What do you have to lose? My pride, for one. And that thing we call a heart.
That Thing We Call a Heart (Harper Collins) is Sheba Karim’s long awaited second YA novel. Her first novel, Skunk Girl (Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR, 2009) was the first time I had seen a South Asian American girl in print, and reading about her sweetness and spunk was a joyous experience, and that precious thing for browns in America: resonance.
The second novel follows in those footsteps, tracing Pakistani American teenager Shabnam Quraishi’s senior year at a poncy private high school in New Jersey. Her best friend, Farah, suddenly dons a hijab. Her great uncle comes to town trailing memories of the violent Partition in 1947, between India and Pakistan. And she falls in love with Jamie, a charming pie-selling white American boy home from college.
I found the interactions between Shabnam and Farah most thought provoking, Shabnam’s agnostic Muslim-ness challenged by Farah’s punk version of Islam. Neither their very different belief systems (within the same religion) are obstacles to their friendship, nor are they outing each other from Islam. Rather, they are trying to find their footing, a difficult enough thing in a white Christian majority country (leaving alone the hormonal challenges of teenagehood), but also defining what it means to be religious. What’s powerful about this is that neither friend rejects the other’s spiritual standing, wherever it lands. I love that this variability and questioning exists, especially in this new political climate where nuance and complexity are often sacrificed for black and white soundbites.
“What’s powerful about this is that neither friend rejects the other’s spiritual standing, wherever it lands.”
Shabnam’s parents are a far cry from the strict immigrant parents I am familiar with. Her mother is loving and accepting, and Shabnam seems untroubled by the usual teenage-parent conflicts. I loved this and was also a little jealous. I also appreciated how Shabnam’s father, a gruff over-rational (but poetic) academic Desi dad (so many of us have them!) helps her discover Urdu and Sufi poetry, connecting her to her Pakistani heritage, and to her own beating heart.
What is desire without distance? What is love without longing?
What indeed. That Thing We Call a Heart is written in Karim’s trademark breezy style, and I’m looking forward to more.
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Abeer Hoque is a Nigerian born Bangladeshi American writer and photographer. Her memoir Olive Witch (Harper 360) was released earlier this year in the U.S., and The Lovers and the Leavers (HarperCollins India) is her book of interleaved stories, poems, and photographs. See more at olivewitch.com.