I grew up in a house with three younger brothers, and it was not unusual for hours of play to suddenly, unexpectedly, crackle into conflict. After a fight over which TV show to watch or who ate more than their fair share of ice cream, I’d turn to my grandfather, Dada, sniffling or complaining. Both he and my grandmother lived with us while we were growing up, and he was my favorite person in the whole world. No matter the nature of the fight, he’d always remind me in Urdu, “Fatima, whenever you point your finger to blame someone, remember that there are three fingers beneath it, pointing back at you.”
He’d hold up his hand to show me the gesture, and emphasize the three fingers pointing back. I know that he wanted me to pause before I landed on blame or judgment, wanted me to reflect and ask myself how I was complicit in our daily battles. But as a young girl, I had no patience for the saying, and no desire to meditate on its wisdom. I wanted only to be comforted by Dada or affirmed in my own perspective. In the shows and movies we watched there were heroes and villains, right and wrong, loyalty and betrayal — and I wanted blame also to be simple, unequivocal, each conflict the fault of one person alone, and therefore the burden of apologizing to belong only to them.
Many years later, when working on Part Three of A Place for Us
, a translated version of that saying made its way into a scene and I welcomed it immediately. It felt like a private homage to Dada, who had passed away when the novel was just a few dozen pages long. Including the line felt no more significant than that — just a line of dialogue, recalled by Layla when her daughter’s wedding is coming to a close. Only after I read the novel in its entirety did I realize how the saying had permeated it — how it fueled each character’s obsessions, dictated even the structure — though I’d ignored Dada’s words as a girl and never actively thought of them when writing.
I wanted blame also to be simple, unequivocal, each conflict the fault of one person alone.
When I first began the novel, I knew very little about the family. I knew that it would begin when Amar, the only son, returns home to attend his sister Hadia’s wedding after having run away years before. I knew that his return would force his family to reckon with its past. I knew, too, that each character blamed his departure on the father, Rafiq. But I wanted to believe that the fault was not the father’s alone, and to figure out why Amar had left, the novel had to delve into crucial moments in the family’s past from Layla’s, Hadia’s, and Amar’s perspectives. Along with trying to document what their lives were like, I searched for an answer to how each family member was complicit in the undoing of their family as a unit.
I found my answers in scenes that revealed a character underestimating a loved one, forming an assumption about them, and then deciding to act on that assumption through a betrayal. It was my goal to write each perspective as if it were the only one, and I wanted to empathize with Layla, Amar, and Hadia, especially when they acted cruelly, destructively, or deceitfully. I wanted to understand their thought processes to the point of almost forgiving them as they arrived at their decisions. When writing those scenes, I wanted them to feel, at first, inconsequential or forgettable. Only after time passes does each character come to realize the impact of their actions, and only when that same act is considered through another character’s perspective does it take on heartbreaking dimensions. Though I’d longed for stories of heroes and villains as a child, and though I'd wanted narratives with a clear line of blame, dismissing Dada’s lessons teaching me about the complexity of each conflict, my aim with the novel was to approach each character as both the villain and the hero of their own life. If a character was betrayed by a loved one, I wanted to trace their part in creating the very situation that made that betrayal seem understandable, even inevitable.
By the time I typed Dada’s saying into the draft, it had been years since I had thought of it, and even longer since I’d last heard it spoken. Now I see how it has haunted and even driven the novel’s intent: to examine the family’s conflict, to see how each character initially blames another for its fracturing, only to be forced to examine the three fingers beneath it, pointing right back at them.
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Fatima Farheen Mirza
was born in 1991 and raised in California. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. A Place for Us
is her first book.