Exclusive: Tahereh Mafi on her next book, ‘A Very Large Expanse of Sea,’ about a Muslim American teen after 9/11
Tahereh Mafi has entered a new phase. The 30-year-old writer of the bestselling young adult fantasy series “Shatter Me” is branching out with her next novel, “A Very Large Expanse of Sea,” which will be published by Harper Collins in October. Set in post-9/11 America, “A Very Large Expanse of Sea” follows the story of hijab-wearing Muslim teen Shirin and is based on Mafi’s own experiences.
The novel tackles bigotry and Islamophobia; it’s also an interracial love story. “It’s about being a teenage girl in this complicated world who happens to be Muslim,” said Mafi. “All she really wants is to be a break dancer, and she wants to have a normal life.”
Mafi’s subject matter isn’t the only part of her work that’s evolving; she also became a mother last year. “Having a kid has made me more efficient than I have ever been before … it’s actually made me more productive.” (She’s not kidding: she began writing “A Very Large Expanse of Sea” in November.) I spoke to Mafi by phone; our conversation has been edited.
How personal is this story?
It’s definitely the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written. So much of it is inspired by things I’ve experienced in my life — conversations I’ve had with people, things that have actually happened to me — but it’s streamlined for fiction. Everything takes place in a single school year. Shirin has a lot of these experiences back-to-back, whereas for me, while so much of this is personal, it’s an amalgamation of many things I’ve experienced.
The book is a departure from your previous work. What made you decide to write a novel based on your own experiences as a hijab-wearing teen in post-9/11 America?
I always knew I had to write this book. This is my story, the story I’ve been writing in my head for years. When I first started pursuing publication, I think I really wanted to establish myself as an author first, an author who could write anything. I didn’t want to shove myself into another box; I wanted to have the freedom to write fantasy novels and paranormal romances and science fiction and whatever I wanted, because I’m a person with diverse interests. I don’t only think about being Muslim and Middle Eastern all day every day. I didn’t want my identity to be tied to my struggle. People of color are more than just our struggle, we also laugh, we also love, we also have complex, fulfilling lives. That was important for me.
What did your life look like in 2002?
I was a high school sophomore living in Orange County. When the book starts, the main character has just switched to her third high school in less than two years and she’s still only a sophomore, and that was exactly my experience. I was so angry and so frustrated by having to start over constantly. I was a very angry teenager. I felt trapped, not just by the complexities of being a teenager, but because the world had already decided what kind of teenager I was.
The book takes place the year after 9/11, and it’s inspired by my experience as a teenager living in this heavily frightened time in America: Shirin is hemmed in by the frustrations of being a teenager, but also the frustrations by being stereotyped so thoroughly by the world. She’s trying to identify herself in the way that every teenager is trying to identify herself, but she’s already been told by the world who she is and she disagrees with that. She’s struggling against the stereotypes that dictate the way in which the world views her.
Is the love story based on personal experience too?
I’m going to get asked this question so much because she falls in love with this white boy, Ocean, and I’m married to a white man. The obvious answer is no: I met my husband [the writer Ransom Riggs] as an adult, and we were very different people than this character and her love interest. But Ocean’s personality is inspired quite a bit by my husband’s personality. And there are certain conversations that they have that I’ve absolutely had with my husband, things that they have to face together, like the complications of being in an interracial relationship.
It’s complex. There’s a learning curve that comes with being with someone who’s used to walking through the world in a certain way. Being a straight white man in the world comes with a great deal of privilege and when that man is now walking through the world with someone who is not accustomed to that level of privilege he has to learn how to readjust.
And the break dancing? I’m very excited about the break dancing.
I used to break dance in high school. This, more than anything else, is what inspired the story. (It changed my life in a very interesting way, which I want to tell you, but it would be a huge spoiler!) I never thought it was that crazy or weird or exciting until I started mentioning it casually in conversations to people — “Oh yeah, I used to break dance in high school” — and the looks on their faces … I was just like, “OK, that doesn’t make sense to you when you look at me.”
It’s like what you said about Shirin: People look at her and assume they know who she is. People look at you and assume you can’t break dance.
Oh, certainly. I mean, people look at me and make all sort of assumptions.
Did the current political moment inspire you to write this book now?
It wasn’t just one thing, but absolutely. You read the news, you feel so powerless and you feel like you just want to do something. You can only shout on the internet for so long before you realize it’s not doing anything. The internet’s not really a great place for nuanced conversation. I wanted to create something that stood on its own as a response to what’s happening in the world right now. I wanted to create something that spoke for me and I hope will speak for many other young people out there.
Can you describe the diverse books #ownvoices movement?
I can’t pretend to be an expert on the #ownvoices movement, but my understanding is that it’s a call for people to tell their own stories with their own voices. I’m thrilled to be able to tell my own story, but that’s just the thing: it’s my story. There will be some people who relate to it and there will be plenty of people who don’t — and I’m talking here about young Muslim women, young teenage girls who wear hijabs.
But I think that’s the point. We get so many versions of the privileged voice, the privileged experience. How many different straight, white, able-bodied characters do we see in stories? They get to be angry, they get to be complicated, they get to be athletes, they get to be superstars, they get to be superheros. When it comes to marginalized voices we only see them in these narrow roles, or a couple of different characters that they get to play. This is about expanding that and allowing for complexity in the kinds of stories we’re telling about people of color and about marginalized people in general.
This is the first book you’ve written as a new mother. Did having a daughter affect the choice to write about a Muslim American teenage girl?
You know, maybe. If you ask me in a couple of years I might be like, “Yes!” My books make so much more sense to me years later. I look back in retrospect and I’m like, “Oh, I was so obviously working through something there,” but in the moment it just feels like I’m being driven by something I can’t quite see. When I wrote this book it just felt right. It was like something just clicked and I just started writing. And because so much of it feels very true to my life, I didn’t have to invent a lot. It felt like I was watching a movie I’d seen a million times.
Did you write this book for devoted fans of the Mafi Mafia or a new audience?
Both! The longer I do this, the more obvious I become to myself, and there’s definitely a central theme that runs through all of my books: “the outsider looking in and learning to accept herself as she is,” which is deeply personal to me and my experiences. That’s the common thread, so I think if people liked my other books, they’ll like this one too.
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