Bushra Rehman’s novel, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion (Flatiron, Dec.), is a love song: to a community—Pakistani Americans; to a time—the 1980s; and to a place—the Corona neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. Rehman is clear about her love for the community and neighborhood: “Even if they hurt you, it is bursting with life,” she says emphatically. “I’m celebrating this community, the love in this community. It’s hard to leave it. There’s so much talk about the experience of loneliness; in the community I grew up in, you were never alone.”
The protagonist in Roses, Razia Mirza, is coming of age in a traditional Muslim family, with a mother who teaches the Quran to the neighborhood kids, but Razia is also rebelling with Taslima, her friend and partner in crime. The girls wear miniskirts, listen to forbidden music, cut their hair. Even recycling cans for money is an act of rebellion. Then Razia is accepted to a prestigious New York City high school, her world expands, and she faces the conflict of leaving her past behind if she’s going to be true to herself.
Rehman faced the same conflicts as her character. She talks about the joy of friendship and how it “blurred into queer desire. In the ’80s,” she says, “I didn’t have the language for it—this intense female friendship. It took much later to realize.”
Eventually Rehman, who is now 48, did leave her Pakistani community and found belonging in another—a community of artists, equally embracing: “South Asian, Muslim, Arab, Queer,” in which, she tells me, “I grew up as an artist. It was queer, family based—a queer family of artists.”
It was in the ’90s, and, Rehman says, “we started writing together. So much of my writing started there. I had an audience, a purpose. I could write and people were vibing. We had shows and dance parties. It was an experience that put me out there.” She would perform her poems and tell stories in between, but, she says, “the stories got longer than the poems.”
The fact that Rehman is a poet is evident in her prose. On the very first page of Roses, she cites Paul Simon’s song about Corona, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” writing, “ I once knew a Julio too. We didn’t hang out down by the schoolyard like Paul Simon must have with his Julio. We didn’t hang out anywhere at all, but I loved him the way you only could when you were a child.... He carried his body like fire, matchstick, rope.”
Then: “All the girls in school showed off for Julio, cursing and fighting. In Corona, girls learned early to flash skin, flirt, chew gum, and play games to bring the boys down to their knees, even though it usually ended up the other way around.”
Caroline Bleeke, executive editor at Flatiron, who preempted Roses a few days after reading the manuscript in February 2021, says, “The pitch had a number of my favorite things: coming of age, a highly specific time and place, friendship, coming out, reconciling family and community with personal desires. It’s a book about teenage reckoning that also has a pull for adults, and Bushra is a poet, so the language is evocative.”
Bleeke also says she loves working with writers who have a community; “Bushra has a good energy in the writing world; there’s people to champion her.” After a call with Rehman and Ayesha Pande, Rehman’s agent at the Ayesha Pande Literary Agency, and with the excitement of her team at Flatiron, Bleeke was able to preempt Roses for world rights. “It was a real love match,” she says. “Bushra liked my vision and editorial notes. We worked on the book for about nine months, but there wasn’t much line editing: her prose is so fresh and exciting. The book was a good find.”
Pande met Rehman 17 years ago, when she first became an agent. “Bushra was a student in the MFA program at Brooklyn College when Michael Cunningham was the director,” Pande says. “She shared some stories with me that eventually morphed into Roses. We stayed in touch over the years and formalized our relationship when there was enough material. We worked together for a long time. It’s been years to Bushra having this book; it’s a testament to her commitment.”
When Roses was ready, Pande submitted it widely and there was, she says, “universal response to the prose and to the distinct experience. Also to the way Bushra honored her protagonists, her culture, and her faith, a young woman navigating conflicts in an environment.” When Bleeke expressed so much interest and such strong passion, Pande’s advice was to go with it. “My clients’ books are about cultures often outside an editor’s lived experiences and assessing the book becomes more challenging. Caroline’s enthusiasm and perception totally won us over. We were impressed with how she envisioned publishing it.”
I find Rehman enchanting, with the voice and demeanor of a seasoned performer. She emanates confidence and her personal journey is its own story. She attended both Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science. “I dropped out of both after a year at each one,” she tells me. “I found the East Village—what was I doing with school?” At 16, she moved with her parents to New Jersey; at 18, she went to the College of New Rochelle; at 20, she dropped out and ran off, taking Greyhound buses around the country, ending up homeless in San Francisco at 21. “I was traveling, meeting other artists,” she says.
Rehman finished college in San Francisco, came back to the New York area, and discovered organizations that served the interests of LGBTQ communities. She reconciled with her parents and got her MFA at Brooklyn College (only, she says, because she wanted to teach). “I already had a writer’s life,” she says. “I had a community. I was living a great writer’s life.” Prior to Roses, she had done five books, one of which she coedited (Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, a book of essays on feminism and race).
Even with her publishing history, though, Rehman considers Roses “a kind of debut.” She calls Bleeke “an amazing editor who asked the right questions,” adding that “because of her, I added three chapters and they are my favorite.” With Pande, she says, “I did something you’re not supposed to do with an agent. I just kept sending her pieces over the years. At one point there was an editor interested in a YA title and I reached out to Ayesha. The deal fell through but the relationship with Ayesha remained.”
She adds, “Roses is my first book with a major house and an advance that’s enabled me to clear my plate, pay my rent and just write, which is what I want to do—just write. There’s a sequel in the works, about the ’90s.”
And with any luck, Rehman tells me, the launch will be a dance party with DJ Rekha, a London-born musician who fuses the Indian genre of bhangra music with international hip-hop and drum beats.
I’m dusting off my dancing shoes. I’m expecting an invite.