Carmella reviews We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib

We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

Samra Habib is many things: photographer, journalist, activist, writer, queer woman, Muslim, refugee, and now – with the publication of her memoir – the author of a book. The saying may be ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’, but I think she has done a pretty masterful job here!

I was already familiar with Habib (as you may also be) from her existing body of work. She runs ‘Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Project’ on Tumblr, where she shares the photo portraits and stories of other queer Muslims, and writes for various media outlets such as the New York Times, Guardian, and Vice. She has a strong voice and is always interesting, thought-provoking, and creative with it – so I was naturally excited to read her memoir and learn more about what experiences have shaped her perspective.

We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir follows Habib’s life, starting with a childhood in Pakistan where her family faced persecution as Ahmadiyya Muslims, followed by immigration to Canada, an unwanted arranged marriage at the age of sixteen, and then finding both her identity as a queer woman and her calling as a documenter of queer Muslim experiences.

As I already said, one of Habib’s writing strengths is her voice. I always enjoy reading her articles, so I was curious to see how much a full-length book would differ from her journalism. The answer is “not much”!

She continues to write with a conversational, confessional style. Reading the memoir is like reading a really long feature article (think the Guardian’s ‘long reads’). Luckily, this is a good thing: it’s what Habib is good at. I was engaged the whole way through, enjoying both the personal aspects and the more factual bits focusing on history and culture.

That said, I did feel like there could have been a little more of the personal, as sometimes the narrative felt like it had gaps. For example, Habib’s siblings fade in and out and barely feature as characters, which feels strange in a work that talks so much about family life. But this is a memoir rather than an autobiography, so it could just be a quirk of the genre.

For me, the memoir gets to be most interesting when Habib starts to talk about her photo project. It’s compelling to hear about how it got started. Habib explains that she wanted to see Muslims represented in queer spaces, and in an accessible way that doesn’t block people with a language barrier or academic jargon.

I was also fascinated to hear more about how people like Habib and her subjects reconcile faith with their queer identities. I have read a fair deal about LGBT followers of Christianity and Judaism, but I haven’t come across much about Islam. One of the stand-out sections is Habib’s description of attending prayers at Unity Mosque, an LGBT-friendly mosque run by a gay imam. After spending so much of the memoir seeking belonging, it’s delightful to read about Habib finally feeling part of a community.

The title We Have Always Been Here is actually taken from a quote from one of Habib’s subjects, Zainab. It’s a powerful statement about asserting the right to a shared community, history, and voice for queer Muslims. But I don’t know if it’s the right title for this memoir. Going into it, I was expecting more on the history of queer Muslims, whereas the memoir is focused entirely on contemporary experience. I don’t dislike this focus, but it wasn’t what I was expecting from the title.

Still, I see why Habib wanted to use a quote taken from her photo project. This memoir is a natural extension of her existing body of work: yet another way in which she asserts that queer Muslims exist – indeed, have always existed – and deserve to have their stories heard.

Trigger warnings: CSA, abuse, arranged child marriage, attempted suicide

Mars reviews Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi 

Tell Me How You Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi cover

Happy Pride Month, Lesbrarians! I am swooping in from the ether to volunteer this review of Aminah Mae Safi’s much anticipated Tell Me How You Really Feel on this most auspicious month. It’s a charming read, a very well-executed story, and has been on my pre-order list for months.

Safi starts us off with a fact that stands as an overarching conflict of the book: Cheerleader Sana Khan is perfect, and there is no one who finds that more infuriating than her classmate Rachel Recht.

Rachel is a perfectionist filmmaking scholarship student on the fast-track out of her elite private school in Los Angeles to NYU’s film program, where she is going to share her vision with the world. (Accolades will follow, of course.)

Sana is an annoyingly good student on her way to Princeton, where she’ll set herself up perfectly to go on to med school and make her whole family proud (or at least that’s what she’s telling people).

Told alternatingly from Sana and Rachel’s perspectives, Tell Me How You Really Feel recounts the end of the girls’ high school experience, as they both march towards deadlines over which they have no control. For Rachel, it means she has one month to pull together a disaster film project which could jeopardize her hard-won spot at college. Rachel has had her mind made up about Sana, her self-assigned mortal enemy, since an embarrassing incident in freshman year, but after a chance accident means she’s forced to rely on her enemy for help, the film student realizes there is more to the picture than she’s been seeing. For Sana, it means possibly giving up her dream fellowship abroad that she’s secretly applied to in lieu of accepting her spot at Princeton. If she doesn’t get the fellowship by the time she loses her spot at the Ivy league, her carefully constructed house of cards will come crashing down.

This is the sweetest enemies-to-more story I’ve read in a long while, and Rachel and Sana are complicated protagonists whose growth from beginning to end had me both entertained and anticipatory. Rachel and Sana are opposites in so many ways; Rachel spews profanity, has a mean glare, and works at a diner on the other side of the tracks to make ends meet; Sana locks away her discontent with a smile, and has lived a life committed to smoothing over a complicated familial relationship between the high standards of her grandparents and the irreverent independence of her mother. Ultimately, however, they are bound by a shared hunger for more than life wants to give them, and an ambition that leaves them each taking more risks than they ever realized they could.

There are apparently some serious references to Gilmore Girls (referenced very early on in the Dedication, actually) but they all go over my head because I’ve never watched the show. If you are a Gilmore Girls fan, this will apparently be a delightful shout out. If you aren’t, I promise you this is still a lovely read that is worth your time and you won’t feel like you’re missing anything.

Alexa reviews Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve

Out of Salem by Hal Schrieve cover
4.5 stars

When I saw that cover and read the blurb, I was ready for an epic queer urban fantasy adventure. I mean, doesn’t that just sound badass? Two fourteen-year-olds: a nonbinary witch zombie, and a Muslim lesbian werewolf. I have read many urban fantasy books where the supernatural creatures live in secret, so I was excited to see this book went in another direction, one I’m always eager to read more of: a world where supernatural creatures live among humans and are regulated by rules and laws. It’s always interesting to see how intertwining the two worlds changes them both.

Out of Salem is unique in that regard because instead of human, the default seems to be witches, with only a small percentage of the population being nonmagicals. Werewolves, zombies, selkies, shapeshifters and other creatures are minorities that have limited rights which vary in countries or time periods, just as with real life minorities. I loved all the little details, like the ways to become a zombie, the casual mention of prophecies, or shapeshifters being able to marry any gender in certain countries.

So, for the first part of the book, I was getting what I signed up for: a really well-built and interesting urban fantasy world in the ’90s that incorporates supernatural creatures into real-world history and culture. And I loved it. Then, it gradually got a little too real for comfort. It’s as if the book was asking the question, “hey, you know what’s scarier than zombies and werewolves? Reality!”. (A little like that Doctor Who episode with the spiders and the gun-loving white guy.) As I kept reading about horrible bullies, racist rallies, police brutality and windows being broken for the owner supporting minority groups, it was difficult not to think about how many people go through all this stuff daily. Z and Aysel having to sit in class while the teacher talked about how dangerous their kind is, and Z reading a book by a guy who thinks all zombies should be killed in horrifying ways reminded me of too many similar situations I went through for being a queer person.

There are many fantasy books that use supernatural creatures as metaphors for real-life oppressed groups, while using all white and allocishet casts. What made the metaphor in Out of Salem really work for me is that while Z, Aysel and the others are persecuted for their supernatural traits, they are also minorities in real life. Z is nonbinary, Aysel is a lesbian, and major side characters include an elderly lesbian, a Black Jewish teacher, and several transgender werewolves. While the main focus isn’t on these real-life traits, they are still mentioned: the older lesbian expresses joy that Aysel is able to come out so young, Aysel draws a parallel between being a “good werewolf” and her mother being a “good Muslim”, and it is made clear that Mr. Weber is risking a lot more as a Black Jewish person than one of his more privileged colleagues might.

All in all, I consider Out of Salem a wonderfully well-written book with great world-building and characters. I loved the little group that formed by the end, and how they gradually became closer to each other. I loved that Aysel and Z gravitated towards each other not only for both being monsters, but also both being queer. I loved Z explaining their identity, how both they and their friends were kind of awkward and unsure about terms, but not malicious by any means – the way you’d expect 14-year-olds in the ’90s to be when they have few queer adults to look up to or to learn from.

My only real complaint is that I found the ending too open, and since I saw no indication of this being a first book in a series, I was a little disappointed. I wasn’t sure how I expected all the plotlines to be wrapped up neatly, but this was still a let-down.

Concent warnings: misgendering and deadnaming (mostly due to Z being closeted, not intentional transphobia), death of family members, body horror (because zombies), police brutality, some gun violence, racist rallies, bullying, suicidal thoughts

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @runtimeregan.

Alexa reviews Soft on Soft by Em Ali

Last month, I reviewed a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who was fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Learning Curves by Ceillie Simkiss). This month, I’m reviewing a fluffy, romantic, low-conflict sapphic story with at least one protagonist who is fat, non-white, pan and/or ace-spec (Soft on Soft, a.k.a #FatGirlsInLove by Em Ali). Honestly, I love this trend, and I hope we’ll all have the chance to read many more diverse and positive sapphic stories like these.

Despite my comparison at the beginning, Soft on Soft by Em Ali (which I received as an ARC with a different title, #FatGirlsInLove, that appears to be a working title) is an entirely unique story. It’s a romance between two fat sapphic women: Selena, a Black demisexual model, and June, the Arab-Persian, anxious make-up artist. Thanks to the profession of the two protagonists, Soft on Soft is full of diverse bodies being celebrated, colourful descriptions, flowers, and altogether vivid mental images.

The book’s plot can mostly be summarised as Selena and June flirting, hanging out with friends, going on dates, making geeky references or working together. It is a character driven novel that is perfect for people who just want to read a cute romance and don’t mind the minimal plot – and really, the characters are worth staying for. The supporting cast has multiple nonbinary characters (with different pronouns), one of whom has depression and some really relatable remarks about mental health and therapy. Also, one parent of the main couple is bisexual, which is awesome – I very rarely see older queer characters, especially parents with adult children.

One strange thing was that the characters in this book talked in real life the way I’m used to people talking on Tumblr, and it was just a strange dissonance to see that kind of language being used in offline conversation. For this reason, some sentences seemed like they weren’t really lifelike, but I’m sure people actually talk like this and I’m just not used to it. (Also, “I’m green with enby” is a great pun I must use.)

In short, this was an adorable novel with diverse characters and colourful settings (and also, cats!). I admit I generally prefer books with a more exciting plot, but people who just want a cozy sapphic romance with fat characters will love Soft on Soft.

tw: panic attack described by POV character (chapter 8)

Alexa is a bi ace reviewer who loves books with queer protagonists, especially young adult and fantasy books. E also has a fascination with solarpunk, found families and hopeful futures, and plans to incorporate these in eir own writing. You can find more of eir reviews and bookish talk on WordPress and Twitter @greywardenblue.