When We Were Sisters: South Asian American Author Fatimah Asghar Wins Carol Shields Prize for Fiction
- "A powerful talent turning their hand to multiple artistic mediums," the poet, producer and Emmy-nominated writer will receive $150,000 prize money.
A novel about three young Muslim American girls who get through a neglected childhood won the first-ever Carol Shields Prize for Fiction. “When We Were Sisters” by Fatimah Asghar won the award that recognizes fiction by women and non-binary writers in Canada and the United States. It’s an assured first novel that explores the bonds and divides among three orphaned sisters,” says Kirkus review.
The award was announced on May 4 in Nashville, Tenn.
The South Asian American Muslim, who is a poet, producer and Emmy-nominated writer, will receive $150,000 and a residency at Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland. She is also a photographer and performer.
The four finalists of the award were American writers Daphne Palasi Andreades for “Brown Girls,” Talia Lakshmi Kolluri for “What We Fed to the Manticore” and Alexis Schaitkin for “Elsewhere,” and Canadian writer Suzette Mayr for “The Sleeping Car Porter.”
Describing the novel in CBC Books, Catherine Zhu writes, “When We Were Sisters” is about the bonds and fractures of sisterhood. It traces the intense bond of three orphaned siblings who raise one another after their parents die. Kausar is the youngest, and deals with the loss of their parents as she also charts out her own understanding of gender; the middle sister Aisha spars with her “crybaby” younger sibling as she desperately tries to hold on to her sense of family in a difficult situation; and the eldest Noreen, does her best in the sister-mother role while also trying to create her own life.
The story names the perils of being three Muslim American girls alone against the world, and it illustrates how those who’ve lost everything might still make homes in one another, Zhu adds.
The Toronto Star reports, “Asghar is a powerful talent turning their hand to multiple artistic mediums: they are the author of the poetry collection “If They Come for Us,”; writer and co-creator of the Emmy-nominated web series “Brown Girls” that highlights friendships between women of color; they are also the editor, along with Safia Elhillo, of “Halal If You Hear Me,” an anthology that celebrates Muslim writers who are also women, queer, gender-nonconforming, and/or trans; and the writer of an episode on Disney+’s Ms. Marvel, of which they are also a co-producer.”
Her website says “Halal If You Hear Me,” is an anthology for “Muslim people who are also women, trans, gender non-conforming, and/ or queer. The anthology was built around the radical idea that there are as many ways of being Muslim as there are Muslim people in the world.”
Asghar’s parents, who moved to the U.S., died when she was just five. Her mother was born in Kashmir and her father in Pakistan. These dual identities — of being Pakistani living in diaspora, and of being an orphan — have influenced each other and her work throughout her life, Asghar told PBS a few years ago.
“Being a part of any kind of diaspora is such a beautifully haunting and strange experience, to kind of constantly be working back toward a place where your family has left, or were exiled from, or can’t go back to,” she was quoted as saying in the report, adding, “That’s a kind of orphaning in its own self.”
A graduate of Brown University, majoring in International Relations and African Studies, she reportedly did not learn about the Partition of India until she was in college. That’s when she learned about how her family was forced to leave Kashmir for Lahore and about the impact of being refugees in a new land. That knowledge had a profound effect on Asghar and her work.
Asghar was a Fulbright scholar who researched the way political and ethnic-based violence in Bosnia affected the fields of theater and art. During her field trip, she created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first spoken word poetry group, REFLEKS.
The Carol Shields Prize is supported by Melinda Gates, and authors Jodi Picoult and Margaret Atwood.
(Top photo by Mercedes Zapata, fatimahasghar.com)