Ana Sophia Garcia-Cubas Assemat // Blog Writer
Hijab Butch Blues is a striking memoir written by Lamya H that takes her experiences growing up in the Middle East, along with her early adulthood in the United States, and interweaves them with some of the most recognizable stories from the Quran. Lamya leads us through the way her identity developed throughout her life, and makes us privy to her noteworthy negotiation between the queer communities she built for herself, and the familial and Muslim communities she valued and wanted in her life—even when she knew she would have to keep her queerness hidden to maintain some of these relationships. Her tone is witty and poignant, and the way she frames and reframes her experiences speaks to a creativity and a devoted approach to life that not many have.
The memoir is well-structured; it’s told chronologically with a retrospective point of view, which allows us to look back on Lamya’s memories of her childhood and teenage years with the wisdom she has gained in her adulthood. Lamya does a great job of taking us along with her in these stories about her life, as well as relating the stories from the Quran in an accessible way for non-Muslim readers.
I commend anyone who writes a memoir. It’s a vulnerable effort in which you become an archivist to your own life. You immortalize your experiences and knowledge for those who are interested in reading them. But, to an extent, you also fictionalize it. It’s impossible for anyone to remember verbatim how a certain conversation went, or the exact chain of events that led to a realization. One has to fill in the gaps a little. And in this filling, one may end up watering down the interaction being depicted to an airy summary, and its characters to stand-ins. Unfortunately, this is a pitfall that befalls many memoir writers, and that Lamya, at times, fell victim to.
While a memoir is mostly a dissection of the self, it’s important to provide a complex representation of the people around you in order to sound realistic. Too often, the reader would have to sit through a scene of an argument where Lamya’s counterpart spoke robotically, without any sort of allusion to interiority whatsoever. All the characters spoke in the same register and with the same vocabulary she did, which ended up sounding like the entire book was just the author talking to herself instead of engaging with other people. This made it difficult to take some of the confrontations or discussions seriously because they all sounded so much like Plato’s dialogues. And if it’s annoying when Plato creates a stand-in dummy who conveniently is really bad at defending their point and is always clearly in the wrong—now imagine how irritating it is in a memoir.
Because none of the other characters have a voice, as a reader, you have to grasp their personality through their actions. But since this is Lamya’s memoir, all of their actions revolve around her, so they don’t work as a great window. This meant that a lot of her relationships were difficult to communicate to the reader. She tells us that they’re great friends, that they’re a found family, but all the reader sees is the ways in which the friends aid Lamya’s self-development, making them seem much more like surprisingly well-versed therapists—because everyone in the memoir speaks in the same stiff register at all times—instead of actual people who are in a reciprocal friendship.
I don’t think there is one right way to write a memoir, but a memoir should be more than just a window into the author’s internal monologue. In my opinion, a successful memoir is often a snapshot of a time, place, and people—and the people are just as important as all the other elements. A memoir that only deals with the author’s reflections may as well just be an essay, and Hijab Butch Blues reads much more like a journal entry than it does a memoir. I’m sure it was a very cathartic experience to the author, but it does not make for a very fulfilling experience to the reader.