REVIEW: The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan

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The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan

January 29, 2019 from Scholastic Press
Young adult contemporary
Goodreads | Amazon

4 stars

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Seventeen-year-old Rukhsana Ali tries her hardest to live up to her conservative Muslim parents’ expectations, but lately she’s finding that harder and harder to do. She rolls her eyes instead of screaming when they blatantly favor her brother and she dresses conservatively at home, saving her crop tops and makeup for parties her parents don’t know about. Luckily, only a few more months stand between her carefully monitored life in Seattle and her new life at Caltech, where she can pursue her dream of becoming an engineer.

But when her parents catch her kissing her girlfriend Ariana, all of Rukhsana’s plans fall apart. Her parents are devastated; being gay may as well be a death sentence in the Bengali community. They immediately whisk Rukhsana off to Bangladesh, where she is thrown headfirst into a world of arranged marriages and tradition. Only through reading her grandmother’s old diary is Rukhsana able to gain some much needed perspective.

Rukhsana realizes she must find the courage to fight for her love, but can she do so without losing everyone and everything in her life?

This book packed a huge punch. I wasn’t expecting such a ride when I cracked it open, but The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali was brutal in its events. It centers around a young Bengali lesbian living in a conservative Muslim family and her struggles after being taken to Bangladesh for an arranged marriage, and Rukhsana’s story was a lot to read.

Rukhsana was by far the most well-written out of all the characters. A lot of the book shows her experience of being caught between two cultures, Bengali and American, because both cultures have shaped her to be who she is. I wasn’t expecting such a in-depth thought-provoking discussion of what it’s like to straddle different cultures. It’s clear Rukhsana, most of the time, loves being Bengali. We get so many wonderful descriptions of Bangladeshi food and the city of Dhaka, Rukhsana and her friend Shaila shopping for saris and shalwar kameez with Rukhsana describing how beautiful they are. Yet there are painful parts to it too, just as there are painful parts to being in American culture. Rukhsana makes a point that she doesn’t want to be a representation of her culture, that she doesn’t want her culture to be seen negatively because it’s more than homophobia.

The rest of the characters were all fairly one-dimensional, especially when it came to Rukhsana’s parents. The book shows that there are many open-minded Bangladeshis, like Shaila and Sohail. Rukhsana’s parents are not one of them, and for most of the book they absolutely infuriated me. I felt like they had almost no nuance to them: for most of the book, they were staunchly against Rukhsana trying to escape Bangladesh by forcing her into an arranged marriage, and absolutely demonized to the point where it didn’t seem like they would be getting any redemption. SPOILER: [ Yet they did at the end, and their views changed like whiplash, which was really jarring. I don’t know how to feel about it – on one hand I felt it was really unrealistic, but on the other hand, it was cute and heartwarming to see her family understand her sexuality and accept Rukhsana for who she is. ] I wasn’t super into Ariana and Rukhsana’s romance, either; it felt like they had no chemistry.

The plot took a long time to get rolling. It felt like barely anything was happening for the first one hundred and fifty or so pages. A lot of the reason behind this, I think, is the writing, which feels choppy and disjointed throughout the whole thing. Also, there’s so much telling rather than showing: Rukhsana telling you her emotions, backstory being told by Rukhsana instead of weaved through the story, and a very direct way of writing that I had a problem with. It took a long time to get used to, and even then, I felt very emotionally disconnected from Rukhsana even though her story itself was incredibly engaging. Yes, the book was sad, but it was the events and not the narration that did it for me. One event in particular, near the end of the book, made me hugely uncomfortable.

However, I think that The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali is definitely a book that people should read. We don’t get many books about queer South Asians, and this book centres on queer South Asians and how difficult it can be, but also shows that there is hope for queer South Asians to be themselves.

content warning: sexual assault, homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, SPOILER: [bury your gays trope]

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