Fatimah Asghar’s poems have appeared in POETRY magazine, Buzzfeed Reader, the American Academy of Poets, and have been recognised with a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship as well as a Kundiman one. Her debut book of poems, If They Come For Us, out in August 2018, is named after her poem of the same name in which she writes:
my people my people I can’t be lost
when I see you my compass
is brown & gold & blood
One of the epigraphs the book opens with is a quote by a Partition survivor, Rajinder Singh, which says, “…. can these sorts of things ever happen? I said to them if they have not happened before, they have happened now.” The story of mass migration and unprecedented violence during Partition and their aftermath, as well as the growing persecution of Muslims in the States form the heart of Asghar’s collection. Her family was one of the Muslim families which migrated during Partition before moving to the United States.
Asghar’s poems are both affirming and gut-wrenching, both hopeful and angry. In a poem about the 2014 school shooting in Peshawar, she writes, “I wish them a mundane life. / Arguments with parents. Groundings.” In another about Donald Trump’s travel ban on Muslims, she writes, “I build & build/ & someone takes it away.” In the central long poem titled “Partition” she gathers anecdotes from those years in South Asian history.
Based in the US, Asghar is also the writer of the Emmy-nominated viral web series, Brown Girls, which is now being developed for a televised release on HBO. Alongside the director Sam Bailey, she created two relatable and complex female characters in their mid-twenties – a queer Muslim South Asian writer named Leila and a black musician named Patricia – who rely on their friendship to navigate the uncertain era of early adulthood.
Asghar spoke to Scroll.in candidly about the many different kinds of diaspora, stories of Partition, experimenting with the poetic form, and focussing on work-life balance as an artist. Excerpts from the interview:
As a diasporic artist, how do you navigate your relationship with Kashmir and Pakistan? Are you interested in those spaces as they existed when your parents and grandparents lived there, and/or their present-day circumstances?
I’m interested in both how these spaces were when my family lived there and how they are now. There’s a way that Pakistan and (especially) Kashmir occupy this romantic place in my mind, because so much of my knowledge of them comes from the stories of my family, both blood and not-blood. Because I’m an orphan, it’s hard for me to return to these places, since orphaning is a violent severing from family. There’s also a way that when you’re a person of colour in America you’re not treated as American; you kind of operate without a home. So, you reach for places your family is from, but those aren’t exactly home either. So, you’re in a kind of perpetual state of homelessness, looking for somewhere you belong.
One of the recurring themes of your collection is Partition. One of the poems is a string of stories about Partition. Are these stories ones you’ve discovered through research or ones you’ve heard from other people? How did you go about learning more about Partition?
I first learned about Partition through the stories of my aunts and uncles. I’ve always found Partition both really devastating and fascinating; it became an obsession that I couldn’t stop returning to. And so, then I started to do a lot of reading about it, in terms of looking at historical texts and academic texts, and art that was about Partition. I would just be researching it every day because I just really wanted to know everything that I could about it. And then when I started writing poems about Partition I would go back and research more, trying to pick apart and understand small details. I think that the history around Partition will always be something I’m fascinated with and can’t shake.
In another interview, you refer to a Muslim diaspora. I wonder if you can talk to us a little about what it means to occupy a religious rather than a geographic diaspora, and how that ties into the art that you are driven to produce.
I think there are a lot of kinds of diasporas. I don’t think that I occupy a religious diaspora rather than a geographic one, but both. There’s a lot of Muslims around the world. There are also a lot of South Asian people around the world. Both of these influence who I am as a person and how I’m treated when I walk around daily, which then in turn impacts all the art that I produce. I don’t think that I can separate my identity from my art, nor do I care to try.
There’s a lot of experimentation with form like crosswords and grids in this collection. What about these forms is appealing to you?
I’ve always been interested in playing with form and genre. A lot of time these come about because they’re the best way to tell that particular story, because they suit the poem the best. There’s a strong narrative thread throughout the book so those poems also really offered a different element to my voice and a way to play that I enjoyed.
What are some books from or about South Asia that you’ve enjoyed?
I’m currently reading The Ministry of Utmost Happines by Arundhati Roy, which is stunning. The God of Small Things is one of my favourite books. I also love Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I also love reading Fariha Roisin’s essays.
Who are the poets you find yourself returning to again and again?
I love Ross Gay, Danez Smith, Patricia Smith, Angel Nafis, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Aga Shahid Ali and Safia Elhillo
What projects are you working on right now?
I’m working on a bunch of stuff artistically, but what I’m really trying to work on is living my life outside of my artistic work. I’m a workaholic and let that consume me and I don’t have much of a work-life balance. So I’m trying to take a step back and live a little more.