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Book Review: "When We Were Sisters" charts the fractures of sisterhood

Grief rocks the worlds of sisters Kausar, Aisha, and Noreen in Fatimah Asghar's debut novel "When We Were Sisters". Taken in by an estranged uncle, the sisters attempt to hold on to their sense of family throughout their teenage years but are torn apart by the fractures in their bond.

Kausar, the youngest, struggles with losing her parents and her relationship with her gender and sexual identity. Aisha, the middle sister, consistently spars with Kausar while trying to maintain their family structure. And Noreen, the eldest, must act as their mother while trying to carve her own place in the world. As the sisters age, they each grapple with their Muslim identity, girlhood, and sense of family while deciding whether to maintain their codependency or create their own lives.

Asghar’s lyrical writing style is unlike any other––a mix of poetry, prose, and poignant narration that beautifully capture the struggles of growing up as a young Muslim woman in America. The rich––yet heart-wrenching––passages throughout the novel and poetic styling paint a collage of the Muslim-American lifestyle, Muslim teachings, and Kausar’s coming-of-age journey with lovely nuance. The narrative shifts from character to character for deeper analyses and the third-person, but most of the novel is told from Kausar’s point of view.

Although I don’t have any sisters, the depiction of sisterhood in this novel felt almost autobiographical from Asghar. Kausar’s experiences with puberty, high school, and navigating racism aren't generalized experiences of Islamophobia but detailed microaggressions. These passages will make readers (mainly non-Muslim ones) think twice about their biases and preconceived notions. I won’t spoil it, but some challenging scenes in “When We Were Sisters” centered around racism, Islamophobia, sexual assault, and gender.

Also, the sisters’ experiences with body image, the quintessential American culture, and sexuality are written with the tenderness of someone who has personally experienced them––so kudos to Asghar. She masterfully conveys the angst, loneliness, and love sisters share through the Muslim-American lens and doesn’t mince any feelings for political correctness.

As Kausar, Aisha, and Noreen grow up and evolve in their Muslim identity, the chasms between them widen until a pivotal scene in the novel bridges that gap. I can’t and won’t speak for the Muslim-American experience. Still, Asghar illuminates an underrepresented community in American society with extraordinary dexterity and grace.

Lyrically stunning and heart-wrenching, “When We Were Sisters” paints an experimental and gorgeous portrait of the young, Muslim-American experience and the bonds between sisters. A must-read for any readers looking for something fresh yet important to Muslim representation in publishing.

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