Minutes after birth you held my head to your lips and whispered, “Difficulties are fires.” It came unbidden, unplanned. Your mother’s voice speaking through you. Ma would have been horrified. She would have accused you of being irresponsible. Failing in your first duty to me as a father. You never told anyone that you had whispered your mother’s words to me before the Azan except me. You couldn’t wait to tell me.
In the early seventies, a father defies the two-child policy in Singapore and insists on a third. He wants a second son to help protect his frail daughter Sarah. When another daughter is born, he breaks with Islamic tradition and whispers a personal mantra into the ears of his new-born daughter Sal. As she grows up, she hears her father repeat these words.
Twenty-five years later, Sal loses her way as she struggles against the tide of pragmatism that surrounds her. As her family try desperately to look for her by sifting through their own memories of their lives together, Sal reaches out to her dead father and attempts to fight the fires within her.
"Begum's prose is lush and evocative, displaying a poet's sensitivity to detail. ... The novel alternates between voices and deftly moves between past and present, drawing out the complexities of constantly evolving familial relationships."
—The Straits Times
"The simplicity and clarity of the writing allows each character to speak directly to the reader to reveal, with startling honestly, the truth of his or her own life—a truth that must be heard."
—Rosemaries Somaiah, author of The Nevermind Girl
"A richly braided narrative in which different voices in a Singapore family alternate, intersect, and diverge. As a young woman goes missing, her mother, brother, and sister reflect on their relationships with her, on the pressures of minoritisation and social conformity, but also on the possibilities of love."
—Prof Philip Holden, Department of English Language & Literature, National University of Singapore
“First Fires is both intimate and subversive, incantation and critique of the strands of love and alienation entangling members of a Muslim family. First Fires possesses and ravages, in whispers and eruptions, challenging us not to turn away from the inner and environmental devastation that is wreaked when we deny the power of our own anger and repression.”
— Lydia Kwa, author of Pulse
"Moving between the prosaic and the poetic, First Fires travels through metaphor, memory, and myth to unravel a familiar yet original narrative of familial life, love, and loss. An intriguing debut novel."
—Dr Warren Mark Liew, Department of English Language & Literature, National Institute of Education
"A very good novel. Well crafted, with an ease to the language and flow of ideas... and it makes for compulsive reading. I look forward to more of her writing."
— Ibrahim Tahir, Owner of Wardah Books