If you don’t already know, I am currently participating in the 2019 edition of the Ramadan Readathon! It is going from May 6th and June 4th! You can follow @MuslimReadathon on Twitter and Instagram for all the updates, as well as #RamadanReadathon to share your progress throughout the month. Also, iff you’re looking for recommendations of books with Muslim characters, I’d recommend this spreadsheet. I’m definitely going to be mining it for recommendations myself!
So, I thought that I would try and write some reviews/recommendation posts in celebration of this readathon and Muslim authors/characters. I’m going to start with A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, which I read earlier this year.
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.
Trigger warnings: Islamophobia, racism, bullying, xenophobia, violence.
First of all, I am neither Muslim nor Iranian – I’d recommend that you read some own voices reviews here and here. This is an own voices novel, and apparently it is a little bit autobiographical, which I think is pretty cool.
Let’s start with Shirin. I thought she was an awesome character. She is very prickly and I’m sure some people think she’s a bit unlikeable. She doesn’t have many friends because her family constantly moves from town to town, making her feel like she is always an outsider. Paired with the fact that the book is set in 2002 and Shirin is constantly facing physical violence and racist microaggressions? I can understand why she retreats behind a scowl.
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.
She also is really interested in breakdancing, which was such a cool hobby for her to have! I really enjoyed the scenes where she was learning different moves, and being taught by her older brother’s friends.
One of the other main aspects of the novel is Shirin’s romance with Ocean, the golden boy of her new school. I don’t have much to say about him – to be honest, I don’t remember much about him other than his name. He was just really bland. I did find it interesting that Shirin really made him challenge his white privilege. But she deserved someone a lot more interesting.
Finally, I was really disappointed by the last third of the book. Loads of different stuff was happening all at the same time, but they weren’t on page. They were just reported to have happened. Honestly, this could have been a strong 4-star book for me until this last third. It felt to me like it was an outline of a book, rather than a proper novel. What happened?!
Overall, I have mixed feelings about this one. Shirin is such a great character, and I think that the year post 9/11 is a period that needs to be talked about more. But it was let down by a boring love interest and underwhelming writing.