A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi joined my “must read” list after seeing the author speak during a panel discussion at Day of Dialogue in NYC (Spring 2018). This is a love story, a story of racial tension, and … break dancing.
Main character Shirin is of Iranian descent and wears hijab. The story’s post September 11 setting creates a lot of racial cruelty toward Shirin. She endures people’s ignorant, cruel comments on a regular basis, and even incidents of physical aggression. This treatment has hardened her to creating relationships, which isn’t helped by her parents constant moves to achieve a better neighborhood/life for Shirin and her older brother Navid.
Shirin is partnered with Ocean; a boy who seems genuinely interested in getting to know her. This creates a lot of inner turmoil for Shirin. She needs to decide if “dating” the school’s basketball star will be worth the trouble it may cause for both of them. For me, the story reads like a teenage girl’s diary. You feel the excitement and nerves associated with a first major crush. You also feel the outrage at the comments made by kids and adults.
A fun twist to the story is that Shirin and her brother have been obsessed with learning to break dance ever since watching the movie Breakin’ (Remember it well! Loved it!). Her brother starts a break dancing club at school. Hanging out with her older brother and his friends becomes her outlet and her way to make a mark on her school (talent show). Break dancing events show her that there are places/events where people of all races can be together with a common passion without judgement. She is able to let her defenses down.
Unfortunately, Shirin’s treatment isn’t just part of a story set during a sensitive time. My daughter told me (days after I finished this book) that a new student at her school wearing hijab was rudely asked by an older student, “What’s that on your head??” Stories like Shirin’s are necessary for erasing these behaviors by building cultural awareness and empathy.