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Above Us the Milky Way

Above Us the Milky Way

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By Fowzia Karimi

From Rona Jaffe award-winner Fowzia Karimi, a highly anticipated illustrated debut novel about a young family forced to flee their war-ravaged homeland, leaving behind everything and everyone beloved and familiar.

Publication Date: April 28, 2020

Hardback: 9781646050024
eBook: 9781646050031


Above Us the Milky Way: An Illuminated Alphabet is a story about war, immigration, and the remarkable human capacity to create beauty out of horror. As a young family attempts to reconstruct their lives in a new and peaceful country, they are daily drawn back to the first land through remembrance and longing, by news of the continued suffering and loss of loved ones, and by the war dead, who have immigrated and reside with them, haunting their days and illuminating the small joys and wonders offered them by the new land.

The novel’s structure is built around the alphabet, twenty-six pieces written in the first person that sketch a through-line of memory for the lives of the five daughters, mother, and father. Ghost stories and fairytales are woven with old family photographs and medieval-style watercolor illuminations to create an origin story of loss and remembrance. 

Biographical Note

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. She lives in Texas. 


Winner of the 2020 Foreword INDIES Editor's Choice Prize Fiction

Winner of the Big Other Book Award for Fiction

Winner of the 2021 Balcones Fiction Prize

2020 Fiction Discovery Prize Winner - WLT Book Awards

PubWest 2020 Book Design Bronze Winner

Longlisted for Reading the West Book Award

One of Thrillist's Best Books of 2020

“[Above Us the Milky Way] has what certain great novels have — and I’m calling this a great novel intentionally — which is explicit working-out of narrative structure. This book has a really astute and generous conversation with its readers. An enchanting, inventive, and powerful novel." —Michael Silverblatt, Bookworm

“Structured as an illuminated alphabet, Karimi’s startling debut pieces together a pastiche of memory, folklore, and multilayered sense impressions with photographs from Karimi’s childhood and illustrations of her own making. The result is a sharply etched treatise on the objects of memory—encouraging a perhaps unavoidable comparison to Proust—which sets itself the monumental task of exploring the atrocity of war both as the bombs strike and as they reverberate down through the generations. Because, as Karimi concludes, a ‘war in one place is like a wound in all,’ and what else but the letters of an alphabet, or perhaps sisters, could, ‘give positive form to the formless’ by being ‘forever in two places at once: bound to their fixed positions—for who could reorder the sequence of an alphabet?—and leaving their posts to form this… word.’ A novel powerful in both its beauty and its uncompromising horror whose themes are as sadly timely as they are eternal.” —Starred review, Kirkus

“With enchantment and a pounding heart, I devoured this wondrous book, beautiful and fearless, rich in grace and compassion, deeply imagined and unlike any other. It is no less than marvelous.” —Rikki Ducornet

“An ambitious abecedary of family, trauma and life and a love letter to the universe with many moments of power and resplendence.” —Jennifer Croft, author of Homesick

“Karimi’s inventive, allegorical debut renders a family’s wartime emigration through a polyphonic mix of voices and genres along with evocative color illustrations and photographs… Fans of Lost Children Archive will love this.” Publishers Weekly

"Fowzia Karimi's Above Us the Milky Way is a complex mix of memory and fiction, telling the story of the dead, the living, and the effects of war...[her] lyrical prose creates this feeling of timelessness, of things beginning and ending and unfolding...The book becomes a joyous tribute to love and family. —Samantha Tonkins, World Literature Today Magazine 

Above Us In the Milky Way is a philosophical, richly sensory meditation on memory, loss, nostalgia, and the inheritances of war. Illustrated with family photographs and exquisite, often surreal, watercolors, Fowzia Karimi offers us intimate portals to grief, displacement, and survival.” —Cristina García, author of Here in Berlin and other novels

"Fowzia Karimi’s debut novel is an extraordinary book–one which is both witness to its time, an homage to Afghanistan, to family, and to what endures: stories and love and beauty. Inside it you will find humanity’s imaginary so beautifully disclosed." —Micheline Aharonian Marcom, author of six novels including The Brick House and Creative Director of The New American Story Project

“A narrative that tells the stories of five young sisters, their mother and father, of the land that they had to leave, of the land they came to, of what was left behind, of what was found, of what was lost, of what was attained, of the passage of time in their lives and in the lives of others, passage not rendered chronologically, as time itself is not always experienced thus: these are the bare bones that comprise Fowzia Karimi’s remarkable Above Us the Milky Way. Words here can’t suffice to say what she does beyond this. No one here is named and yet, in that ineffable way we know things though acknowledge mystery and what we can’t know, this book says so much in such a deep, basic, telling way – of life, loss, exile, the carrying of past into present and present to past, of future gazes, inheritance, of individual being, especially being being formed, and being of family in the best sense, what is exchanged and how affecting the ties amongst siblings. (What Fowzia Karimi does in that way alone, lord have mercy.) Words and places where there are not words – all have their place in this book. Reading this book – its use of the alphabet, its art, its running commentary on story, on what is deeply human and what is vaster and greater than the human, the realization and reckoning of which helps make for what is the human, our fleeting place among the places – is like coming upon a forgotten dream suddenly remembered and recognized, a dream feeling more familiar and real than whatever reality supposedly was, to the point that maybe what was in the dream – or this book – was real. This is storytelling of a high, profound, most beautiful order.” —Rick Simonson, Elliot Bay Book Company

“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.” —Chris Manno, Lone Star Literary

“It is Fowzia Karimi the artist we shall remember after reading the book as much as Fowzia Karimi and her family, the exiles and victims of war. This is a wonderful book.” The Modern Novel

“A skilled technician whose prose flows like intuition, Karimi parses the beats of her paragraphs with the attention of a poet. Rich with images and imagery, the book is beautiful, both illuminated and illuminating.” Foreword Reviews, Leticia Montgomery-Rodgers

“For how experimental the novel gets, it never obstructs the family’s experience, everything from the small joys and the bold wonders a person may experience in a new land free of war.” Thrillist 

“Is this a novel? Is it a memoir?...an illumination [Above Us the Milky Way] casts its beam upon the magic of childhood and the cruelty of war, upon the nature of memory —where it lives and how it is revealed —upon the way in which lives are lived in two places at the same time.”  Asia by the Book, Janet Brown