A Sister’s Story: in conversation with Arifa Akbar

The sibling bond is a powerful one, but it’s not always straightforward. Emma Clegg talks to The Guardian’s chief theatre critic Arifa Akbar, who is coming to the Bath Festival in May, about her moving memoir about sisterhood, grief and art.

Sibling relationships can be complex and challenging, but often in the canon of literature and cinema and arts they are romanticised. The Guardian’s chief theatre critic Arifa Akbar, who last year published her book Consumed: A Sister’s Story, a memoir about sisterhood, grief and the healing powers of art,­ felt it was important to be honest about this. “I wanted to talk about my sister and about our relationship, the starker, edgier, more difficult side, which I feel often isn’t written about. We think of books featuring siblings, like Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women, which describes all the ways in which sisterhood is wholly positive. And of course it is – it doesn’t mean that because there is estrangement and arguments and disagreements that there is any less love – but sisterhood and siblinghood is actually very complicated, very fraught, and I wanted to describe that honestly,” Arifa explains.

In 2016 Arifa’s sister Fauzia, aged just 45, suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage. Just a day after this, when Fauzia was on a life support machine and after months of not being able to diagnose what was wrong with her, the hospital told her family that she had tuberculosis. Coming too late, the support machine was switched off the next day, but if it had been diagnosed earlier, a simple course of antibiotics would have cured her. “We were astounded because this was a leading North London teaching research hospital and none of us thought that this was life-threatening”, says Arifa.

The shock of her sister’s death, and the hospital’s inability to diagnose the condition in time, acted as a spur to Arifa to find out more about TB, which she had thought was a fully understood and historic one. “The trauma of losing her made me want to understand what had killed my sister and to understand this disease, connected to poverty and overcrowding, but also romanticised and mythologised in the 18th and 19th centuries, where the upper classes tried to emulate the pale-faced look of tuberculosis.” Arifa then discovered with surprise that TB had been classed as a pandemic in a Lancet report in 2019.

Fauzia and Arifa were close in age (Fauzia the elder by two years) but their early family experiences were markedly different. Their father had been married before, to a German woman, but his family forced him to divorce her and marry a much younger Muslim woman, her mother. Fauzia was born in Lahore, Pakistan when her father was in London preparing for the family to come and join him there and when she first met him, at the age of one, she was frightened of him and they did not connect. This feeling grew, but when Arifa was born, her father adored her unwaveringly, but continued his negative relationship with Fauzia, criticising and belittling her constantly. Arifa now acknowledges that this was emotional abuse. “This was the hardest part of the book,” Arifa explains, “My father was a good father to me but he was a very different father to her, and I didn’t realise that when I was very young – it was only when my sister and I shared a room in our teen years that she told me and when I thought back I could understand that.”

Fauzia went on to suffer severe depression and had various eating disorders that dominated her life and while there were many strands to the story, including their experience of migration, Arifa feels there is a strong connection between her sister’s depression and relationship with food and her childhood experiences: “My sister felt the favouritism – she felt marked by it. Her depression came in her teens and I think it was connected to the family dynamics. It was certainly part of the upset she felt as a teenager growing up.

“My father brought all that complication to the marriage. I explore this in the book, and while there is all sorts of responsibility and blame you could assign, I don’t want to judge people, because everybody was stuck in the wrong relationships. This is just the humanness of families. And my father had incredibly complicated feelings towards his marriage and so my sister became the collateral damage.”

At the beginning grief left me quite speechless and not articulate at all. I couldn’t think of anything worse than to write about my sister’s death

The idea of writing a book about her sister had not appealed initially: “At the beginning grief left me quite speechless and not articulate at all. I couldn’t think of anything worse than to write about my sister’s death. So I resisted writing the book to begin with, but actually I didn’t want to write a book around the pain of grief; I felt that there had been so many books that had mined rich experiences about grief that I wouldn’t be able to offer anything more.” Arifa’s research around tuberculosis had started to bring ideas together, and then an exhibition of Fauzia’s artwork at Camberwell College (where she had been studying for a BA in Fine Art) was arranged, suggested by her art tutor, and this started to shape the idea of writing. “Her tutor asked me to write a short essay as part of the exhibition programme. My heart sank a little, but of course I did it because it was important to mark my sister’s achievements in art. It was hard and it had catharsis, but more than this it began to interest me, this narrative.

“So these various strands came together in a hybrid idea to write a memoir about my sister’s life and the two of us as sisters, to write about her love of art and my own love of words and art and combine it with a medical story.”

After Fauzia died, Arifa discovered a suitcase full of her hand-embroidery. “We had argued on and off in the last years of her life so I hadn’t seen a lot of her art. When I began to really look at it I found fascinating things – there was this discovery of her in it, things that I hadn’t wanted to see, things I hadn’t seen properly, things I had misjudged about her. It was powerful and wonderful to see parts of her in her art. There was this torrent of work and it was so beautiful, full of colour and life and wit and character and I was astonished at how much she’d done. They are pieces of her. ”

The two sisters had been very close in their teens and the connecting factor had always been the arts. “When we were growing up books, stories, films and TV, and for her visual art, paintings and drawings were really important – they were vital to our sense of understanding of the world. The world opened up in these forms. She would spend hours describing things, and a lot of my passions around the arts and culture were first shaped by her introducing me to them.”

Arifa had made various revelatory journeys in homage to her sister and as part of her research. This included seeing Puccini’s La Bohème in Tuscany (where the narrative features a tubercular woman); visiting the Sistine Chapel in Rome where Fauzia had gone as a 19-year-old, an uplifting experience that had lifted her depression; going to the Keats–Shelley Memorial House, also in Rome where Keats died in 1821 of TB; and seeing Edward Munch’s painting of his sister on her deathbed in Bergen, Norway. These stories, all woven into Arifa’s book, are what makes it so exceptional, the intense diversions into the medical history of TB, the appreciation of her own sister’s artwork and the visits she made to feel close to her sister and understand her better.

“It was surprising how much power these experiences had,” says Arifa. “And how much reflection. It drew me to my sister’s death but it also drew me to life and love and death and families and the way they love each other and harm each other. This has helped me channel a lot of the feelings that I might not otherwise have wanted to face. I might not have wanted to face my grief over my sister, but seeing Munch’s sister on her deathbed made it somehow safer to connect. It gave me a sort of communion.”

As well as appearing at the Bath Festival in May to talk about her book, Arifa is a guest curator at the festival and has commissioned strands in connection with the themes in her own book relating to sibling love, grief, childhood memory, depression, body image, art, identity, migration and illness. The strands include Ali Smith talking about her life and work alongside dramatised readings of selected poems that hold significance for her; Abdulrazak Gurnah and Elif Shafak in conversation about migration and identity and poet Jay Bernard talking to writer, journalist and campaigner Shon Faye about gender, identity and transformation with a performance of their spoken word poetry. Mark Hadden, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will also be discussing the mental health challenges of the pandemic and Christina Patterson is in conversation with Arifa on their respective family memories and the ethics of putting real life and loss on the page.

Ethics aside, Arifa’s written journey seems to have helped her through the anger and shock of her sister’s death. “It’s almost as if these paintings and books are holding my hand through those difficult dark feelings, emotions and memories,” she says. That’s a power to cherish.

Consumed: A Sister’s Story by Arifa Akbar, Sceptre, £16.99

“It’s a searing, brilliant, dazzling memoir of sisterhood, mental illness, art and grief. Heartbreaking and beautiful.”
Christina Patterson

Arifa Akbar will be talking about her book at the Bath Festival in May. Full details of all Arifa’s curated events and the full programme is available from early March


Portrait credit: photograph by Jocelyn Nguyen