Reader Positioning in Tahereh Mafi’s “A Very Large Expanse of Sea”
Last post, I started looking at some of the connections between G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel and Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse of Sea. Today, I want to continue looking at Mafi’s novel, focusing on some of the way that it highlights white privilege and whiteness. These moments occur most notably when Shirin points out that Ocean never had to think about any of the issues that she has encountered. These moments lead, at times, to centering Ocean in the text, calling out to white readers to engage with their own privilege and perspective.
From the outset of their relationship, Ocean works to get to know Shirin as a person, but the deep rooted perceptions that surround and inform his worldview make this difficult. For all of his genuine interest, he struggles to engage with her as a person and not as, as Shirin argues at certian points, an exotic figure that he will tire of in a few weeks. During their initial messages online, Ocean gropes through the conversation asking Shirin questions that mirrors Zoe’s and Josh’s questions to Kamala in Ms. Marvel. He asks her if her parents don’t allow her to do things after school. He asks her about her hijab.
As he does this, Shirin thinks about other guys who she’d encountered. She says, “I discovered — after a great deal of embarrassment — that it was more like they thought of me as a curiosity; an exotic specimen behind glass. They wanted only to observe me from a comfortable distance, not for me to exist in their lives in any permanent way.” Shirin fears that Ocean is like the other guys she has known. She fears he merely views her as “an object of fascination,” a curiosity, and Ocean’s initial gropings, coupled with her other experiences, play into this feeling.
However, as their relationship grows, Shirin continues to feel that Ocean is not genuine. She wonders when “his fascination would wear off” and he’d “[g]o back to his friends. Find a nice blond girlfriend.” In essence, she wonders when his whiteness will bring him back into the “American” image of himself and the world that exists around them, one where Shirin does not exist. Shirin keeps telling him that they have no future because she knows what will happen once they start dating. She knows the vilifying that will arise. She knows the…