A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary and Themes

 A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary and Themes

"A Very Large Expanse of Sea" is a young adult novel by Tahereh Mafi, published in 2018. The story is set in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks and follows the life of a Muslim girl named Shirin as she navigates high school in a climate of fear and prejudice. The novel explores themes of identity, racism, and the power of friendship and love.

Shirin struggles with feelings of isolation and the weight of societal expectations, but ultimately finds comfort and strength in her relationships with her family and a group of diverse friends. Through her journey, the novel offers a powerful message of hope and resilience in the face of adversity, and encourages readers to see the humanity in those who are different from themselves.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary

Shirin's first day at yet another new school kicks off the novel. She is 16, a sophomore, and is used to other people's stares and racist comments. Shirin, a Muslim, was born in the United States to Persian immigrants from Iran. Others, however, look at her and her hijab (the traditional headscarf she chooses to wear) and make assumptions: that she is an immigrant, that she does not speak English, and that her parents force her to wear the hijab.  A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary and Themes It's September 2002, one year after the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which terrorists affiliated with the Islamic extremist group al Qaeda killed thousands of Americans. She vividly recalls two classmates pushing her to the ground and ripping off her headscarf shortly after the terrorist attacks. Shirin is constantly subjected to intolerance and hateful remarks. She has experienced the agony of saying goodbye to friends after attending numerous new schools as a result of her parents' constant search for better opportunities. She decides that it is safer to protect herself behind strong emotional barriers; with a thick shell and a sharp tongue, she can more easily ward off ignorant or hateful comments and the cruelty of others. This exhausts Shirin, however, and causes others to see her as indifferent and rude. Shirin is eager for college, where she hopes others will be wiser and more tolerant.

Shirin's younger brother Navid, a laid-back senior, invites Shirin to join his new breakdancing group. Shirin enjoys this difficult activity and puts in hours of practise time. Except for the three boys who, along with Navid, make up the breakdancing crew, she has no friends. Ocean, on the other hand, she meets in biology class. Shirin ignores physical attraction and emotional chemistry, eager to avoid the risk of hurt feelings. Ocean, a white junior and star of the basketball team, convinces Shirin that they cannot deny their feelings, and that if they make their relationship public, hateful or racist comments will not bother him.  A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary and Themes

A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary
Shirin likes Ocean so much that she lets Ocean drive her to school after a few weeks of trying to see each other quietly. On the second morning, a boy throws a cinnamon roll in Shirin's face, forcing her to remove and clean her headscarf in a restroom sink. Shirin feels more betrayed than ever after a girl steals her digital photo and widely distributes it; for her, wearing her headscarf is a way to control who sees her hair and, more importantly, how others see her.  A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary and Themes The photograph represents a loss of control. Ocean is shocked and sorry; he now sees the consequences of racism and anti-Muslim bigotry. He is becoming increasingly disillusioned with basketball and wishes to retire.

Soon after, an anonymous note accuses Ocean of terrorist sympathies. The basketball coach berates Shirin in his office, telling her she is ruining Ocean’s chances of an excellent season; the same day, Ocean’s mother seeks out Shirin to tell her Ocean must get a basketball scholarship for college, and that Shirin must break off their relationship so that he will concentrate on basketball again. Feeling she has no choice, Shirin breaks up with Ocean.

Shirin performs with the breakdancing crew in a schoolwide talent show, and her abilities astound both students and teachers. Shirin considers their new attitude hypocritical and realises she should not have ended her relationship with Ocean. One afternoon, Ocean approaches her to compliment her performance. Shirin runs away, leaving her locker unlocked. Ocean finds Shirin’s diary in her locker and learns of his coach’s and mother’s roles in Shirin’s decision to break up with him. He punches the coach in the face, is almost expelled, and quits the team. He and Shirin reunite and enjoy several months together. Shirin’s parents decide to move again as the school year ends, but Shirin determines to remember Ocean’s sincerity and loyalty to her and resolves to accept others’ kindness and friendships.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea Themes


 A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary and Themes Shirin's difficulty with peers reflects a consistent and profound fear of peer relationships. Her anxiety manifests itself in outward personality traits such as toughness, vulgarity, rudeness, and emotional passivity. Shirin's memories of lost friendships from her family's moves when she was younger are painful enough to convince her that friends are not worth pursuing. Strangers and acquaintances showed distrust and intolerance towards Shirin after September 11 because of her religion and appearance; shortly after the terrorist attacks, two male students attack Shirin. These events caused Shirin to develop fearfulness with interpersonal situations in general (such as when strangers on the street, including adults, yell insults at her) and with peer relationships specifically, causing Shirin to construct figurative emotional barriers between herself and other students. She acquires a label of “mean” because of her lack of interactions and open unfriendliness with classmates. Although she wants deeply to have friends, the potential for pain and consequent fear make it too arduous a process; having seen and experienced others’ racism and bigotry, she feels they perceive her as different: “I’d become a talking point; a statistic. I was no longer free to be only a teenager, only a human, only flesh and blood—no, I had to be more than that” (159).

When Ocean tries to break through Shirin’s emotional walls—at first, out of sincerity and kindness, and later, because he likes her romantically—she rejects his attempts. Even her flat statements and borderline rudeness do not dissuade Ocean from treating Shirin nicely, and soon she relents and shares in conversation with him.  A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary and Themes Shirin is still afraid, however; her fear shifts to concern for Ocean’s treatment from others who disapprove of his closeness to her, and eventually this fear, stoked by angry and guilt-inducing comments from Coach Hart and Ocean’s mother, cause Shirin to break up with Ocean.

Shirin finds the strength to open her barriers and allow others to get to know her after witnessing how courageously Ocean stands up for what he believes (for example, when he confronts those who insult and harass Shirin) and being inspired by encouraging comments from Navid, Jacobi, Bijan, and Carlos. Accepting Mr. Jordan's invitation to return to Global Perspectives foreshadows this shift; he notes that she can teach others how to think and behave more openly. At the time, Shirin believes that responsibility should not rest with her—“Why is that my job?” (126)—but agrees to return to class. Later, in completing her character arc, she credits Ocean’s kindness and heart with her newfound desire to develop relationships and help others understand her beliefs.



Shirin's relationships with her mother, father, and Navid are complex; her feelings towards each family member are multifaceted, and each influences Shirin. For example, while Shirin's frequent moves from town to town frustrate her and cause her to lose friends, Shirin refrains from blaming or resenting her parents for frequently uprooting the family. Shirin, on the other hand, accepts (albeit reluctantly) that her parents make every effort to improve the family's well-being and provide the best opportunities for their children in America: "Every move we made was to bring us into a better neighbourhood, not a bigger house, into a better school district with better options for our future" (12).

Shirin wonders if her mother regards her as a "brat" who receives many favours; she accepts her mother's reprimands (spoon smacks to the back of the head) and complaints about rude habits. Shirin admires her mother and says, "I aspired to her levels of grace and perseverance" (183). Shirin is too preoccupied with social issues (and, increasingly, her relationship with Ocean) to work on her "bratty" behaviour or closeness with her mother; she would like to discuss Ocean with her but does not. Shirin does, however, spend time with her mother over winter break watching old videos of Little House on the Prairie as a soothing remedy for her heartbreak.

Shirin turns quietly to her father, drinking coffee with him in the mornings during their winter break. She seeks his advice without revealing anything, asking him what constitutes the correct decision without providing any details. Shirin regards her father as intelligent and imaginative: "I often thought he had the mind of a mad genius and the heart of a philosopher," she says (273). Shirin’s overall attitude toward her parents, then, is mostly respectful of their experiences and ambitions but unconcerned regarding rules she finds unreasonable (she has little guilt for sneaking away with Ocean alone after the breakdance battle, for example) and is somewhat deprecating of their methods: “You can’t just teach [Ocean] Farsi through osmosis” (221).

Shirin and Navid's relationship has a complicated history. Shirin tells Ocean that Navid read her diary in middle school and scared boys away from her. Navid may have been trying to express gratitude to Shirin for assisting him in overcoming his dyslexia difficulties. Shirin recalls conflict-filled tutoring sessions: "[...] when he refused to do the work, I got angry" (28); eventually, Navid's progress proved Shirin's efforts worthwhile. Shirin wonders if Navid feels obligated to join the breakdancing club because of her assistance, but the two do not discuss his motivations. Overall, however, Shirin loves Navid and knows that he tries to protect her as an Ally; he invites her to lunch on the first day of school, he encourages her to return to campus for practice after many see the photo of her, and he fights the boy who threw the cinnamon roll at her. Navid informs her of Ocean’s popularity, and he recommends that she drop Ocean to avoid hurting him. He also comforts her when she breaks up with Ocean.



Shirin's love of breakdancing and Ocean's disillusionment with basketball are contrasted in the novel. Shirin and Navid's interest in breakdancing stems from their enjoyment of the 1984 film musical Breakin', in which a trained jazz dancer learns breakdancing from two street dancers. Shirin is excited by Navid's idea to start a breakdancing group, and she agrees to join when he asks. Shirin remains with the group even after learning that Mr. Jordan, whose actions enraged Shirin in Global Perspectives, is the club's sponsor. Additionally, although upset over the idea of performing for the school talent show, she does not consider quitting. If anything, despite Mr. Jordan’s involvement and the looming talent show, Shirin focuses increasingly on improving her skills. She feels that the activity grounds her; not only does Shirin love being involved in an activity that gets her out of the house in a way that her parents do not question, but she also turns her thoughts to physical challenges, training, and skills accomplishments in a trusted, safe setting.

Shirin appreciates the history of breakdancing and the fact that street battles solve conflicts in a nonviolent way. She loves the strength, power, and control needed to learn moves, and she shows pride in her ability to conquer the crab walk and cricket, highly advanced and difficult skills.

Ocean, on the other hand, plays basketball diligently and excels at it, but his enthusiasm wanes throughout his junior year.  A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary and Themes, He connects learning the sport to his mother's happiness: "[Ocean] said he only did it because spending time with the new boyfriend seemed to make his mom happy" (188). Ocean has long associated basketball with his mother's happiness, and he fears that without it, he will lose his last tenuous connection with her: "Basketball is like, the only thing I even talk to my mom about anymore" (209).  A Very Large Expanse of Sea Summary and ThemesHowever, he admits to Shirin that his mother does not attend his games or keep track of his schedule. When Shirin mentions quitting basketball, Ocean explains that others look to him to help his team succeed, and Coach Hart relies on Ocean's abilities to see the victory through. His involvement is thus motivated by duty and obligation rather than personal interest and passion. When Ocean discovers that Coach Hart confronted Shirin about Ocean's basketball intentions, he realises that the sport is not worth sacrificing his values for. He declines the school's invitation to rejoin the team after his reinstatement.

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