In We Have Always Been Here, activist, writer, and photographer Samra Habib writes about her emigration from Pakistan to Canada, her relationship with Islam and the persecution her family faced as members of the Ahmadiyya sect, her arranged marriage to her first cousin, and her journey of discovery and acceptance of her queer identity. If that sounds like a lot to cover in 220 pages, that’s because it’s not covered all that much at all. I would have happily spent more time reading about it, because Habib is a good writer, but unfortunately, I don’t think this is a very good memoir.
Somehow, many of the scenes, from her childhood in Lahore to her high school years to her exploration of her sexuality, feel like a movie montages but somehow even more fleeting. Actually, it doesn’t really read like a BOOK. Each chapter reads more like its own coincidentally sequential blog post, with big life events summarized in throwaway lines and new factoids dropped in later sections that weren’t mentioned earlier, sprinkled in as though we hadn’t explored that time period already.
One particularly egregious instance is when Habib comes to a profound realization about her second marriage: “And I had changed: I barely resembled my former self, the version of me who sought acceptance and security- or was it invisibility – in a heterosexual marriage.” Her former self. From less than a chapter ago, 20 pages earlier.
By then, this had happened. By then, that had happened. So many large events are mentioned in passing after they happened with no deeper analysis of what it was like when they happened.
Habib also repeatedly mentions childhood trauma and emerging from it, but only vaguely alludes to most of the sources of trauma themselves, like possible abuse from her father. The only real knowledge we have is of her arranged marriage to her first cousin, and his burgeoning controlling behaviour. This, of course, isn’t nothing, and we are not owed insight into the details of anyone’s private life. But it did make me feel more like I was reading a Wiki entry about facts about the author’s life, rather than her actual experience of that life.
Looking at what I’ve written, I feel like I’ve let The Rant get the better of me and given an inaccurate impression of how I felt reading this book. I was frustrated, and disappointed by what could have been but wasn’t. But I don’t regret reading it, and I learned a lot. About what life in Pakistan is like for some families, about growing up an immigrant in Toronto, where I was born and live, about the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam.
And there’s a lot to admire about Habib herself. She talks about her parents with empathy and understanding while acknowledging their shortcomings, and I suspect some of the vagueness I mentioned above is out of respect or protectiveness for them. The last chapter and a half, in which she talks about the photography project which inspired We Have Always Been Here, as well as reconnecting with her parents, brought tears to my eyes. The letter she writes to her 7 year old self in the last pages is beautiful.
On the whole, I think this short book works well as a companion to Habib’s Just Me and Allah project (which I spent a good couple of hours scrolling through and highly recommend), but for this reader, it didn’t work wonderfully as a fully-realized memoir.