A Queer Pakistani Teenager Forges Her Own Path in 1980s New York City
Bushra Rehman’s novel "Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion" explores Muslim womanhood in a small South Asian community of Corona, Queens
Bushra Rehman’s newest novel Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion follows Razia, a young Pakistani Muslim girl growing up in 1980s Corona, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. Razia’s world consists of her family, her close friends, who are also Pakistani Muslim girls from her neighborhood, and her deep desire to have bigger experiences through the spiritual traditions of her religion, through the maze of New York City, and through her fascination with pop music—and her crush on George Michael.
It is this desire for bigger experiences and a search for identity that opens her up to questioning aspects of her culture and faith, especially the expectations placed on young girls and women of early marriage and restrictions on career ambitions, and to questioning her own sexuality. But even as Razia blooms with each new experience she pursues, she risks losing her newfound freedom and queer identity if her community and family find out. In the world she comes from, there is a prescribed path and the question this novel asks and seeks to answer is, what happens when Razia, a young, queer Muslim girl, deviates from this path to pursue her own?
Kavita Das: As a South Asian American woman who grew up in Queens, New York in the 1980s as the child of immigrant parents, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion feels like a love letter to South Asian American kids—and in particular, South Asian American queer kids. It also feels like a love letter to Corona, Queens and New York City in the 1980s. What was the experience like of evoking a childhood in 1980s Corona, Queens—how much did you draw on your own experience and how much did you draw on research?
Bushra Rehman: I grew up in Corona and it lives in me, imprinted in my deepest code. Most days it feels like a Technicolor dream that plays over and over in my mind. Roses is a work of fiction though, not memoir. When I was writing, the world of Roses was so much more real than my day-to-day life.
The research mostly took place in my own brain, trying to remember what it felt like to be a child and then a teenager in NYC. Luckily, I was raising a child in the city at the same time I was writing, so I spent a lot of time in public parks and exploring the wilderness that does pop up in the outer boroughs. I was also working with young people in schools in Queens and throughout the city so I was aware that some things change, but much still stays the same when you’re an immigrant child in the city.
Sometimes I’d take breaks to research Corona, itself. This wasn’t to put in the novel, but just as a reminder of its rich artistic history. Corona is where Louis Armstrong lived (that’s why one of his trumpets was in the hallway of my middle school!), where Ella Fitzgerald lived, Cyndi Lauper, Niki Minaj, Tribe Called Quest, Nas, Simon and Garfunkel. . .. Even Madonna lived in Corona where she had a harrowing experience that changed her life and made her decide she would never be disempowered again. That’s what Queens will do to you.
KD: This book is also a love letter to 1980s music, from Paul Simon’s musical homage to Corona, Queens, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to George Michael, who embodied so many “schoolgirls’ pride and joy” and crush (and some schoolboys’ too), not to mention songs from iconic 1980s Bollywood movies, like “Silsila.” Why was the music key to evoking the childhood of Razia and her friends? Did delving into the music of that era help you evoke that time or did delving into that time send you into a wormhole of 1980s music?
BR: It definitely sent me into a wormhole. Especially watching the videos! There was a strange parental policy around music when I was growing up and I wanted this to be an aspect of the novel—Western music on the radio was forbidden (because of all the sex, love and drugs) but Bollywood was always playing in the background, even though there were also references to sex, love and drugs. I will be the first to say Bollywood is highly problematic, the misogyny, patriarchy, etc, but if I was just watching American TV, I would have been fed the same junk where Muslim people were only portrayed as terrorists. (Yes, even back then… all of this didn’t start on 9/11! Read Edward Said!)
As terrible as Bollywood movies can be, we are the heroes, the villains and the lovers. When I revisit American movies from the ’80s, even a classic like Back to the Future (Michael J Fox, how could you betray me?), I realize how insidious these portrayals of Muslims are. Why is it that Marty McFly jumps in the DeLorean in the first place? It’s because he’s being chased by Muslim terrorists (speaking in gibberish and acting foolish).
In Roses, I also wanted to place queer cultural icons front and the center. I love that you quote George Michael’s “Freedom.” George Michael was also an immigrant kid in London. His family was from Cyprus and he was teased and bullied. I mean this is England right? The OG of white purity, colonialism and racism. The whole time George Michael was super famous, he was hiding his sexuality from the public. Razia is drawn to him and she doesn’t even know how much they have in common.
KD: As someone who is half Bengali and half Tamilian, when people talk generically about the Indian experience, I usually want to ask, “which one?” So, I appreciate the way the Pakistani community of Corona is depicted not as monolithic but with nuance and diversity. We see families that are more liberal than Razia’s family, like Taslima’s family and we see other families who are more conservative, like Bahar’s and Shahnaaz’s families. While Razia and Taslima are sneaking off trying to be typical American teenagers, Saima, her first childhood best friend, becomes more religious and her nemesis Shahnaaz gets married off and drops out of high school. Were you deliberate in wanting to create a narrative that showed the diversity within this community and its ripple effect on the next generation?
BR: Each of Razia’s friends makes a different choice, although choice may not be the right word. There’s not only one path to follow, contrary to belief.
So much of my writing comes from simply honoring what I have witnessed, the complexity of the diaspora. In Razia’s world, I wanted to share the wide range of what being Pakistani meant even in this small community. The Pakistani families I knew created community across languages and even differing spiritual practices. They made community with people from all over the world, their neighbors in Queens.
KD: This book also revolves around the complicated relationships between immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters embodied by Razia and her mother. There’s so much tension because they are at cross purposes—Razia is hungry for the experiences of American teen-dom while her mother wants to shield her from anything that goes against their Pakistani cultural traditions and Muslim beliefs. At the same time, Razia and her mother share a strong bond and even shared loves, like climbing cherry trees. There’s a poignant passage in the book that captures this underlying rift: “My birth had been only the beginning of our separation, the first time I was cut loose. From that moment until now, I’d just been going farther and farther away, my body a lifeboat pushing into the ocean.” Can you talk about this mother daughter relationship that is so central to this story?
BR: Razia loves her mother, and like all children is observing her mother’s every move. Razia’s mother is a fierce survivor, the aunty in the community who is beautiful and often cutting in her commentary. She’s protective of Razia and at the same time overwhelmed by her life as an immigrant. She thought she had left a life of poverty behind, only to find it replaced with a new form of poverty in NYC, one filled with danger and bugs such as cockroaches she had never experienced before.
Trying to figure out the way to describe this relationship is what took me so long to write this book. So much of my feminism as a woman of color comes from trying to understand the mothers and aunties in our communities. To understand the ways patriarchy wounded them and how these wounds are passed down to their children. I wanted to create a story that contained this powerful and difficult dynamic but held it with compassion and care.
KD: In this narrative, culture and religion are the foundation of the strong ties in Corona’s Pakistani community. But they also are restrictive to Razia and the other girls of her community. The tension of this duality is seen in Razia, herself. She finds solace in prayer and spiritual practice yet she finds herself in conflict with what her culture and religion demand of her when it comes to her gender and her sexuality. As she leans into her American and queer identities, she faces the constant risk of being caught and married off before she’s had a chance to finish high school, her life and ambitions curtailed. How did you walk this line when it comes to depicting the many facets of influence Pakistani culture and Islam have on the lives of these communities and their American-born/raised children?
BR: Razia is a character I’ve always wanted to see in literature: a young Muslim woman experiencing both her Muslim spirituality and her queer desires.
Like many Queer people before her, Razia is faced with a difficult choice: to stay in her childhood world and integrate or to strike out on her own. This isn’t something specific to Muslim communities. It’s important for me to say this because this book isn’t meant to fuel Islamophobia. I wanted to make it clear that she is not leaving an oppressive religious situation to enter the La La Land of freedom that the United States thinks it is. It’s not.
In Roses, I wanted to share a loving and complicated portrait of Muslim-American families and communities. I’ve rarely seen three-dimensional portrayals of our families: our love, resilience and humor. Razia’s culture and religion form her being. She can no more reject them than reject her physical body. In Roses, I wanted to write of the early wound of breaking away from a religious, loving family and community and how difficult this decision can be.
I know not all families practice arranged marriage the way Razia’s family and community did, and many of these practices have changed over the last few decades, but I personally know there are still many young women who deal with this pressure and it’s for them especially that I’m writing this story.
KD: Relatedly, as Razia falls in love with her Stuyvesant High School friend, Angela and begins coming to terms with her queer identity, she struggles with feeling like there is no precedence or reference for queerness in her Pakistani community. But through her conversations with her Pakistani aunties, who are the daily enforcers of culture and faith, she finally hears whispers of what is never talked about—that queerness exists amongst Pakistani women even if it is suppressed. This seems to give Razia strength to embrace her own queerness and resist the patriarchal expectations placed on her. But it also seems significant to me as a South Asian American reader that Razia learns about queerness not just from Western influences, like Angela and Western literature, but also from her own community, even as they seek to suppress it. Can you talk about your decision to include this corrective cultural queer history as part of this story?
BR: This is something we used to joke about in our queer desi circles. When some of us would come out to our parents, the response was often, “Well everyone does that!” It was just such a different spin than any of us expected and of course we found it hilarious. Our elders simply had a rule that at some point, we, like them, had to grow up and become straight.
I remember one Pakistani friend, a fluidly gendered immigrant in the U.S, telling me, and I paraphrase: “Here, in the U.S. people are always talking about being gay, but they’re not having as much sex. Back home, we don’t talk about it, but we have way more sex.” Humor of course is how we deal with the intensity of our pain and our desire to simply breathe free as we are, love who we want to love.
Of course, being queer is not just about sex, it’s about who we choose to spend our lives with, who we make family and community with. The truth is the reality of being a queer person is dangerous when our lives, our safety and our rights aren’t legally protected, both here in the United States or anywhere in the world.
KD: I’ve lived across the iconic Strand bookstore for 15 years and it’s been a beacon to me as a reader and later as a writer, just as it is for Razia, an avid reader and budding writer. You used to work at The Strand and there seems to be a character in Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion who is an homage to Strand’s legendary bookseller Ben McFall, who passed away last year. Can you talk about your time working at the Strand, your impression of Ben McFall, and what the Strand meant to you?
BR: It is truly impossible to fully explain what it meant to be in the vicinity of Ben McFall. Like everyone who loved him, I miss him. I was lucky to be loved by him, to be one of his Strand children. I worked at the Strand in the late ‘90s. With my shaved head, ripped clothes, and a clearly haunted look, no one else would hire me. I was lucky enough to be placed in the fiction section with Ben.
It was a wild time in my life and I loved working there. I used to talk to Ben about my fears of hurting my family or offending people with my writing. The gist of what he always said to me was to not let the limitations of the imaginations of others limit my imagination.
When I left the Strand, Ben and I kept in touch. I asked if I could write a character inspired by him. His response was: “I would be honored for you to use me or the idea of me anyway my darling Bear chooses.” That was his nickname for me Bear.
I had plans for a long time to interview him, to record all of his amazing stories. I regret so much not doing so. In the way it is sometimes with incredible people like Ben, we just don’t believe they are ever going to die. When Ben passed away, his obituary took up as much space in the New York Times as Betty White’s and I think he would’ve been tickled by that.
The Roses book launch is taking place in the same room where his memorial was held. This reading is of course dedicated to him. I’m going to try not to cry, but I probably will.