to all walks of life. Tahereh Mafi definitely did not stray away from the hard topics, but instead showed that even the smallest act of kindness can have the biggest impact above all. That despite the many dark times we may find ourselves in in our lifetimes, that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and that everyone deserves the chance to be happy without sacrificing their identity. This book will be near and dear to me for the rest of my life. Merci, Tahereh, from the bottom of my heart.