Book Review: We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir
Samra Habib’s book, We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir, is screaming at you. The cover is bright, present, bold, and certainly intriguing, and the words inside are not dissimilar. Taking the reader through her personal childhood journey, from her story of migration to the messy, beautiful, complicated experiences that have grounded who she is today, one almost feels as if they’ve picked up a diary.
When the book begins, we are in Pakistan. We meet Habib’s family; we are familiarized with her likes and dislikes, what her parents reward her for and what she is punished for, her frustrations, her passions, and her future goals and dreams. Habib lays a foundation that allows readers to navigate her personal development with a deeper understanding of her origins and influences. Again, it feels as if one is reading young Habib’s diary — the emotions feel raw and present, as opposed to remembered and reflective.
It should be said, however, to the readers who are looking for another narrative on the “Good Immigrant”, someone who escaped their backward country for the promise of a free life in Canada and is inherently grateful: you will be disappointed. Of course, Habib is grateful, as she reflects later on, but she does not ever paint Pakistan as a place she wanted to escape from. She thinks back on that time of her life rather fondly.
Habib’s childhood in Canada is for the most part quite difficult, painful, and lonely. She deals with racism and discrimination, both directed at her and her family. She bears witness to the difficulties her family has in adjusting, in finding work, in paying bills, and in finding community. Bearing witness to your parents’ struggles, not only financially and socially, but also in being targets of discrimination and racism, can have lasting effects on a child, especially one who is still acclimating to a new language, culture, and lifestyle.
As someone who immigrated to Canada as a child with her parents, I could relate to Habib’s story. Seeing how my mother’s accent was received, how strangers in our building reacted to the smell of our food, or the stares my parents would get in public just for speaking in Farsi to one another, taught me what was and was not accepted in Canadian culture. It pushed me to lose my accent, to refuse my mother’s incredible home cooked lunches, and to never speak a lick of Farsi around an English-speaker. Painfully, I internalized a shame for my own ethnicity that I’m still learning to undo.
Habib goes through a similar journey. To avoid ridicule, she makes compromises until she feels safe enough to explore more authentic parts of herself, like her unique sense of fashion (in part inspired by her Pakistani roots) when she’s older. Habib’s entire journey is about learning, unlearning, and relearning. From a young age, she learns what is important to her family, her cultural roots and traditions, and then her Canadian peers. But as she grows older, she starts to deconstruct these truths and to question them for herself and sometimes even for others. In her unlearning, there’s confusion and sadness, but also excitement and growth. She falls in and out of love, in messy ways that feel contradictory to her growth. It’s at times frustrating, but mostly wildly relatable. She commits herself to new mediums of expression, like photography, and dedicates her energy and her intellect to storytelling through this platform. She questions and explores her sexuality, not just in terms of queerness, but in what it means to be attached to another human both physically and mentally. This is her unlearning — being open and vulnerable, trying new things, questioning norms.
Relearning is where we leave Habib. She discovers queer spaces and communities in Toronto, and she finds ways to share that with her family. She finds solace, connection, and above all, inspiration from other queer South Asian people and other queer Muslims. These new discoveries not only create a sense of belonging and even purpose for Habib, but further ignites her desire for visibility; she wants these stories to be shared, to be heard, and to be cemented in text, photography, video, music, etc.
We Have Always Been Here serves as written proof, not for all, but for those who can hold the text and see themselves in it. As a first-generation immigrant, so many parts of the book made me want to scream: I wanted to yell Habib’s words from the rooftops, I wanted to tell her stories to other people, because they were my stories. They were my complicated feelings and my messy experiences. Habib went through the painful process of learning, unlearning, relearning, and then shared that experience with us. This does not mean, however, that her story stands for all of us. It simply provides a foundation, a sense of community, and an urgency for others who can read this memoir and see themselves. We Have Always Been Here is proof of an experience and narrative that is otherwise at its best manipulated, controlled and diluted, and at its worst nonexistent. It is a narrative of existence, of being together, and therefore of “being” with just a bit more ease.
This book review was written by Niki Mohrdar, program assistant for Canoo.