I’ll be honest, I almost dumped this book halfway through, but I’m really glad I didn’t. Love, Hate, and Other Filters isn’t quite like any other YA I’ve read, not just for the subject matter, but for the fractured structure that colors Maya’s story with a clash of tones and emotions.
Maya Aziz’s life is dominated by the expectations and limitations set by her tradition-minded, Muslim Indian immigrant parents, who push their only child towards pre-law studies at a nearby college and a respectable match with an older Muslim boy. American-born, creative, and independent, Maya would rather spend her time honing her filmmaking skills and dreaming about the inexplicable, sudden attention of her long-time crush, the white football captain Phil.
At about the 50% mark, that’s really all that’s happening. It’s a “story” (really just a string of scenes) about Maya’s vague dreams of romance and filmmaking being crushed by her conservative parents. I almost DNF’ed the book at this point—but was very glad I didn’t after reading the very next chapter. I like to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, so I’ll simply quote the book’s blurb: “In the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated hundreds of miles away… neighbors and classmates alike are consumed with fear, bigotry, and hatred.” Suddenly, this fluffy romantic jaunt becomes painfully contemporary, a sometimes dark and violent tale of American Islamophobia. The impact of outside events on Maya’s life crashes into the love story, pulling everything off-course and complicating the narrative structure in ways that at first were confusing to me.
What this book is trying to do really clicked into place for me when Maya observed that love stories like hers are not epics or rom-coms, but more like “short-subject documentaries—lacking traditional narratives and quippy dialogue.” In this way, the strange, stumbling structure actually made Love, Hate, and Other Filters feel deeply real. It reminded me a little of John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down; it starts out as one kind of book, but just when you settle into your expectations for the story arc, everything is interrupted by inconvenient, unflinching reality.
If you handed an alien a copy of this book to show them what humanity is like, you’d be hard-pressed to convince them that there was much more to a person’s life than romance. I was surprised and a little disappointed by how consumed Maya was with her obsession with receiving romantic attention. This was especially striking considering Maya’s supposed identity as Muslim. (I say “supposed” because Maya seldom thinks about her religion, which doesn’t seem to have any impact on her beliefs or choices.)
When first published in January, Ahmed’s book got a lot of buzz for featuring a Muslim Indian-American female protagonist, written by a Muslim Indian-American woman. The Goodreads page has several reviews from readers with some of the same identities sharing their feelings on the book’s value as a piece of #OwnVoices representation. For many, like ilsa and Fuzaila, however, Maya fell short, particularly as representation of Islam.
For my money, I was surprised by how little I learned being in Maya’s head. From her overbearing, marriage-obsessed mother to her preoccupation with Indian food, Maya’s life seems to fit all the stereotypes that I, someone who knows little about that culture, would expect. Her resentment towards her family and heritage actually make for a surprisingly negative portrayal of Indian- and Muslim-American culture. The book does take care to offer refutations of Islamophobia, but this aspect of the book manifests in stiff, after-school-special paragraphs that deliver lessons straight to the reader without any grounding in the characters. That kind of educational aspect might be valuable for readers in the 10-14 years range, but is a little condescending to readers at the older end of the YA range.
All this is to say, I’d recommend reading Love, Hate, and Other Filters, which is sure to make many lists of the most important YA of 2018. Just go in expecting mostly romantic fluff with a nontraditional narrative structure, and enjoy discovering Maya’s world.