Poet, screenwriter, and now debut author Fatimah Asghar follows the release of their highly-acclaimed poetry collection If They Come For Us with their new novel When We Were Sisters, out this week. Focusing on the lives of three orphaned Muslim American sisters, and told from the perspective of the youngest Kausar, When We Were Sisters contends with themes of poverty, gender, and abuse. It is at once a difficult read and one that is difficult to put down. The novel was shortlisted for the National Book Award prior to its release.
Asghar blends poetry with their storytelling to layer the narrative with historical poignancy. Noreen, Aisha, and Kausar are stuck in an irrevocably bad situation: their mother died years ago, their father murdered, and they are now wards of the state, fostered by their withholding uncle. Where there should be family responsibility and compassion, there is nothing. Instead the girls are forced from a young age to live alone. They are raised on scraps. Any love they find is removed from them. Their conflicts range from the petty gripes of sisters to the real concerns of violence and hunger.
The visceral reality they exist in makes the book compelling if brutal. The lyricism employed in asides from the dead parents pulls the reader away from the main plot. They seem to operate more as a link between Aghar’s past and present work rather than needed interludes. The erstwhile question of who is speaking the poems proves confusing rather than alleviating – do these poems come from Kausar’s false memories or are they spoken from beyond?
There is strange merit in how Asghar depicts her villain, Uncle, whose real name is redacted through the novel with a black box over it. He is at once cartoonish with the ways in which he holds the girls at bay – stashing them in an apartment with other tenants far away from his own family, never adopting them so he can reap payment from the state – but startlingly familiar. He hides behind his good deeds in front of others and happily collects donations for the girls’ care from other mosque-goers, covertly keeping the money for himself. He’s bent on impressing his cold wife with his ability to earn, letting that drive him away from what is sensible, logical, or even human. What might have been a caricature instead feels like a member of the community.
The story ends in a somewhat expected way with a time jump. The gender questions Kausar faces throughout the novel are seamlessly resolved in adulthood. The sisters were pulled apart by their own needs but come together after years for a funeral. It seems less resolved now despite the tidiness.
When We Were Sisters is a much-needed shattering of domestic myths, complication of diaspora literature, and challenge to entrenched class assumptions.