Fowzia Karimi: Above Us the Milky Way

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Author, Fowzia Karimi. Photo credit: Christian Fagerlund.

Fowzia Karimi speaks about the art of the novel, and designing Above Us the Milky Way. The storytelling structure is twenty-six letters, the alphabet, with each letter allowing the story to unfold piece by piece, stories weaving in and out; Karimi says a formal structure inspires an experience of the ecstatic. The seven major characters, family members, two parents and five young daughters, flee from Afghanistan after bombs start filling the sky; exiled in the land of the sun, California, the ghosts of the war exile in their memories. Karimi’s love for storytelling comes from Afghani fairy tales she heard as a child, which permeate this richly inventive novel. She speaks of her admiration for rigor in the arts, and being a visual person who pushed the boundary of a book as an object. She put everything into this book, on every level, diving deeply into her own sense of being, and it shows, marvellously.

An excerpt from “Above Us the Milky Way” by Fowzia Karimi.


The alphabet. A set of letters arranged in a particular order. A set of letters that combine endlessly to form words on the page. What books are made of. What the sisters are made of.

And these letters are set in their particular order as if a strong force runs through the alphabet, locking the symbols in place. And yet, the letters rearrange in inexhaustible combinations to write the words that give positive form to the formless. Like little magicians, the letters are forever in two places at once: bound in their fixed positions–for who could reorder the sequence of an alphabet?—and leaving their posts to form this or that word. The five sisters are also lined up in a precise order, oldest to  youngest, held in place by a logic and a force born of nature and chance. And like the letters of the alphabet, the sisters arrange and rearrange themselves in endless amalgamations to give form to what is unspoken, and meaning to the ordinary.

A,              the            land            where              I               was              born. 

A,               the              shore              upon              which               I              landed.

A, for ALL: for a story in its entirety. For how it begins, for how into it chaos or pain or desire enters, for what ensues within it, for where it takes us, for how all falls into place at its conclusion, and for the state in which it afterward leaves us. I too am a reader and I understand the need to consume all. I have this appetite. Moreover, I respect the boundaries set up by the two covers. And yet here, in this book, they are no more than lids, no more than two soft curtains opening on a scene. Yes, I too crave the arc. But you will not find one here. The only way forward is through the alphabet.


4                                            ABOVE US THE MILKY WAY


When they left the old land, the sisters kissed their grandmother’s spotted hands and did not pull away their faces from her moist, uneven breath. They hugged their many-aunts, kissing three times their warm cheeks; they bowed the crowns of their heads to their many-uncles’ hands and lips, nodding respectfully as the uncles listed the do’s and do-not’s; and they spoke timidly and in whispers with the cousins they knew as intimately as they did each other, avoiding their eyes and their questions, secretly holding the same unanswerable questions in their own minds. The flight of stairs to the mouth of the waiting airplane was steep, the metal cold, and the lofty view it afforded them indifferent to their many-questions: where, how long, and what for? The sisters looked down silently yet intently at the gathered tribe who stood twelve long and three deep, in heels and in coats, lipsticked and combed, smiling awkwardly

Copyright © 2020 by Fowzia Karimi