by Mira Kalcker
The final sentence of Anna-Marie McLemore’s Author’s Note in When the Moon Was Ours speaks for the whole of their brilliant, partly autobiographical novel. When the Moon was Ours tells the story of Sam and Miel, best friends living in a small town and each with more secrets than most teenagers carry. Sam paints moons he hangs all over the town and Miel grows roses from her wrist that everyone knows about. But beneath this, even more secrets are hidden. For Sam, it is his gender identity, the fact that almost no one knows that the body beneath his clothes has been assigned female at birth. Miel’s secrets, on the other hand, lie even deeper than that, buried in the pages you need to read for yourself if you want to uncover them.
The novel is something completely different from all the books I have read so far, even though my bookshelves are filled with Young Adult Literature. And it makes me wonder and even a little bit frustrated that this so important and unique novel is widely unknown. While one could argue about the slow pace of the plot, McLemore explores topics that are incredibly relevant, not only for our time but especially for young adults who grow up in this world and do not quite seem to fit in anywhere.
The most obvious theme is the one of Sam’s gender identity. Samir or Samira? is the question that is being constantly asked throughout the novel. McLemore’s husband himself is transgender and as the quote from the beginning of the article already tells, they were by his side when he found himself. This makes their work so credible, writing about something that they are clearly knowledgeable of, and as they say, they also talked to their husband about his journey. Sam struggles throughout the novel with all factors, from societal to his own feelings but ultimately comes to a conclusion which is nicely done.
However, what I personally did not really like is that they introduced the concept of bacha posh to this conflict. “Bacha posh is one way of adapting to a rigid social environment where having a son is a must for any family desiring prestige and security. Families that can’t produce a son sometimes resort to this deception, dressing up one of their girls as a boy and presenting her as a male offspring to society.” (Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/global/2011/nov/30/afghanistan-girls-dressing-as-boys). According to McLemore, this concept is mainly practiced some regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan and ends with the bacha posh returning to women when they are of age. Sam inhabits this role when he and his mother repeatedly experience cultural discrimination. While I appreciate the idea to represent a wider range of cultural concepts, I am simply not sure how brilliant McLemore’s idea truly was. Personally, I miss the credibility for why they took up bacha posh in their novel, what their connection to it is. It simply seems really random, even in the Author’s Note. Naturally, one might wonder how easily the bacha posh can later move into the role of a woman, as McLemore says, however I see tying bacha posh so tightly to being transgender as slightly problematic. It seems like an easy, overly simplified answer to the question how bacha posh impact the girl’s (or in this case, boy’s) gender identity. Especially since performativity, gender roles etc. are such an incredibly complex topic, I cannot help but think that McLemore bit off more than they can chew.
But the idea of bacha posh already points to another theme, McLemore discusses: transculturality. “When the Moon Was Ours” gently and xy speaks of what it means to grow up as a generational immigrant, from cultural practices, such as food or tales, to discrimination the characters experience. Miel is Latine , just as McLemore themself, Sam is Pakistani. The author also points to the idea that marginalised people always have to try harder in order to be accepted. For example, Sam’s mother is widely liked despite being Pakistani because she does exceptional work for the townspeople. Aracely, Miel’s sister and a healer, on the other hand, is quick to be judged, even though she does help people as well but within a cultural practice. Naturally, the cultural topics reach even deeper but that is something you will have to find out for yourselves. Concerning discrimination, When the Moon was Ours also touches upon internalised homophobia and how blinding it can be.
Another theme that When the Moon was Ours explores is how to find one’s own identity outside of a fixed community. McLemore does so by introducing the Bonner sisters who represent a fierce unit, a unit that has already gotten cracks when the plot of the novel begins. Developing uniquely in a fixed environment is an issue most people face growing up. Finding individuality can be scary because it usually means that the relationships we have with the people around us change. This means that we lose security and have to face our true selves. McLemore quite cleverly works this issue into her story and it becomes even more apparent through a second read.
All in all, and despite my criticism, I strongly recommend When the Moon was Ours to anyone who wants to think a little more outside of the boxes. A little magical fairy tale, a little coming-of-age story and a lot of diversity is what I would describe When the Moon was Ours as. And I personally think this is a beautiful and powerful combination.
 The genderneutral term “Latinx” is likely more well-known to our readers. However, most Latine people do not appreciate the term and use the more linguistically appropriate “Latine” – including McLemore.