ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE by Sabina Khan is a well-rounded novel that includes a wide-range of social justice issues including Islamophobia, immigrant issues, homophobia – especially in religious settings, gun violence, xenophobia, and more. Within those larger issues, Khan manages to address nuances within communities, being open to learning about and teaching about cultures, and defending others and yourself. The novel packs a lot of details into the story, but it rarely feels rushed or overloaded.
Zara, a Muslim teenager whose parents are in the final stages of the USA green card process, is a likable and relatable character, as are her parents and friends. She is out as bisexual, and her parents support her and defend her when more conservative Muslims disapprove. Zara is also active in social issues via a school-related club and has a loyal contingent of friends who ensure support both emotionally and physically. Throughout the novel, there are joyful celebrations of food, music, film, and traditions as shared by families and friends. Readers also follow Zara’s new girlfriend, a white girl named Chloe, as she experiences Pakistani traditions for the first time. The growing romance is between the girls is touching and portrayed authentically.
When Tyler, a boy who has been verbally bullying Zara, paints racist phrases on her locker gets suspended, he brings the bullying to her home. This prompts Zara’s father to go to Tyler’s home to confront his father about Tyler’s behavior. The storyline takes a turn when Zara’s father is shot and goes into a coma, prompting a domino effect of unintended consequences which affect the family’s green card application. The dramatic push and pull during the disastrous events grows to an emotional peak even as concerns about friends and romantic encounters and how to respond to tormentors continue. Somehow the plot manages to remain clear and the themes continue to deepen.
One strength in the novel is how Khan depicts Zara’s pushback to Tyler, Chloe, and even her closest friends when they express concern for her. Zara’s anger at Chloe’s inability to understand the constant stress of being Muslim in a mainly white and Christian community comes across as genuine, as does her angry response to Tyler’s attempts to apologize. Really Tyler’s arc, in which he seems to have begun a journey to reject his xenophobia, is a lesson in how to apologize without putting the onus on the person who has been harmed. Zara’s response to Chloe’s apology also shares both the anticipated stress and relief tangled up in cross-cultural and racial friendships.
Overall, ZARA HOSSAIN IS HERE handles a multitude of typical Young Adult topics within the wider world of Zara’s reality that balances on the USA immigration system, navigating racism and Islamophbia, and being a queer teen. Readers will root for Zara throughout the novel, and will perhaps learn a few things along the way. Recommended for teens and their caregivers.