Rukhsana is a 17-year-old Bengali-American lesbian living in Seattle. In many ways, she’s lucky: she has a girlfriend she loves, lifelong friends, hardworking parents, and a full scholarship to Caltech.
But there’s a cultural in-betweenness that characterizes her life. Rukhsana knows her conservative Muslim parents are not going to react well to her sexuality. And equally frustrating is the fact that her white girlfriend and two best friends don’t understand why she won’t just come out already.
When Rukhsana accidentally gets outed to her family, her carefully compartmentalized life is threatened. The ensuing story, while sometimes melodramatic, addresses in a nuanced way the dangers of coming-out culture and the western assumption that queerness is white. It can be very dangerous for queer youth who are dependent on their families to come out, especially when those families are deeply misinformed about the queer community. Khan’s novel suggests many Bengali view LGBTQ people as Americanized outsiders to their cultural and religious communities. But Rukhsana is proof they are wrong.
Debut author Sabina Khan does highlight the brutal homophobia (and sexism) in Bengali culture. But the novel never implies this is true of all Muslims or all Bengalis. In fact, the story challenges Rukhsana’s assumption that all her devout family members in Bangladesh will reject her because of her queerness. Above all, Khan shows how important it is for queer youth of colour not to lose the cultural belonging that is as key as sexual identity to their senses of selves.
If Khan’s prose is often perfunctory and her characterization a little weak, the novel’s emotional force and important themes are adequate compensation. And the fact that stories about LGBTQ Muslim teens are few and far between makes this an absolutely essential book.