Modeling vulnerability

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” —Zora Neale Hurston

This quote has been on my mind recently. It is in the epigraph of a recent read: Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House, a title which also appeared in the acknowledgments of the book at hand today. The recognition reads: “Thank you to Carmen Maria Machado for In the Dream House. Thank you for breaking silence, and allowing so many others to do the same.”

The book in question, When We Were Sisters by Fatimah Asghar, is the debut novel from Chicago’s beloved multi-hyphenate creative. The story follows a trio of orphaned sisters and is (mostly) narrated by the youngest, Kausar. When we meet her, immediately following the death of her only remaining parent, she is four years old and surrounded by a sea of wailing Aunties—grief vampires whose faces all “blend together, until they become a soup of Aunties.” When we leave her, she is 27 with distant lovers who “mess in [her] dreams into a soup of faces.” The story both begins and ends in the murky waters of the human condition. In the interim, her character never stops clawing for connection and self-discovery.

When We Were Sisters by Fatimah AsgharOne World, hardcover, 352 pp., $27 penguinrandomhouse.com 

The antagonist of this tale is Uncle (his name is censored throughout the book: henceforth referred to as Uncle) leading a double life in the wake of multiple failed business schemes and a marriage. He sees in the three sisters, the children of his own sister, an opportunity for extortion of government welfare support checks and spiritual advancement in his Muslim faith. With no intention of ever truly parenting them, he tricks them into living under his guardianship, promising his estranged wife “it’ll be like they never existed.” Although there are glimmers of his humanity throughout the story (perhaps only through the hopeful eye of the narrator), he is almost exclusively abusive and/or absent—a totem of toxic masculinity who keeps them locked away in squalid apartments throughout their entire childhoods.

Credit: Courtesy One World

As they are shuffled from one depressing apartment to the next, Uncle and other unsavory characters encroach upon the sisters’ spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being. The politics of space are beautifully explored: those who are gobbling up more (Uncle, random roommates he has saddled the girls with, and the girls’ romantic interests) contrast with the three shrinking, caged sisters. Throughout the novel—as the siblings are spoken over, ignored, abused, neglected, and coerced to lie to protect adults—they harrowingly adapt to each scenario by taking up less space at their own expense. Says Kausar of this tactic: “We’re all shrinking into ourselves. Practicing how small we can be…I can become the air. I can disappear entirely.” Kauser is also, throughout the story, a gender shape-shifter who identifies as both boy and girl, a maybe-girl, a not-girl, someone who can be “made into a girl” to satisfy the needs of another.

Parts of the narrative (lines of dialogue, details of an interaction, and, as with Uncle, names) are intentionally obscured with intense, black censorship boxes or entire pages or blank lines set off by parentheses. This could indicate silence, something thought but not spoken aloud, redacted information, or something too painful to be shared. This device was particularly breathtaking on two vertically-set pages with the opposing headings, “When adults speak to me,” and, “What the adults mean.” By gymnastically turning the book to and fro, reading from the left side diagram to the right (in brackets below), the reader can piece together the sing-song, dismissive platitudes adults offer to these children who are confused and grieving. These canned responses, repeated ad nauseam, include:

Your father was [at the wrong place] [at the wrong time].

At least he’s in a [better place] now. At least he’s no longer [hurting]. Finally, he is [at rest].

Credit: Erin Toale

Pages poetically laced with profanity tell a story of suffering without respite for the three siblings. The relationships and power dynamics between them ebb and flow, and interactions as they grow offer stark insight into the intimate ways that only sisters can both love and also hurt each other. A joyful, maternal moment with the eldest sister, Noreen, leaves Kauser reflecting “you’re held, you’re held, you’re held.” When Kausar’s long-simmering rage at the collective trauma and strained bonds between them finally overcomes her, she snaps at her middle sister, Aisha, “No one loves you. You’re the reason they’re gone,” realizing immediately that she has said the unsayable regarding their perpetual abandonment.

Asghar lyrically describes the ways unprocessed grief and trauma manifest in the three sisters: these moments are often where the novel’s fantastic or supernatural subtexts are explored. As a way to cope with the first in a string of disappointing living arrangements, they “once-upon-a-time” themselves into an imaginary better life. They conduct a midnight, candle-lit ceremony hoping to reincarnate their parents (accidentally leading to a brief connection with a set of surrogate parents). At times, emotions disfigure the trio and turn them into paranormal forms: brain-eating zombies, a fused and six-eyed monster body, with Kauser herself frequently embodying a vengeful, smoke-breathing scorpion. The metaphors Asghar employs to describe Kauser’s dissociative episodes, as well as her sexual and queer awakenings, are as gut-punch effective as they are numerous. There is also some timeline-jumping, narrator-switching, but I won’t say any more about that lest I give away one of my favorite aspects of the book. 

In exploring difficult topics and complex emotions (including shame, pain, and grief), this book thoughtfully calls attention to the lack of cultural representations of abuse and exploitation—especially those told from a marginalized point of view. In sharing this story—and by sitting in discomfort with the reader—Asghar models vulnerability in writing and calls for greater criticality of the stories we consume and the societal structures we support. It is important we pay attention to whose stories are being told, and to tell our own stories, lest “they kill us and say we enjoyed it.” As Uncle frequently threatens Kasour, a queer, Muslim American minor: “who are they going to believe? [me] or [you]?” 

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