Published by Soho Teen on January 16th 2018
A searing #OwnVoices coming-of-age debut in which an Indian-American Muslim teen confronts Islamophobia and a reality she can neither explain nor escape--perfect for fans of Angie Thomas, Jacqueline Woodson, and Adam Silvera.
American-born seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There’s the proper one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter: attending a college close to their suburban Chicago home, and being paired off with an older Muslim boy her mom deems “suitable.” And then there is the world of her dreams: going to film school and living in New York City—and maybe (just maybe) pursuing a boy she’s known from afar since grade school, a boy who’s finally falling into her orbit at school.
There’s also the real world, beyond Maya’s control. In the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated hundreds of miles away, her life is turned upside down. The community she’s known since birth becomes unrecognizable; neighbors and classmates alike are consumed with fear, bigotry, and hatred. Ultimately, Maya must find the strength within to determine where she truly belongs.
Ohhhh, I have … well, a love/hate relationship with this book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s split about 80/20, but it’s still a bit of a cognitive dissonance issue.
I will confess that I was all ready to give this book 5 stars. But then I logged onto GoodReads to see what my peers were saying, and I realized that in my ignorance of the cultures represented in this book, I’d mentally glossed right over a couple of key issues that made themselves known to people who identify with this as an owned voices narrative. Let’s dive right in, shall we?
How I’d Describe This Book to A Friend
Meet Maya. She is 17 years old, a high school student with big dreams. Ever since she was little and her father gave her a camera as a “shut your mouth before I strangle you” gift in exchange for her cooperation in attending a wedding, she’s dreamed of being a filmmaker. Maya deals with typical high schooler issues: she’s in love with a boy – captain of the football team, no less – she’s known for years but she isn’t sure he thinks she exists, college acceptances, the whole nine yards. Except that Maya isn’t completely a typical high school student, because Maya is an Indian Muslim. Her normal teenager problems are exacerbated by this other world, where she has parents who love her but do so in a chokehold. Her house constantly smells like onions, and worst of all, her folks want her to go to a school close to home, major in something sensible like law, and marry a suitable boy they approve of. The captain of the high school football team is, most assuredly, not approved. Additionally, she’s gotten into NYU to study her passion, which her parents wouldn’t approve of either.
We really get into Maya’s head here, and what Maya loves most is film. She views her life in a series of panoramas and frames, speeding up and slowing down the footage at will. I really enjoyed my time with her – she’s a bright young lady, and these film concepts really help bring her emotions to life in a way that normal speech can’t always convey. Maya’s parents, however … that’s where the problems come in.
Maya’s parents are fairly one-dimensional. They exist solely to be a foil to Maya and to Maya’s aunt (her mother’s sister), Hina, who lives in a flat alone and does graphic design work – things Maya’s parents cannot even begin to understand. They are here to cook food, shake their heads at Maya, and insist that her feet stay planted firmly on the ground. This might be okay, but this couples with a point that I see many discuss on GoodReads – religion matters a great deal to her parents, but to Maya? If she had not straight-up told us she was Muslim, we’d have no idea. At no point does she pray, consider praying, think about any type of deity. Honestly, she might have been raised Muslim but at this juncture seems to be veering toward Agnosticism. Which is fine! But I am leery of referring to a book as “owned voices” and including Muslim in that when we barely see anything remotely resembling representation of that culture.
The other thing that keeps this from being a 5-star review for me is the love triangle. I am not a fan of insta-love, and I don’t like fluff for the sake of fluffiness. So when Maya met Kareem, a friend of the family’s, at a wedding and they started flirting almost perfectly, I gagged a little bit. Things fell into place like a perfect game of Tetris, and I gagged a bit more. Then when Kareem clearly made his feelings known, Maya turned him down for the football player she’d never really ever spoken to.
You can probably guess without me having to spoiler you what happens with ~Phil~, the cinnamon roll of a guy who she loves … but let’s just say that Phil gives the main love interest from Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl a run for his money, and that homebody is so full of cheese and cinnamon he could be a toaster strudel.
All of this to say, halfway through the book an act of terrorism occurs, and we begin to see rampant religious scrutiny that broke my heart to see Maya have to endure. She is, after all, American-born, but the slurs and threats she deals with are absolutely gut-wrenching. This book does not wrap up in a neat little bow, either – the epilogue is sort of ambiguous, and we don’t really know what happens – I appreciate that, because too often in YA you see everything end on a perfect note … Maya would say something about a Bollywood dance number here, I feel. If you want a perfect ending, this isn’t it. Ahmed doesn’t sugar-coat it for you – that’s Phil The Cinnamon Roll’s job.
The Bottom Line
I adored getting to know Maya, and I am sad that her book was so short. I felt sympathy and heartbreak for her; I cheered with her victories and frowned at her defeats. Maya is human – gloriously, painfully human, and we all know how seventeen year old girls act. She was a delight to get to know, and I really hope she is doing well now. If you are looking for an owned voices narrative about Islamic culture, maybe go look somewhere else. But if you want to read about racism and hatred in today’s age and learn a little something from it, if you want to laugh and remember being seventeen … this is the one for you.
“In recent times we’ve seen hate emerge out of dark corners, torches blazing in the night. We’ve witnessed so-called leaders not merely casually accept cruelty, but engender it. Worse, we’ve seen horrific violence. But all around us, we’ve seen people rise up, not merely against the forces of hate, but for equality and justice. Bigotry may run through the American grain, but so too does resistance. We know the world we are fighting for.”