Strong own-voices debut


By Christine Yunn-Yu Sun

A review of Sunburnt Veils by Sara Haghdoosti

This is the second in a series of six reviews featuring the 2022 Readings Young Adult Book Prize.

Question: What is wrong with the following paragraph?

“The [cross], for me, was a redirection, even a second chance and because of that it was a reminder that what made us worthy, special even as humans was our imperfection. That I would make mistakes and still be loved. I needed that reassurance to think about changing the world, to believe that I could do big, bold, scary things – and that even if none of it worked out, I’d still be worthy, still be loved.”

Answer: Nothing.

But what if the word “cross” in the brackets is replaced with “hijab”? Will your response be any different?

As the first-person narrator Tara in Sunburnt Veils reveals, wearing the hijab “felt like a superpower, giving me X-ray goggles to see into people’s souls. I could glimpse people’s real selves when they saw me, before social norms closed over their faces, transforming panic into polite smiles, or fear into angry sneers”.

More importantly, Tara wears the hijab to honour her faith and family, even when her own parents choose not to in order to survive in a society where those with different appearances are so often alienated, abused and attacked that victim-blaming becomes common.

On her first day as student of a prestigious university, Tara is accused of being a potential terrorist and causing a bomb threat. While her accuser tearfully claims “I was just scared and I shouldn’t have to be worried that I’m not safe all the time”, it is Tera who is publicly interrogated

and has to claim back her personal belongings from the police station.

Instead of putting her head down and waiting for all the humiliation and gossip to go away, Tara decides to run for Student Union Board and make the university a better place. In her words: “The promise of this place is that when you walk in the gates, this community will help you become the best you can be.” That is, the university – as a microcosm of our society – is supposed to be about “learning and curiosity”, where you can “show up, stand up for what’s important, even if you’re not sure how it’ll turn out”.

Tara’s journey is one of self-discovery, of searching for and finding connection without ever doubting her own sense of worth. Like the other strong female characters in this story, she chooses to create change rather than waiting for someone else to make it happen for them.

Sunburnt Veils is also a critique of our “natural” ways of seeing the IDEA of others – what we IMAGINE they represent – rather than who they really are. Thanks to debut author Sara Haghdoosti, we get to better understand the true nature and significance of diversity as much more than a politically correct word. Highly recommended.