Tahereh Mafi

A Very Large Expanse of Sea

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A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary

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A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi is a semi-autobiographical young adult novel about sixteen-year-old Shirin, a Muslim girl who experiences heinous acts of Islamaphobia in her school and the outside world for wearing a hijab in the year following September 11, 2011. The novel is a coming of age story about Shirin’s experience separating herself from her peers in order to protect herself and her identity, and the hesitant romance that blossoms between her and a white student named Ocean.

The novel begins with a description of Shirin in her high school and her experiences with her Islamaphobic classmates, who use her hijab to make not only anti-Muslim, but also racial slurs against her. Her classmates assume that wearing a headscarf means that Shirin is a terrorist, or that she is rooting for “the other side” – Muslim extremists and Al Qaeda, among other groups. Shirin’s experiences being targeted by her predominantly white classmates for her background isolate her; she feels she is alone in the world, just waiting for the years to pass until her high school career is over and she can enter what she hopes will be a slightly less heinous and violent world. Shirin uses indifference to combat the cruelty she experiences every day, but that indifference takes a toll on her happiness and her social life.

Shirin’s primary interest is break dancing, and she is passionate about starting a break dancing group with her brother and his friends. While dancing, Shirin finds an outlet for all of her pent-up feelings – her aggression against those that seek to harm her emotionally and physically, the fear that she feels, her sadness at being alone. Though this form of pure expression is life-saving for Shirin, it is a challenge for her to focus on break dancing when she is constantly being targeted, not only for her own race, but for a burgeoning relationship with Ocean James.

Shirin meets Ocean in biology class, and they quickly become friends. While Shirin is unapologetic and headstrong, Ocean is quiet and apologetic about his actions and his words. Though Shirin and Ocean come from dramatically different worlds and experiences – Shirin is Muslim and brown-skinned, and Ocean is white – they bond almost immediately. Shirin, however, is deeply skeptical of Ocean. She has spent so much of her time focusing on the injustices against her and the hidden, dark motives of her classmates who seek to cause her harm that she struggles to break down the walls of indifference and isolation that she has built up since September 11. Despite the many differences between them, however, Ocean seems to understand Shirin better than anyone else she has ever met. This becomes the basis for their relationship, which progresses easily and naturally – that is, until it becomes a spectacle for the entire student body.

The interracial nature of Shirin’s relationship with Ocean becomes the subject of intense scrutiny once they make their love for each other public. With that scrutiny comes xenophobia, bigotry, and acts of hate committed not only against Shirin but against Ocean as well. Many members of the student body see Ocean’s acceptance of Shirin as traitorous and wrong; Shirin feels guilty for bringing someone she cares about into this hateful world with her. Ocean, however, remains firmly attached to Shirin, and together, along with Shirin’s break-dancing crew, the couple learns what it means to struggle together, and also how their differences make their relationship more meaningful, even if they sometimes make it more complicated.

Based partially on Mafi’s own experiences as a young, brown Muslim woman after September 11, and her experience in an interracial relationship with white author Ransom Riggs, A Very Large Expanse of Sea is about making the most of cultural differences, finding acceptance and strength in the face of persecution, and what it means to grow up in the U.S. as a Muslim woman today.

Tahereh Mafi is an Iranian-American author of primarily young adult fiction. She grew up in Orange County, California. Tahereh is the author of the popular Shatter Me series, a dystopian thriller series about the life of Juliette, a teenaged girl with the power to kill and paralyze people with her touch. Mafi has also written a handful of novellas, and three other novels; A Very Large Expanse of Sea is her most recent.