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Fatimah Asghar (they/them) is a writer and co-producer of the Ms. Marvel series on Disney+ as well as creator of the Emmy-nominated web series Brown Girls. They have published poetry and a previous novel, If They Come For Us. Asghar’s parents experienced the chaos and violence of the partition of India and Pakistan and emigrated to the US, where Asghar was born. Asghar’s parents died when Asghar was a child. While similar events occur in When We Were Sisters, this is a work of fiction; it is safe to say that Asghar’s personal history may have influenced or inspired their writing but this is not an autobiographical story. It is a story about childhood grief and its long-term repercussions for the main character Kausar and her two older sisters.
Kausar, who is the narrator, is the youngest of three sisters and she is about 5 or six when her father is murdered on the street. Kausar’s mother has already been dead several years. The only family that Noreen, Aisha and Kausar have in the US is an uncle, her mother’s brother, who is married to (and separated from) a white woman and has two sons. Uncle’s wife wants nothing to do with the girls but Uncle (his name is always blacked out) feels some responsibility for them. He moves them from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and sets them up in a rundown apartment. Uncle checks in on them and for a while a young Muslim couple in the building act as surrogate parents to the girls. But the three girls are pretty much left to their own devices. They receive no grief counseling (the story begins in the 1990s, when such a thing would have been new, I think, anyway), and Kausar throughout her childhood grapples with her grief and rage over what has happened to her family. As the girls grow up, their uncle becomes more and more of an unwelcome presence, and it is clear that he has a lot going on in his private life that he prefers to keep secret. He can be generous but he is mostly neglectful of his nieces and seems to be spending the money they would have received as an inheritance for himself.
As Kausar becomes a teenager, she grapples with not only rage and grief but also matters of her own sexuality. She is attracted to a boy in her high school who uses her pretty cruelly, and she also discovers that she feels fluid in her gender and in her sexual preferences. She gets along with her uncle well enough but she has also always feared him and what could happen to her and her sisters if the truth of their living situation was ever discovered. The relationship amongst the three sisters grows complicated and troubled as they grow older, and Kausar sees herself and her choices as the reason for these problems. At the end of the novel, we see where the sisters wind up as adults and how their circumstances growing up have effected their relationships.
This novel’s structure is linear, with Asghar dipping in to different periods of Kausar’s childhood as needed to show what is happening to her and to her relationship with her sisters. The writing has a lyrical quality to it. Asghar’s roots as a poet definitely come through in the lovely writing of this story. I think that is quite impressive given the heartbreaking subject matter — grief and separation. It made me realize that writing about grief, especially childhood grief, is not something I’ve encountered in literature very often. As Asghar writes in one passage:
“How terrible — to be an ordinary orphan. Not a superhero. Not a wizard in waiting. Not a prophet who goes to a cave. Just — ordinary. All that grief, wasted.”
A lot of famous literature features orphans as characters, but the grief of parental loss never seems to be worth writers’ consideration. That is a lost opportunity. I appreciate Fatimah Asghar’s efforts to address such a painful issue that they have clearly had to deal with in their own life. I recommend this to anyone interested in reading different voices (Muslim, LGBTQ/trans/gender queer) or trying to understand what childhood grief is like.