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Book Review: Roses in The Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman

     I hoped I hadn’t put the idea in the Aunty’s head that I was the kind of girl she was looking for. Was I a religious girl? I still read all my namaazes, even if Fagr was always late. I still read Qurab even though it was mostly on the weekends.
     But I knew “religious girl” was code for something that had nothing to do with Allah. It had to do with how a girl did whatever her husband and the community said, how a girl wouldn’t question the way things were set up.
     I knew the Aunty’s nephew was like the young uncles from my childhood. For them, us first-gen Pakistani girls were a forest of green cards. We were groomed like Christmas trees, thinking we were in the beautiful woods, thinking we were growing, but we were just being readied to be cut down.

Last fall, we had a little plumbing leak in the basement that led to several ah-ha moments for me.

In the damp closet were my boxes of stuff from before I got married. All the way from little art projects I made in kindergarten to my gymnastics medals and trophies and pins to the letters my friend sent me the year she was nannying and I was trying to finish high school. I went through all three of those boxes, discovering many things I’d forgotten about myself.

I consolidated from three boxes to one large and one small box, but I definitely kept all of my journals. Some of the notebooks I found were from my eighth-grade English class, where we had the assignment to write every day. The Amy I found in those notebooks! I was so young and innocent and yet I was still perceptive; I wrote a lot about discrepancies I saw but I also missed other contradictions. (Like how, on a Thursday I wrote about how much my sister annoyed me and then, on the following Monday, I wrote about how much I admired something she’d done.) They were both delightful and difficult to read; the difficulty was the innocence and naivete in my voice.

Roses in the mouth of a lionI thought about those journals a lot while reading Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman. If I had to explain the book in one sentence, it would be: A 1980s-infused Pakistani-American queer revision of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

It tells the story of Razia Mirza, who is growing up in Corona, a neighborhood in Queens, in the early 80s. She is a first-generation American born to parents who immigrated from Pakistan and who raise her with many Pakistani traditions---food, dress, relationships, and perspectives. The story starts when she is in elementary school and ends near the last days of high school, so we get to experience how her friendships and relationships change as time passes.

I loved so many things about this book. I often struggle with reading about Muslim-based cultures because the demands placed on women are so jarring to me. But as Razia pushes against her parents’ and society’s expectations for her, what I discovered is that religion seems to be religion; to a large extent it exists to restrict women and keep men in power, and in that sense Razia’s culture is not much different than my own. I cheered for her as she began to figure out how what she wanted to do with her life would be different than what her parents wanted. There is one scene that made me literally weep, when her mother throws away the clothes she has been carefully gathering and curating, so she can go to school dressed in clothes she loves (rather than the acceptable but unfashionable ones her mother wants her to wear). The balance she tries to maintain between keeping her parents happy (or at least in the dark) and being true to who she is becoming---likely all adolescents have to strive for that, but I think in strict religions it is even more complicated.

I’m glad that the book discusses Razia reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; it felt like a nod from the author that yes, she was inspired by Betty Smith’s work. There are several connections but it is a story whose arc grows out of that material without copying it.

But I can’t say I loved it without reservation, because while in many places the writing was beautiful, in others it felt like the voice in my eighth-grade notebook: painfully naïve and innocent. This was most noticeable when Razia was also in middle school, so maybe it was an intentional choice by the writer and I’m just too jaded to stay happily inside that perspective.

But there were a few plot holes, such as the “spider” in her friend Saima’s bed, which is hinted at as being perhaps sexual abuse but never actually explained and Razia’s friendship with Saima. It falls apart in unexpected ways, which is OK, but I absolutely expected a confrontation of sorts. Instead, there were hints that Saima would just really turn out to be a “religious girl” but Razia never pursues any sort of closure with her former closest friend.

I could be OK with those issues, though, if the ending hadn’t completely fallen apart.



The book ends with Razia running away. She is still a high school student and a minor. She is headed for Boston to live with her girlfriend’s aunt, to escape her parents who want to send her to Pakistan to an arranged marriage (to hide the fact that she is a lesbian).

That’s it. That’s the solution. She runs away. Gets on the bus headed out of Grand Central Station.

How is that the end?

It felt very much like an ending I would have imagined when I was the girl writing in my notebook in eighth grade. No resolutions or answers. How will she survive? What life will she have without even a high school diploma? What will happen when her parents figure out where she is?

I never need a happy ending to a book. My problem wasn’t that the ending wasn’t happy. It was that it was completely unrealistic and wildly pointless. It was a resolution without a resolution, really.

But I also enjoyed the reading experience.

So! Roses in the Mouth of a Lion is continuing with the streak I’ve had all year: books I like OK but don’t absolutely adore without reservation.

Hoping to end this streak soon by reading something I can love without qualifications.


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