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Lamya H’s Debut Memoir Is a Testament to the Powers of Faith and Hope

We live in a society so oppressive to those of us who dare to imagine better that we have very little incentive to keep imagining. We are surrounded by people on all sides and from different backgrounds who degrade and denigrate hope and optimism because they’re too scared to take the plunge, to have faith that maybe there are parts of this world that make it worth fighting for, or to believe in something bigger — whether that be a god or the collective power of the human spirit — than themselves. Those of us who fight to bring this newer, better world to fruition have to recalculate the odds every single day. We have to figure out different ways to sell the possibility of this world to others. We have to be willing to make sacrifices to erect some pieces of this world in our own lives with other people who are willing to do the same. We have to come up with new strategies to beat those who want to grind us into the ground. It isn’t easy work, trying to give life to a new world, a new way of being. And yet, we keep fighting.

Lamya H’s debut memoir Hijab Butch Blues doesn’t exactly begin here. When we first meet Lamya, they are fourteen years old and they “want to die.” Actually, they don’t want to die exactly. They want to disappear, they want to never have existed in the first place: “I just don’t want to do this thing called living anymore, and this feeling both creates and fills up an emptiness inside me. I want my parents never to have had me, I want my friends never to have known me, I want none of this life I never asked for. I want to never have lived at all.”

Then, something happens to Lamya. Like the prophets they’ve been learning about in the Quran class of the international school in the Muslim country that isn’t where they’re family is from, Lamya receives their own wahi, their own revelation. In the class, they hear the translated version of the Surah Maryam, the story of the prophet Maryam who was born a girl instead of a boy and promised to Allah before she was born. Maryam is sent by her family to live in a mosque all by herself as a child and then one day, she is chosen by Allah to give birth to the prophet Isa on her own. Lamya sees some of themself in the story of Maryam. At fourteen, they already know there is something different about them than the girls in their class. They know they weren’t born “right” either, and they find comfort in Maryam’s story. “I am fourteen the year I read Surah Maryam. The year I choose not to die. The year I choose to live.”

The rest of the memoir follows a similar pattern of braiding the stories of Lamya’s life in the Muslim country where her family isn’t from and her life after she moves to the U.S. for college with the stories of the prophets and figures in the Quran that help them understand, contextualize, celebrate, or heal from the traumas and tribulations of her life. The memoir is masterfully constructed and mapped out, split between three parts with each one spanning time and space instead of going in chronological order from the beginning of their life to where they are now. The essays in each part are linked by theme — one part for grappling with the various intersections of their queer, Muslim, immigrant identities; one for addressing the difficulties of coming out as queer, of navigating the world as queer, genderqueer, Muslim, and brown; and the last one for illustrating the ways in which their faith has helped guide them in creating a life for themself that “fourteen year old [Lamya] couldn’t even begin to imagine.” Throughout each part, Lamya shares poignant and incisive reflections on queerness and gender and how we perform them both, white supremacy in the U.S. and abroad, friendship, familial love, and the importance of carving out a path for yourself that works for you even if people can’t fully understand the choices you’re making.

In a particularly powerful section of the text, Lamya explores domestic/marital abuse experienced by women in her life and the realities of living in the U.S. as an immigrant through the story of Asiyah, the wife of the Pharaoh of the Exodus who worshipped God in secret and was then tortured and physically assaulted by the Pharaoh because of it. Lamya explains how this story is interpreted by their mother to mean that women must make sacrifices in their marriages, even if the sacrifices are painful and dangerous. When women in Lamya and their mother’s life begin attempting to divorce their husbands who are abusive to them, it is Asiyah who Lamya’s mother invokes to criticize their decisions. While Lamya is listening to their mother, they realize their existence in the U.S. is similarly abusive, similarly torturous, similarly dangerous. Because they are not from the U.S. and because they do not have citizenship in the country where their family lives, they are made to jump through a particularly burdensome set of hoops in order to make sure they have legal status in the U.S. and then, they have to reconcile the heartbreak of making the choice to stay:

“I know what my staying entails: becoming part of the settler colonialist project that is this country, contributing toward imperialist wars with my taxes, becoming complicit in the government-backed abuse of other marginalized people. But I want to stay. Because where would I go?” 

To help Lamya do this, they imagine what Asiyah’s life looks like after the Pharaoh dies. They imagine Asiyah free to build a life for herself “based on her principles — principles that [they’ve] heard in [their] mother’s stories about her: kindness for everyone, compassion, and justice.” They resolve to do the same even in this country that doesn’t want them because “there’s nowhere in the world that’s magically free of racism and Islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia.”

Lamya’s ability to bring seemingly disparate elements together to paint such a vivid picture of what it’s like to have to make the choices they’ve made in the ways they’ve made them is absolutely stunning in its execution. There is not a single hard transition in any of the essays here, and their ability to move so easily through the stories of the Quran and their own life emphasizes the weight of the importance of Islam in their life. Lamya proves throughout the text the myriad possibilities that are open and available to queer Muslims and queer people of other religions when and if they choose to pursue a life of piety and devotion to something beyond the trappings of our material world.

As I was reading, I thought about the novel — one of my favorite novels of all time — the title of the memoir is derived from, Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. About a third of the way through the novel, Feinberg’s narrator Jess says, “How could I give up? Surrender was unimaginably more dangerous than struggling for survival.” It’s a line I’ve kept close to me since I read Stone Butch Blues for the first time as a teenager because it’s a reminder of what is at stake for those of us who imagine that better world I mentioned earlier and fight against all odds to try to build it. At the end of the memoir, Lamya writes,

“This better world — that is the world I’m fighting for […] A world that is kinder, more generous, more just. A world that takes care of the marginalized, the poor, the sick. Where wealth and resources are redistributed, where reparations are made for the harms of history, where stolen land is given back. Where the environment is cared for and respected, and all species are cared for and respected. Where conflicts are dealt with in gentleness. Where people take care of each other and feel empowered to be their truest selves. Where anger is allowed and joy is allowed and fun is allowed and quietness is allowed and loudness is allowed and being wrong is allowed and everything, everything, everything is rooted in love. […] I’m not naїve to think we’ll reach this utopia in my lifetime or possibly ever, but I’m also not faithless enough to think that the direction in which I strive doesn’t matter, that these smaller versions of the world aren’t leading us there.”

The stories of Lamya’s life are much different than that of Feinberg’s and Jess’s and mine, but reading Hijab Butch Blues still brought on the same feelings of recognition and serves as a reminder of the power we have within ourselves and within our communities to defeat complacency, indifference, and cruelty. As Lamya exemplifies for us over and over again in the stories she tells in the memoir, all we have to do is keep believing it’s possible.


Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H is out today.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 95 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for this review, Stef!

    I don’t know exactly how the story of Maryam is framed in the text, but I wanted to add one detail that may provide another layer of significance to the story and its inclusion in the memoir. Maryam is not a prophet; Maryam is the Arabic name referring to the Virgin Mary, and Isa is Arabic for Jesus. Maryam would not have been sent to a mosque since this predated Islam. More importantly, though, Islamic tradition draws from a shared narrative history among the Abrahamic faiths, and Maryam is one of a select few figures from those traditions who has their own dedicated surah/chapter in the Quran. The Quran grants a great deal of importance to Mary, and in my experience this translates to a great deal of respect for Mary among Muslims.

    I thought this was important to mention because some folks may not know the extent to which Islam shares history and mythology with the other Abrahamic faiths.

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