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Fatimah Asghar’s New Novel Is a Salve for My Reality of Grief

“We once-upon-a-time-ourselves. Once upon a time, there were three sisters. Or brothers maybe. Okay, okay: sister-brothers. Sister mothers. Once upon a time, they lived in a castle, up high. Once upon a time their father was gone.”  — Fatimah Asghar, When We Were Sisters (2022), p. 35

“Gone” is where Fatimah Asghar’s When We Were Sisters invites us to join orphans Kausar, Aisha, and Noreen in their journey of grief, growing up, and what comes after the loss of all you knew to be true and good. A queer Muslim poet, filmmaker, and creator of Brown Girls, Fatimah Asghar is a force in whatever she does. If this review (and your subsequent reading) of When We Were Sisters will be your introduction to Fatimah Asghar’s work — welcome, fam. You are in for a beautiful ride.

I have been a fan of Fatimah’s for a while. As a younger queer not-yet-writer in the mid-’10s, I stumbled across her spoken word on YouTube after meeting some of her homies at Furious Flower. Lines of her poems have held me on my hardest days and, some days, I rewatch her short creative work (like Brown Girls and her short film, “Got Game”) and find myself cackling and talking back to my screen. More than two years ago when “Got Game” dropped, our former editor-in-chief Kamala interviewed Fatimah, and I learned about this novel-in-progress. I have been patiently waiting ever since. Like all devoted fans of contemporary greats, I longed for whatever Fatimah would send out into the world — she ain’t no half-steppin’ GOAT. I knew this offering would be graceful in language, meticulous in form, and rich in narrative. What I didn’t know back then is how much I needed this book, how deeply I would exhale when reading these words, how many tears would fall on the pages of the advance readers’ copy I received at my doorstep earlier this fall.

I did not have to travel far to meet Asghar’s characters at their “gone.” Between Kamala’s interview with Fatimah and the book’s release, my own father died, leaving me and my own sister orphaned in a world continuing to crumble around and move beyond us. Unlike the novel’s primary narrator, Kausar and her siblings, my sister and I were not small children when our dad or mama died — we were grown but not quite growing. Well into my thirties, I still found myself crawling back to childhood to mourn, dream, and grow up all over again with Kausar, Noreen, and Aisha. The novel begins in 1995 with the murder of one man (the siblings’ father) and another man Uncle ▬▬▬▬▬ working toward his American dream. From the jump, Asghar’s prose urges us to embrace the complexities of family, race, obligation, dreaming, and grieving. Her characters are achingly human in ways that make life hard for the living and easier for the dead — they are layered, hurting, and doing what they deem to be their best (well mostly — looking at you, Uncle ▬▬▬▬▬). Sandwiched between the complex characterizations of the orphaned siblings and those around them are rich commentaries about religious identity and education, paternalism, home, queerness (oooh the queer depiction is so incredibly good), and desirability — oh and birds (yes, birds!).

When We Were Sisters is not just a good book from a well-established writer; it’s an incredibly stunning story. The book has already been longlisted for the National Book Award and has received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and fans alike. What makes it so incredibly special is Asghar’s use of language and form to distinguish narrative shifts, illuminate the book’s themes of grieving and growing up, and invite readers to experience deep intimacy with the characters (both living and dead).

Take the excerpt below from “her,” a section in the voice of Kausar’s long-deceased mother.

“there his beautiful, stupid
eyes look at me, lost
as always.

meri jaan. 

& he nods, the promise made

say goodbye to your mother. 

none  of my children move.
goodbye, my angels.

goodbye.”

Interspersed throughout the novel are reminders of the goodbyes that never seem to end — ghosts of those who once breathed and loved, who never really leave.

“Who are they going to believe?

[me] or [you].”

When I came to this page the first time, I read this over and over and wished I could reach into the novel, hold Kausar close and tell her I choose her, tell her she matters. Tell her she can take up all the space she needs, that I will love and believe her no matter what. Of course, she cannot hear me. She is only a character that Asghar has dreamt up and written on the page. So, I tell myself instead: You matter, baby. Take up all the space you need. I will love you no matter what. 

I repeat this to myself and commit it to memory while I finish reading. This book makes you want to fight like Kausar does sometimes, for Kausar sometimes, for Noreen and Aisha, for their dad so he does not die, for Meemoo and Aunty, for the people (and animals) who deserve better in the world Asghar paints for us.

You can’t though. So you may just end up remembering to fight harder for yourself. That’s the magic of When We Were Sisters — it reminds you that you (that we all) are worthy of a fight, of living, of grieving. It is full of moments and lines that you will want to hold onto for longer than you can. Amid the fast-paced news cycles and chaos of capitalism, I found myself slowing down and sitting with Asghar’s lines for days, my soul echoing them back to the pages, “make it last, make it last, make it last…” (p. 140).

Nothing lasts, though — not our parents, not our homes, not our relationships, not us. A month before my mother died in 2015, my parents were forced out of their rent-controlled house in the dead of winter. With my mom in the hospital, I organized our extended family to pack up their house of 30 years and moved my parents into a 2-bedroom apartment in a senior living complex that smelled like moth balls and peppermint. My sister came home from college to help. We said goodbye to home before we were ready. Weeks later, we said goodbye to mama. Seven years later, we did the same with our dad. I am seasoned at saying goodbye. I know that nothing lasts — even the best stories have page limits. I knew When We Were Sisters would end; I knew (like death) it would come before I was ready to say goodbye. So, I dragged my feet finishing it and then started again. I highlighted, underlined, and memorized Asghar’s lines until I could recite passages just like my grandmama taught me to do with her favorite scriptures.

“Once upon a time, they lived in a castle, up high. Once upon a time their father was gone. But once upon a time they knew their father would come back for them. Because once upon a time he was a king. And sometimes once upon a time, kings needed to do king things, like fight dragons. And wars. And stuff. But kings always came back” (p. 35).

Once upon a time, Fatimah Asghar wrote a beautiful story. Once upon a time, she wrote a story that made us cry and made us laugh. Once upon a time, Fatimah Asghar wrote a story that made us feel like breathing and fighting (like how kings fight dragons). And sometimes, once upon a time, stories make us feel both invincible and viscerally mortal at the same time. But that story also reminded us that we are still here and as long as we are still here and we have each other, we’re gonna be alright.

“My grief calls to me, and it is loud,” teenaged Kausaur tells us. I can hear it too. Lately, it is all I can hear amid the chatter of social media trends, pop culture, academic assignments, and unread messages from friends and colleagues.

Almost three years into a global pandemic, some of us know grief better than we know ourselves. We hear it when we breathe without the ones who have left this realm. We see it in the mirror when we look at our reflection and see similarities we never did before. We notice it as the calendar passes, as time goes on, as we move on and fight through sadness we were sure would knock us out cold. But death “makes you cold,” Asghar writes (p. 6). If we, the grieving and living, are sentenced to a chilled existence, may the pages of When We Were Sisters burn bright in the darkness of this cold, may Asghar’s words warm our hearts even as our tears fall, may the defiant survival of Kausaur, Noreen, and Aisha be a flame for our respective paths toward collective survival. May we make it. 

When We Were Sisters is a necessary read for all of us —
the alive and the ghosts we carry each day,
the grown and the ones not yet done growing,
The sisters, brothers, sister-mothers, brother-fathers, and siblings,
The “family” and the family,
The ones still looking for home and those who have found it within themselves,
& the grieving — yeah, especially us.


When We Were Sisters by Fatimah Asghar is out now.


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shea wesley martin

shea martin (they/them/theirs) is a brilliant, queer, gender-expansive writer raised at the intersection of gospel and go-go (shout out to the DMV). With southern roots and Black queer magic, shea writes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry that smells like your grandmama’s kitchen and sounds like a deep blues moan. Find them dreaming on Twitter.

shea has written 20 articles for us.

5 Comments

    • I would underline & highlight so much of what you poured onto this page.
      When I was reading your section on “who are they going to believe?”, I was startled to find tears rolling down my face.
      Just, thank you ✨

  1. Thanks for this beautiful review, Shea. Can’t wait to pick up this book.

    Also, for folks looking for more Fatimah Asghar content, I can’t recommend Ms. Marvel more. She wrote the show’s fifth episode and it is exquisite…one of my favorite episodes of television this year.

  2. I always feel so seen and understood through shea’s writing, so often they put words to feelings that I have held for so long but haven’t felt fully able to express. this is so beautifully written, I’m so excited to read the book!

    thank you so much for this piece, shea. I love you!

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