The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan

Review by Natasha Zippan

Scholastic Children’s Books, 29 January 2019

332 pages, paperback, $13.99 CAD, ISBN: 978-1-407-19457-8

Ages 14+, Grades 9-12 Young Adult, Contemporary Realism, LGBTQ+, Romance

The engagement party took place the following day. I had to start getting ready by midmorning even though the actual event was in the evening.

For the next few hours, I had bleaching cream lathered on my arms, legs, and face. I was plucked and waxed while aestheticians worked on my nails. Then makeup and an elaborate hairdo. Finally, after about five hours, I was deemed pretty enough for my husband-to-be.

Sohail’s parents had sent an exquisitely hand-embroidered Benarasi silk sari in hues of pink and purple. I looked in the mirror after Shaila had draped me in it and secured the aanchal and the pleats with giant safety pins tucked under the folds. I had to admit, I looked radiant. My skin glowed, and the rosy colour set off my brown skin beautifully. I didn’t feel like I was looking at my own reflection. I saw a stranger looking back at me, poised and untouchable.

The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali brings to life the struggle of a queer Muslim teen and takes the reader on an unforgettable ride of love, betrayal, loss, and transformation. Written by Sabina Khan, who immigrated to British Columbia from Bangladesh via the United States, this novel is at once relevant, shocking, and heartwarming. Khan immerses the reader in Bangladeshi culture, highlighting its unique beauty while also mercilessly exposing an underbelly of extreme patriarchal misogyny.

Living in Seattle, Muslim American Ruksana Ali is seventeen and in love with her non-Muslim girlfriend Ariana. She dreams of living an unfettered queer existence away from her highly conservative family. Rukhsana’s parents value her brother Aamir’s education over hers, but eventually capitulate to the idea that a good degree will render her more marriageable. Rukhsana tries to keep her lesbian identity a secret until she leaves for Caltech on scholarship, but when she is caught making out with Ariana, her parents plan a trip to Bangladesh under the pretense that her beloved grandmother, Nani, is deathly ill.

Once in Dhaka, Rukhsana’s parents lock her up and attempt to force an arranged marriage before she can return to the States. After being subjected to familial pressure that culminates in drugging and even exorcism, Rukhsana almost completely gives up hope until it comes in the unlikely form of her husband-to-be, Sohail, who is also secretly gay. Together, they hatch a plan to escape both from Bangladesh and their family’s oppressive mores.

Khan manages to straddle a fine line between humour and horror as she weaves a breakneck, thrilling ride of a story; the climax was breathlessly tense. There is true realism in this book, despite its tied-up-with-a-bow ending. It shows how complicated love is, and how difficult it is to straddle two worlds. The inclusion of marital rape, incest, domestic violence, and hate crimes feel at odds with the levity of a YA romance, but the author manages to weave them together into an affecting narrative.

The author’s gradual, epistolary reveal of grandmother Nani’s tribulations through her diaries, common to many rural South Asian women even today, help the main character (and by extension, the reader) understand her mother’s trauma-based mentality. Rukhsana’s trials are a direct consequence of this intergenerational trauma, and her family’s turnaround, unlikely as it seems, is very satisfying.

The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali is an unflinching portrait of a girl caught between her queerness and her family’s conservative values. Rukhsansa’s affectionate descriptions of her culture’s beautiful food, clothes, customs, and language stand in contrast to the violent undercurrent of its misogynist values, reflecting her own internal conflict. This book gave me hope that abusive patriarchs and gossiping aunties may one day become as outdated as their beliefs, or, even better, transformed.

Natasha Zippan is a graphic designer and art director who has gone back to school to study psychology, gender and sexuality, and (hopefully) write stereotype-busting stuff for kids and teens. She loves social justice and magical realism, and is currently working on a time-travel YA romance with a gay protagonist.

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