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When We Were Sisters

A Novel

by Fatimah Asghar

When We Were Sisters by Fatimah Asghar X
When We Were Sisters by Fatimah Asghar
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Cathryn Conroy

A Brilliant, but Devastating, Novel Written in Fierce Prose That Sings Like Lyrical Poetry
This is a brilliant novel written in fierce prose that sings like lyrical poetry. It is heartbreaking, shattering, and overwhelming.

Written by Fatimah Ashgar, this is the story of three Pakistani-American sisters, who are orphaned at a young age after their father is murdered and are sent to live with their only living relative, an uncle in New Jersey they have never before met. Divorced from his White wife who is living in a big suburban house with their three sons, the uncle only agrees to take the girls—Noreen, Aisha, and Kausar—for two reasons: Money and religion. He will not only get monthly government checks for their support, but also their father's money. In addition, Muslims believe that taking care of orphans is a straight ticket to paradise. While his sons attend private school, the orphan girls are mired in poverty. Clearly, the money isn't going to support them.

Noreen, who is mature beyond her years, is pretty and smart. Aisha is confident but also angry and hostile. Kausar is the baby, who is devoted to her sisters but also filled with an anger that is so hot she describes it as a scorpion stinger. Kausar is questioning her gender identity, adding a new layer of confusion and angst to an already confused and angst-filled life.

The story is told in the first person by Kausar, who is only five when her father is killed. (Kausar is 27 when the book ends.) She has no memory of her mother. She carries her abiding grief throughout her life, as it touches everything she does. The uncle houses the girls in a shoddy, filthy apartment and pretty much leaves them alone. They have no supervision and regularly run out of food and money. Except for school, they are told to stay inside. The sisters take care of each other, surviving—even while arguing, as sisters do—as best they can.

This is a story about the meaning of family and the heartbreaking quest for mother love. It is about the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood, of love and arguments, of staying together and leaving each other, of surviving neglect.

It is a thoughtful but emotionally devastating and inherently sad novel.
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