One of our recommended books is Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion by Bushra Rehman


For fans of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, an unforgettable story about female friendship and queer love in a Muslim-American community

Razia Mirza grows up amid the wild grape vines and backyard sunflowers of Corona, Queens, with her best friend, Saima, by her side. When a family rift drives the girls apart, Razia’s heart is broken. She finds solace in Taslima, a new girl in her close-knit Pakistani-American community. They embark on a series of small rebellions: listening to scandalous music, wearing miniskirts, and cutting school to explore the city.

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For fans of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, an unforgettable story about female friendship and queer love in a Muslim-American community

Razia Mirza grows up amid the wild grape vines and backyard sunflowers of Corona, Queens, with her best friend, Saima, by her side. When a family rift drives the girls apart, Razia’s heart is broken. She finds solace in Taslima, a new girl in her close-knit Pakistani-American community. They embark on a series of small rebellions: listening to scandalous music, wearing miniskirts, and cutting school to explore the city.

When Razia is accepted to Stuyvesant, a prestigious high school in Manhattan, the gulf between the person she is and the daughter her parents want her to be, widens. At Stuyvesant, Razia meets Angela and is attracted to her in a way that blossoms into a new understanding. When their relationship is discovered by an Aunty in the community, Razia must choose between her family and her own future.

Punctuated by both joy and loss, full of ’80s music and beloved novels, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion is a new classic: a fiercely compassionate coming-of-age story of a girl struggling to reconcile her heritage and faith with her desire to be true to herself.

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  • Flatiron Books
  • Hardcover
  • December 2022
  • 288 Pages
  • 9781250834782

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About Bushra Rehman

Bushra Rehman is the author of Roses, in the Mouth of a LionBushra Rehman grew up in Corona, Queens. She is co-editor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, and author of the poetry collection Marianna’s Beauty Salon and the dark comedy Corona, one of the New York Public Library’s favorite books about NYC.

Author Website


A Best Book of the Month (The Washington PostLos Angeles Times, People Magazine,, The Chicago Review, BuzzFeed, Lit Hub, Lambda Literary, BookRiot, PopSugar, Ms. Magazine, The AV Club, E! News, Arlington Magazine, Distractify, Amazon)

A Padma Lakshmi Book Club Pick

Rehman’s masterful prose, peppered with Urdu phrases, evokes rich emotional and social nuances regarding a particularly sensitive divide between generations in a community of immigrants trying to hold on to their culture even as they make new lives for themselves in a new country.” Booklist, starred review

“Rehman beautifully conjures in her stellar debut a Queens, N.Y., Pakistani American community and a girl’s coming to terms with her identity…A distinctive and infectious voice takes hold of the reader from the first page … This deeply immersive novel heralds the arrival of an exciting new writer.” Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Stunningly beautiful … deft and empathetic.” New York Times Book Review

“An unforgettable voice that moves you from the start.” People Magazine

“Endearing, irreverent, and engaging. Rehman has created a unique character that is daring, hilarious, vulnerable and fierce. You will want to keep traveling with her long after the book ends.” —DJ Rekha

“With a poet’s sensibility for language, Rehman has created a tender and multi-layered story of young Muslim women navigating a complicated and racialized world.” —Daisy Hernández, author of The Kissing Bug

“Enchanting, smart, and keenly observed, Bushra Rehman’s Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion shows us the wiry exhilaration of a girl becoming a woman she didn’t know she could be.” —Mira Jacob, author of Good Talk

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the title, Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion. What does it mean to you? Are there images of roses and lions from the novel that particularly stood out to you?

2. Compare and contrast Razia’s friendships with Saima and Taslima. How is she shaped by each of them? What about Shahnaaz? How did your understanding of her character evolve?

3. Razia has a personal, intimate relationship with Allah, telling Allah things she doesn’t tell anyone else. What is the importance of Islam in her life? How do her own religious views diverge from those of her family and community?

4. How is Razia’s neighborhood of Corona, Queens, portrayed in the novel? How does it change as she grows up? Contrast it with lower Manhattan, where she goes to high school. In what ways is Razia shaped by place?

5. After Ziyad and his friends kill Miss Kitten, the old Italian looks at Razia with “a look of hate, saying: We were bad. We were dirty. We didn’t know how to take care of life. We didn’t know how to grow anything, and when we touched the world, it died” (p. 19). What sorts of racism and prejudice does Razia experience growing up, and how do they affect her?

6. What is Razia’s relationship to Julio? How is it similar to and different from her relationship with Angela? How does she understand her feelings in both instances?

7. Razia tells us that, for Pakistanimen, “us first-gen Pakistani girls were a forest of green cards. We were groomed like Christmas trees, thinking we were in the beautiful woods, thinking we were growing, but we were just being readied to be cut down. They were coming for us” (p. 137). How does the threat of marriage hang over Razia and the other girls? What does Pakistan mean to them?

8. Why is Razia so unsettled by the Aunty? What kind of future does she represent?

9. In “Strays,” Razia describes her mother: “Her eyes were red and beneath them was a cold, hot fierceness that would always protect me, a fear from which I would never be able to hide” (p. 95). What does she mean? How does her relationship with her mother change over the course of the novel? Do you find her mother to be a sympathetic character?

10. After the Goodwill incident, Razia’s father tells her, “No matter what you do, if you try to be American, they will never accept you. They’ll turn against you in the end” (p. 166). In response, Razia reflects, “How could I explain that I wasn’t trying to be American, I already was?” Discuss their different viewpoints. How is the idea of assimilation depicted and interrogated throughout the novel?

11. Razia describes most of her first-generation classmates at Stuyvesant as “the dreams, the ones expected to take our paper airplanes and turn them into rocket ships rising into higher orbits. . . . I was a rocket ship, but for me things were slightly different. My parents cared about school but at the end of the day they didn’t believe in the importance of this world other than as a spiritual test. The ultimate test whose grades mattered more than anything else” (p. 178). What is Razia’s experience like at Stuyvesant? How does her story compare to what you might think of as the stereotypical immigrant narrative?

12. The first time Razia visits Angela’s apartment, she stands at the window and feels “a quivering sense come over me. . . . It all began to disappear, what my parents wanted from me, who they wanted me to be, the future they had so carefully planned” (p. 188). How does Razia’s own sense of herself differ from what her parents and community expect?

13. Razia begins to understand her sexual identity later in the book, but even before she meets Angela, she feels different from those in her family and community. How does she experience her queer identity before she has words to describe it?

14. Why do you think Shahnaaz and Saima decide to reveal Razia’s relationship with Angela to the community, leading to her huge fight with her parents? Do you sympathize with their decision?

15. Why does Razia feel she has no choice but to leave New York? Do you agree? Discuss the last line: “I lifted my arm to say goodbye, then walked straight into the mouth of a lion” (p. 273). Do you consider this to be a hopeful ending? Why or why not? What do you think the future holds for Razia?



Corona, I’m talking about a little village perched under the number 7 train in Queens between Junction Boulevard and 111th Street. I’m talking about the Lemon Ice King, Spaghetti Park, and P.S. 19. The Corona F. Scott Fitzgerald called the valley of ashes as the Great Gatsby drove past it on his night of carousal, but what me and my own know as home. And we didn’t know about any valley of ashes because by then it had been topped off by our houses. You know, the kind made from brick this tan color no self-respecting brick would be at all. That’s Corona.

And you know the song by Paul Simon? The one where he says, “Goodbye to Rosie, the queen of Corona. Seein’ me and Julio down by the schoolyard…”

Well, at first, I couldn’t believe it was Corona he was singing about, because why would Paul Simon be singing about Corona? I didn’t see many white people there unless they were policemen or firemen, and I didn’t think Paul Simon had ever been one of those. Then I saw these pictures of him standing in front of one of those tan brick homes. What I thought was a lie was true.

* * *

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. Julio had beauty marks all over, as if it wasn’t obvious to everyone how he looked. He carried his body like fire, matchstick, rope.

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.

But I was not one of them. My mother didn’t let me wear skirts, especially the short kind the other girls wore with their hairless legs and fearless way of flicking their hips. I watched them flirt with Julio, my back against the brick wall.

Julio was my next-door neighbor, and we were in the same fifth-grade class in school. We walked the same way home. Not together, of course. He walked ahead of me with his friends, who’d be whooping and laughing, pulling roses out whenever they went past this house that had so many roses they grew up and over, through the fence like they were some kind of convicts trying to scale the walls.

The Korean grandmother who lived there always stood in the yard as soon as the school bell rang and waved her stick and screamed at us, so we wouldn’t pull out every last one. But Julio always managed to steal a rose. He was quick and thin. All the other boys rallied around him. He’d leap to the top of the fence, grab a rose, then fall back on the pack of boys, pushing them nearly into the street, partly from the impact and partly for the joy of it. Then he’d shake the hair out of his eyes and laugh.

* * *

One day, the Korean grandmother wasn’t waiting inside the fence, yelling like she usually was. She was hiding behind a car across the street, and when Julio and his friends came around, she was right behind them. She grabbed Julio by one of his skinny arms and pulled him into the garden. “Bad boy!” She shook him. “Tell me where you live!”

Julio’s friends stopped. Their hands were still pushed through the gaps in the fence. This was new. They didn’t know whether to run away or run in. They stood like statues, waiting for someone to do or say something to make things normal.

Julio was the one who did. He pulled back with all his thin weight and said to her face, “I don’t need to tell you where I live, you—”

The grandmother stopped. Her mouth opened, but what she wanted to say, she couldn’t. Julio’s and my eyes met, and I felt the thread of our shame pulse through me, a burning flame.

Just then, one of Julio’s friends picked up a beer can from the street and threw it at her. He missed, but the next thing I knew, there was a howl and a rush. All the boys started picking up litter and glass bottles and throwing them.

The grandmother’s fingers lost their grip, and when she ran into the house, the boys ran into the garden and started pulling roses off the branches. All of them: the tea lemon, the hot pink, the deep red, the little ones with flecks of gold in their skin. The thorns tore through their fingers, but they didn’t let it stop them. It was their first time in the garden, and now it was theirs.

By this time, all the kids who walked home that way, and even some who didn’t, had stopped to see what was happening. Unable to pull away, I stood with my face pressed against the chain links.

Then I saw Julio. His arms were full of tattered roses. He looked like a crown prince as he walked out of the garden, and started throwing flowers at the children who were too scared to run in. When he saw me, he stopped. For a second, I could see he didn’t trust me not to tell.

Then he smiled, the first time he had ever really smiled at me. He picked out a rose. It was hot pink, stiff, just beginning to open.

“Here,” he said, and threw the rose at my feet.



It had poured rain and thundered all day like a hot summer storm should, and when I opened the door to my friends Saima and Lucy’s house, the metal corners tugged on the grapevines, and cooled-down rain, which had pooled on the leaves, showered down on me, and wet my salwar kameez.

Lucy lived below Saima, and Saima lived above Lucy, and they both lived next to Shahnaaz, the neighborhood bully. I lived down the street, but in the summers, I spent all my time at Saima’s and Lucy’s. The grapevines lived everywhere, acting like they were trees. They grew when our mothers called us in to eat. They grew when we played in the back lot acting like junglees. They grew at night when we were asleep, and in the mornings, Lucy and Saima had to push against the doorjambs, pull and twist the doorknobs to get anywhere they needed to be.

The biggest argument Saima and Shahnaaz always had was whose grapevines they really were. They were rooted in Shahnaaz’s yard, but the vines with their baby hair twists swung over the fence and knelt down and touched the ground on Saima’s side of the fence.

I always sat with Saima on the red vinyl sofa her mother had put under the grapevines. All over Corona there were sofas like this, growing like mushrooms: yellow, red, orange, brown. Who could get rid of a sofa after paying so much?

* * *

I’d known Saima since she and I were born, and even before, because our fathers had been best friends in Pakistan. They’d met at Peshawar University and had come to America together with their tight-fitting British suits, curly dark hair, and sunglasses. In Pakistan, they’d been scientists and worn white lab coats, but in Corona, they worked in stores. Now Saima’s father wore tight pants and shiny shirts while he sold radios, VCRs, and illegal copies of Bollywood movies. My father wore his lab coat as a butcher at his Gosht Dukan: Corona Halal Meats. Whenever I visited him, his coat would be covered with blood.

Lucy’s father was from the Dominican Republic. He worked so many jobs, Lucy couldn’t keep track. He had a belly that hung out of his shirt and black curly hair all over his chest. When he was home, he sat under the grapevines, drinking. He’d learned how to make wine from the Italian neighbors, and on his days off, he drank homemade wine and yelled at us when we popped the sour green grapes into our mouths.

“Hey! You! Get away from my grapes!”

After it rained was the best because Lucy’s father stayed inside watching TV. Then we pulled on the vines like hair and felt the rain run down our cheeks, soak our clothes, our salwar kameez. It always felt cold, sweet, and green, the air around us thick liquid, about to burst like a sneeze.

* * *

One afternoon, Shahnaaz was poking around in the old abandoned garage that had come with her house. Her family didn’t have a car, so the garage was left to pile up with junk. It was the kind of place stray cats had babies. The kind of place rats lived. The kind of place you wouldn’t go into by yourself, unless you thought you were a badass the way Shahnaaz did.

Our main way of getting money for candy was to look under the sofa cushions. There the loose change that leaked out of our fathers’ and uncles’ pockets slipped down and collected into secret pools of pennies, nickels, and dimes. Shahnaaz’s brother, Amir, had just moved an old sofa into the garage, and she thought she’d find undiscovered treasure, but when she lifted the cushion, it wasn’t George Washington’s head or even Abraham Lincoln’s she saw. It was a woman in a glossy magazine, her nipples pink and round as quarters, her mouth wide open, her head thrown back, nothing on her body but a thin sheet draped over her legs.

Shahnaaz didn’t say this, but I’m sure her eyes popped. None of us had breasts, but Shahnaaz always acted like she did, pushing her chest out whenever we walked around the block. She thought she was the prettiest, and the only reason we agreed was because her brother was older and said he’d beat us up if we said she wasn’t.

When Shahnaaz came up to the fence, Saima and I were sitting under the grapevines, pooling our cushion change. Lucy had gone to Top Tomato with her mother, and it would be a while till she got back. Every so often, Saima and I reached up and pulled down a handful of grapes. When we saw Shahnaaz, we weren’t happy.

“Whatcha doing?”

“None of your business.” Saima had less patience for Shahnaaz than I did.

“Oh yeah? Well, maybe it is my business because you’re eating my grapes.”

We rolled our eyes and ignored her, but she kept talking. “Well, what I found in the garage is none of your business either.”

I tried to be tough. “So what then?”

It was useless. A few minutes later, I was sneezing from the dust in the garage, and Saima was trying to find a place to sit that wasn’t covered with rat pee. Shahnaaz pulled out the magazines, and Saima’s and my mouths dropped open. There were naked men and women in all sorts of positions. Some of them were doing everyday things like eating breakfast, just naked. One woman was spread out on a car.

“This is gross,” Saima said with disgust, but she kept looking. I did too. I couldn’t stop myself from flipping through the pages. I kept the tips of my fingers on the edges though, so I didn’t have to touch the skin. Whenever I accidentally did, I could feel my fingers burning.

There was one lady I couldn’t stop looking at. She was the only one who wasn’t blonde. She was small with dark brown hair and brownish skin. Her body was thin, and she was sprawled out asleep on a bed, completely naked. Her eyebrows were wrinkled, and her hair was messy. There was brown hair, curly and thick, between her legs, brown hair thick underneath her arms, places where my skin was still as smooth as a baby’s. The picture must have been taken by someone standing over her. She looked like she was sleeping and having a very bad dream.

“Are they your brother’s?” Saima was the first to ask.

“No! My brother would never look at something like this. It’s—”

“Guna,” I said. It’s what we learned from our mothers, who taught us the long lists of what was Guna and what wasn’t. It was Guna to listen to music. Guna to talk to boys. Guna to cut our hair. Guna to miss any of our prayers: Fajr, Zohar, Asr, Maghrib, Isha. It was most definitely Guna to take off our clothes, lie on top of a car, and let people take pictures.

When my mother saw people in our neighborhood walking around wearing almost nothing, she always said, “They don’t know any better. But you do. You think it’s hot now? When you go to Hell, demons will take torches and set fire to all the places you left your skin naked. And as much as you scream and cry, or say please, please, Allah forgive me, Allah will say, ‘You didn’t listen to me when you were alive, why should I listen to you when you’re dead?’ But Allah is merciful, and when the demons have burned you enough, He’ll forgive you, give you new skin, and bring you up to Heaven.”

“But how long until I could go to Heaven?” I’d say, trying to push the images of demons out of my mind.

“In Hell, every day is an eternity,” my mother would say, then leave me to go clean.

“We have to burn them.” Shahnaaz’s voice echoed the voice in my head. “Saima, does your mother have matches?”

Saima looked up at the windows of her house. We could all hear her mother screaming at her younger brother, Ziyad. “I don’t want to go home. My mother won’t let me come back out.”

Shahnaaz turned to me. “Razia, go ask the man at the store.”

“Why me?”

“Because you’re the favorite.”

It was true. The bodega owner always gave me free candy when my mother sent me there to get milk. The bodega was strange. The front windows were full of dish detergent, Ajax, Raid, and Mr. Clean, but the back shelves were barely stocked with anything. At some point, the owner must have realized he could carry dairy and get milk cheap for his family. He always said I was his best milk customer, even though I never saw anyone else buying milk there.

* * *

When I walked in, the bell rang loud and frantic, and the smell of wet cardboard hit me in the face. Inside, it was ten different shades of dark. A gray cat sat in the corner licking herself. Gold teeth flashed in the dim light and I saw the owner at the front counter, cleaning his fingernails with a match. His friend, the man with the black mustache, was next to him. They were laughing low.

The door slammed behind me and everyone looked up. “Ah, look who it is,” the owner said. “My girlfriend!”

The man with the black mustache grinned. He was missing a number of front teeth. He must not have had enough money to replace them with gold.

“Could I please have a pack of matches?”

The owner leaned over the counter and looked down at me. “Baby, what you want matches for?”

I bit my tongue and lied. “They’re for my father.”

He smiled and passed them over the counter. I grabbed the pack, barely looking at him, said thank you, and ran out the door.

When I got back, Saima and Shahnaaz were pulling a metal garbage can into the back alley next to the railroad tracks. We’d had fire safety training in school, so we knew we had to be careful not to get caught.

We threw all the magazines in, but Shahnaaz insisted that she had to light the first match, since she’d found the magazines.

“But I’m the one who went to get them!”

“Yeah, but you’d have nothing to burn if I hadn’t found them.”

She was right. I looked inside the garbage can and saw my woman with brown hair still laid out on the bed. I wondered how she had ended up that way. My mother always told me it only took one step off the right path to start your downfall. Maybe one step like lying about matches.

“There’s only one straight path,” my mother would say, “and you need to pray to Allah you stay on it. It’s the right path that looks difficult. All the others tempt you, but at the end of each one, there is a trapdoor that drops you into a burning, red-hot pit of fire filled with demons.”

“But how do you know if you’re walking the right path or the wrong path?”

“Listen to what I tell you,” my mother would say, then leave me to go clean.

“Fine. You can light the first match,” I said. “Stupidhead,” I mumbled under my breath.

Shahnaaz struck the match against the flint and dropped it quickly into the garbage can. We all stepped back, thinking it was going to explode. But the magazines were thick and glossy, and the garbage can was damp. We watched as the flame burned, lowered, and then flickered away. Shahnaaz lit match after match, but each one flickered and went out.

“You have to get more matches.” Shahnaaz acted annoyed, as if it was my fault she didn’t know how to start a fire.

I didn’t argue this time. I wanted the magazines to burn. I ran all the way to the bodega thinking of the woman in the garbage can. Where had she gone wrong? I thought of how easy it was to want to sleep instead of pray at dawn, to want to eat during Ramzaan. I thought of the boys I wanted to kiss: Julio, Phillip, Osman. Is that how it had started for her?

When I got back to the bodega, the owner was alone and this time he looked angry. The gray cat was still in the corner licking herself.

“Could I please have another pack of matches?”

He gave me a look. “Hey, what are you doing with these matches?”

“They’re for my father,” I lied again.

Something crossed his face. “Tell your father he’s got to come here himself if he wants matches.” Then he looked guilty. He’d never said no to anything I asked for before. “Here.” He passed the matches and a square caramel over the counter. “Your favorite.”

It was my turn to feel guilty. I couldn’t believe how easily lying came to me. I thanked him and ran back to the alley behind Saima’s house.

“This time I want to light it,” I said. When Shahnaaz opened her mouth to argue, I cut her off. “We can’t get any more matches, and you don’t know how to light them.”

Saima laughed and Shahnaaz gave her a look, but she stepped back. I walked up to the garbage can and looked down at my woman. Her mouth looked soft and sad. I struck the match and held it to the whole pack, until it became one big flame, a fireball in my hands.

I dropped it right on her. The flame kept and started burning a hole through the center. It turned into a hundred flames shooting up from the silver metal. We could barely see the orange, yellow, and blue of them in the light.

The smoke rose, and the fire reached higher and higher. The woman’s skin began to submit, relent. The bed she was on, her sad eyebrows drawn together, her mouth melted away. Her body was being covered with smoke, and I knew her spirit was being lifted so she could fly clothed in fire all the way to Heaven.



Saima’s house was crammed up next to the train tracks, and every time a train passed, it blasted through, blowing garbage and letting its long, wild siren fill the air. The houses were all by the railroad tracks like this:



When Saima and I ran outside, a train was just passing. The sound of her brother, Ziyad, crying was behind us, and we saw that Lucy and Shahnaaz were already hanging out under the grapevines. Ziyad was crying because his mother was forcing tablespoons of hot chili powder into his mouth. Saima’s mother was always punishing them. Her methods were extreme even for our families, who believed in discipline.

It was hot hot hot. Lucy was sitting on a milk crate snapping gum and flipping her long, dark hair. She was wearing short shorts. Her belly was chubby as cake and pushed through her T-shirt. Shahnaaz was lying out flat, hogging the entire sofa under the grapevines. When she saw us, she got up. I could hear her skin unsticking from the red vinyl.

“I’m bored,” Shahnaaz said.

“I’m bored too,” Lucy said, snapping her gum.

“I’m bored three,” Saima said. “Move over.” She pushed Shahnaaz to the side.

“Whadda you want to do?” Shahnaaz asked. She must have been too hot to start a fight.

“We could go get some ices,” I suggested.

“Anybody got money?” Lucy looked around, but we all shook our heads no. We were too young to work and our families didn’t give allowances.

We heard the sound of Ziyad, now screaming, from one floor up. Saima and I looked at each other quickly, then looked away.

“You know when Amir crashed his bike into the fence?” Shahnaaz asked, ignoring Ziyad’s cries.

“Yeah, so?” None of us liked Shahnaaz’s bully big brother.

“So, stupid, there’s a hole and we can look into the Old Italian’s yard.”