Illustration by Anna Buckley

How Fatimah Asghar turned the traumas of colonialism and diaspora into poetry

August 21, 2018 8:00 am

Fatimah Asghar’s first full-length collection of poems, If They Come For Us, debuted this month, but we’ve been waiting for it with itchy fingers for some time now. Beaming from our phone screens, her individual poems are like the moon pinned above our nighttime houses—maybe angry, definitely hopeful, and offering the light we’ve been needing when things have felt particularly dark. Of course, we know anger can’t sustain us forever, and her poems know this, too, which is why they find their true sweet spot in the nexus between tenderness and pain.

It may be that you’ve already heard of her. She has been performing her poetry to packed houses for years, and if you don’t know her for her verse, you might be familiar with her Emmy-nominated web series, Brown Girls, which offers an everyday glimpse into the friendships that women of color share. Fatimah’s voice has been a clarion call demanding that women of color be seen and heard. Likewise, as a queer, Muslim, Pakistani-American, her success as a poet, performer, screenwriter, and educator has been inspirational for members of the intersectional community who have not seen versions of themselves in most art.

It’s difficult to imagine encasing the emotional breadth of If They Come For Us in a nutshell, difficult to boil down the multilingual, multinational history of a family told from the point-of-view of an intimate witness, but we can tell you this: If They Come For Us asks us to see what becomes of real people when they are the victims of seemingly arbitrary imperialist decisions—in this case Partition, which was the British Empire’s attempt, seventy-one years ago, to establish a border between two nations, Pakistan and India. Partition, in an attempt to demarcate states based on religious boundaries, left lasting scars on both sides of the border. The poems in If They Come For Us span lifetimes and tell what it means to lose one’s parents as victims of collateral damage, and what it means to rise triumphantly from the flames of historical afterthought. And what it means, too, to be American.

We were able to catch up with Fatimah during a quiet moment to talk about her new book as well as ask questions about where we are today and where we hope to be tomorrow.

Cassidy Kristiansen

HelloGiggles (HG): Congratulations on the publication of If They Come for Us. What is it about poetry that gave you the language to tackle such topics as colonialism and intersectional identity?
Fatimah Asghar (FA): Those topics come up whenever I write or whenever I create art, and poetry, because of its fragmentation, felt natural to me.

HG: In terms of fragmentation, the refrain of partition in the book is important to the narrative both historically and personally, and it felt as though you were trying to work through it and possibly away from it by exhausting the concept. Do you feel as though you did that?
FA: Partition is always going to be a thing that matters to me and influences me. When your people have gone through such historical violence, you cannot shake it. So, it’s always going to be a thing that exhausts and it’s always going to be a thing that I’m upset by.

HG: Your book speaks to the way colonialism tears families apart, but also about how to make a family. How hard was it for you, and do you have any advice for finding family and community?
FA: Relationships and love are a lot of work. As an orphan, something I learned was that I could never take love for granted, so I would actively build it. I think that is really, really important for folks. If you’re trying to build solidarity with people, you can’t take community for granted, and you have to actively work in order to make sure that your communities are what you want them to be.

HG: That’s good advice. I feel like the book is not just about establishing identity, but also about figuring out who to trust when so much has been ripped apart in one’s personal history by outside actors. How do you know where and when you are safe?
FA: I don’t really know if a safe space exists, but a lot of it is just about human connection and building up moments of trust with people and working through where you can establish it and how. As someone who has actively performed at readings for years, I can walk into a room and gauge whether I feel safe or not, and if I’m going to read certain poems, or how vulnerable I’m going to be.

HG: What would you say to someone who reads narrowly, which is to say, only reads work that comforts them because the narratives are familiar.
FA: Poetry and art, in general, are a really great way of having these windows into lives and experiences that you might not always consider. I don’t only read work by South Asian queer people, right? I think marginalized folks are expected to read across marginalization, and white people are not. That’s bothersome.

HG: I see so many people do it, though. Reading what I would, obviously, be expecting them to read. Reading within their demographic.
FA: Actually, I find a lot of people’s experiences can relate to me in any kind of art that I look at, including art from people who are not of the same race or sexuality or economic background as me. If someone has to occupy the same identity of a writer or artist in order to feel something, that is a failure of the imagination and of humanity. If the only art that you can consume is by artists that look exactly the same as you, then I worry about you.

HG: There’s a lot of conversation happening right now about appropriation of voice, about writing within one’s own experience. As Roxanne Gay tweeted, “staying in one’s lane.” Do you think an artist can successfully write outside of personal experience and into cultural territory not their own?
FA: It’s a complicated question. A lot of times what happens is that there’ll be a thing where a white poet might appropriate black experiences and then there will this backlash of white people being like, well, if we can’t write about this or that, then what are we allowed to write about? It’s just really complicated and to me, a lot of times, appropriation is about power, right? It’s about people who have positions of power who take things from marginalized communities, celebrate them, and then erase the people who originally created them.

HG: Sure. They get all the kudos and recognition.
FA: Well, it’s not just about kudos, right? It’s about power and it’s about resources. Like, for example, this comes up a lot with hair where white folks can take black hair styles, wear them, and be considered cool, and then when black folks wear certain hairstyles, they’re discriminated against. So, it’s not just about kudos, it’s about power and it’s about discrimination.

HG: And laying claim to territory.
FA: Right, so in terms of can you write into experiences that are not yours? Fiction writers and screenwriters do that because they’re creating many different characters. However, it can be done badly or without being responsible to the communities they’re writing about, and they often erase people and that’s a problem. Straight, white people still dominate most of the avenues of art-making and storytelling, especially commercial art making and storytelling, and they get most of the opportunities. Then when white people want to talk about difference or about race, they often do that by talking about “the other” and not actually interrogating their own whiteness. I think when you’re an artist, you always have to think about why you want to tell a story and why you want to tell it in a particular way.

HG: What do you think the future looks like for intersectional folks in the U.S. right now?
FA: I hope there are more opportunities and that we don’t have to fight so hard for the smallest opportunity, that we don’t have to work so much harder than everyone else for basic human recognition. I’m hoping people come up with more complex ideas of what it means to be human and really interrogate their own concept of what “normal” means or what “American” means. I think there’s a future for intersectional writers, but, in the bigger picture, we need structural and political overhauls.

We can’t exist in a world where we continue to experience such a level of police brutality, right? We can’t exist in a world where we have the kind of gentrification crisis that we do. If we can start centering folks from intersectional backgrounds, then structurally, things have to change alongside that so we’re actually making more space in the world for all people. Not only in terms of representation, but in terms of the betterment of our society.

HG: It almost feels like the arts can create a safer space outside of the context of the political world. America can feel dangerous, but within the world of the arts, we can still have conversations and engage in discourse. Speaking of, do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
FA: I’m continuing to work on screenwriting and poetry. There’s nothing that I can share quite yet, but I’m excited that If They Come For Us is out. It’s something that I’ve been working on for a really long time, so I’m glad to share it with the world.