Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion
Published Feb 28 2023
I first read Bushra Rehman’s “Ajax, Raid, Mr. Clean” in The Blueshift Journal (unfortunately no longer available online) and fell immediately in love. I loved the way the story so accurately captures life with roaches. I love the way the story took the time to write about roaches at all. I read it at a time where I needed reminding that all of our stories are worth telling—even those that feel shameful. When I picked up Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion, it was a pleasant surprise to find this story in the novel, and I quickly learned that Roses as a whole was going to be full of Rehman’s unique and beautiful constructed depictions of life like I first experienced in “Ajax, Raid, Mr. Clean” years ago.
Roses is a novel about connection and disconnection between a young Pakistani American woman, Razia, her family, and her community as Razia grows up and discovers who she is. The novel meditates on themes of assimilation, discrimination, sexual harassment, women’s constant fear, identity, religiosity, and so much more. Each chapter functions on its own, but, when read together, they build a home, a life in Corona, Queens, New York where Razia and her family navigate life in the United States as first- and second-generation Pakistani Americans. Rehman does an incredibly effective job using the short-story-as-chapter format to cover vast thematic territory. From the AIDS epidemic to post-partum depression to self-discovery, Rehman covers so much ground in this queer coming-of-age novel that confronts many difficult themes head on.
The thematic line that is at the heart of the novel is the building tension of Razia trying to be the perfect daughter for a mother, family, and religion that refuses to accept who she really is. Razia loves her mother, her family, her religion, her rituals, which can be attributed to our yearning desire for love, “I realized we were all like the ducks. We would do anything, even go against our natural instincts, so we could be taken care of.” However, Razia also wants to escape the confines of everything that she loves that doesn’t want to understand her. It’s so relatable. Children are in some ways cursed to have such a deep understanding of their families when often, as is the case with Razia, a deep understanding of their children eludes many parents. Instead, parents see who their children should be. After Razia experiences a failed attempt of cutting her hair, her mother, “said slowly, so each word could be stamped on me: ‘You look ridiculous. Like a crazy person. A crazy person is someone who thinks they’re something they’re not.’ She flipped the roti on the tava and pressed down on it with a cloth.” There are so many points of tension here, but one that cycles throughout the book is: Razia’s mother cannot accept that Razia is a young American teenager. This point is further developed when Razia’s mother discovers Razia’s thrift store clothes buried in the back of her closest. Instead of trying to understand Razia and the importance of creating one’s identity, Razia’s mother throws her clothes away creating a deeper chasm between Razia and her mother. After the incident, Razia has a poignant conversation with her father:
"'It’s just clothes,' I managed to say.
He sighed. 'It’s not just clothes. No matter what you do, if you try to be American, they will never accept you. They’ll turn against you in the end.'
How could I explain that I wasn’t trying to be American, I already was?"
Though it’s never explicitly said, parents fear raising children that are completely unknown to them—especially immigrant parents who are in a whole new world. A new world that does everything it can to keep them out. Unfortunately, a parent can only minimize the influence of place for so long. Razia is an American, and there is a tension within her family that can’t come to terms with this portion of Razia’s identity. They want to hang onto the old ways, when the identity Razia is creating for herself is learning how to weave the old ways with the new ways all on her own—an immensely admirable feat.
One of the most painful offshoots of this thematic line is the way Razia’s mother finds empathy for others but cannot find this empathy for Razia, which is made apparent later in the book when Razia’s family takes in Shahnaaz:
“…Shahnaaz began to follow my mother around. I’d walk in on them, their heads bent together, reading the Bahishti Zewar. They’d watch Days of Our Lives, gossiping about the characters as if they were people we knew from Corona. My mother began to teach her how to cook. She’d never even let me into the kitchen. She always said my schoolwork was too important.”
Razia tries so hard to appease her mother. Razia is devout, respectful, intelligent, but, for some reason, her mother cannot find it in her to show Razia the same type of empathy and understanding that she can conjure for even a rebel like Shahnaaz. This tension coalesces into the climactic moment when Razia’s parents learn about her relationship with Angela, a girl from the fancy school, Stuyvesant, she worked so hard to attend:
“He held up my diary. ‘Razia. What is this?’ His hands shook. I thought of everything I’d written about Angela and felt my insides shriveling. He flipped through the pages and stopped at one. His face turned red. ‘What you write about this girl. In Pakistan, they’d kill you. For this you’ll burn in Hell.’
I was used to my mother saying I’d burn in Hell, but coming from my father, the words shook me.”
This moment is incredibly hard to read. Throughout the novel, I was rooting for Razia to find the peace and connection with her mother she has always yearned for, “I had a sudden irrational desire to hug her, but there was so much distance between us.” But, this moment shows that no matter how much right one does, it can all be undone in a second. Razia is acutely aware of the fact that she won’t be able to connect with her mother, “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.” Throughout the book up until the tumultuous point of tension when her parents discover Razia’s relationship with Angela, Razia is conscious of the growing disconnection between her and her mother and frequently alludes to running away almost as if she always knew there was no other way out for her.
Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion expertly tackles so many complex themes without holding back like books with young protagonists often do. By the end, I wanted more. At the end of great books, I often feel a sense of loss. With Roses, I felt a flood of grief for Razia, for the fact the book had ended, and because I unfortunately won’t know whether Razia wins in the end. I only have my hope that she’ll pull through in what has become one of my favorite coming-of-age novels.