It’s the summer before her freshman year of college and seventeen-year-old Shabnam Qureshi has a simple plan: “Get through the summer. Get to Penn. Begin anew. Don’t look back.” But as Sheba Karim demonstrates in That Thing We Call a Heart, her second book for young adults, life is rarely so simple. Not only is Shabnam estranged from her best friend, Farah, the only other Pakistani-American student in her senior class, but she’s falling in love for the first time—a situation fraught with complications for a girl whose family would definitely not approve, if they knew about it.
The friendship troubles begin near the end of their senior year when the formerly free-spirited Farah suddenly shows up at school wearing a headscarf. Shabnam is embarrassed and confused, and the reactions of other students don’t help: “Since I was her best friend, sometimes I got asked dumb questions, like does she have cancer, do her parents force her to wear it, did her hair fall out because she dyed it so much.” For Farah herself the questions are even less sensitive. One kid wants to know if the headscarf is a way to “stand out on her college applications.”
Shabnam has serious misgivings about Farah’s decision. She sees the headscarf as a symbol of oppression, and she is troubled by the questions it raises: “I hated this new kind of attention, where everything was about Islam. I was tired of having people ask me if I was Muslim too, of having to explain that I wasn’t really, and feeling guilty about it, like I’d betrayed Farah, even though I’d never signed up for any of this.”
Her failure to support Farah’s decision has derailed their once-close friendship, and Shabnam misses her confidante—especially after she meets a young heartthrob, Jamie, at the mall. Their flirtation leads to a temporary job selling homemade pies with him at a booth in a local park, a gig that will last four weeks: “One month,” Shabnam thinks. “Four weeks. In Bollywood films love blossomed in the course of a single song—a chase, a dance, a kiss. Surely by that perspective, four weeks would be long enough for a kiss.” The inexperienced Shabnam longs to share such life-changing good news with her best friend but doesn’t know how to make things right.
During the course of the summer, Shabnam reaches a clearer understanding of herself and those she loves. In turning her attention away from her own needs and considering the feelings of others, she realizes that her good-hearted mother carries her own burdens, her often uncommunicative father has a romantic streak, her best friend is angry but trustworthy, and her great uncle, whose tragic past she has invented to impress her favorite history teacher, actually bears his own invisible scars.
That Thing We Call a Heart is a beautifully written glimpse into the life of a Pakistani-American teen. Shabnam’s story comes complete with the typical romantic entanglements, friendship drama, and parental pressure of most coming-of-age stories, but it also includes the complications that stem from religious and cultural differences. Along with contemporary songs by Radiohead and traditional poetry by Faiz Ahmed Faiz and others, Karim weaves into the story tales of genocide, during both the Partition of India that created Pakistan and the Bosnian war. In the process, she creates a rich backdrop of tragedy against which Shabnam can begin to view her own temporary misfortunes. Within the context of history, her own responsibilities as a daughter, a friend, and a thoughtful human being come into focus.
“Time is basically divided into two types, the days and nights of separation, when the lover longs for the beloved, and the days and nights of union, when they come together, though this union never lasts long,” Shabnam’s father explains. “The night of separation is painfully long, the day of union never long enough. However, without separation, what would become of the union? What is desire without distance? What is love without longing?” In That Thing We Call a Heart, Sheba Karim has written a meditation on desire and distance, love and longing, that embraces and enlarges the genre in which she writes.
A graduate of Auburn University, Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.