Fatimah Asghar Questions What It Means to Be American
In her debut book, "If They Come For Us," the Pakistani-American poet articulates the fractured feeling of growing up as a Muslim orphan with an immigrant background in the US.
Photo by Cassidy Kristiansen, courtesy of One World/Random House.
Fatimah Asghar may be best known as the co-creator of the web series Brown Girls, which followed the lives of two queer, brown women with refreshing honesty. But she’s also a celebrated performing poet who has just released her first full collection of poetry, If They Come For Us. In it, Asghar uses the India-Pakistan partition as both historical and personal material with which to mine her family’s history and question the myth of national identity. With loaded reflections on growing up in the US as a Muslim and an orphan, she also vividly articulates the sometimes fragmented nature of diasporic existence.
Below, find three short excerpts from If They Come For Us, alongside a conversation with Asghar on history, who she writes for, and the disconnect between the US and South Asia.
BROADLY: How would you articulate what this collection is about?
FATIMAH ASGHAR: This book is about this thread around Partition, which is when colonial Britain left South Asia in 1947 and the region just devolved into violence as India and Pakistan were constructed. A lot of it interrogates different aspects of identity, and particularly thinking about national identity. My parents’ generation—my mom and her mom and her family were born in Kashmir, lived in Kashmir, were Kashmiri, were British colonial subjects, then became Indian, then became Pakistani, then became British again when they lived in England, and then became American. So there's this way in which national identity was so transient in the generation above me; and then also in my own identity. I was born in America and grew up here, but I was in seventh grade when September 11 happened, and I feel like the subsequent waves of islamophobia that have hit throughout my entire life have just been a real indicator of being American but also not being America. The book also deals a lot with inherited trauma—my parents died when I was very young—and being an orphan, and trying to navigate what a lot of things mean, what sexuality means, what nationhood means, all of these different things as you are coming up in America.
When did you first start learning about the Partition?
I first really encountered it in college. I went to public school my whole life until college and we never learned about Partition. There was, a sentence like, “Gandhi led India to freedom nonviolently,” which is not true. Partition was one of the worst moments of violence in the 1900s. When you're thinking about 14 million refugees and 2-3 million people murdered in a short few months, that’s a really huge moment that is just really not talked about that much.
What kind of research went into writing this?
A lot. I read a lot about Partition, I read a lot of different history books. … And talking to my family and doing research on random things—just the amount of hours I spent online. But it didn’t feel like research in the sense of being like, I am now sitting down to research this project. It felt like, this is something that really matters to me, and it has been something I have read about since I found out about it and will continue to consume and read about.
To me, the book is very personal. It’s not a historical document. It’s a book of poems. But there’s also a way in which, when you're writing about history, you don’t want to get stuff wrong. Partition is so delicate, and I’d read books and be able to tell that the books are blaming certain people for what happened and it was this thing where I didn’t want to blame anyone. I think it was a really complicated event and there was a lot of horror on a lot of different sides, and so it was just really important to me that I not do that. But also, it’s a personal book and I can’t remove my identity and my family’s history from that book either, so it’s kind of about leaning into the things that were personal about it to me.
It feels like there’s a clear sense of fracturedness in the writing, weaving together history and personal memories in a way that feels very specific to someone who is part of a diaspora.
Yeah, absolutely. One of the guiding words throughout the entire book is this idea of partition and fragmentation. That comes up in almost every single poem, even the ones that aren’t about Partition. A poem is about a fragment; it’s about this one moment distilled down. So stylistically, the book really leans into that and that safety of being like: This is complicated and it's OK to tell small parts of it at a time versus having to tell everything and have it be all of the things all at once. That was something that gave me a lot of solace when I was constructing the book.
Do you feel like, personally, poetry has a particular utility in doing that kind of work of weaving together a portrait of a past or a personhood?
Yeah, absolutely. Poetry, for me, has been such a way of understanding myself and certain things about myself. People are complicated, and you can have a lot of different emotions and a lot of different sides of you all at the same time. ...I think that poetry really does lend itself to fragmented exploration of self and personhood.
When you were writing, were you thinking about needing to provide certain context for readers who maybe don’t have the knowledge about Partition?
Yeah, I felt like I needed to. And part of it was that I didn’t even really know about Partition until I was in college—and I’m South Asian, my family lived through Partition. And the majority of my friends did not know what Partition was. … I come from a performance background, so I perform my work, and I’ve had direct conversations with my audience about work. It’s not like I’m creating in a bubble and I don’t know who I’m writing for. And so, often, when I would go to stuff and do a poem about Partition or whatever, people would need context. They would not get it or they would want to know more. And working with high school students, I felt that too. So it was a thing where I was like, yeah I want to provide part of that context. For me, I won’t italicize Urdu words I use because I am centering Muslim and South Asian people in my work. So if there’s a reference to Islam, I’m not going to italicize it. And I think that’s OK...but what I didn't want was for people to feel like they needed to look up every historical reference about every little thing in the book because I think that stunts the experience of reading.
I feel like when you’re writing about identity and trying to center a specific audience but also wanting to make sure your work has an impact beyond that, it’s always a give and take, like this difficult dance.
Yeah, and even a lot of South Asian people don't really know about or talk about Partition. I worked with young South Asian students and they didn’t know about Partition and I was like, I understand, you're like 17 in 2018, your parents maybe don't talk about that with you. That’s not your fault that our history is not taught in school. You have to do a lot of work to find that history outside of standard American education, and I know that, because that was my experience with it, so I’m not going to fault or shame anyone for not knowing that either.
There’s also a sense of disconnect throughout the book about what it’s like to live in America as a person who belongs to diaspora, with this particular sense that you care about events happening in another part of the world that the people immediately around you aren’t even aware of.
Yeah, I feel that disconnect a lot. It’s an interesting thing being an immigrant or being from an immigrant family in the US because there’s not really a lot of places that feel like home. The US doesn't feel like home and you’re constantly reminded that you don’t belong here, but also your home country isn’t home either, and you’re just kind of in this void where you don’t really have a lot of spaces that you feel like can actually be yours.
“If They Come for Us” feels like it has a very specific tone to it. What was the intention behind choosing that title?
The original title was “Today We’re American.” In my head, what that title conveyed was, today, we’re American, tomorrow, we might not be. But when I talked to my editor about it, she was like, it kinda rings patriotic in a way that you may not want it to…. Also, the book is not about Americanism, really. There’s a poem in the book called “If They Come For Us” and to me, that’s the spirit that I want the book to be in. … To me, what’s really important is that pledge of solidarity. We have to show up for each other, and that’s really what that poem is about.