TV Shows Pop Culture

The Baby-Sitters Club season two is an injection of joy the world needs

Did I expect to spend the weekend sobbing over a bunch of middle school characters as they explored everything from friendship to budding romance and even death? Maybe not, but since I’m the one who chose to binge the second season of The Baby-Sitters Club on Netflix in one weekend, I really should have seen this coming. 

I devoured season one of The Baby-Sitters Club last July. I had just moved to a new apartment in the middle of the first pandemic summer, and as much as I loved my new neighborhood and my morning exploratory walks, I missed, well, life. I thought the first season of the series, which adapts Ann M. Martin’s sprawling empire of novels, was perfect in almost every way: a sweet, uplifting show that nevertheless tackled big conversations in the world today. And importantly, it was one that allowed me to forget the pandemic.

The Baby-Sitters Club season two hit Netflix on Oct. 11, 2021, and built upon the solid foundation of its first season. It offers a lot of the same things the first season does, while deepening storylines, character lives, and conversations. In case you’re unfamiliar with the show, it stars a group of middle school girls, led by the entrepreneurial spirit of Kristy Thomas, who start a club/business: in exchange for money, they will babysit neighborhood kids. Along the way, they learn important lessons about family, standing up for yourself, pursuing your dreams, and so so much more. 

I spoke with Jen Petro-Roy, who is a former teen librarian and also the author of a few middle-grade novels, including P.S. I Miss You. She pointed out something I loved about the show myself: how modern it is. It’s set in a pandemic-free alternate universe version of contemporary times, and the showrunners did an excellent job modernizing the cast, the storylines, even the props.

“All of these updates seem so natural, too,” Petro-Roy said. “Of course it makes sense for MaryAnne to find her strength standing up for a trans girl she’s babysitting. Of course, the cast is more diverse. It makes sense, and that’s all because of how accepting, loving, and inclusive the world of Stoneybrook and the Baby-Sitters Club are.”

The beauty of the show, of course, is that it deals with such real-world topics through the framework of a middle-grade media property, and every episode ends on an uplifting note. The characters may go through hell over the course of the episode, but they’re going to end up stronger, happier, and better off than they started. 

As a kidlit writer myself, one of the things I try to remember in penning my young adult novels is that they need hope. That’s not to say that everything needs to be hunky-dory throughout the story, or even that everything wraps up in a bow neatly for the characters. The Hunger Games is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Those characters go Through It over the course of the trilogy, but the ending is meant to show up that there is hope despite this. Katniss makes some choices at the end of Mockingjay that I hate, but they are accurate reflections of her trauma, and the ending is ultimately hopeful for a better day.

The Baby-Sitters Club is a shining example of middle-grade media because it’s enjoyable to people of all ages (I’m 28 and obsessed with it, but the focus is squarely on the middle school-aged characters — and their real-world counterparts, the viewers. The struggles the girls face are relevant to their age. This season, MaryAnne had her first boyfriend, and an episode’s plotline was about her trying to figure out what that meant for her. Whereas maybe a young adult audience would have wanted to see the story revolve around a first kiss or even first time having sex, for middle-graders it’s perfect that it just revolves around taking the relationship from “friends” to “more than friend.”

Petro-Roy thinks the show is a “perfect example” of media for middle grade.

“The main cast are actually real kids and the BSC themselves are dealing with classic issues of growing up (making new friends, first boyfriends, a loss in the family),” she said. “Middle grade is that strange time when kids are starting to solidify who they are in the world and wanting to have adventures on their own while still being called back into the fold of their family pretty strongly. This show exemplifies that so perfectly in its storyline and its talented child and adult cast.”

There is so much, so very very much, to love about The Baby-Sitters Club. It hooks in adults, teens, and tweens alike, telling the stories that we can all relate to: middle school drama and trauma. Both seasons are available now on Netflix, and I highly recommend the show.

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TV Shows History Pop Culture

I love history, but I can’t stand historical TV shows

I’m a big history nerd. I’m not only a history major, but someone who collects and wears historical clothes, who owns figurines of historical figures, who collects books on my favorite parts of history, and who played history games throughout my entire childhood. Studying history has always been a huge part of my identity, and one I’m still happy to include in my life today. But it’s probably time to admit it: I hate historical TV shows. As a history geek, I should love them, but it’s hard for me to stomach a single one.

These shows forget that people in the past did, in fact, have fun.

I have one main reason, and it’s that these shows are straight-up boring. The lighting is too dark, the costumes too beige and ugly, and every word of dialogue is spoken in a raspy whisper. Everything is so bleak it’s almost impossible to follow. Try watching The Medici or The Tudors. I have difficulty figuring out anything that’s going on. And don’t get me started on the lighting in The Crown. 

A disheveled white man with a beard and a loose top.
[Image Description: A dark-haired white man in a dark shirt] via BBC. This is how Da Vinci’s Demons dresses its protagonists — in dull, disheveled, and downright ugly clothing.
And trust me, I won’t hear the excuse that real life was just as bleak back then. As a keen student of historical costuming, I know that a lot of historical clothing was bright, extravagant, and sometimes just ridiculous. I admit it’s not the biggest issue, but it still rubs me the wrong way. I feel like these shows forget that people in the past did, in fact, have fun occasionally. You rarely see any entertainment or festivities in these shows, unless they’re doomed to go horribly wrong. You almost never see any characters genuinely laugh in these shows. Sure, living in the past was terrible in a lot of ways, but people still retained a sense of humor.

I’ll give you an example. I once made the horrible mistake of attempting to watch Da Vinci’s Demons, which loosely follows the life of Leonardo da Vinci, and encapsulates everything I hate about historical television. The show portrays Leonardo as a tortured, edgy womanizer, despite the fact that he was almost certainly gay and, by all accounts, a very pleasant person. Throughout the show, he almost exclusively wears dark, tattered shirts and dusty trousers, whereas the historical Leonardo wore brightly-colored tunics and tights. It might sound ridiculous to the modern viewer, but personally, I think we should acknowledge the absurdity of history. And let’s be honest, sometimes it’s easier to relate to people who don’t take themselves too seriously.

A brightly colored Renaissance painting of a wealthy, finely dressed family.
[Image Description: a Renassaince painting showing a group of people dressed in beautiful costumes.]This is how people in the Renaissance actually dressed! Short tunics, leggings, bright colors…it may not be as sexy, but it’s way more fun!
There’s also a lot of unnecessary drama in historical TV shows. I’ll admit, this trend strikes me as odd because there’s already so much drama in real history. Shows like The Tudors, The Borgias, The Last Kingdom, and The Medici like to make a big deal out of political battles and sex scandals, and rarely imbue these plot lines with any humor or humanity. Drama is important for entertainment’s sake, but we can still try and make the drama seem somewhat human. Most relationships aren’t built on stolen glances and steamy affairs. Why not portray these love stories with affection, awkwardness, and a tiny bit of down-to-earth humanity?

History isn’t all epic battles and heaving bosoms, a lot of it is everyday life.

Even the grand, epic battles are a little too dramatic for my sake. They ignore the disease, the squalor, and the sheer tedium of real-life battles. It might not be fun to acknowledge the unglamorous parts of history, but it makes for better television. If we’re going to relate to these historical figures, we need to at least see them as human.


Most historical TV shows seem totally unwilling to have any fun with history. They refuse to acknowledge that along with the drama and sadness of history, there’s also comedy and absurdity and awkwardness. Historical people were real human beings. Sometimes they wore ridiculous outfits, joked around with each other, and made awkward mistakes. History isn’t all epic battles and heaving bosoms, a lot of it is everyday life. I certainly don’t think these shows are evil, but they do make history feel so much more distant and detached than it really is.

We should remember that history has plenty of dimensions, some good and some bad, some funny and some serious, some totally normal and some downright weird. It doesn’t help to glamorize or romanticize history, but it doesn’t help to dull it down either. Historical figures were people too, and our television should at least recognize them as such. Besides, it’s more fun that way anyway.

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No, I will not be taking my hijab off for my wedding and you can’t make me

We often talk about how the hijab is viewed negatively in the Western world. But I don’t think that many people realize that discrimination against the hijab doesn’t only happen in western society. In my experience, it also occurs in my home country, Pakistan, and my own family members are a part of the problem.

My sister and I started wearing the hijab when we were 15 and 13, respectively. For us, it seemed like a natural choice since we’d spent most of our childhood in Saudi Arabia, where the hijab was mandatory. When our family in Pakistan found out we still wore the hijab after moving to Canada in our teen years, they were ecstatic. They thought it was wonderful that we chose this for ourselves and praised us for making seemingly religious choices. 

But that all changed when my sister turned 20 and someone tried to propose to her. Our mother rejected the engagement and it sparked a debate within our entire family. Most of them believed that more proposals would come her way if my sister took off her hijab. I still remember my mother arguing with our aunt who said that hijabs are only meant to look good on girls who are “white, thin, and pretty.” She thought that I was too dark and my sister was too fat, so we were ruining our prospects by sticking to our hijabs.

The worst part about all of this is that my aunt wasn’t entirely wrong. The hijab didn’t make men jump at the chance to marry us. Due to pressure from extended family members, my mother was constantly on the lookout for potential matches for my sister. But every guy who approached would run away just as fast once he heard that she wouldn’t be taking her hijab off for him. 

After a while, my sister did it. She found a guy who seemed accepting of who she was and agreed to marry him after a year. Suddenly, the tune the family was singing changed, but not for the better. Everyone asked if she’d be taking her hijab off for the wedding and discussing how beautiful she would look in this or that hairdo. They tried to talk my mother into making my sister buy lehengas, which would show off her midriff and arms. This completely goes against the very purpose of wearing a hijab.

To reach a compromise with my family, I nominated myself as my sister’s makeup artist and hairstylist for the wedding day and began experimenting with different hijab styles. We naively thought that if we could show them that the hijab could be dolled up, they would accept her decision. They did not. In the end, when the engagement was broken off, they simply returned to their earlier comments about taking off the hijab to score a husband.

The sheer amount of criticism that came with all this has my sister unsure about whether she ever wants to have a wedding, let alone one in Pakistan with our family. It hurt to watch my sister try and deal with the harsh judgment and then come to realize that her opinions hold no value in our community. It hurts more to think that other Pakistani brides might have to put up with the same level of harassment all over one headscarf

My sister was always much more staunch in her love of the hijab. Truth be told, I started wearing it on the condition that it would be pink and glittery. If you asked me just two years back, I might have given in to the family pressure and agreed to take off my hijab for my wedding.

Yet, knowing the struggle and judgment that comes with making a choice has given me an appreciation for the fact that it was a choice. However petty my reason is, it is my choice to put on the hijab, and I will be damned if I let someone else try to make decisions about my body and my attire for that one day in my life.

Now I can say with confidence that I will not be taking my hijab off for my wedding.

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Book Reviews Books

‘The View Was Exhausting’ takes the fake dating trope to a whole new level

Those of us obsessed with celebrity relationship drama have often wondered if it’s all just for the cameras. After all, nothing in Hollywood is real, and since fans can’t help but obsess over the minor details of a movie star’s personal life, why wouldn’t they choose to take the narrative into their own hands and give people a glamorous love story? It’s obvious that they do, since some celebrity relationships are so obviously fake, *cough* Shawn Mendes and Camilla Cabello *cough*.

The View was Exhausting, co-written by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta, is about one such (fake) celebrity romance. It will appeal to fans of Daisy Jones and the Six and Crazy Rich Asians. In the novel, Whitman “Win” Tagore is an internationally famous British Indian actress. Given how difficult it is for women of color to make a name for themselves in Hollywood, Win is careful about her image and has fine-tuned her public persona down to the smallest detail.

After a humiliating scandal early in her career, Win has spent the last few years cultivating an on-and-off-again relationship with Leo Milanowski, the famous playboy son of a millionaire, to show the public she has a romantic and vulnerable side.

The novel proves that the “fake dating” trope is a practical move. Anytime Win’s career needs a boost, her publicist ropes in Leo, organizes a few paparazzi shots of them canoodling in exotic locales, and social media immediately goes wild for their perfect love story. At the start of the novel,  Leo meets Win in St. Tropez, because she is hoping to get a lucrative role and needs public opinion on her side after an ugly publicized breakup.

Despite the mutual attraction and friendship, Win has never wanted to jeopardize her perfect fake relationship with Leo by starting a real one. But just as she begins to want something more with Leo, a secret he has kept from her comes to light, creating the potential to out their fake relationship and cause a disastrous media spectacle. 

The story is told through a series of glimpses into Win and Leo’s past experiences, showing us flashbacks of how they met, their close friendship and the favors they have done for one another. the intricacies of staging a relationship, and the complex nature of all relationships: the undefinable one they’ve had with each other and the ones with the other people in their lives.

Most of the novel is deeply introspective and really works as a character study of Win and Leo. To be honest, I had some trouble making any sense of the plot because of this, especially since the first half of the story has a lot of exposition. If you’re looking for a quick romantic read, this may be better for another time. On the other hand, I did like that the story wasn’t just focused on the love story between the two of them, but also their families and friends, especially Win’s fraught relationship with her mother Pritha, who doesn’t support her career choice. 

As a woman of color in the entertainment industry, Win’s career is sometimes a losing battle. Her work relies on star power, and directors and the media paying enough attention to her that she gets lucrative roles for which she would normally not be considered. When a movie fails, directors blame the fact that they had to cast her based on “political correctness”. Sadly, many of us know all too well what its like to have people reduce your identity to the color of your skin instead of your abilities. 

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She is privy to racial microaggressions, such as being labeled “exotic” by casting agents. Win feels that she cannot call out racist remarks because she is aware that she’ll be seen as the one who is overreacting. She is never allowed to act out, for fear of coming across as unlikeable, and even if she were to unabashedly put her career before a publicized social life, she risks the tabloids painting her as a prudish workaholic.

As we’ve seen from the way the British media treats Meghan Markle, there is really no end to the vitriol aimed at women of color in the spotlight. While I liked that the novel explored the discrimination Win faces, I do wish it also touched a bit more on her relationship with her South Asian identity, since it felt like she only viewed her background as an obstacle to her ambition.

Through Leo, the novel also comments on the unfulfilling bleakness of constant fame and wealth. Unlike Win, Leo as a character comes off as someone who is directionless in life. He has spent years wandering from one glamorous destination to another (I wonder if the authors named him after a certain famous Leo), partying with famous friends, taking care of his eccentric siblings, and carrying out every inane task his overbearing millionaire father sets for him.

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Leo enjoys a string of brief projects and so is happy to be Win’s fake boyfriend whenever she needs the media buzz. During the course of the novel though, it seems he is beginning to get frustrated by playing a part in the hoax and feels like he has to hide a secret from Win because it would jeopardize her career.

While this is definitely still a romance novel, even the real love story isn’t exactly about falling headfirst for someone, but more about the realistic problems that arise when two people who care deeply for each other have trouble communicating their feelings. Win and Leo have this vibe where they are each the only person the other can rely on in the world. Still, they don’t always say or do the right thing, and they don’t even always like each other.

The story explores how this is due to them being from different backgrounds: Leo coming from privilege and Win from an immigrant working-class family. Though Leo is empathetic about the struggles in Win’s career, he obviously cannot understand the extent of what it’s like to be a woman of color in a predominantly white industry. As Leo questions why Win doesn’t call out racist remarks, Win feels frustrated by his simplistic worldview, which in her opinion comes from a place of lifelong privilege and never having to fight for what you want. Though it takes them some time, they must each learn to communicate their problems in order to feel loved and supported. 

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The View Was Exhausting has an addictive, if somewhat meandering storyline. It takes some time to get into, but I was invested in learning more about Win and Leo, and watching them grow as people. The writing style combines dialogue with several flashbacks, which makes you feel like you’re being made to understand and empathize with the characters. On the other hand, the plot of the book is overwhelmed by the constant revelations in their internal monologues. You will come for the glamour, but you will stay because the double standards of Hollywood infuriate you, and because you want to know how Win and Leo will finally realize that they love each other.

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Book Reviews Books

I had a love-hate relationship with “The Summer of Broken Rules” by K.L. Walther

The Summer of Broken Rules is a unique story about grief, love, games, and finding yourself. Set in Martha’s Vineyard in the USA, the book explores how a family comes together through shared experiences and through games, to be a great support system during times of loss. I was hooked right from the premise of some fun action and suspense within the genre of realistic YA fiction.

The book follows Meredith, an 18-year-old girl who has just lost her sister in a freak accident. She and her family are going to Martha’s Vineyard (an island off the coast of Massachusetts, USA) for a week for Meredith’s cousin Sarah’s wedding. Meredith’s grandparents live there and the whole extended family visits every summer. At the wedding, Sarah and her fiancé announce that the family will be playing a game of Assassin to honor Meredith’s late sister, Claire, who was the undisputed queen of the game. The gameplay goes like this: every player has a target – someone they have to “kill” (i.e. shoot with a water-gun). If a player is eliminated, their target becomes their killer’s next target. The winner of the game is the last player standing.

The beginning of the book is strong. The characters are introduced well and clearly defined. Meredith’s extended family and Sarah’s fiancé’s family, plus their friends and wedding guests, make up a truly huge cast of characters. Everyone’s personalities and roles were clearly defined from the start so it does not get confusing. The setting is described beautifully as well. You can almost feel the spray from the sea and the summer goodness of the island on which the wedding is happening.

But despite this, I felt that the book slowly lost momentum as the chapters went by. The suspense I expected was present in the beginning, but as the book went on I started wondering why the game was so important at all. The book explains that Meredith is invested in the game because she wants to win it for her sister, which I understood in the first few chapters. Yet I felt that this explanation did not hold up towards the end, as Meredith made new relationships with other characters. The importance of the game kept varying.

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Sometimes the “kills” were described comically, with over-dramatic betrayals and action movie-like moves, which I really liked. However, at other times Meredith seems genuinely scared and distressed by the game, leading me to wonder whether she actually found it fun or not.

I felt like the romance was a bit forced. Meredith meets someone from the groom’s party, Wit, at the wedding, and she almost immediately falls in love with him. This in itself would have been okay – I don’t mind a good “love at first sight” story. But I was disappointed that Meredith gave so much importance to what Wit thought of her. It seemed as though Wit kept telling Meredith what she was thinking and who she was as a person.

Don’t get me wrong, their love story is pretty cute, but I would have liked it better if Meredith had more autonomy over her perception of herself. A redeeming factor here is that Meredith eventually does make her own decisions and does not let her life revolve around what Wit or her family say. But I still felt like the love story was given undue importance. I was not convinced that the strength of their relationship was enough to make it so significant in Meredith’s life.

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I found myself almost rushing through the final chapters, not because I was impatient to find out who won the game (honestly, I lost interest halfway through), but because I just wanted the book to end. The epilogue seemed unnecessary too. The only purpose it served was to reiterate what was already established in the previous chapters, and the new information could have been added seamlessly in the last chapter.

Would I read this book again? Probably not. But would I recommend it to people? Maybe. It was not terrible, certainly not the worst YA book I’ve ever read. Despite everything, I would give it a solid 3 out of 5, the good points being for the setting, the first few chapters, and the amazing descriptions of the food they eat. (Donuts and pies, anyone?)

Overall, personally, I felt that the book was a bit of a disappointment, but not to the extent that I regret reading it.

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Book Reviews Books

When You and I Collide is the YA sci-fi you’ve been waiting for

Parallel Universe. The idea that your life in its entirety exists somewhere else in the universe is a hypothetical notion that we have all heard about it. It’s either because you’ve watched it in your favorite anime or because this certain friend of yours cannot stop talking about it… unless you actually study Physics. I belong to the first category. And given my incessant need to know everything, I’ve done my fair share of research. So, imagine my delight when I found out that When You and I Collide by Kate Norris explores the existence of multiverse theory in young adult fiction.

In her debut sci-fi YA novel, Norris exceeds expectations by effortlessly blending science and war with love and loss. With a backdrop of WWII, reliance on science and technology, Norris beautifully tackles heavy issues such as mourning a loved one, dealing with grief, and being treated as a foreigner in a land you’ve always considered home. A concept most of us are a little too familiar with.

As immigrant kids, on one hand, we are encouraged to hold onto our culture and embrace it as our sole identity. But on the other, we are also expected to effortlessly fit into our new surroundings. But there is no such thing as a seamless transition between two cultures. Especially in a society where any kind of difference leads to hurtful scrutiny. And, at most times, these differences cannot be changed.

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All the way from little things like accents, language structures, and vocabulary to racist questions like “but where are you really from?” when someone doesn’t look a certain way. An immigrant kid is forced to play a lose-lose battle where the host country does not completely accept you for not being quite like them but at the same time, the people from your very own culture think you are too “western” and “modern” in your approach.

Unfortunately, these kids find out the hard way that life isn’t quite like the Hannah Montana series where we thrive in both of our realities. It’s more like being part of two different worlds, but never quite knowing where exactly you belong.

Kate Norris beautifully explores this everyday identity crisis of an immigrant kid through her main character in a multiverse reality. Winnie Schulde, the sixteen-year-old protagonist, can see splits – a quick moment where two possible outcomes for every scenario can be separated. In a moment’s time, you can see both outcomes and possibly choose the most favorable one. In a world plagued with war and destruction, you can see how this could be the ultimate weapon.

Therefore, to avoid any unwanted attention from the proponents of WWII, Winnie and her father kept this a secret from just about everyone. This included Scott, the incredibly smart, kind, and good-looking lab assistant she was working with, in her father’s lab.

After her mother’s tragic death, Winnie’s unrequired love for Scott was the only thing that kept her going. Her physicist father had become distant after this incident. Always wrapped up in research, he believed that if he pushed Winnie to be better, she would be able to choose one split over another. Perhaps, she could change their past and fix things for the better.

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While Winnie did not agree with the methods but for the sake of her father, she played along. Choosing outcomes and time-traveling were merely derivative theories that she did not believe in. Despite that, in every single experiment, Winnie gave her absolute best. But her father was never satisfied.

With this storyline, Norris explores how the grief of losing a loved one changes people. Some people, blinded by grief, tend to withdraw from just about everything. They don’t quite give up but at the same time, they don’t have much to go on either. Therefore, people around them end up overcompensating to make them feel better while being in equal measures of pain. In this context, that’s what Winnie ends up doing, doing whatever it takes to help her father cope with the grief he will never admit to.

However, things change when Scott gets seriously injured from an experiment gone wrong. Merely trying her best was no longer an option for Winnie. With the sole motivation of wanting to help Scott, Winnie is forced to deal with a reality that’s very familiar to her and yet completely different.

In a book that includes annotated research designs and the exact type of apparatuses required for the experiments, Kate Norris expressed that the idea for this story was completely unscientific. Instead, it was a rather simple question: what would it be like to meet the perfect you with all the best-case scenarios?

Therefore, in a reality where we are all constantly striving to be the best versions of ourselves while struggling to cope with the struggles, grief, and challenges, When You and I Collide makes us realize that it’s actually this hurt and pain that makes us who we are.

With interesting settings and relatable characters, this book makes you reflect back on your life and wonder: if you could have it all, what would you be willing to give up?

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Book Club Books

“The Passing Playbook” by Isaac Fitzsimons is The Tempest Book Club’s June Pick. Here’s the first chapter.

We’re so excited to announce Isaac Fitzsimons’ novel The Passing Playbook as The Tempest Book Club June read. The Passing Playbook is about a trans boy trying to fit in at a new school after being bullied when transitioning in his last school. As time goes on, he blends in perfectly–big brother, soccer athlete, and proud nerd. All this is at risk when a discriminatory law forces Spencer’s coach to bench him. Now Spencer has to decide: cheer from the sidelines or publicly fight for his right to play, even though it would mean coming out to everyone—including the guy he’s falling for. LISTEN

As always, we’re collaborating with Penguin to give away a copy. Enter here!  

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Spencer’s morning went to hell when some asshole on a dirt bike swerved in front of Mom’s Subaru.

Mom slammed on the brakes and flung her arm across Spencer’s chest, despite the fact that he was wearing a seat belt, and even if he weren’t, it’s not like her arm would keep him from hurtling through the windshield and becoming sausage meat.

At least she’d already finished her coffee. The last thing he needed was to spend all day smelling like the inside of a Starbucks.

“Is everyone okay?” Mom twisted around to check on Theo in the back seat, but his eyes remained glued to the nature show playing on his tablet. Spencer was impressed by how nothing seemed to faze his little brother.

“Maybe we save the vehicular manslaughter for tomorrow,” said Spencer. He didn’t want to be known as the kid whose mom ran over someone at drop–off. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be known asanything. As far as he was concerned, the less he stood out, the better.

Mom ignored him as she steered the car more carefully up the tree–lined drive and parked at the curb. “Promise me you’ll make an effort today. Talk to people. Smile sometimes.” She tugged on one of his earbuds, pulling it out of his ear. A muffledda–da–da–dun–da–da–da–dun from the song he was listening to trickled out into the car. “It wouldn’t kill you to be more social.”

“It might.”

Mom’s jaw clenched. “That’s not funny, Spencer. Not after last year.”

“Too soon?” said Spencer. If he turned it into a joke he could pretend that he didn’t still wake up in the middle of the night, heart racing, drenched in sweat thinking about The Incident. He called it “The Incident” so he wouldn’t have to remember it all in excruciating detail: the threatening email, the picture of his face in crosshairs stuffed in his locker, the call to the school that prompted a lockdown, huddling in the corner of a dark classroom, the cold tile leeching heat from his body, and knowing that if someone got hurt, it would be all his fault.

“I’m serious, Spence. We don’t have other options if this doesn’t work.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” The back of his neck grew hot and prickly like it had whenever he was awakened in the small hours of the day by the creak of the staircase as Dad crept up to bed after spending all night preparing for the extra college courses he was teaching that summer to pay for Spencer’s tuition.

Even with the extra work, it didn’t take a math genius to figure out that Dad’s paycheck was barely enough to send one kid to private school, let alone two. So after two years in a Montessori program his little brother, Theo, who was autistic, had to go to public school for the first time.

Theo had spent his summer stretched out on the living room carpet in front of the TV watching anything and everything with the word planet in the title. Spencer wasn’t sure how well an encyclopedic knowledge of the mating behavior of amphibians (called amplexus, according to Theo) would go over with other eight–year–olds.

“Hey, what’s with the face?” asked Mom. “This is going to be a great year. For both of you,” she added, reaching around to pat Theo on the knee.

Spencer picked his backpack up off the floor and squeezed it to his chest. He reached out to open the door when Mom said, “Are you sure you want to keep that there?” She pointed at theI’m here, I’m queer, get over it pin on the front pocket.

Spencer’s fingers brushed over the pin. He’d had the same conversation with Aiden over the phone last night.

“Think of it as a test,” Aiden had said. “If someone makes a big deal out of it, you’ll know to steer clear. Besides, how else will you find the other queers?”

“I’m just saying,” continued Mom, “it’s a bit . . . provocative for your day one. Why don’t you wait and see how the QSA meeting goes first? That’s today, right?”

Spencer nibbled his bottom lip. Last night he had agreed with Aiden, but now, seeing the glittery, rainbow letters sparkling in broad daylight, the idea of walking into the building with it on felt like sticking a target on his back. Sure, Oakley might brag about being the most liberal school in the county—-after all, that’s why they’d chosen it—-but it was still in rural Ohio, where just that morning they’d passed by half a dozen churches, one of which had a sign that said:Don’t be so open–minded your brains fall out.

He undid the clasp and tucked the pin in his backpack, hoping Aiden didn’t ask him about it when they debriefed after school.

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“All right, do you know where you’re going?” asked Mom.

“I think so,” he mumbled.

“If you’re not sure, you need to ask for directions.”

“I know.” He tried to keep the tinge of annoyance out of his voice. When Mom got anxious, she tended to treat him like a baby. But this was a big day for all of them.

“Here,” said Mom. She rolled down Spencer’s window, and leaned over him, calling, “Hey, you with the bike!”

Spencer slouched lower in his seat as several kids, including the boy on the dirt bike, turned to stare at them.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

The boy on the bike reversed, rolling backward to the car and stopping outside Spencer’s window.

“I’m sorry about cutting you off earlier, ma’am. I didn’t want to be late.” His voice was low and gravelly and muffled inside his retro motocross helmet.

“That’s quite all right,” said Mom, clearly charmed by his slight Appalachian twang. Her own accent, courtesy of a childhood in West Virginia, came out stronger. “This is my son Spencer. He’s new this year.”

“Nice to meet you.” The boy stuck a gloved hand through the window. The worn leather was as soft as a lamb’s ear against Spencer’s palm.

“Do you think you could show him to his first class?” asked Mom.

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The helmet visor hid the boy’s expression, but Spencer imagined the amusement in his face at being asked to play babysitter. “It’s okay—-” he began, longing to turn around, go home, and try again tomorrow, but then the boy lifted off his helmet and Spencer’s words died in his throat.

He was cute—-all farm boy tan in a navy polo and Wrangler’s. But what really made Spencer’s insides feel like he’d just been dematerialized and rematerialized in a transporter was that this kid, with his brown eyes and megawatt smile currently aimed right at Spencer, was a dead ringer for Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Spencer’s nightly ritual was watching Star Trek with his dad, who would disown him, not as a son but as a fellow Trekkie, if he knew that the only reason he put up with the cheesy special effects was because of his teeny–tiny crush on acting ensign, wunderkind, Wesley Crusher.

Mom gave him a little nudge. “I have to go put Theo on the bus. Have a good day, sweetie.”

Spencer climbed out of the car, careful not to trip over himself, and slammed the door behind him. Did she have to call him sweetie? In front of him? What was wrong with bud? Or sport? Bike Boy’s parents probably didn’t call him sweetie, especially not at school.

He waved them off, watching the Subaru disappear around the corner, and trying to ignore the hollow feeling in his chest.

“So, what grade are you in?” asked the boy, parking his bike and waiting for Spencer on the sidewalk.

Spencer’s thoughts became all tangled up in his head as he tried to shape them into words.

“Are you a first year?” Bike Boy prompted.

“No,” said Spencer, a little too forcefully. He pulled himself up to his not very tall height of five feet. He wasn’t insecure about it, not really, but it would be a long year if everyone,especially cute boys, thought he was a middle schooler who got lost on his way to class. “I’m a sophomore.”

“Cool, me too.”

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He followed Bike Boy up the path to the gated entrance. On the way the boy waved to a couple kids and high–fived another, but he didn’t introduce Spencer. Then again, what would he say?This is the kid whose mom almost ran me over and then made me walk him to class? Not exactly the first impression Spencer wanted.

“Let me guess, you were kicked out of your old school for talking too much.” Bike Boy shot Spencer a wide grin. His two front teeth overlapped slightly, which Spencer found oddly endearing considering that most of his friends had been put in braces as soon as they hit double digits.

Spencer searched for something witty to say back. Something to show Bike Boy that he wasn’t a complete weirdo, but his words got lost again.

The smile on Bike Boy’s face slipped off. “Wait, were you actually kicked out? I’m sorry, I—-”

“I wasn’t kicked out.”

“It was just a joke.”

“I know,” said Spencer, growing frustrated that even the most basic of conversations left him flustered.

Not wanting to prolong the agony, he made a decision when they reached the entrance. He knew where he was going. Sort of. He had taken a tour earlier that summer when signing up for classes.

“So what’s your first class?” asked Bike Boy.

He opened his mouth to respond when someone going past pushed him from behind, and he fell into Bike Boy, who reached out a hand to steady him.

Spencer pulled back his arm like he’d been burned. “It’s okay. I know where I’m going. But thanks for your help.”

Bike Boy searched his face as if trying to see if he was telling the truth. “Are you sure?”

Spencer nodded, scuffing his foot against the floor.

“All right, then. I’ll see you around, I guess,” said Bike Boy, his voice lilting slightly like he was asking a question. He hitched his backpack higher and turned to join the swarm of students on their way to class.

Spencer watched him leave, not with relief, but with something that felt a little like guilt. Maybe he should be a touch nicer to the guy who had offered to help him, despite narrowly escaping death at the wheels of his mother’s Subaru. Hell, Spencer didn’t even know who he was.

Before he could stop himself, he called out, “Wait, what’s your name?”

Bike Boy turned and flashed Spencer a smile. “Justice. Justice Cortes.”

Justice Cortes. Spencer silently mouthed the name before another wave of students knocked into him. He shook his head. The last thing he needed was to think about Justice Cortes, or any boy, really.

What he needed was to keep his distance. If he didn’t get too close to people, they wouldn’t find out his secret. If they didn’t find out, they couldn’t use it against him. Nobody at Oakley knew he was transgender.

Spencer needed to keep his head down, study hard, and escape Apple Creek, population 1,172, where the only traffic jams were caused by tractors and Amish buggies.

But first he’d have to survive PE.

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After a few wrong turns, he finally found the locker rooms just as the warning bell rang.

When he opened the door the nauseating stench of body spray mixed with floral air freshener blasted him in the face, invading his nostrils and making him light-headed.

Spencer hovered awkwardly at the door as a few stragglers in various stages of undress glanced up at him from the wooden benches lining the room. Maybe he should change in the nurse’s bathroom like Ms. Greene, his guidance counselor, had suggested. Private stall, a door that locked, and nobody who’d snap him in half like a twig if given the chance. But then someone might wonder why he didn’t change with the rest of them. First rule of passing: Don’t be different.

He found an empty corner and untied his shoes, avoiding eye contact. He wiggled his toes as a chill from the concrete floor seeped through his socks. After a minute the only sounds in the locker room were the thumping of his heartbeat and the dripping of a leaky faucet.

Alone at last, he jumped into action, wriggling out of his jeans and pulling on shorts from his backpack. He tugged on his T–shirt, grateful, not for the first time, that he hadn’t needed top surgery or to suffer through wearing a binder. Starting hormone blockers at thirteen prevented too much growth and almost one year on testosterone replaced whatever fat there was with smooth muscle.

The late bell rang and he slipped into sneakers, shoved his clothes and backpack into a locker, and hurried out the door.

With its towering oak trees and ivy–covered walls, the Oakley School looked impressive on the outside. But inside, the lemony scent of disinfectant and the squeak of his shoes against the linoleum as he jogged down the hallway connecting the locker room to the gym told Spencer that this was more like the charter school Miles Morales attended than the Xavier Institute. The hallway, which had teemed with the hustle and bustle of chattering students five minutes ago, was empty. He snuck into the gym, where a dozen or so boys were flinging foam balls at each other. One sped toward his face, forcing him to duck. Where was the teacher?

“You’re late.”

Spencer jumped and twisted around to see a man in a baseball cap standing beside him. The man wore saggy sweatpants and a ridiculous–looking cardigan with a hood—a hoodigan?—-and had a toothpick dangling from his mouth.

“Are you Coach Schilling?” he asked, slightly out of breath. “Sorry, I—-”

“Name?” Coach Schilling cut him off.

“Spencer Harris.”

“Harris, eh?” He surveyed his clipboard, rolling the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.

Sweat pooled clammy and moist under Spencer’s armpits. The principal, Mrs. Dumas, had assured him that his school records would have the correct name and gender, but that didn’t stop the panic rising in his chest. If someone had made a mistake, he’d be outed in his very first class, and all of it—his dad working overtime, Theo switching schools—would be for nothing.

“You’re new,” said Coach Schilling. It wasn’t a question. With a school this small, new students must be easy to spot. “Make sure you’re on time tomorrow.” He pulled a magazine from the back of his sweatpants and began thumbing through it.

“Could you tell me what’s going on?” Spencer sidestepped as another ball hurtled toward him.

Coach Schilling, preoccupied with uncovering the secret to getting rock–hard abs in thirty days, barely glanced up from his magazine and said, “Dodgeball.”

“Right,” said Spencer. “But what should I actually be doing?”

Coach Schilling raised a bushy eyebrow and gave three sharp bursts of his whistle. A hush fell across the gym. Spencer’s face burned as all eyes turned on him. Coach Schilling picked up a loose ball and shoved it in Spencer’s hands. “Take this and throw it over there.” He pointed across the painted line in the center of the gym. “No head shots, no crotch shots. Got it?”

Spencer nodded.

“Good. Have fun.” Coach Schilling blew his whistle to start the game then went to sit on the bleachers with his magazine.

Spencer’s knees knocked together as he joined his teammates. At least if it was a total disaster he could probably duck out after attendance tomorrow and Coach Schilling wouldn’t even notice.

After a few minutes of playing, Spencer’s pent–up anxiety about the first day of school dripped away with the sweat. He might be small, but he was nimble on his feet. He ducked, dived, and even got in a few hits himself, until he was the last man standing on his team and found himself outnumbered, two to one.

His first opponent, a tall boy with shaggy brown hair, chucked a ball at him. Spencer did a clumsy pirouette and it whipped past. He grinned as his teammates called out encouragement from the sidelines.

His second opponent threw a ball, which Spencer caught. His team erupted into cheers as the player moved to the sidelines, out of the game. Now it was Spencer and the shaggy–haired kid.

The boy launched the ball into the air. Spencer used the ball in his hands to deflect it back, then threw his second ball, forcing the kid to defend both shots simultaneously.

To Spencer’s shock, his opponent reached out with hands the size of Spencer’s face and caught both balls. Spencer was out.

Coach Schilling blew his whistle. “All right, game over.”

Spencer threw his head back. He didn’t consider himself a sore loser, but he disliked losing enough to make sure it didn’t happen very often. When it did, it was like a kick to the shins: incredibly painful, but unlikely to cause any real damage.

He forced his grimace into a smile as his opponent approached him, hand outstretched. “Nice moves out there, Twinkle Toes.” He winked at Spencer.

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Spencer’s cheeks ached with the effort of keeping his smile from falling. He took the kid’s hand, squeezing it limply. He couldn’t tell if he was making fun of him or not.

As the kid turned around and started walking back to his buddies, Spencer’s pulse raced. He imagined him telling them what he’d just called Spencer and the nickname spreading around the school. His eyes fell on a ball in front of him, and before his brain caught up with his body, Spencer pulled his leg back and let loose. The ball made a perfect arc in the air before smacking the kid in the back of his head.

The kid whirled around, his cheeks flushed and eyes flashing. Spencer’s brain finally caught up.Oh, shit.

“Who did that?” shouted the kid.

All eyes turned to Spencer. Even the girls playing badminton over on the other side of the gym with their own teacher stopped their game.

The kid rounded on Spencer.

Spencer flinched.

“Did you throw that at me?”

Spencer couldn’t exactly lie, not with a room of witnesses. “No, I kicked it.”

“With your right foot or your left foot?” asked the kid.

“I— What?” asked Spencer, wondering what the hell that had to do with anything.

The kid took another step toward Spencer, who found himself backed up against the wall. “That shot. Did you make it with your right foot or your left?”

“Left. My left.”

To Spencer’s surprise, the boy smiled and turned to Coach Schilling. “Did you see that, Coach?”

Coach Schilling was also staring at Spencer with a curious look on his face. “That I did, son, that I did.” He paused, looking thoughtful. “Macintosh, why don’t you head to the nurse and get an ice pack. You.” He pointed his whistle at Spencer. “Harris, right?”

“Yes, sir,” said Spencer.

“You’re coming with me.”

Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Random House.

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Editor's Picks Book Club Books Pop Culture

“Counting Down with You” by Tashie Bhuiyan is The Tempest Book Club’s May Pick. Here’s the first chapter.

We’re so excited to announce Tashie Bhuiyan’s novel Counting Down with You as The Tempest Book Club May read. Counting Down with You centers around a reserved Bangladeshi teenager, who has twenty-eight days to make the biggest decision of her life after agreeing to fake date her school’s resident bad boy. It’s a story posing the quintessential question: How do you make one month last a lifetime? Read the first chapter below.

As always, we’re collaborating with HarperCollins to give away three copies. Enter here!  

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Airports are the true chaotic evil.

There are too many things happening around me. Too many people in a hurry, too many people lazing around, too many announcements on the overhead speakers, and way too many tearful goodbyes.

Anarchy reigns in my little corner. My mom is on the phone, saying goodbye to her ten million friends, and my dad looks like he already regrets agreeing to go on a month-long trip to Bangladesh with her. Even with my earphones in, JFK Airport is too loud.

I wish I were anywhere else.

My younger brother, Samir, stands next to me as I sip the drink I forced him to buy me at Starbucks. In my other hand, I have a book flipped open to pass the time.

Dadu, my grandma on my paternal side, is busy fretting over my dad’s shirt. “Tuck it in,” she says in Bengali.

I hide my smile behind my drink when he reluctantly tucks in his shirt. Dadu isn’t someone to mess with.

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“How much longer do we have to wait?” I ask Samir, taking out an earphone.

“Who knows,” he says. “Whenever Ma finally gets off the phone.”

That was decidedly unhelpful. “So…never.”

I still think the beginning of March is too chilly to go on vacation, but knowing my parents, plane tickets were probably the cheapest today.

Even though I love my parents, I’m happy to see them leave for a month to visit my mom’s side of the family. I’d never say it out loud, but I would’ve considered breaking a leg or something if they’d tried to make me go with them. Thankfully, high school takes priority over seeing extended family. Being sixteen is a good thing sometimes.

Only sometimes.

My mom finally gets off the phone and gestures to their suitcases. “Come help me, Samir.”
While my brother helps them check in their luggage, I sidle up beside Dadu and lean my shoulder against hers. She’s been at our house for a few days now, helping Ma and Baba pack for their trip.

“Hi Myra,” she says, calling me by my dak nam, my familial name. I prefer my legal name, Karina, the bhalo nam all my friends use, but I don’t mind when Dadu calls me Myra.

“Hey Dadu. Ready for your second Uber ride?” I ask. “Baba said we’re going to have to take another one home.”

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“Another one?” she asks, squeezing my wrist. Her skin is wrinkled from old age and hours of hard work, but it’s warm and familiar. “Do you think they’ll try to kidnap us this time?”

“Inshallah,” I say jokingly. God willing.

Dadu laughs and swats me on the shoulder. “Don’t make silly jokes, Myra.”

I grin. “Sorry.”

It’s nice to have a light and easy conversation like this. We don’t have them often, because my grandma lives year-round in New Jersey. Every summer, I beg my parents to let me stay with her. They usually refuse until Dadu steps in and says she misses me, which is as good as saying Your daughter’s coming to visit me whether you like it or not.

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My parents return carrying only their handbags. My mom is shaking her head at my dad as he shows her something on his phone.

“Samir, you can download things from Netflix on your phone right, right?” my dad asks, looking pointedly at my mom.

Samir nods, but Ma narrows her eyes. “I told you already, I don’t have any space.”

“That’s because you have a million prayer apps on your phone,” Baba says under his breath. “Even Allah would agree one is enough.”

My mom smacks his arm. “Don’t say that in front of the kids. You’re going to set a bad example. You know it’s because of Candy Crush and Facebook. Why don’t you download some movies for me?”

Baba snorts. “You wish. I already downloaded every episode of Breaking Bad. No room for your dramas.”

Ma pinches the bridge of her nose. “We’re all checked in. We have to leave right now if we want to make the flight,” she says to my grandma before she turns to me, her gaze expectant.

My stomach flips uncertainly. I count backward in my head, trying to push away the uncomfortable weight pressing against my heart. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

I know I’m supposed to be emotional. I’m saying goodbye to my parents for a whole month, after all. We’re going to be nearly eight thousand miles apart with a time difference of ten hours.

It’s a lot.

It’s too little. T-28 days.

But they’re still my parents, and I can’t let them go without saying goodbye.

I lean forward to hug my mom. She smells like roses and citrus shampoo. The material of her salwar kameez scratches my cheek. I’m torn between wanting to hug her closer and wanting to be far, far away.

“Bye, Ma,” I say, and then I hug my dad, who smells like some God-awful cologne, probably worn to impress my mother’s relatives. I smile and brush some lint off his shoulders as I step back. “Bye, Baba.”

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“Myra, make sure to call us every day,” my mom says. “Dadu might be staying with you, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to do whatever you want. Make sure to behave properly and try to spend more time studying than reading these silly little books.”

My smile strains. I feel like a dog being told to roll over.

I have to remind myself she’s saying it with my best interests at heart. “Of course, Ma.”

My mom turns to my brother and starts cooing, brushing back his hair. I bite the inside of my cheek and try not to scowl. Naturally, she has nothing condescending to say to him. “Tell Dadu whenever you’re hungry, okay? She’ll make you whatever you want, Samir.”

“Stop it, Ma,” my brother says, batting her hands away. He’s grinning a hundred-watt smile that’s hard to look at for more than one reason. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled at my parents like that.

My dad steps forward, gaining my attention. His expression is only slightly easier to look at.

“Keep us updated on your grades, Myra,” he says, squeezing my shoulder. “It’s junior year. You know you need all As if you want to become a doctor.”

And what if I don’t want to? What then?

“Of course, Baba,” I say, because there isn’t any other answer. “I will.”

Between one blink and the next, they’re walking toward security, leaving the three of us alone. I can still hear them bickering about Netflix.

“Come on, Myra,” Dadu says, nudging my shoulder. I look away from my parents’ retreating backs. “Let’s find an Uber.”

“I’ve got it,” Samir says, whipping out his phone and waving me off as we start to walk to the exit.

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I roll my eyes, unsurprised he wants to take the lead. I can’t help but cast another glance over my shoulder at my parents, but Dadu gently tugs my ear.

“So what’s your book about?” she asks.

I turn to her in surprise. I closed the book after my mom’s rebuke, but the story is still fresh in my mind. “You want to know?”

“Of course,” Dadu says, smiling warmly at me. “You can tell me during the Uber ride.”

Something dislodges in my chest as we approach the exit. “That sounds great.”

When I look back this time, there’s no sign of my parents anywhere.

Even though I know it’s wrong, all I feel is relief.

Excerpted with the permission of Inkyard Press/HarperCollins.

Celebrities Pop Culture

This is why Riz Ahmed’s PDA in the Oscars shocked the Brown Muslim community

Riz Ahmed made headlines after last week’s Oscars gala, but not for the reason you think.

Rizwan Ahmed, more famously known as Riz Ahmed, made history at the 93rd Oscars as the first Muslim to ever be nominated for Best Actor for his role as Ruben Stone in “The Sound Of Metal”. The announcement of his nomination was lauded by the Muslim world, with Pakistani celebrities tweeting in their congratulations. The community considered this to be a shared victory, as the impact of his recognition would trickle down and surely help pave the path for more inclusive storylines and casting in Hollywood.   

Learning that a person of Pakistani descent was being recognized for his acting struck a chord with me. As someone who’s accustomed to seeing Indian actors hold a monopoly on South Asian representation (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh lumped together) in international media, this felt surreal. 

However, despite his notable achievements, what made his name trend globally on social media was this 30-second clip of him stopping to “fix” his wife, Fatima’s hair on the red carpet.

With his name trending on Twitter, and so many people lamenting how they didn’t have “a Riz Ahmed”, writing articles dubbing them “couple goals” or just expressing how jealous they were of Fatima, let us dissect why a small moment of shared intimacy had such a profound impact on so many people. 

To unpack why such a simple gesture had everyone talking, we should first recall the decades-long anti-Muslim propaganda so conveniently threaded into Hollywood films. Muslim men post 9/11 have overwhelmingly occupied negative roles, with a long-running joke about Hollywood having no trouble finding brown actors to be cast as terrorists. Most movie plotlines since the early 2000s have only served to further propagate hatred towards the Muslim community by typecasting them as terrorists. The general perception of brown Muslims due to exposure to such media has been empirically proven to result in promoting violence towards them.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, where most of the directors are male, masculinity is defined almost exclusively through the male gaze. “Soft traits” such as empathy and kindness are implicitly discouraged and the prevailing message of what it means to be a man is polluted by such regressive ideas of masculinity.

Popular dramas tend to shy away from social upheaval and stick to the script of upholding a patriarchal narrative. It is more common to see domestic violence romanticized on-screen instead of real romance (because that would be crossing a line, of course). This results in a sickening majority of the population holding warped views about acceptable displays of affection in relationships. 

It is more common to see domestic violence romanticized on-screen instead of real romance

Desi culture prides itself on being more conservative than “the West”. Many of us have grown up without really ever seeing our parents be openly affectionate towards each other. We are taught that there is inherent shame in expressing our feelings. This has grown to have a lasting impact on generations of brown kids. This mentality criminalizes intimacy while considering the acknowledgement of romantic feelings to be scandalous and disrespectful instead of just human.

This isn’t the first time Riz Ahmed and Fatima Farheen have had everyone talking about their relationship. When the news of their coffee shop meet-cute, scrabble tile proposal, and private, mid-lockdown wedding broke out, people were quick to call their story a real-life rom-com. This is especially significant because the majority of the people who feel represented by them belong to a culture of arranged marriages. To this day, the idea of families not being heavily involved in the matchmaking process is foreign to South Asians. An individual choosing their spouse is said to have had a “love marriage” (the word “love” having to be specified to add to the gossip-worthy nature of the news), with the subtle implication of it being a detraction from the norm, where love comes after marriage.

These factors combined, help explain why Desi Twitter and so many international publications reacted the way they did.

Riz is a Muslim of Pakistani descent, and despite existing at the intersection of both identities, he chooses to embrace his own definition of masculinity. This results in the simplest of gestures having the greatest impact.

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Life Stories Weddings

Being engaged for two months made me realize I don’t want a marriage

The idea of marriage and a wedding was never a question of if, but when. I grew up in a fairly conservative Pakistani household and I was very close to my mother. She has been my idol for all of my life, and I have wanted to live up to the image of the amazing woman who raised me. She came from a complicated family background, but she put her all into giving my siblings and me a stable upbringing and all the opportunities we could ever ask for. Somewhere along the way, I decided that she was the kind of person I needed to grow up to be, a kind-hearted mother who loves her children. Getting married and having children seemed like the future I should work towards, the ultimate goal in a way. 

But of course, it didn’t end there. I grew up, like many young women, in love with Disney princess movies. Something about the fairytale stories of a young woman meeting a dashing prince, going on these fantastical adventures before ending with a huge, magical wedding just spoke to me. I spent most of my life believing in these dreams, thinking somehow that marriage and children would be the big thing I strived towards. 

When my older sister received her first proposal, she was scared. She was concerned if they would be a good fit as a couple and worried over all these details of their life together that I couldn’t even understand. If anything, I was excited for her. This was it, her big wedding! I couldn’t care less about who he was as a person. I went ahead and planned all the details for her potential wedding. I pulled out all the stops for this supposed wedding, despite the fact that she never agreed to the engagement, and later went on to reject his proposal. I still have the document I typed up with pictures and wedding details. Each time some other guy came to propose to my sister, I would pull it out and add to it.

As the younger daughter, I’m not expected to get engaged or married until my older sister does. Add to that the fact that I was a med school hopeful for most of my time at university, and everyone assumed that I would not marry until later in life. I was fine with living vicariously through my sister until then.

Then at 22, I accidentally ended up engaged. It was a stupid move, and every friend I spoke to tried to warn me against it, but I didn’t care. In my family, an engagement is essentially the dating period. We don’t ever enter a relationship without the intention of marriage. But even considering that, this engagement was pretty casual. He was a friend of a friend. He didn’t even live close enough for the two of us to visit or meet up. In fact, during the two months of the relationship, I never once met him in person. We just talked over the phone and texted, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this wasn’t for me.

We met right around my birthday. He sent me this sweet and sappy message about how he was so glad to have me in his life. I felt so uncomfortable that my only reaction was to laugh out loud when I read it. No one understood it when I tried to explain how the message made my skin crawl. The more serious he got, the more I felt sick to my stomach. It’s not a feeling I can really put into words, but all the talk about our future, living together, and the hypothetical children I thought I wanted didn’t sit right with me when the words and ideas were coming from him.

But I still didn’t want to back out. I pulled out those plans for my sister’s wedding and began reworking them for my wedding. That feeling kept me in this relationship. But I knew it couldn’t last forever. He started getting clingy, he wanted to talk to me more. In hindsight, he was justified in asking for more of my time, but I wasn’t interested in him enough to care about his needs. I only saw him as becoming a hassle, someone I would have to tolerate instead of someone I would happily spend the rest of my life with. I once even told my mother that I’m more interested in trading him for a robot husband instead – I could have my wedding without dealing with another person in the mix.

It got messier after that, with several petty arguments left and right. There was one fight that he thought he could win by giving me the silent treatment. Unfortunately for him, that silence was everything I wanted. The next time we spoke, it fell into yet another argument. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back and the whole thing was called off the next day. I happily moved on, packing up all my wedding plans and studying for the upcoming exams.

It’s been over a year since my engagement ended. I’ve spoken to several other potential suitors and it’s always the same. I stick it out for the idea of a pretty, magical wedding where I get to be a princess for the event. But inevitably, things break down and I move on to the next wedding plan.

I like the idea of love and romance. It sounds beautiful. But somehow, when actually faced with the realities of it and coupled with the responsibilities of marriage, I crack. I’ve never found myself capable of caring about these men the way they claim to care for me; they remain faceless entities I use to check off on my list of goals. It sounds callous, but it’s not that I want someone else to suffer for my little fantasy wedding. I don’t think I have the emotional energy to spare on someone else and I don’t know if I ever will.

And maybe that’s okay. I’m fulfilled by my family and my career aspirations. I am happy with life. And one day I’ll earn enough money and throw myself that big wedding and be my own princess.

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The Ultimate Guide to Dating Love + Sex Love Advice

Here’s why your single friend always gives the best relationship advice

Not to toot my own horn, but I think I give excellent dating advice. However, if you were to ask me for my dating credentials, I would hand you a blank piece of paper.

For some, being serially single is not a choice. But for me, it’s a lifestyle.

I have been single for all of my adult life, and I thoroughly enjoy the independence and solitude—which I know freaks people out. While some single people date, I do not.

So how does this make me—and other serially single people—expert at giving dating advice?

Let me let you in on a few secrets of the trade.

The first secret is not actually a secret but a well-known fact: Almost all forms of content are about love.

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Even content that exists outside of traditional romance genres usually includes love and sex. For example, that action movie you just watched, was there a romantic arc in it?


Most movies, television shows, and books have provided blueprints for all kinds of relationships. A lot of these blueprints have helped me understand what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like.

I’ve also read more than a fair share of fanfiction. Honestly, when you asked for my dating credentials, I could have sent you the link to AO3 and, if you’ve ever read any fanfiction, you’d have immediately understood why this gives me so much credible dating insight.

Even being someone who grew up alongside the Internet has made many of us mini experts on random topics. Most of us didn’t necessarily seek this information out; it just appeared on our Tumblr, Twitter, or Instagram feeds.

Here’s the real secret: All relationships are the same.

Whether platonic or romantic, open or closed, monogamous or polyamorous, all relationships are made of the same ingredients. The dictionary definition of relationship describes the connection between people. And we all have experience with that. I may not date, but I do have lots of friends.

Some of my friendships have failed while others have thrived. This has helped me gain insight on communication, boundaries, and respect—insight that applies to both platonic and romantic relationships.

I’ve also watched most of my loved ones experience all kinds of different relationships. As you can imagine, being single gives those of us who are serially single plenty of free time to observe other people’s relationships—and, if you’re a Virgo like me, judge these relationships in order to perfect the advice we give to those who may (or may not) ask.

Just because your single friends haven’t dated anyone—casually, seriously, or at all—doesn’t mean we’re not familiar with the territory. All of our observations add to our dating advice credentials.

In fact, we’re kind of like therapists.

Because we’re removed from romantic situations, we have clarity uncolored by personal bias and experiences.

Most importantly, your serially single friends arguably have the most experience with prioritizing themselves and their needs. This makes us adept at keeping your best interests top of mind if you come to us for romantic advice.

We want you to be yourself and to love who you are. We will encourage you to take the time to learn more about your wants, needs, and goals before diving further into romance.

The best advice I can give as a serially single person is to try out being single. Being single has a lot of perks, the top of which is that it can give you the time, space, and energy to explore you who are.

I’m not saying everyone should be single. I’m just saying don’t knock it till you try it.

And, don’t worry. I promise I won’t say “I told you so” when you realize being single helped you become a better romantic partner.

Happy dating!

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The Ultimate Guide to Dating Love + Sex Love Advice

Did my therapist just compare dating to applying to a job?

Like many people in 2020, I found myself back on the job market. This meant scrolling endlessly—and swiping left often—through job listing after job listing. It was a tedious process and one that I found myself regaling to my therapist during many of our sessions.

While I was deterred by the countless lack of responses and emails starting with, “we regret to inform you…,” my therapist had a more positive outlook on the situation. They noted that job hunting is pretty similar to dating.

I was shocked—and a little disgusted. How could they equate something that should be fun with something that is the opposite of fun? However, the more I reflected, the more I realized my therapist was on to something.

Both dating and job searching have ups and downs, good experiences and terrible experiences. Both offer opportunities to learn about ourselves, our goals, and our wants and needs.

The point of dating and job hunting is to find the best match for us, often by presenting a more polished version of ourselves. Just like in job interviews, we probably shouldn’t go into detail on the woes of bacne or the injustice of fans’ treatment of Zayn post-1D. This isn’t first, second, or even third date material—although it could be for the right person.

Dating is about finding someone whose weird meshes with your weirdness, and the same can be said for job searching. Managers are looking to hire people who are not only qualified but who will be a good fit for the company.

During my job hunt process, I took a fashion risk and wore a leather skirt to an interview. My interviewers were not enthused, and I did not get the job. While it stung at the time, I’m grateful that I wasn’t hired; I would not be a good fit with a company so adamantly anti leather skirts. Jokes aside, this company cared more about what I was wearing than what I was bringing to the table. Their weird did not mesh with my weird and, looking back, that’s totally okay.

This isn’t always the mindset we have when dating. Sometimes it’s easier to hold on to past hurts and rejections. But if someone doesn’t want me for me, then thank goodness they were honest about it! Who wants to end up with a long-term partner that doesn’t even like them?

In a peculiar way, job hunting helped me realize that I don’t have to take dating—or any relationship, whether platonic or romantic—so personally. As the saying goes, you win some and you lose some. But, as a different saying goes, it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.

I think my therapist compared job hunting to dating to encourage me to find the value in the experience I was living through. Being too doom and gloom while job searching prevented me from taking in the sights along the journey. By comparing finding a job with dating, my therapist reminded me that dating can be fun. And even when it’s not fun, at least bad dates give us a story to tell our friends.

While I don’t think we should approach dating in the same way we do job hunting, I do think there are lessons to be learned from both. Admittedly, I wish the lesson was to write your cover letter like you would a dating profile. If it was as easy as that, all of my cover letters would start with: DTW (down to write)/ freaky grammar fetish (oxford commas and em-dashes excite me).

I like to believe the right match(es) for each of us is out there. Even if we have to apply to the partner role multiple times, and even if we discover that role is purely platonic. Just like life, dating is about the journey. Although, unlike life, dating is also about the destination. But that’s a different article.

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