John C Adams Reviews 'We Have Always Been Here'
Updated: Jul 5
We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir by Samra Habib
(Riverrun Books, 2019)
Riverrun Books is an imprint of Hatchette UK, and this is Samra Habib's debut work. A direct memoir as debut is an unusual choice. When my daughter gave me this book as a gift, I was immediately intrigued by the challenges faced by a queer Muslim woman and I couldn't wait to learn more about the author's life.
Samra's family live in Lahore, Pakistan. It's a large city, bustling with life and traffic. As Samra points out in the opening pages, female life in her culture is heavily regulated by their male relatives. She absorbs this fact about her mother and aunts, and much more besides, as a young girl and is determined to be more in control of her own life. She forms close friendships with other girls, and begins to wonder if she wants more than friendship as a result of the emotional intensity these friendships spark in her. As the eldest of three children, she's expected to be sensible and steady and to help her mother with her younger siblings.
As Samra grows up, everyday life for her family becomes more difficult in Pakistan. They are Ahmadis, earning them the hostility of some fellow Muslims. Her father's cousin is beaten by a group of Sunnis. Other relatives register their concern for their own safety as tensions grow between different sects. Eventually, the family moves to Canada. Samra witnesses domestic violence aimed at her mother by her father, who struggles to settle into western life as easily as the rest of the family. She is forced into a teenage marriage, from which she extricates herself with difficulty.
I was full of admiration for Samra as the memoir unfolded. The descriptions of her early life in Lahore were incredibly vivid: the sights, sounds and smells of her home city painted a beautiful picture of her life there. As she moved to the west, she becomes more empowered and confident. I loved how she was able to embrace her lesbian sexuality in an environment where it was safe to become herself.
Despite other difficulties adjusting to western life, it was still the case that Samra's father supported her sexual identity. The other members of her family were supportive and encouraging, too. I found the intimate portrait of their acceptance of her orientation very moving. I was so pleased for her to have received this response from those closest to her.
I loved how the memoir continued right into the present day, with lots of descriptions of how Samra lives now and her relationships to date. She truly blossomed and found herself as she grew into womanhood, and this memoir was thought provoking and heartwarming in equal measure. The writing style was very natural and easy to absorb.
I'm very interested in the sub-Continent because I taught in a school in Nepal as part of my Gap year and then backpacked through India one summer at university. Unfortunately, I've never had a chance to travel to Pakistan, though I have been to nearby Iran and Central Asia. Travel is not the same as living somewhere for a long period, or even close to being from there, even though I lived in Nepal for some time. Despite my travels and life experiences, this book opened up a whole new world for me and I was immensely grateful to the author for having done that.
As a reader, I felt as if I had made a new friend who had opened their heart and been completely honest about how difficult the challenges had been while at the same time resolutely staying positive. That's the best sort of memoir.
Many thanks for reading my 'Monday Musings' review here at John C Adams Reviews. I'll be posting again on Friday. In the meantime, why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?
A big thank you to photographers Atif Gulzar and Irum Shahid for providing the images for this blog via freeimages.com