Mysticism of an ancient land is the entry portal for cosmology gone wrong


Fowzia Karimi

Above Us the Milky Way: An Illuminated Alphabet

Deep Vellum Publishing

Hardcover (also available as an e-book), 978-1-6460-5002-4, 440 pgs., $28

April 28, 2020


This is the true story of the immortal death of childhood, but not in the way you might expect. As a child, Fowzia Karimi barely escaped the vicious Soviet invasion of her Afghan homeland and now, as an adult, she cannot escape that childhood. Death and childhood, immortalized hand in hand: the childhood memories of death live on forever in the adult mind that cannot escape or transcend the sight, the sound, smell, feel and taste and horror of war, secret police, torture, bullets and bombs and swift death.


She struggles to make sense of the senseless brutality with retrospective snippets framed in a kaleidoscope of cosmology: the alphabet, the basic elements, astrology, mysticism, and more. But in a Ground Hog Day circularity, Karimi lands nonetheless back where she—and we, as readers—start the horrifying history, as terrified children seared with the firsthand visage of horrendous death rampaging the Afghani foothills.


Simple mysticism of an ancient land is the entry portal for cosmology gone wrong: we walked through the smoke, as the shaman prescribed, and yet the charm seems impervious to the death by fire and steel rained down on a simple, peaceful people. A childlike absolute and unquestioning acceptance of the alphabet (Why these twenty-six symbols, and why this order?) serves as Karimi’s delicate latticework decorated with anecdotes and memorial snippets of atrocious cruelty and quiet resolve under inexorable despair.


She sorts the incomprehensible reality with an alphabetic linkage that mirrors the senselessness of the violence in each snippet: names are read aloud, then men vanish, to be rediscovered only in severed pieces. An elderly woman is beaten senseless by religious zealots, a bride washes and prepares the butchered fragments of her intended groom for a mythical transmogrification and flight as a bluebird. Families are ripped apart, shards dispersed and lost, then reassembled as mere fragments of a whole on the far side of the world, in “the land of sunshine,” in southern California, as struggling immigrants.


For example, “W” connotes water, from which follows an almost clinical examination of how a bound and gagged human dies differently when thrown into a river versus a more efficient—for larger groups, Karimi advises us—methodology involving live burial. Other letters are equally baseless, quixotic, bibliographic call numbers for countless gruesome histories that Karimi limns with an undertaker’s aesthetic reverence and solemnity, befitting those who were lost but who she will never let be forgotten.


The alphabet, the night sky and constellations, all manmade constructs to make meaning of the cold, meaningless impermanence of human life, make about as much sense as a framework for Karimi’s patchwork of sadness, loss, and despair as anything ever could. The writing is seductive, compelling, horrifying, irresistible. The story is dreamlike in its framework and structure, with adult Karimi and the reader dragged back into a spectral but all-too-real childhood, and that is key: the dead are never really gone if they live on in the childhood memories she—and we—can never relinquish. That is the immortality that is the living death of the childhood Karimi lived and shares.


As a book, Above Us the Milky Way will not welcome you, with its diachronic story line, the relentless riptide of horror revisited and visceral, and inescapable loss. But, Dear Reader, as Karimi charms and coddles those brave enough to enter her dark whirlwind, if you submit, the story will grip, embrace, squeeze, then swallow you whole. The war is hellish, the writing heavenly; the death is ruthless, the life force inspiring. Give in, take the ride, succumb to the literary riptide that draws you back to a childhood torn from her and bestowed on you, so you too will become part of the death of childhood unforgotten, which is the immortal mettle of the dead remembered. They, and Karimi, and humanity, deserve no less.


Fowzia Karimi was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and immigrated with her family to Southern California after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College in Oakland, California, and has illustrated The Brick House by Micheline Aharonian Marcom (Awst Press) and Vagrants and Uncommon Visitors by A. Kendra Greene (Anomalous Press). She is a recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. Karimi lives in Texas.


Chris Manno earned his doctorate in English at Texas Christian University where he teaches writing. He is the author of the award-winning Texas novels East Jesus and Blood and Remembrance.