Fatimah Asghar’s debut novel, When We Were Sisters, reads exactly like you want your poems to. It’s vivid, lyrical and taut. A poet, screenwriter and, now, a novelist, Asghar weaves personal history and the struggle for identity in a coming of age story. Much like Asghar, the protagonist, Kausar is femme, queer, Muslim, South Asian and grows up an orphan. Kausar, too, has sisters and is raised in a very complicated way. The surroundings are almost always cold, but at the heart of the rootlessness is pain and love—an abundance of it—between three sisters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I wanted to start by talking about voice, just because of how compelling and lyrical Kausar’s voice is. It also changes—albeit very subtly—as she grows. I want to know how you settled at starting with a child’s voice and having it grow with Kausar?
When I first started writing the book, it kind of came to me as different vignettes and so I would just sit at the computer and keep writing. I didn’t know what I was writing but I would just keep writing and be like, “Okay, that’s one thing or here’s another thing.” It actually didn’t even come to me chronologically. There was a moment where I think one of the first sections I wrote was the one where she’s with Bobby on the sand and the water. I wrote that and then I wrote some of the ones around the bunk bed at the very beginning. So there were really different voices that were coming to me and I was like, “Oh, I wonder what this is or what’s exactly going on?” And then I think I realized that they were the same character at different points in this character’s life. I’m really glad that you asked me this question. You’re the first person who’s commented on the subtle shift in the voice—like how you kind of watched this character grow up and it mimics the voice of the prose and is in the voice of the lyric. And to me, it was just knowing that at this age, this feels like something somebody would say or think or feel or at this age, this feels like that same character. But now they’re a little bit more grown up and they’re a little bit more grown up and they’re a little bit more grown up. So I think for me it was really just kind of seeing the different ways that the character wanted to reveal itself and like what and how that was happening at a specific moment in their life.
I’m so glad you mentioned that you didn’t write the novel in a chronological order, because the shape is very unconventional. There is poetry that’s from the father’s perspective and then the experiences of the sisters are bound by vignettes. So I want to clarify—there was no shape when you were writing it? And every vignette was written in isolation and you just brought it all together?
I think that when I was writing I didn’t always know where it was going. I just kind of let it show me and I let it do what it was doing, which is not necessarily the way that people “tell you to write fiction.” I feel like I’m a very intuitive writer and I trust my intuition when I’m writing it and just let it lead me. The beginning of the book opens in third person. But then the rest of the novel switches to first person and even as I was writing that, I was like, “Will this make sense? Like, will it be able to kind of exist in the same book?” And the thing is yes. Because it does exist. There has to be a way to figure out how to kind of do that and how to allow all of these different voices to exist in this same book to kind of craft and sculpt it in a way where it feels like it’s a journey.
When you write poetry, fiction, and screenplays for TV and short films, do you dive into the same void or reservoir of emotion because at the heart of all these mediums there is just story-telling? Or do you have a distinct approach to each?
It is different for everything. But it is also the same. It is exactly what you’re saying—I’m just telling a story. So how does the story want to be told? How is it coming to me? And how am I honoring the way that it wants to be told? But then it is also different. With screenwriting there’s usually a lot of dialogue and to me those are characters that want to live and breathe through it. And then sometimes there are very deep images and I can see it physically because screenwriting is the blueprint for a film which is a collaborative process between many people. So, you know, there’s like a combination of music, of acting, of image, of the way that the camera is, of the gaze of the camera that kind of allows for that. For a poem sometimes I’m like, “this is a sharp feeling” or “this is very interior” and so I have to allow for that to happen. For a novel, it was so narrative, but it was also deeply lyrical and there were certain stories that I wanted to tell that a single poem or even a collection of poems couldn’t fully contain because it followed a character arc. You know, something that folks who have read parts of When We Were Sisters while I was in the process of writing it, have commented that it feels deeply cinematic and I agree because I think that there’s a lot of potential for it in its cinematic capacity because of the image and the character development. And it also straddles the poetic line because there’s like these really deep poetic moments and moods in it that are not typical to a novel. But I knew that if I were to write a novel, this is what it was going to be. So there’s kind of a way that some of these genres really bleed into each other and inform each other.
In an interview you said, “there is grieving as well as catharsis that happens when writing a book like this. The catharsis happens from the grieving, to really hold the pain that you are trying to cope with.” I want to know what the process of writing looks like? Physically and emotionally? How difficult is it? Do you write it at a specific time or when you feel like you need to get something out? Or are you writing all the time and it’s like this, you know, like a purge. And what is the journey of writing something so emotional and close to home?
That’s such a great question. For me, writing has always felt like a very complicated bodily and spiritual practice. When I was writing If They Come For Us—especially poems on Partition—it was very difficult to write and to get in and to really really feel those emotions and to work through them. But doing that also helped release some things from my body. Like once you acknowledge something and you hold a feeling and you give it weight and you give it its truth and you allow it to communicate to you, there’s a thing on the other side of that. And I think this book was incredibly difficult to write. And so on a practical level sometimes I would show up and write every day and sometimes I couldn’t touch the book because I was so overwhelmed by it. But on those days I was still writing, even though I wasn’t actually writing. Sometimes we reduce the productivity of something to its action. But writing is also thinking and taking care of yourself and reading other people’s work and meditating. So there’s so much writing that isn’t just you being at the table or the computer.
So much of the process is also just acknowledging the emotions and giving it space whether they’re your emotions or, whether they’re your characters. Grief is a story and it’s not the only one and if you don’t allow it to be told, sometimes it becomes the only one. Sometimes a story of your own aloneness becomes the only story when it’s so bottled inside of you and you don’t have a way of really allowing it to be processed and to be sat with and to be felt and to be worked through. And when you do allow for that, sometimes there are things where you start to see all the ways that people were trying to support you or the universe was trying to support you or everything was trying to support you. For example, Kausar desperately wants a family and desperately wants to be loved. And then at the end of the book, we see her family but there are barriers. We see the ways that they’re unable to accept the love that is in their life. because they’re still holding onto so much grief and their grief is warranted.
I think what’s really important, to me, about the process of writing is that it allows you to shed the stories that keep you stuck and it allows you to give it a home. And so the books become the home for the story.
When We Were Sisters
By Fatimah Asghar
Published October 18, 2022
Aliya Farrukh is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @aloo_matar.