This is my first Tahereh Mafi book and I am absolutely stunned. A Very Large Expanse of Sea just reached into my body, grabbed my heart, and didn’t let go. It is emotional, moving, and an absolute must read.
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.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea is immediately raw. There’s something powerful and cathartic about the first paragraph, like a confession, an utterance. We are so close to Shirin’s thoughts and the connection is instanteous and long lasting. Even after the last page, I admired Shirin’s emotional journey, her brutal honesty, and her fraught relationships with her family.
Mafi holds nothing back, immediately bringing a realistic feel to this book, a grittiness, an uncensored heroine unwilling to pull punches. I immediately fell in love with Shirin. She’s clever and unafraid to talk back. There was an anger, a fire, I deeply respected because growing up, I was never like that. I’d see things, hear things, feel things, and never speak up.
But while Shirin’s ferocity is something I deeply admire, there’s also a need to move forward. To acknowledge our connections to others and to see them as individuals. But I’m getting side tracked.
In A Very Large Expanse of Sea we witness gut wrenching events, instances of ignorance, fear and cruelty. At the same time, Mafi puts these feelings into relative spaces with Shirin’s parents who are an earlier generation. Mafi doesn’t minimize the pain Shirin goes through, even though Shirin feels like she cannot complain before of this, instead Mafi shows us the immense struggles and long lasting challenges.
Mafi’s book takes us deep into break dancing and the power of music. Music as shelter. Music as comfort. Music as an escape.
As the eating culture nerd I am, I adored the passages where food and family were inextricably linked. The family meals that illustrates the way food is the glue that keeps us together. The descriptions of food are love letters to a culture.
I haven’t encountered many books with characters wearing head scarfs and Mafi’s book is truly spectacular in this regard. Shirin talks about her own individual decision to wear her head scarf, as a way of control. A personal choice that is about her own comfort. Even when the going gets hard, rough, and gut twisting, Shirin wants to hold on to this individual decision about her own body and self-image.
The personal becomes political and this instance is representative of the ways in which our personal choices have larger meanings. Her rights should be her own. Her body should be her own.
But what I think resonated the most with me, is the way rebellion and happiness are linked together. I have felt so angry in the past couple of years, months, that I wake up exhausted. It becomes harder each day to get out of bed. Oftentimes we hear that happiness is a way of rebellion. In the face of forces trying to dehumanize, oppress, silence us, happiness in the face of all of that. And this is why this book has such a deep place in my heart.
It is terrifying to be happy in the face of a world telling you you don’t matter and don’t deserve to be happy. A world spewing hatred and ignorance and fear at you.
Their hatred makes us turn them into a mob, into a mass, so we can deal with the pain. We do what they do out of fear. But really, we need to believe in people, in their ability to be good, to surprise us, to be curious and make mistakes, but with good intentions.
A Very Large Expanse of Sea appreciates all the angles of the human heart. It challenges us to be better, to find the light in the darkness, and to not let other’s hatred obscure our own dreams. It’s about forgiveness and bravery int he face of it all. And it is about the courage to tell the truth and to be more than they expect.
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