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'Love, Hate and Other Filters' is 2018’s most important YA novel so far

As we witness the senior year of Maya Aziz – the teenage daughter in the only Indian Muslim family in Batavia, Ill. – we’re treated to a sliver of an American Muslim bildungsroman.

Love, Hate and Other Filters By Samira Ahmed Soho Press 288 pp.
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  • Katie Ward Beim-Esche

“I don’t know how to live the life I want and still be a good daughter,” confesses Maya Aziz. It's the central tension underlying each scene of Love, Hate and Other Filters, the powerful young adult debut from Samira Ahmed.

The Azizes are the only Indian Muslim family in Batavia, Ill., a small town about an hour outside of Chicago. Maya is perpetually rooted in, but stranded between, the life she’s living and the life she wants. As we witness her senior year, we’re treated to a sliver of an American Muslim bildungsroman.

Culturally, Maya feels a tug-of-war between America, where she was born, and the values and traditions of her Indian heritage. She refers to herself as an ABCD – American–born, confused desi-Muslim. (Desi is an umbrella term for a person of South Asian descent living abroad, such as Maya’s parents, while ABCD describes those born or raised in the destination country.)

For fun, Maya films her surroundings as an aspiring documentarian. Her conservative parents, who run a dental practice, wish she would stay home, learning to cook and keep house for her future husband (“a nice Indian doctor”). Maya’s not sure she wants to get married, let alone have kids. Unsurprisingly, the Azizes are less inspiring to Maya than her aunt Hina, a hip graphic designer who lives by herself in an ultra-cool downtown loft.

Career-wise, Maya dreams of studying film at NYU; her parents expect her to study law at the University of Chicago. In New York, Maya fantasizes, she can “live and do what I want and not be the Indian girl or the Muslim girl. A place where I can just be me.”

Romantically, Maya is caught in the middle as well. She’s had a crush on football captain Phil since forever, and suddenly he’s paying attention to her. At the same time, there’s Kareem – Indian, Muslim, handsome, and a Princeton engineering major to boot.

Maya frets: “For years – literally years – Phil was … a faraway dream. Until now. Only now I’m about to go on a date with a guy who is actually available, infinitely more suitable, and definitely interested. This is why they invented drugs for heartburn.”

Don’t think you know where this is going, by the way. Samira Ahmed has more in mind than a charming desi riff on “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.”

Between chapters, we read news clippings and get glimpses into the mind of a man who goes on to drive an explosives-laden van into the Federal Building in Springfield, Ill. This Timothy McVeigh-style horror kills 125 adults and children, flattening a third of the city block.

As news of the terrorist attack breaks, high schools across Illinois go on lockdown, and tensions in the Batavia community are at an all-time high.

“Please don’t let it be a Muslim,” Maya prays desperately during the lockdown. “I know I’m not the only one hoping for this. I know millions of American Muslims – both religious and secular – are echoing these very same words at this very same moment.”

When it’s announced that the prime suspect’s last name is also Aziz, everything changes for Maya and her family.

A hostile, racist classmate harasses Maya in public, and someone throws a brick through the dental practice’s front window with a note wrapped around it: a threat and the Azizes’ home address. Maya’s frantic mother cancels everything – college dreams, social engagements, humor, hope, joy. Everything is over while their family is under siege.

“It’s selfish and horrible, but in this terrible moment, all I want is to be a plain old American teenager,” Maya thinks. “Who can simply mourn without fear. Who doesn’t share last names with a suicide bomber. Who goes to dances and can talk to her parents about anything and can walk around without always being anxious. And who isn’t a presumed terrorist first and an American second.”

Ahmed has a tangled web to weave, and you’re in for a blistering and blunt experience that will not end the way you expect.

Ultimately, the truth about the Springfield terrorist attack is learned, but the damage has already been done. In the sunset of her senior year, Maya decides that she must resolve as many of those tug-of-war situations as she can in the hope that she can be both a good daughter and a self-actualized woman. Stitching the two halves of her life together is a formidable task, and this book has a refreshingly realistic ending.

As with last February’s “The Hate U Give,” I’m calling out “Love, Hate and Other Filters” now as 2018’s most important YA novel. Samira Ahmed is a breath of fresh air and a clarion call. I’m eager to see what she does next.

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