Okay, I want to keep this short and simple, but I did cry while reading Rukhsana Ali on an airplane so I probably won’t succeed. Let’s just get right into it, shall we?
Rukhsana is a Bangladeshi-American teenager who lives a sort of double life when it comes to the fact that she’s a lesbian. She knows her parents wouldn’t understand, so why put herself and her girlfriend, Ariana, through all that? Except then, she gets caught kissing Ariana. And things take a turn for the ugly.
Rukhsana is made to go to Bangladesh with her parents to visit her ailing grandmother. A trip to reboot her, I guess. It seems like Rukhsana’s dream of going to California for college and living with her girlfriend–basically any chance of living her true identity to the fullest–is turning to smoke and ash. Until she looks, really looks, at her own family history and starts to make some unlikely alliances.
It’s hard to talk about this book because even though I am not a lesbian or Bangladeshi or American, I do live on the aro/ace spectrum, I’m Indian, and I reside in Canada. A lot of the conversations Rukhsana is afraid of, I am too. I’ve felt a lot of things that she feels and I am half as brave as her. As you can expect, this review is not going to be anything close to unbiased. Rukhsana is a goddamn icon and I’m so glad that teens get to have her. I also liked that Sabina Khan did not shy away from the hard conversations. She managed to explore topics like homophobia and child marriage and emotional abuse without making it look like this is what every Bangladeshi family is like. A real feat, if you ask me.
That said, there was something that did not sit well with me and I can’t not mention them. One of them is a rather LARGE SPOILER, so YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! Rukhsana makes a friend* outside of her family who is not only gay, but also an activist. They agree to help each other out and concoct an escape plan, back to the U.S. I didn’t like that Sabina tells her cousins and friends–people who know of her plans–that he was gay. I don’t think I remember him consenting to being outed. There is a difference between writing your protest and having people know your face. This character is brutally killed in a hate crime.
These are things that happen in Bangaladesh and India and other places in the subcontinent. All of the things that happen to Rukhsana, that you may think are stereotypes or melodramatic, do happen. Not always, but they happen enough. Since the author represented the other issues, why not this one? Well, because I don’t think it was handled well at all. It’s after this death that Rukhsana’s parents start to actually see and listen to their daughter. Using homophobia to “fix” homophobic attitudes is never good writing. (See also, that scene from Sabrina.) We barely get to see Rukhsana grieve too, which only makes it clearer that his death was a tool to further the plot. This, to me, also makes it harder to recommend to queer, brown youth.
But then, I think about all the things this novel does right and how real everything about Rukhsana felt and if I ever cried the way that I cried over this one. I don’t know. It’s got great dialogue and some unforgettable characters and makes Bangladesh feel like it sprouted up around me as I read. And I do think it’s still a very important book–possibly the first of its kind in YA–and I think it’s worth recommending. Just … maybe after an extensive list of TWs?
If you’re straight and brown though? Mandatory reading, I’d say.
*I say friend, but the circumstances of their meeting is way more interesting than you’d expect. 🙂