The raw emotion of Tahereh Mafi

Best-selling Iranian-American YA author Tahereh Mafi has strategically and painfully exposed the progress of her second realistic fictional novel, An Emotion of Great Delight, on its heavy traffic. Instagram over the past year. Mafi’s highly curated articles are as much, if not more, about his incredible sense of ‘complicated fashion’ – to use a term from his first realistic fictional novel, A very large expanse of sea– and his insanely difficult workout routines, because they are all about his writing.

AVLEOS was a major literary shift for Mafi, who burst onto the YA scene ten years ago with her hugely popular and prolific dystopian series Shatter Me. She skillfully made the shift. The novel was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2018 and the film version is just around the corner.

There are a number of overlaps between AVLEOS and AEOGD. Mafi established both in the post 9/11 period, the AEOGD when the United States entered war with Iraq. Both focus on first-generation Iranian-American teenage girls wearing the hijab. But AEOGD is a very different story. It takes place almost entirely in the thoughts of the protagonist, Shadi – which in Farsi, the Iranian language, means “an emotion of great pleasure”.

Mafi tells AEOGD about flashbacks and flashes ahead of the previous year and the current year, which is not unlike Michael Printz award-winning Nina LaCour’s novel We Are Okay, where we meet the main character after a traumatic event that reshaped her. There are three main storylines: Shadi’s internal painful family situation, his disintegrated relationship with his best friend Zahra, and the external context of racism and alienation. Each of these is so heavy and so convoluted and imbued with so much emotion that it needs its own book.

We come to a point where Shadi is hopelessly sad, lost and alone, and while it is not explicit, she is also in mourning. The source of much of Shadi’s unhappiness and isolation, his family is a central component of AEOGD. His father is in the hospital, probably terminally ill, and Shadi wants him to die. Her mother is inconsistent with grief and self-harm. She horribly reveals how her older brother Mehdi died. And her older sister, Shayda, is perpetually angry and frustrated with Shadi.

Shadi has no more friends now that his friendship with Zahra is over. Not only is the friendship over, but Zahra sees Shadi as a major enemy. There is a lot of hatred coming from Zahra towards Shadi, mainly due to jealousy. Then you have Zahra’s brother Ali who could be the main reason that Shadi and Zahra are no longer friends.

There is an opacity about what exactly is going on with Shadi and what happened to make her such a troubled and overwhelmed person. It is evident that she is in great pain and crippled with guilt, trying to balance the incidents of her life in a mental barter between herself and the universe.

The revelations in AEOGD are slow to come in and ambiguous when they do. Shadi has an increased awareness of his surroundings, a common characteristic of protagonists who experience inner turmoil. There are many detailed, often overly poetic, descriptions of everything around and about her. Too often Shadi finds his caught in the rain or the cold. She is constantly wet and the book is overflowing with descriptors of these scenes.

The grief, abandonment, hatred and confusion come to a head and the book resolves them, at least a little, very quickly. It’s a breakthrough for Shadi once she is able to forgive herself and then her family members. But Mafi leaves his readers reeling, especially the “happily ever after” implied on the very last page.

Speaking of AEOGD, Mafi shared on Instagram, “I left a large part of my heart behind.” In a recent IGTV Q&A, she said the book “took me a long time to write and I cried a lot when I wrote it.” She also said “it came from a personal place” and “I experienced the immense sadness that Shadi feels.”

The narration in AEOGD reflects the raw emotion of its author. Perhaps the difficulty in talking about these topics definitively is why there is some retention in the book. Fragmented and subtle with minimal dialogue and flowery language, AEOGD would have worked very well as a verse novel.

(Harper Collins, June 1, 2021)

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