I was browsing at my local indie bookstore last weekend (which is something I do more often than I’d like to admit, since I cannot afford to buy all the books I want when I go there, but anyways…) and they had a display with some of the staff’s favorite recently released #OwnVoices YA lit. The Astonishing Color of After and THUG were both on there – both of which I have read and loved. And this book, which I had heard of (and loved the title of) was up there right next to them. Well, in that company, I figured they had to be right, it had to be good, so I immediately requested it from the library (remember I already said I can’t afford to actually buy all the books I want.) I started it as soon as it came in and read it in two sittings. I totally agree with the bookstore staff – very appropriately recommended.
“It’s a simple question, but there is no simple answer. That infuriates me. I can’t do whatever I want. I can’t be whatever I want.”
Love, Hate & Other Filters is about Maya Aziz, a daughter born in the US to Indian immigrants, living in a small suburb of Chicago, Muslim, and a senior in high school. She does well in school, has an awesome best friend named Violet, and for years has been into film-making and documentaries. In fact, she secretly applied (and got in) to NYU, and wants to go there to study that, more than anything else, but her parents expect for her to go to school near home…so she can be close and visit often. She’s also trying to figure out how to handle the pressure from her parents to find a polite Muslim Indian boy to date (and of course plan to marry). And even if she does meet a good one (wink, wink), will it be enough to distract her from the new attention she’s getting from Phil, a (not Muslim or Indian) boy at school that she’s crushed on from afar for ages? One day though, something happens that makes all of these things seem like minor details, a tragedy that exacerbates (and turns violent) the feeling of separation she’s always sort of felt as the only Muslim girl, the only Indian girl, in school…a tragedy that does nothing to help ease, and in fact worsens, the pressures and concerns of her parents.
This was a fast-paced and absorbing read. The first third is just plain adorable, as we get to know Maya and her parents and Violet and Kareem and Phil and Hina and all their relationships with each other are set up. It’s a sweet high school setting, and the voice telling the story is perfect. It has lots of contemporary vernacular and quick dialogue (which I loved) and a great balance of the normal high school “drama” (crushes, etc.) and some concerns (where to go to college, etc.) that are more serious, handled in lovely parallel. From page one, the author throws us into this normal high school story alongside a heavy dose of Indian culture – weddings, cultural expectations, language, food, etc. While I’ve read some reviews that say this is not always what Indian culture in America is like, that doesn’t mean it’s not true in some cases. Every experience is different, in life and in books, and so it’s important to keep in mind that this is a single perspective.
In any case, back to the book, about a third of the way in (naturally, right after Maya has finally talked to her parents and gotten permission to go to NYU), there is an attack in a nearby city that changes everything. And here we really get into the more serious parts of the novel. The parts where Maya and her family are threatened and violence is acted upon them. They are scared for their lives and safety and cannot understand why this is happening in a community that, prior, has seemed so comfortable and accepting. And this fear leads to some difficult outcomes, decisions and situations, both within the family and between them and the community. It’s hard to read at times, so senseless, but it’s important because it is real. And again, though every person’s experiences with these situations are different, these things are happening in the US. And it’s not going to get better if it’s ignored. Maya’s voice, as she tells us how her everyday life and outlook are affected by this one act and its aftershocks, is honest and clear. It’s frustrated and scared, while still trying to focus on the good things. But Maya, as any young adult might under such stress, hits a breaking point and things come to a head. When she has to make an impossible choice between her family and her dreams, a choice for which culture is (perhaps) partially responsible, but circumstances more so, your heart cannot help but break for her. For anyone who lives in this country to have to face these types of decisions even in part because we, as a society, are not accepting enough…that’s absolutely wrong.
However, credit to the author here, she is able to address these more serious topics at the same time as growing budding relationships and turning crushes into something more. It’s a perfect representation of high school…pretty much the only time in our lives where the adorable and the solemn happen at the same time like this. My heart was breaking for Maya, yes, but it was also filling…as her best friend supports/stands by her through everything and her own romance story takes off. I loved this aspect of the novel. And, honestly, I love the way the author handled it at the end as well. It’s realistic and perfectly bittersweet. It handles that sepia tint of first love in a gorgeous way. The way Maya’s goals/dreams are handled is similarly bittersweet, with hope for the future, but myriad challenges in the present. Again, a perfect snapshot of that time in our lives.
The last thing I want to mention is the stories and viewpoints that are represented in this novel. Of course Maya is our heroine, and the main perspective is hers, but we also get insight into the actions of her parents, of the aggressors, of her friends and more. We get some of the “why” behind everyone’s decisions, the regret some of them have, the fear that drives them. And this helps spread the message that though some of these problems are invasive, kind words and intervention from friends/family could, and do, make a major difference. And if we all step in when we see something amiss, perhaps some tragedies can be avoided. It’s a hopeful message tucked in with all the other amazing aspects of this books.
Maya is a phenomenal multi-dimensional protagonist. She struggles against the barriers in her life like any young adult (though for sure she has more challenges than some), sometimes with great poise and sometimes with a little more sarcasm and close-mindedness than would be ideal (again, we’re talking normal teenagers here). But her conviction in her dreams and her courage in following them, even in the face of fear and hate, is inspiring. Her story is truly a heart-wrenching and butterfly-inducing tale of the young love, young hate and the other filters through which we grow to see life – exactly as the title promises. I highly recommend it.