Walker Percy once observed that "for most of us, the communication of beauty takes two — the teacher and the hearer, the pointer and the looker." When I was a child, one of my first experiences as a looker and hearer involved stories about lands far away — tales like “The Secret Garden” or Rudyard Kipling's stories set in Central Asia. I didn't realize then that the beauty I perceived in those stories was refracted through a lens of empire. But Sitara, the Afghan child heroine in Nadia Hashimi's new novel “Sparks Like Stars,” knows this.
As her story opens Sitara quotes Kipling to prove the brutality of his claim over her heritage, and the strength of her own agency. Her life was violently disrupted during a military coup against the Afghan government in 1978. The beauty which is revealed through her unraveling, survival and search for her own resilience comes from a place of authenticity — she is a child of Afghanistan and her story isn't imposed, it's part and parcel of her heritage.
We first meet ten-year-old Sitara Zamani inside the Arg, Kabul's presidential palace. There, her father serves as an adviser to the president and her family resides in apartments reserved for close members of the President's extended coterie. At a state dinner party where Soviet diplomats and their tanks both hover in the background, the President reveals archeological treasures destined for Afghanistan's history museum. Sitara is determined to examine the treasures up close, and she convinces her father to show her the place in the palace basement where they are hidden. But her plans to personally excavate the packing crates where the treasure is stored are disrupted when Soviet-backed rebels stage a coup; witnessing the slaughter of her family, Sitara hides in the secret compartment with the hidden treasures and finally escapes with the help of a palace guard.
She eventually makes her way to the United States with the help of Antonia Shepherd, an American embassy worker, with a detour in a foster home before Antonia finally adopts her. Then the story fast forwards to 2008, and we find Sitara with a new name and a career as an oncological surgeon in New York City — but everything changes when the palace guard who rescued Sitara in 1978 shows up at her hospital as a cancer patient. The sudden jolt of his presence unlocks the memory and the trauma of her loss and catalyzes a long-suppressed desire to reclaim her family by reclaiming her heritage, so she sets off for Afghanistan in search of herself.
The question of whether Sitara can go home again is the existential and physical journey Hashimi conjures, in a story at once surreal and deeply rooted in the history of Afghanistan's modern turmoil and ancient enchantment. I found myself eagerly following her adventure in a way I hadn't remembered in a long time — the way a child reads a new book about the unknown, impatient for the next twist and turn of the story, worried about the safety of the heroine, wondering if I could be as brave and bold as her.
This is Hashimi's sixth book set in Afghanistan and her fourth to illuminate the path of in a world of international intrigue, treachery and reconciliation. She puts her medical background (she's a pediatrician) and her lived experience as a daughter of Afghan immigrants to good use, blending history, heritage, culture and traditions within a narrative that's as suspenseful as it is emotionally compelling. The place where Sitara's struggle to assimilate, grief and survivor's guilt intersect is where Hashimi's story reaches its zenith, and as her stepmother consoles her, we're compelled to both look and listen:
"Don't be sorry," Mom insists, her face pinched. She wraps an arm around me. "You know, we're so damned afraid that talking about the ones we've lost will hurt us as much as losing them did. So we just stop talking about them. But that's when you truly lose them."
She's right. I've stopped myself from thinking about my family because I'm afraid of spilling into grief that has no bottom, into a place from which I cannot climb out.
In Hashimi's beguiling tale of Sitara's survival, a young girl calls us to see. And though her truth becomes our discovery, Hashimi sets it at the disposal of the Afghan people, centered within the shadow of their suffering. When Sitara returns to her homeland, she's not sure what she's looking for, only that she must find it out — is it some kind of revenge by proving her survival? Or is it another kind of archeological excavation — of long buried mourning, forever changing her heart and yet eternally the same?
Hashimi beautifully communicates the answer to these questions — and catharsis when it arrives is tenderly wrought. Afraid to yearn, Sitara constantly seeks relief from her memory; she is determined not to fall victim to mere nostalgia. The elusive location of the compartment where her memory and remembrance are hidden is both a burial place and a place to pray. If she can find that, then she, all of us, will be able to rest.
Marcela Davison Avilés is a writer and independent producer living in Northern California.
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