On 4 May 2023, poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker Fatimah Asghar was announced the inaugural winner of the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction for their debut novel When We Were Sisters. The Prize, established in 2020, celebrates “creativity and excellence in fiction by women and nonbinary writers in Canada and the United States.”
This win is particularly noteworthy for two reasons. First, Asghar is of South Asian descent—their father was Pakistani and their mother, Kashmiri; they both died when Asghar was five. Second, the novel documents their personal vulnerabilities of being a nonbinary person.
Set in the US, When We Were Sisters is a coming-of-age story of three orphaned American Muslim siblings—Noreen, Aisha, and Kausar. The book begins with the news of their father’s murder by hate crime “spreading fast and careless as a common cold” among the ‘Aunty Network’.
By describing the role that this network plays Asghar not only manages to capture the vulnerability of racial and ethnic minorities in the US but also a South Asian peculiarity.
While the children are yet to discover who will supervise them in their parents’ absence, they notice their home converted into a ‘House of Sadness’. They feel guilty for wanting the bunk beds their father was buying before he died. “What idiots,” they think. “He was our father. We should have asked for more.”
This expression reveals how children respond to grief without fully understanding it. Grief presents itself unannounced when we expect it the least, as Joan Didion notes in The Year of Magical Thinking. The experience of loss starts through something ordinary like someone asking “What does your father do?” or “Has your mother braided your hair?”
In some cases, it can be something we take for granted. In this novel, it’s freedom.
The children’s uncle was meant to fill the void after their parents' untimely demise, but he ends up controlling them, instilling fear and preventing them from acting independently. Through how the children respond to the uncle, we realise what male figures whose behaviours go unquestioned in South Asian families represent.
It is fitting that both the father and the uncle remain unnamed throughout the book. While Asghar describes the former through a blank space within square brackets “[ ]”, hinting at void and loss, they use a rectangular black box for “Uncle”, depicting rigidness and inaccessibility.
Another remarkable aspect of this novel is its sharp and penetrating sentences intensifying the sense of loss. “I stand at the edge of the door to our bathroom and open it, and my grief greets me.”
Asghar’s voice is poetic in their criticism of the algebra of everyday existence. “In the math[s] of what is considered family, me and my sisters are left out.”
Through Asghar’s world in the book, we understand children—orphaned or not—are not immune to the corrupt worldly ways of adults, as Amia Srinivasan observes in The Right to Sex. Be it the Islamophobic America or their heteropatriarchal environment, the sisters fight to make a place for themselves. In the absence of anyone to nurture them, they become each other’s “sister-mothers”.
As living becomes a chore for them, their relationship becomes a verb.
When We Were Sisters highlights the orphans’ aloneness, drawing from the author’s own experiences. It also challenges the notion that belonging is solely tied to a physical place or location. Kausar’s internal monologue, conveying her newer understanding of her own body and nonbinary gender identity, establishes her relationship with belonging in her own body: “My body is still pretending to be a girl, even though I’m not.” Asghar reminds us through this book that it’s a different orphaning to feel disconnected from your own body. But they also state that looking at the word ‘orphan’ only through the prism of absence and loss is an ungainly exercise.
In Asghar’s experimentative, poetic prose one finds a new language of loss—a vocabulary that allows “nowhere” people to communicate an aching absence and their newfound identity. When Kausar’s idea of life and being alone transcends the boundaries of a human body, she finds that “[i]n this world we were born into nothing but everything is ours: the sidewalk, the yellow markers in the road.”
As remembering loss is also a function of how saturated a brain can get over the years, the author also underscores the fragility and futility of memory. “My father is turning make-believe too. I’m forgetting things about him: what side of his face his dimple was on, how his laugh curved around the house, the last thing he said to me. I close my eyes, try and remember his voice. The only thing that comes through is static,” writes Asghar.
In many ways, When We Were Sisters is a lyrical work that pushes the boundaries of fiction. In an increasingly divided world, it’s a reminder that we’re a kaleidoscope of identities. The book serves as a map for us to find each other and co-create our places in the world.
Publication: Corsair, Hachette