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Poet and filmmaker Fatimah Asghar's debut novel is 'When We Were Sisters'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The mother of Kausar, Aisha and Noreen - the youngest to oldest of three sisters - died years ago. Then one day, their baba, their father dies, too. Let's ask Fatimah Asghar, the author of the new novel "When We Were Sisters," to read from their book, narrated in the voice of the youngest.

FATIMAH ASGHAR: (Reading) Orphans, the Aunties say, and we become something new. No longer a daughter, no longer my father's kid, but an orphan. Our mom is dead too, gone before I could speak. No one talks about her. Or how she died. Our dad the only parent we knew. Now, orphaned. Each Aunt touches her hand to my head to get her sawaab. My head, now a home for palms.

Everyone's unwashed fingers comb through my hair. Some of them grab at my forehead, their nails pressing into my skin, as though they'll get extra by prying it open. The wailing in the room so loud it touches Allah. The wailing signaling Jannah, so that the announcement can be known. There are orphans here! Orphans that need to be cared for! Clothe them, feed them, be kind to them. They point to the Qur'an. Clothe them! I look down at the pink dress I've been wearing for three days, pouffed up like a princess. Feed them! My fingers sticky with popsicle. Be kind to them! The hands pushing into my forehead. The new thing I am, taking hold of all my other names.

SIMON: Fatimah Asghar, who is also a poet - pretty obviously - filmmaker, performer and co-creator of the Emmy-nominated web series "Brown Girls," joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.

ASGHAR: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The pain on that early page is so wincing and so true. Is this territory you know from your own life?

ASGHAR: Yeah. My parents died when I was very, very young. I embody a lot of the same identity traits as Kausar - so being South Asian, being Muslim, being femme, being queer. So there's a lot of Kausar's pain that is a very similar pain to some that I know and excavated for this novel.

SIMON: The sisters are taken into the care of an uncle whose name is always blanked out like a redacted document. Why?

ASGHAR: Yeah, I did that for many reasons. I wanted to invoke a certain amount of fear of that character. And also I wanted the reader to have the experience of reading it and thinking about the name that they filled in in their own head.

SIMON: The sisters grow up in - how to put this nicely - kind of a cold environment, don't they?

ASGHAR: Mmm hmm. Yeah, it's a very mean one.

SIMON: Well, yeah. I mean, help us understand that - regulations, rules, often without sense, loneliness, having to rely only on each other.

ASGHAR: Yeah, I think that a lot of times growing up as an orphan, I would read these stories with orphaned protagonists, and yet none of them felt very true to me as an orphan. I was like, this doesn't feel accurate. And when you're on the margins of a society and when you're vulnerable from such a young age by something like your parents dying in a society that's so organized around the nuclear family, there's a certain kind of cruelty that you might encounter that I think most people don't have a reference point for.

SIMON: Yeah. Help us understand what the siblings mean to each other. Noreen, I think, is 9 when the story begins. She becomes grown-up all at once, doesn't she?

ASGHAR: Yeah, I think all of them do in certain ways. And they also struggle sometimes - and I think we see this a lot with Kausar - is the grownness and the maturity and then also these moments of being young and...

SIMON: Yeah.

ASGHAR: ...Also having young logic or having a certain kind of arrested logic, particularly around her father's death because it's such a hard thing for her to grapple with. And so these siblings - they love each other. You can feel it. Like, they share the same skin at certain points, and they are the only ones who look out for each other.

SIMON: I am struck by the fact that they love each other, and yet they tear away from each other the way that they would from parents at some point. I mean, that's how you grow up, isn't it?

ASGHAR: Yeah. Yeah, and I think for them they are each other's parents. Like, there's the riff on the line where Kausar is talking about, you know, they're my sisters, but they're also my brothers, and they're also my mothers, and they're everything. They're my everything. And so there is kind of a way that the relationships are strained in a way that sibling relationships with parents maybe are not because they are also acting as each other's caretakers. And so it's not as easy as just being like, oh, they're siblings fighting. And then a parent comes in and steps in and is like, love your siblings. There's no one who...

SIMON: Yeah.

ASGHAR: ...Can step in for them. So their fights are a little bit more vicious and a little bit more feral than I think fights that we're used to seeing among siblings.

SIMON: I've read interviews with you when you refer to the burden of representation. How do you feel about that?

ASGHAR: Yeah, I mean, I grew up not ever seeing anyone who looked like me. And so even just when I first started to make art, there was so much resistance I got from people who were like, but this isn't what we think of a story from somebody who we think looks like you. And I was like, yeah, I know, but this is the story I'm telling, and this is the story I want to tell. It's interesting, that kind of thing of when folks start to mitigate you only through the lens of what you look like and not through the lens of your craft. There's a freedom when we push past, you know, these gatekeeping voices that say this is the only narrative of these people that we're allowed to say. And we're saying, no, there's so many of us. And so I think for me, it's really about getting as many stories as we possibly can so that we can be very honest about what human relationships look like. And we don't have to try and sugarcoat them or try and downplay them for the fear of what that might do for our communities.

SIMON: You say in the afterword you hope this book can be healing. How so?

ASGHAR: I think that that kind of thing of when you really grapple with an emotion, when you really grapple with some narratives, when you really grapple with the complexity of humanity, I think artwork that does that is healing, even if it puts you in an emotion that's very tough, you know? So even if you're contending with grief a lot in the book, I hope that there's a catharsis at the end of that. You know, there's not a neat resolution. There's just living.

SIMON: No, it's just life. And I don't think I...

ASGHAR: It's just life.

SIMON: ...Give away the ending by saying it's just life.

ASGHAR: Yeah. And I think that there is healing in being able to say that and being able to say, these characters just keep living, and they keep living with their traumas, and they keep living with their distances, and they keep living with their longing, and yet they still love each other. And for me, I think one of the dominant feelings I feel about the book is how much love is in it. Like, these characters, they go through things that are so heartbreaking and so cruel, and yet they still insist on loving as much as they possibly can, even when they're mean to each other. And I think that to me is what it means to be alive, is everyone is grappling with their little bundle of pain and joy and trauma. And yet they're still trying to find connection, and they're still trying to find ways to care for each other. And that is, like, the only reason to keep living.

SIMON: Fatimah Asghar - their novel, "When We Were Sisters." Thank you so much for being with us.

ASGHAR: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.