By Seemi Aziz, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ and Janelle B. Mathis, University of North Texas, Denton, TX
This story is set in 2002, a year after 9/11, a politically turbulent time, especially for someone who is a Muslim living in the U.S. like the 16-year-old Iranian/American girl Shirin. As fellow teenagers stereotype her and are verbally and physically reactionary towards her hijab through stares and derogatory comments, she learns to fight back by ignoring them and focusing on her love for music and break-dancing. Her family believes in minding their own business and play down her issues because they have gone through much more under their own regimes in Iran. Her relationship with her older brother is strong. She has been pivotal in aiding him in his studies as he suffers from dyslexia and studies have always been a challenge for him even though he suffers from none of the stereotypes his sister does. He is physically attractive and popular with girls and bears no outward signs of being a Muslim. Shirin lowers her guard once she meets Ocean James. He comes through as a person who genuinely seems to want to get to know her, looking beyond her wearing the hijab. As their relationship evolves the reader comes to know Shirin’s culture and her struggles. Even though we don’t observe displacement in the typical sense of the word in this story, Shirin’s displacement points towards her existence in the U.S. after 9/11.
SEEMI: This somewhat autobiographical story is a nontypical one in the sense that it represents the positives/more Americanized way of living for Muslims who are more American and have the same struggles as any teenager being born and growing up in a foreign/western world. It is written by a person who is representing her own life challenges as a person who knows no other life than the one she knows: being Iranian/American. The strength and challenge that any Muslims in the U.S. have is growing up with dual identities: One of being a typical American kid and the other belonging to a religion and a culture that is not of anyone else’s who lives in a monoculture (although I can argue that there is nothing that can be called a monoculture). I especially appreciate her love for music and her boldness in taking her passion for break-dancing to another level as the story unfolds. Her brother’s role as a protective Muslim male who guides her through her struggles in school and supports her through her challenges as an isolated, displaced Muslim female is positive. Her struggles with displacement are perpetual and she becomes hardened due to those challenges. She is displaced as she moves between the two worlds of Iran and U.S. Her parents move back thinking they can settle better in their own community, people, and culture but have to move back as their hybrid entities react and reject becoming cohesive.
The issue that Mafi brings to the fore so well is that stereotyping can be from both sides. As the relationship between Ocean and Shirin grows and blossoms she is pushed by her own Muslim community represented by another Muslim girl from India who later accepts that the wearing or not wearing of hijab does not protect a Muslim girl from being regarded as weird. Just because she wears a hijab Shirin is held to a higher standard. Racial discrimination is age old especially in the U.S. and is not hitting on merely one race, but the demonization of Muslims has been the worst kind. Xenophobia is prevalent, and prejudice and bigotry are not going anywhere soon. This speaks so well to the present-day turmoil that we are witnessing in the Black Lives Matter movement and exposure of police brutality for people of color.
JANELLE: I have always thought that well-written, authentic YA literature should be read by all who may not be in a position to know the challenges and thinking of today’s adolescents. This book fits well in that category, delivering insights into high school social life that is sadly enacted often in contemporary schools. However, the powerful insights of this book were the opportunities to consider the thinking around life experiences of a Muslim American teenager. Shirin has displaced herself from other young people as a result of continued reactions to her choice of wearing a hajib. Her displacement physically could be said to reside in the continuous movement of her parents in search of better jobs resulting in Shirin being “new” and different in many schools. However, the most compelling insights to displacement come with her own emotional and mental self-separation from what she has experienced as she strives to avoid what she believes is inevitable. Such self-displacement from social situations created by the dominant players in her high school can only be changed through overcoming her own fears of what might happen. In this story, the change comes about through an unexpected love relationship as well as the opportunity to excel in something she enjoys–break-dancing.
Despite my assumed idea that Shirin would be very religious due to her wearing hajib, she is not. Her personality is bold, her speech freely uses profanity, and her interest in break-dancing all serve as a reminder to me of the diverse identities that are shared within any cultural group. At the intersection of high school adolescence, gender expectations and this Muslim/American teen who is displaced through frequent family relocations and her own protective social barriers, is a young person reflective of the challenges and potential of students we face daily. The hopeful ending is one we can strive to support in the lives of those around us, especially given that stereotyping and racial biases continue long after the post 9/11 world.
Title: A Very Large Expanse of Sea
Author: Tahereh Mafi
Date Published: October 16, 2018
Throughout June 2020, Seemi and Janelle give their takes on books that feature physical and mental displacement. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!