In our Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion book review, we discuss what is so special about specificity in queer stories, especially as it pertains to the lesbian experience.
The term queer has had a long and colorful history; it has been an old english word meaning odd, used by writers like Tolkein and Austen; it was a slur levied against men perceived as feminine or known to be gay beginning with the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1894 and lasting until only a few years ago; now, queer has come to encompass many beautiful and subversive parts of life. Queer is an umbrella term because it leaves room for fluidity when claiming your identity. Queer is also a political identity that describes anyone fighting for the liberation of themselves and others in marginalized groups. In this fashion, queer can encompass those who are subversive in any number of ways; being Black is queer, being a woman is queer, being fat is queer, being disabled is queer. Queer is a wonderful word that we have worked hard to reclaim, but it is not the right word for every story or person or idea, because, to an extent, it lacks specificity. In our quest to create a world that fits every person, we can sometimes make things too broad, and forget that nuance brings people together. Sharing an exact experience or a precise identity makes a person feel seen in a way that nothing else can, and there is a special kind of magic in that level of understanding. What I would like to discuss in this Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion book review, is that Bushra Rehman did not make a broad appeal story. It is not an umbrella-term queer story; it is a lesbian story.
Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion follows a Pakistani Muslim girl reckoning with her lesbian identity. Razia lives in Queens, a freshly Pakistani neighborhood surrounded by neighbors from the motherland she doesn’t remember, but still entrenched in the traditions. Her community has deep roots, but is not so old that there aren’t a few Italian and Greek families that haven’t left her neighborhood yet. Razia is watched by her mother, who is always home, and many of the aunties in the neighborhood, all of whom aim to ensure she adheres to their customs and beliefs, carefully avoiding Americanization. The older Raiza gets, the more she rubs up against these traditions, like a shoe that grows smaller on your feet every passing year. Tensions come to a head when Razia realizes she is a lesbian, a word she had heard in passing and knows is taboo. While knowing her identity is a beautiful sort of freedom, she is eventually forced to choose between her rigidly conservative community and her authentic self.
In our Roses in the Mouth of a Lion book review, we want to point to why the specificity of this story is so important. Like every person, Razia lives in a microcosm of society. Only being allowed to go inside other Pakistani families’ houses, waking up early to read the Quran, and having chai with visiting aunties are all a reflection of her Muslim immigrant experience, in addition to reflecting deeper truths. While not every reader called their parents’ friends auntie or uncle, most of us have been surrounded by watchful adults who felt loving and suffocating in turn. Each person who picks up this book will not have read the Quran, but they will have been given a set of beliefs as children that they have spent their lives trying to grow within.
The major conflict of the novel comes from Razia’s identity as a lesbian. While queer stories are steadily gaining traction, lesbian stories, especially those focusing on BIPOC characters, are still continually overlooked. There are universal, or nearly so, queer experiences, but there are also experiences specific to the lesbian identity that we deserve to see reflected in media as well. There are certain growing pains in the lesbian experience, many of which become particularly painful when you begin sharing your identity with other people. Razia tells her best friend, Taslima, when she kisses a girl for the first time. Their conversation is relatively lighthearted, and Razia feels a tremendous amount of relief, because for a moment, she thinks nothing has changed. This isn’t a reality Razia gets to live in for very long, as Taslima insists Razia keep her identity a secret and compares it to other taboos like drinking, and worst of all, she says what every queer person dreads hearing—that they’re not ‘normal’.
“I thought it was going to be a boy first, but of course you can never do things normal.”
There it was. A little seed of judgment.
One of the more harrowing stereotypes young lesbians must reckon with when it comes to their peers is that they are predatory. Few young women would say they thought lesbians were, but many of them have still internalized that belief. That stereotype can come through in a number of unconscious ways, from thinking your friend who came out to you must have a crush on you, to no longer wanting to change around them. This kind of exclusion rooted in the belief that lesbians have nefarious intentions is a very specific kind of heartbreak, and we see Razia experience this.
“But you have to go outside.”
“Why do I have to go outside?”
“You know . . . because.” She pointed to her lips.
It was so rude even I had to laugh.
Razia is not only a young lesbian, she is a young lesbian in a conservative religious community. While every queer person reckons with the fears of disappointing their parents, young women in religious settings are up against an entire patriarchal belief system. For young women, they are often viewed as an extension of their parents rather than their own autonomous person. This pervasive belief makes the process of a daughter rejecting the life their parents planned for them even more painful. In religious settings, this is coupled with young women being taught that they are not the determiners of what is good or bad, that they cannot trust themselves to be leaders even in their own lives, and must look to external sources of authority. All of these beliefs come to a head when Razia’s parents discover her sapphic relationship.
He held up my diary. “Razia. What is this?” His hands shook.
Her father later went on to say:
“What you write about this girl. In Pakistan, they’d kill you. For this you’ll burn in Hell.”
All queer stories deserve to be heard, and that includes Razia’s. Getting to read such an intimate examination of what reckoning with her lesbain identity was like for this young Pakistani Muslim girl reminded me of the importance of specificity, something I knew I wanted to explore in my Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion book review. I saw so much of myself in Razia, including places where our experiences were mirrored and many places where they differed, but the emotions were the same. We should keep expanding whose stories are being told, but never at the expense of detail.
‘Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion’ published on December 6, 2022
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