Writing About a Muslim Girl Who Can Contain Multitudes: A Conversation with Bushra Rehman

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Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion, Bushra Rehman’s newest novel out now from Flatiron Books, follows Razia Mirza—a young Muslim woman growing up in Corona, Queens in the 1980’s. As Razia discovers her queer sexuality, she struggles to know where she fits within her immigrant Pakistani-American community—and what lengths she’ll go to in order to become the person she’s destined to be.

Unlike the cinephile, the literary booklover is rarely treated to the joy of a sequel. I first came to know Rehman’s work through Corona (Sibling Rivalry, 2013), a book selected by the NY Public Library as one of its favorite novels about NYC. The lush language and gorgeous depictions of childhood in Corona made me an instant fan. Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion features many of the same characters as Corona—and it’s also filled with the same astonishing lyricism. As a writer, Rehman has a keen understanding of human nature, and she creates a cast of diverse, Queens personalities that reflect her sensibility of people as flawed, but ultimately good. Some based on real people in her childhood, Rehman’s characters are reflections of the author’s deep love for a place and community—and that love is made evident from the first page. Your heart will be filled after reading this book.

My conversation with Rehman spanned why it was important for her to write a positive portrayal of Islam, how writers can mine their pasts for inspiration, what it means to stretch feminism to include queer people of color, how to inhabit the voices of complicated characters, and more.

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The Rumpus: Razia Mirza, the queer Pakistani-American protagonist of Roses, In the Mouth of a Lion was the protagonist of Corona. Can you talk about your interest in writing about Razia and her community in Queens?

Bushra Rehman: I wanted to write about fierce, Muslim women going on adventures and being funny and smart and brave. This book is about Razia, but it’s also about the other girls in her community, about her friendships with other young women.

It’s also a book about Razia’s spirituality—her spiritual and religious upbringing is one of the reasons she can love herself, even when she starts to discover her queer sexuality. It’s not an either/or.

It took me a while to write this book—almost ten years. I just wanted to write about a queer Muslim girl who can contain multitudes. There can be space for all of it.

 

Rumpus: How did you make sure that the voice you established for Razia in Corona was consistent with the voice you used in Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion?

Rehman: This book has four chapters from Corona, so I had to reinhabit that voice for Roses. But it was very hard for me to shift back into it. When I wrote Corona, I had only been writing poetry, and then I started writing prose. In order to do this book, I had to write poetry again, and I have to give a shoutout to BIPOC Writing Party. I started going every Monday for the majority of the pandemic. Writing poetry there—that’s how I was able to restart the language.

Rumpus: It took ten years for this book to be written—can you talk a little about the publication process for this novel? Were you writing this book since Corona’s publication in 2013?

Rehman: I wish I’d had that space, but I’d just had a baby when Corona came out. I didn’t have plans for doing a sequel—I was a new mom—but I was approached by an editor who had read Corona and asked if I wanted to write a YA about the same character. As the editor noticed, Corona jumps around in time. You see Razia’s childhood and then her adulthood, but you totally miss her pre-teen years and this important moment—this black hole—from which all the action of Corona spiraled. This editor was basically saying, can you go into this black hole and write about that?

I was like, No, I can’t do it. But she said, Just try. So I tried and tried and tried. I ended up giving her the book and she didn’t like it. She dropped the contract. But now I had this book and an agent (Ayesha Pande; she’s amazing) because this editor approached me. But the book got rejected from so many places, and I think that’s because the protagonist is not rejecting Islam. If she was, this book would have sold super-fast because this country is so Islamophobic. When there’s a positive portrayal, people don’t know how to sell it or market it or whatever.

Luckily, I found some brave souls, like my new editor Caroline [Bleeke]. There was a while in those ten years that it was getting rejected so much that I pulled it from submission. You know, the process is never linear.

Rumpus: Is this a YA book? I didn’t see this book marketed as YA.

Rehman: I think that was another reason it wasn’t getting sold. People were like, Is this YA or is it—? This editor acknowledged it was an adult book that can have crossover to YA. I don’t think things need to be YA. I think teenagers are brilliant, and I don’t even know why there need to be separations. These are all just marketing designations, more boxes they’re trying to fit us into, and when we don’t fit into them, they don’t know what to do with us.

Rumpus: I love the way you write about experiencing the city as a child. There’s a moment when Julio, a Latino boy in the neighborhood, asks Razia to pray with him over the body of a dead baby bird. Not only do you capture children’s genuine acceptance of each other, you also show nature and the city co-existing side by side, the same way that religions and ethnicities do. I’m curious—do you have specific strategies for writing about childhood?

Rehman: Spend a lot of time with children! I taught with Teachers & Writers Collaborative—an amazing organization—where we went into public schools and wrote poetry with kids. I was constantly seeing their gorgeous view of the city. And then it ended up being helpful that I had a baby because I was with her in all those streets and parks, and children just gravitate towards nature. You’ll have all this concrete, and they’ll gravitate toward that little pink flower growing out of the cracks of the sidewalk. And the more under-resourced the neighborhood, the wilder things can grow sometimes. Nature takes back the earth immediately as soon as people stop trying to maintain it all the time, and I think neighborhoods like the ones I grew up in, you did have nature existing. And as children, that’s what we’re drawn to.

And because Razia becomes a teenager, I read some of my diaries when I was a teen. And I was like, Oh my god, I was so much smarter back then. I think people think that adults are smarter than children, but it’s the total opposite. Teenagers are brilliant—you actually get duller as an adult.

Rumpus: Your characters are immigrants from all over the world, and yet it’s impossible to imagine your characters living anywhere other than Corona, Queens. Can you talk about this vital relationship between setting and character?

Rehman: I’ve been around all these conversations with people gentrifying, and when people think about Corona, they think Oh, a place to get some good food to eat, or Oh, really cheap rent. People don’t see the communities, the people who have been living there for generations. But we are here in these worlds, making our lives and our families, and this book makes that visible.

When I start to see these worlds disappear, I feel very passionate about writing their stories. COVID-19 decimated the communities I’m writing about. A lot of the people I’m writing about have passed away, so, in a way, this book is a time capsule. I’m grateful that the elders—the aunties, uncles, mothers, fathers—I’m grateful they all exist in literature now because I don’t see characters like this in US literature.

Rumpus: It’s clear Razia derives a lot of joy from her relationship to Islam. It’s also what keeps her close to her family. Toward the end of the book, when Razia is becoming a young woman and beginning to reject her family’s plans for her, Razia’s mother says, “You don’t understand this, but Islam is good to women.” I felt like the entire novel was arguing this point.

Rehman: People have such a limited view of what Islam is in this country—and what it’s like to grow up in a community like I did. When I was older and discovered feminism, it gave me some great tools, but not the kind of tools that worked with my upbringing.

There’s religion and there’s patriarchy, and sometimes they get enmeshed. And often women can uphold patriarchy as much as men. And they’re not upholding it because they want patriarchy but because they gain—I gain—a lot of joy from spiritual practice. Especially in these years of grief with COVID-19, I have leaned hard into spiritual practices to grieve. These adults in the book were already grieving so much, the loss of their homelands, their families. Often, they couldn’t go be with the people dying back home because they couldn’t get the money or visas to leave.

The religion just becomes so important to these immigrants. And in some ways—and I discovered this when I’d go back to Pakistan—the communities here are even more religious because they’re working so hard to protect a sense of self and identity. Everyone must follow it to a tee or people are so afraid of things falling apart.Women in the community say all the time, “Islam is good to women.” The thing is—like with any kind of sacred text, people have different interpretations and can pull different things from it. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian sci-fi, but they pull things from the Bible to justify that dystopian society. Fascism and patriarchy and religion are a dangerous mix, but the biggest loss is when people lose their spiritual core. That’s an intense loss: when people’s spirituality gets corrupted.

Rumpus: Razia’s mother is also a spiritual leader in the community. So Razia has this powerful model of strong femininity and her mother models that through religion.

Rehman: Razia’s mother is very powerful and brave and she’s a storyteller. She loves to tell stories and her stories are always so shocking. In a way that’s kind of how the chapters are too—you’ll be reading a chapter and then go, Wait, what just happened? So, people reading the book are experiencing what Razia is experiencing when she hears her mom’s stories.

Her mom never went to school—she’s from the north in Pakistan—it was one of those patriarchy-meets-religion-meets-politics situations. But she’s breaking the generational trauma, allowing her daughter to go to school, not do a lot of housework, and she understands that even though it’s making her daughter different from her, it’s important.

I feel like these kinds of real people are often missing in fiction. Often, I just see and hear about these abusive Muslim parents. But no, everyone’s just trying their best under difficult circumstances.

Rumpus: By the time Razia is in high school, she seems to be thinking about race more critically than she ever has before. After a young Pakistani man from the community is killed by a group of Italians in Long Island, the realities of racism are obvious. I’m curious if you found it hard to write about New York City’s diversity without either romanticizing it as a melting pot or condemning it for its real racial injustices.

Rehman: The difficulty is you just have to write more. For example, in Corona, Julio had a small part, and it was important he have a much bigger part of this book otherwise people get a limited version of what a young Latino boy is. You have to write more, you have to share more about what you know and can imagine about people. But there was no way I could capture the full diversity of the people who are there—and there aren’t Black Americans there. There is all kinds of separatism happening and who landlords will rent to, even now in Queens. So it’s Queens-diverse—lots of immigrants from different places.

But the key is just to know people. I’m the kind of person who loves talking to people—wherever I go I’m talking to people, asking them about themselves. Learning about people in real life is what helps me write about complicated lives—and everyone is complicated.

It was also fun to have certain memories and put those in the book. For example, there’s this Italian neighbor who plays Santa one year, and he makes Razia think, “Oh, wow, they don’t all hate us.” That person existed, and I wanted to make sure that person appeared in the book.

Rumpus: This book focuses on a community of immigrants trying to make decisions for themselves within the real constraints of immigration policy in the United States. For Razia, being born in America means that she has a privilege that doesn’t go unnoticed by her community: “Us first-gen Pakistani girls were a forest of green cards. We were groomed like Christmas trees, thinking we were in the beautiful woods, thinking we were growing, but we were just being readied to be cut down.” Can you talk about how you used Razia’s voice to tell a story about a whole community?

 

Rehman: As you pointed out, when girls would get married, it helped people get green cards from back home—and that’s a real creative response to racist immigration policy. Families are financially supporting so many people back home, so the idea that you can bring another breadwinner here through marriage to a daughter who could then continue to financially support more people back home, is a real strategy of survival.

Pakistan never recovered from the centuries of British colonialism. You have things like hunger and struggling—I’m talking about serious stuff from my parents’ villages back home, and these characters’ villages. But Razia did not grow up there. She does believe in romance and love, and she’s discovering her queer sexuality too. This is a funny thing because Pakistani culture is so homosocial—men hang out with men, women hang out with women—and one of the aunties says in response to Razia having a girlfriend, “Everyone does that!” People have written to me saying, “Oh my god, that’s what my mom said.” Everyone has a girlfriend, that’s just normal, then you get married. Because again, marriage is about survival, it’s not about romance.

So there’s this major culture clash, and Razia ultimately refuses to follow that path. It’s heartbreaking for her family and for her, but it’s part of this hard shift that happens when you emigrate to another country. I know many people who this has happened to, and I do hope that a girl who is actually going through this can find this book. It would mean so much to me.

Rumpus: You co-edited an anthology with Daisy Hernandez called Colonize This: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism that came out in 2002, then again in a new edition in 2019. Can you talk about how that project—bringing together the voices of young women of color––first came to be, and how it informs your fiction?

Rehman: When Daisy and I met, we were young writers in different scenes for writers of color, feminist writers, queer writers. It was the writer Angie Cruz, who has an amazing book out now called How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, who put us in touch and was like, “You two should work together,” and we both are so grateful.

We wanted to see a book that could stretch some of the definitions of what feminism could mean, different ideas about what makes a powerful woman, not just in a traditionally male sphere. A lot of the women in the book wrote about their moms and aunts, like, Well, she never went to college, but she was in charge of the whole block.

I loved working with those writers in both editions, and I still read those essays to gain strength and clarity. And I hope Roses will be as meaningful for people as Colonize This was.

Rumpus: You run a writing workshop called “Two Truths and a Lie” about writing memoir and autobiographical fiction. Do you consider Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion autobiographical fiction?

Rehman: Corona was closer to my life than this book is. This book went way more into fiction. Razia and the characters took over. The way I think about it is that I’m like a mockingbird—I hear and see all these different things, and the art is putting it all together.

When it comes to the workshop—the class that I teach is for queer people of color and allies—I truly feel we need our stories out there. A lot of times we write because it’s a survival technique. I’m in the place that I am because I just kept writing—the writing helped me transmute the lead into gold. I like to teach other people how to do that.

Rumpus: What tips would you share with someone writing autobiographical fiction or memoir to make their writing successful?

Rehman: I wrote an essay in an essay in Poets & Writers about how to overcome the fears of autobiographical writing or memoir writing. People are so afraid of offending people, and I always quote Dorothy Allison saying that you only betray the people in your life when you write about them in two dimensional, stereotypical ways. To honor someone, write about them in a complicated way, and I try to do that in Roses.

I think all writers of color have an enormous debt to pay to Black women writers. The work of Black women writers helped shift this country’s ideas of Black families, Black communities, Black history. Alice Walker, Toni Morrison—who would any of us be without these writers? It takes courage and community to write. Because when you are ousted, you will need another community, another chosen family. And that’s a very queer concept as well—having your chosen family so your bio-family is not the only family you have.

Rumpus: I won’t ruin the ending, but I want to say that I was amazed at how seamlessly the closing pages led us to the beginning scenes of Corona, your first book. It came full circle.

Rehman: The scene this book builds up to was the exact scene I was avoiding when I was writing Corona. I was afraid to go into those missing parts, but when I started writing, I was so amazed at what I found there. I actually connected with my spirituality through writing this book, by remembering, “Oh, wow, I did enjoy all these aspects of the religion.” So, I think overcoming a fear of writing that last scene had so many tremendous gifts. That’s also what I tell people writing autobiographical work. It’s a spiritual journey, and it’s something so much bigger than publication—you’re doing it to heal yourself and possibly, hopefully, other people.

 

 

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Author photo by Andrea Dobrich


Stephanie Jimenez is the author of They Could Have Named Her Anything (2019, Little A Books). Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in The Guardian, the New York Times, Joyland, and more. She lives in New York. More from this author →