When Fatimah Asghar pictures her father alive, she imagines him ordering a pizza. “At the pizza shop he eyes pepperoni. . . . he orders a slice with no sauce,” a young Asghar observes. Asghar, a Chicago-based poet, writer, and artist, is the child of two Pakistani-Muslim refugees, both of whom died by the time she was five. Her work—which includes the breathtaking poetry collection If They Come For Us and the Emmy-Nominated web series Brown Girls—often centers around the themes of queerness, family, and the immigrant experience. What makes Asghar’s work special is her ability to imbue beauty and nostalgia into any moment, be it something completely mundane like ordering a pizza or a period filled with chaos and dread, like a family tragedy. This skill of Asghar’s is on full display in her debut novel When We Were Sisters.
When We Were Sisters follows three Pakistani siblings living in the United States: Noreen, the smart and responsible eldest; Aisha, the angry and unpredictable middle child; and Kausar, the youngest, and the book’s narrator. Parts of the book’s premise borrow from Asghar’s life: as the story opens, the sibling’s mother has been dead for many years, and their father is murdered not long into the book. After their father’s death, the siblings are forced to live with their Uncle, a man neither of the siblings ultimately trusts. Promising them a life filled with adventure at a “zoo,” he instead takes them to a cramped apartment with bird cages lining the walls where they are confined to their rooms, isolated from the outside world except for school, and often left for days at a time without food or money. What follows is the tale of an intense bond between sisters: caught between American culture and their family’s Pakistani background with no elders to guide them, the girls turn to each other to learn how to navigate a foreign land and culture.
The novel has all the marks of a beautiful Fatimah Asghar production. Like many of the poems in If They Come For Us, Asghar’s prose in her novel is lyric, gentle, and fierce. Like her web series Brown Girls, the novel is committed to an honest portrayal of the lives of queer women of color. What separates When We Were Sisters from Asghar’s past work though is not its questions about womanhood or even childhood, but its inquisitions into gender itself. In various moments the novel is asking: how can we achieve the strong bonds of sisterhood without adhering to the limitations of cis womanhood or girlhood?
This exploration of gender is seen most clearly through the youngest child, Kausar. From the novel’s onset, Kausar’s commitment to womanhood was tenuous. When the Aunties call the siblings “girls,” Kausar stiffens: “Weak. Useless. Unwanted. I want to be as far away from the word as possible.” When Aisha suggests that the trio could instead be brothers, Kausar is elated: “Brothers: a warm word, welcoming even, closer to what we are than how they talk about us downstairs.” Kausar’s questioning of her identity continues at school, where gendered play makes her feel like an outcast. She describes recess where the girls gossip and the boys play football. But “being neither, being both,” Kausar reflects, “I sit by myself in the outfield watching the dust of the baseball diamond rise, its own cloud.”
As the story continues and Kausar gets older, she associates less with ideas of traditional womanhood and instead seems more interested in learning how to be a man. One of the book’s most disturbing and evocative scenes occurs when Kausar’s classmate Ben begs Kausar to repeatedly punch him. “I hurt you, hit me,” he says, “I made you cry so make me cry.” Hesitant at first, Kausar quickly begins to enjoy the attack. Kausar is not a violent person but instead is drawn to this dance of fists because she believes it might make her more masculine. “With each crack of my fist into his chest,” she narrates, “he teaches me how to be a man.” This is not to say that violent masculinity is the only one that Kausar is drawn to. Aside from her sisters, the character Kausar loves most in the novel is Meemoo, a man who informally adopts the siblings with his wife, who the girls call “Aunty.” Meemo and Aunty first discover the children when they are performing a seance to bring back their dead father; the bond between the five of them is instantaneous and warm. To Kausar, Aunty is a treasured presence, but Meemoo is a fascination: he cooks traditional meals for the siblings, rough houses sweetly with them, and even saves up to buy a car to take the young girls on road trips. Though Kausar’s initiation into manhood may have been through physical violence, what solidified her curiosity toward masculinity was watching the ways it could be imbued with tenderness.
Amid conservative news outlets constantly describing trans youth as deviant or confused—not to mention the government systematically stripping trans youth of the right to gender-affirming care—Kausar’s gentle, natural exploration of her gender feels refreshingly tender. The titular trio in Asghar’s novel proves that the bonds of sisterhood can transcend time, place, and even the confines of gender.
by Fatima Asghar
Published on October 18, 2022