By Ananya Vinay
We take our names for granted, but they’re the bedrock of our identity. Yet we don’t often realize that shedding our names robs us of our soul as the protagonist in Sparks Like Stars by Nadia Hashimi learns.
Sitara Zamani is 10 years old, growing up in the President’s palace with her family in Afghanistan. One day, something extraordinary happens: an exhibit with artifacts from ancient Bactria comes. When her family is slaughtered in a coup, Sitara hides in the exhibit until a guard helps her sneak out. She undergoes countless travails, eventually adopted by a diplomat and taken to the United States. But she is forced to take her deceased sister’s name, Aryana.
Hashimi perfectly describes Aryana’s grief and survivor’s guilt, her feeling of being unmoored from this world. What happens when the people who keep us at shore crumble? Aryana becomes an oncologist and conceals her maimed soul until the Afghani guard becomes her patient, finally releasing her dormant need to uncover her family’s remains in Kabul.
Hashimi captures the immigrant’s paradox of holding a place in memory and painful surprise at the changes time wrought on once-beloved places. The desire to truly belong to someone, something, or someplace constantly haunts Aryana, who cannot relinquish her family’s ghosts. Yet time can slowly soften deep wounds, until only slight objects summon her father’s voice.
Aryana’s characterization is encapsulated by her childhood trauma, but none of her other facets are mentioned in depth. Maybe it is an artistic choice, but you always get the feeling that there is more to her. The plot deceptively suggests a grand geographical scale, yet it is really as small as a beating heart: the intimate journey of Sitara’s soul as it heals its wounds.
The author interrogates the idea of a family even more: Are we defined by our blood? Is it truly possible to find a new family? To trust is to walk a tightrope, and when our whole world is shaking, it can be impossible to summon the courage to fall. She reflects that she “had the ancient world wrapped around [her] finger even as the modern world [she] lived in curled its cruel fingers tighter around [her] throat.” She lives in this state, smothered by what is and weighed down by what was.
Shown through mundane actions and the shattering of instincts, we fall into the story of Aryana and Sitara and the rich world of Kabul, past and present with the fierce hope that she reaches her own sanctuary. Sparks Like Stars is a spellbinding portrait of Afghanistan and America, truly exploding into fireworks that illuminate the sky in every hue of the rainbow.