“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?” (via Goodreads)
Rukhsana Ali is 17 and just about to head off to CalTech, that is if her strict Muslim Bengali immigrant parents let her go. But there’s another secret Rukhsana has been keeping from everyone: she’s gay and has a white American girlfriend. For the first part of the novel, Sabina Khan lets us see what life is like for a closeted Bengali-American teen, the tightrope she has to navigate and the overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt caused both by lying to her parents and the homophobia rampant in her culture. She wants to be herself in whatever form that takes, but it’s also not safe – emotionally or physically – for her to come out.
After she’s caught with her girlfriend, her parents take her back to Bangladesh to visit her sick grandmother. That’s when things get really intense as her parents try to force her into marrying a man of their choosing. The more Rukhsana resists, the worse her situation gets as the people she’s loved her whole life begin twisting their cultural beliefs into a weapon used against her.
Rukhsana is torn between wanting to be open about her identity and the very real threats that come from that. Khan isn’t shy about depicting the harsh realities of being queer in Bangladesh, but she also makes sure to show that not all Bengali people think alike. Both stateside and in her parents’ homeland, we see a variety of reactions toward Rukhsana, from outright hatred to full acceptance and everything in between. That’s crucial, particularly for Western readers who are probably coming into Love & Lies with a lot baggage and stereotypes about Southeast Asians and their relationship with queerness.
However, this attempt to show a diverse set of reactions leads to a very unpleasant case of Kill Your Gays (not Rukhsana but a secondary character). I don’t care for situations where a queer character is killed off or maimed to motivate or inspire the protagonist, even when the protagonist is also queer. It turns them from a character into a characterization.
Speaking of violence, this is a novel that could really benefit from a content warning in the beginning. Homophobic language is a given, but toward the end there are multiple and fairly explicit depictions of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse perpetrated against an adult woman and her young daughter. These aren’t triggering for me, but I really don’t like reading about them. I still would’ve read the novel even knowing these scenes existed, but it would’ve been nice to be able to prepare myself instead of being surprised by them. I actually had to put the book down for a few days after encountering the first instance to fortify myself.
Overall, this was a powerful, important book. Although Khan is straight, she’s written an honest, sometimes heartbreaking story about challenging bigotry. I’m glad I read it and hope it’s successful enough to lead to even more books about LGBTQ+ Southeast Asians, especially #ownvoices.
No parties, no shorts, no boys. These were my parents’ three cardinal rules. But what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them, right? I quickly changed out of my NASA pajamas and into my favorite black crop top and dark blue vintage jeans, liking the way they accentuated my cures. According to Mom no one needed to know that I had boobs, much less a belly button, except for me, Allah, and my future husband. Of course, the whole “no boys” rule was a moot point in my case, but fortunately my parents didn’t know about Ariana.
Do the world a favor and buy this book from your local indie bookstore or borrow it from your public library.