Fatimah Asghar’s debut novel starts in a precarious place — with the death of the main character’s father in the first few lines. The death impacts a trio of siblings at the center of When We Were Sisters in vastly different ways, becoming a force that will either bring them together or tear them apart.
Asghar, who uses they/them pronouns, draws from their own life: Their parents died when the writer was 6. When We Were Sisters, out Tuesday, gorgeously weaves the themes of grief and community, along with queerness and love, into prose that is compulsively readable and heartwrenching at the same time.
Already nominated for a National Book Award, When We Were Sisters (One World/Random House) caps a succession of acclaimed projects from the 32-year-old artist, poet and filmmaker, who was born in New York City, raised in Boston and now splits time between Los Angeles and Chicago. Asghar describes a connection to Chicago, in particular, that is deep and unyielding, consistently referring to it as a “chosen home” and affectionately telling stories about working as a teaching artist for various Chicago Public Schools here.
With co-creator Sam Bailey, Asghar created the Emmy-nominated web series Brown Girls in 2017, about two young women of color finding their way in the world. Asghar followed that with the poetry collection If They Come For Us, providing an insightful look into the collective violence of partition, the bloody period after India and Pakistan’s independence from Great Britain.
Where Asghar’s sweeping poetry collection tackled a major period of history, When We Were Sisters focuses on the intimate and everyday. This shift was on purpose, said the creative.
“I felt like for me as an artist, it was important to kind of, in some ways get through some of the big wave stuff so that I could dive into the smaller, more immediate stories that I wanted to tell,” Asghar said.
Unrest as a theme echoes throughout the novel. But while Asghar’s poetry explored violence on a massive scale, this book tackles the violence of everyday life. Compounded by grief, the trio at the heart of the story — Noreen, Aisha and Kausar — experience violent interactions with their uncle-turned-caregiver, and sometimes with each other, as they navigate their new reality. Partition plays a role in this novel too, animating one of the most tender scenes in the book — a moment where generational trauma is front and center.
Asghar’s newest work lives in the minutiae of day-to-day activities. Despite the excavation of painful realities for the trio of siblings, Asghar also fills it with scenes of playful teasing, caring and attempts to claw back childhood after the death of a parent.
Orphans have a unique experience in this world, especially within the confines of a tight-knit community to which Ashgar also belongs. Immigrant communities often rely on other people that they know through faith. Cultural or ethnic communities often form vast ‘kinship networks,’ which help ease the transition to a new country and help build a support system outside the nuclear families.
In the novel, wry references to an “auntie network” are examples of kinship networks in action — these ‘aunties’ are other South Asian women who are not related to you by blood but still act like proxy parents.
Asghar’s own experience as an orphan has changed over time from shame to empowerment, noting that living outside the nuclear family structure is something that has given them a unique view of the world and informs their artistic practice.
“There’s a way that orphaning is such a thing that you become marked by. It becomes a deep, looming shadow that’s all around you, until you stop making it a shadow, until you befriend it, until you’re, like, ‘This is what I am,’” Asghar said. “And I have a different experience of the world.”
That experience allowed Asghar to fully embrace the enigmatic nature of something as complex and multifaceted as grief. Grief permeates every character’s experience.
“[Grief] can build walls, it can build incredible distance, it can build incredibly terrible toxic patterns, it can build all of this stuff,” Asghar said. “And at the heart of it, when you understand it, you see, it’s not malicious, it’s pain. What you’re dealing with is someone in pain.”
Another striking element of the novel is its portrayal of queerness and desire. The main character, Kausar, wrestles with gender in an intimate way and comes to terms with it by defining what they are not, rather than what they are.
This describes an experience in the LGBTQ community where someone does not have a clear label, but instead participates in what Asghar calls, “the slow listening of gender.” Gender and sexuality are to Asghar liminal spaces rather than discrete categories, a sentiment well reflected in the book.
“As a person who is queer and has a lot of the same feelings as Kausar around gender and around sexuality, that’s why I feel freest is like, truly when things are not labeled like and when things are not defined in that way,” they said.
Asghar’s own journey writing the novel was nearly as messy and beautiful as their main character’s journey. When writing previous works, Asghar said they often felt a pull to represent a larger group of people, but, in the end, this project ended up extremely personal – an opportunity “to remove pain from my body and yoke into this book.”
“You follow what you follow,” they said, “because it’s begging to be explored.”
Siri Chilukuri is a freelance journalist in Chicago who covers culture, cities and climate. Follow her @schilukuri1.
If you go: Fatimah Asghar will be in conversation with Chicago poet and singer-songwriter Jamila Woods on Oct. 25 at 6 p.m. at the Harold Washington Library Center (400 S. State St.). The event is free and open to the public; seating is first-come, first-serve but the event will also be livestreamed on the library’s YouTube channel. On Oct. 26 at 6 p.m., Asghar will be joined in conversation by Midwestern poets Danez Smith and Nate Marshall at Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Hyde Park (5751 S. Woodlawn Ave.). The event will feature an exclusive screening of Asghar’s new short film, Retrieval.