Book Review: We Have Always Been Here

This book came across my radar this summer, while I was compiling my diverse book list at the same time, I also realized I don’t look to many Canadian authors, particularly Canadian authors of colour. Adding to it- this book was chosen on CBC’s Canada Reads this summer and I was then able to hear a lot more about the book and the author. Not only is it a memoir from a queer Muslim Canadian woman, but it’s also a story about someone coming into their own, stepping into their truth, the bravery and strength it took in order to do so. I sped through this book in about 2-3 weeks; read along this week’s blog post and our review of Samra Habib’s We Have Always Been Here.

Synopsis:

This is a memoir of Samra Habib’s life so far; she is an Ahmadi Muslim born in Pakistan, but due to the increased violence in her home country, her family is eventually forced to seek asylum in Canada. Upon coming to Canada Samra begins to feel pulled between two cultures; that of her strict Muslim family and community and the allure of the Liberal Canadian way of life. Forced into an unwanted marriage to her cousin as teenager, struggling to gain the freedom to explore her love of fashion and books- she runs away from home and leaps into a strange relationship with one of her close friends, but soon realizes she is not sexually attracted to him. Eventually realizing she isn’t living the life she desires and isn’t being true to herself and her sexuality, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery through her faith.

Break it Down:

I’ll begin by saying this book is relevant and I can definitely see and support the need for it, but I would be remiss if I didn’t inject the fact that personally, I didn’t feel much connection to Samra. I have never heard of her, whether from a Canadian, photographer or other perspective. Her book was written in a very open, fluid, dare I say “unstructured” manner and if I’m being honest, this made it bit hard for me to connect with the writing style. That being said I cannot say or mention enough how important I feel this book is for people of the Muslim faith, for newcomers settling into their sexuality and for any people, particularly Black or Brown, who are struggling to step into their authentic self. Putting a lens on the Brown community, which has always been more subdued and reserved when it comes to their intersectionality with the queer community. This book is such an important guide and I feel in some ways it is shattering a door for others to step into. Samra’s drive to be herself and to challenge the world around her, her struggle with attempting to balance living in a strict, religious home and stepping out into a not so strict environment of Canada, was something I could relate to. Now, my family was no where near as strict as Samra’s, but the balancing of 2 cultures and searching to find where you belong in the mix of it all. She discussed very matter of factly, her arranged marriage to her cousin and feelings of anger, confusion and in some ways duty- she felt. Feeling utter ashamed of the fact that she was in high school and married and knowing full well that other high schoolers were not doing the same. Feeling trapped with the extreme pressure within the Muslim community she grew up in and feeling like she didn’t belong. Throughout the book, the theme of religion within the LGBTQIA community, Samra’s desire to be connected to her faith, but feeling like there wasn’t a place for her in her local mosque, especially when it came to the gossip and feeling like she was subjecting her mother to more pain, because she was seen as a bad daughter.

Samra discusses her relationship to her sexuality through the book, I can’t be too harsh on her, because we all make decisions in our lives that might not have been the best, but we learnt from them and they helped to shape us. That being said, I do not understand her “relationship” with Peter. He was her 1st real “chosen” boyfriend/partner, but neither of them seemed to have any draw towards being physical and in some ways he simply served as way for her to get out from under the roof of her strict parents. She admits to not enjoying sex and not feeling any sense of attraction to Peter. So, it really confused me as to why she remained in a relationship with someone she cared about, but didn’t have any attraction of even potentially any agape love towards. But I suppose the freedom she was granted with Peter, allowed her to get to know herself and live freer than she previously was living. I should note, in no way am I judging her, I suppose she was lucky she was able to ease into her independence. I can certainly understand and relate to leaping into a “saviour” relationship when I might not have been quite ready to do so. Samra discusses how she came up with the idea of photographing people within the Queer community, particularly people who “looked” like her, people who could relate to the dichotomy between faith and sexuality. She mentioned a few times the lack of diversity within the feminist movement and how out of place she felt in places which should have felt more safe. The gap, per se, within the Canadian feminist movement and the movement at large. Some of what she touches on were something I read in depth in Hood Feminism– and I have felt it myself, so it definately left me nodding my head. But, I know exactly what she means, belonging to a community knowing you are the odd one out; in a system in which you are meant to feel the very opposite of. She words it so beautifully in the above photograph, which displays Canada’s complicated relationship with discrimination and seeing things through a very naive and apathetic lens.

She doesn’t specify how old she was throughout the book, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how old she is at any given time. I found that to be a bit frustrating, but at the same time you can sense the years as Samra essentially blooms into herself. Living her life more openly, coming out to her mother and father, dating and exploring her sexuality, all of it was like a shedding of skin, shedding of the weight and pressure, a shedding of expectations as well and this all came as she connected more deeply with her faith. This, I found to be so interesting, because many people of faith may state that people within the queer community couldn’t be people of faith because their acts are a sin. But, in seeking out queer people of faith, Samra essentially gives herself permission to stop hiding. The term, We Have Always Been Here, is so very fitting title- people of the Islamic faith, who also identify within the LGBTQIA community have always existed, in history, people of any faith, in the world, in life- they have been living in the shadows, we could say. They may have suppressed, they may have sought ways to hide or even blend in, but the fact of the matter is- they rent’ new, but they very much belong. This book is their flashlight, their beacon: there is hope.

Negatives?:

As it’s a memoir, it doesn’t follow the typical flow of a fiction, so some of the anecdotes are a bit choppy in the timeline, but I suppose it’s how Samra is recalling the events of her life in certain instances the story is relevant to what she is revealing to the reader. I found it a bit confusing sometimes to figure out at what particular age she was in the middle of the book, but to be honest, you don’t really need to drill down her exact age to follow along or to get the overall message. I will also admit that I was hoping for something a little but more profound at the end of the book, something that left you feeling well within yourself or words of encouragement. Something, but I suppose it needed to follow the slow, meandering narrative throughout.

Would I recommend?:

I would. I can definitely see this book being necessary for them Muslim community as well as people within the Pakistani community, not many people come to mind when we think about representation and for that this book and the honesty at which it is written makes it very relevant.

The RnR Rating:

3🌟🌟🌟