Lately In Literature: The poetic beauty of Fatimah Asghar’s ‘When We Were Sisters’

Jan. 23, 2023, 10:46 p.m.

I love poetry. It has always been my favorite form of literature to consume because of its lyrical beauty and subsequent ability to deliver emotions, that too in just a few stanzas. Poems tell grand stories that tend to stick in the reader’s memory much longer than the entire plot of a novel. Thus, it’s a whole different story when a poet writes a novel. 

Recently, I read “When We Were Sisters” by Fatimah Asghar, who is known for her poetry collection “If They Should Come For Us.” The lyrical beauty of the book made it an extremely captivating read. When I think of books written by authors who were also poets, Ocean Vuong’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” and Sabahattin Ali’s “Madonna In a Fur Coat” are the first ones to come to mind. The rhythm in their prose elevates the delivery of the plot and takes the readers on an emotional roller coaster. Asghar explores so many different forms throughout the chapters of the novel that her narration never gets monotonous while the story flows rhythmically. 

Fatimah Asghar is a Pakistani, Kashmiri, Muslim American writer. Her newest book “When We Were Sisters” was published October 2022 and was longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction 2022. The novel follows the coming of age of three sisters who are orphaned following the sudden murder of their father. They are taken into the custody of a careless uncle who pretends to be a good guardian only to satisfy his corrupt moral compass, receive money from the government, and put on a good mask for the public. The children are mostly left to the care of “Aunty” and “Meemoo” but the story only gets more complicated as they are forced to leave this chosen family.

“When We Were Sisters” not only focuses on the loss and grief of the three sisters but their struggle growing up, feeling completely isolated from everyone else. On top of losing their parents and the lack of familial belonging and care, the sisters deal with years of generational trauma as Muslim women living in the U.S.. As Asghar states in an interview with Jodi-Ann Burey, they not only have to shoulder their own trauma but the trauma of an entire community. The novel often alludes to a culture of individualism in the U.S. that contrasts with more communal cultures of the East and further adds to the sisters’ sense of loneliness. By watching them grow up, the reader gets a glimpse into their individual struggles, such as the oldest sister’s need to take on the role of a mother or the youngest’s use of imagination to escape hardships. Ultimately, through three sisters, Asghar talks about a variety of themes, including sisterhood and womanhood but also citizenship, immigration, gender identity and many more.

Despite the multifaceted nature of the novel and the many themes it tackles, it allows the readers to bond with the sisters and become an intimate spectator in their journey growing up. I think Asghar achieves this mainly through her strength in the use of language. The narrator’s feelings, the youngest sister, Kausar, are delivered in melodic prose and the novel is interspersed with vignettes that only make her experiences more vivid for the readers.

For instance, one day Kausar is sitting alone in recess because she sees boys “roll around in the dirt” and girls “stand by the bleachers” and does not know who to join. She is questioning her gender identity, often referring to her sisters as “brothers,” and she also daydreams about what would be different if they were in fact brothers. During recess, instead of playing along, she daydreams about heaven and thinks: “There is no gate to heaven, just a waterfall and a boat coasting on a lake. A dock of pearls waiting to receive you.”

Her thoughts are interrupted by bullies who verbally assault her and talk poorly about her mother, oblivious to the fact that she has lost her mom. Kausar ends up crying but in Asghar’s words she is not only crying: “At the corner of my eyelids, a dock of pearls begins to form. At the corner of my eyelids, a dock of pearls spills over.” Asghar’s metaphor not only conveys the pain of Kausar by solidifying her tears as pearls, an emotional pain so intense that it physically hurts the little girl. The phrase also delivers Kausar’s innocence and hope. The pearls, like the ones before the gate of heaven, allude that she is deserving of a peace of mind, of happiness, and of a sense of belonging. It is Kausar herself that imagines the pearls before heaven and also considers her tears pearls, suggesting that perhaps she also believes that at the end there is a good gate to open up. This is merely one of the many examples where Asghar’s background as a poet helps enhance the strength of her prose.

Asghar makes sure to deliver both the progress and the pain throughout the sisters’ journey. Their discoveries but also the abyss of the unknown that still awaits in their adulthood. It is not about a resolution that brings an end to their pain but a continuous process of grief they embrace through their togetherness. Despite the tragedy the book is built upon, Asghar tries to show a never-ending sense of companionship and beauty within life, through the use of language that is just as beautiful to read. “When We Were Sisters” is by no means a feel-good read, but amidst the tragedy, it brings another level of appreciation for sisterhood and unique prose. 

“In this world we were born into nothing but everything is ours: the sidewalk, the yellow markers in the road. The rain falls through the leaves and kisses us just so. What no one will ever understand is that the world belongs to orphans, everything becomes our mother,” writes Asghar, delivering every way the sisters look for belonging and hope in a world that, most readers would say, has only turned its back towards them. But Asghar manages to show a sense of beauty in that world as well, through the bonds of the three sisters. So, if you’re wondering if there’s any good left in a cruel world, “When We Were Sister” is definitely worth your read.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Leyla Yilmaz '25 is a writer for the Arts & Life section. She is from Istanbul, Turkey and a prospective Biology major who enjoys frequent trips to the bookstore and collecting cacti. Contact the Daily's Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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