If They Come For Us is the Brown Girls creator’s affirming exploration of South Asian identity in convention-defying poetry
Fatimah Asghar’s debut poetry collection, If They Come For Us, excavates grief, queerness, her family, history, and how to confront all of these things in a white supremacist, post 9/11 world. Using partition as the building blocks for the book, Asghar grapples with questions that have plagued her life, while seeking to educate audiences on one of the most violent yet unspoken events in the last century: the separation of South Asia post-independence into India and Pakistan.
Asghar, who co-created and wrote Emmy award-winning series Brown Girls, is an exceptional talent. If They Come For Us further crystallises the notion that the Kashmiri-American has a specific ability to distill taboo topics into tangible, relatable discourse. Throughout the book, Asghar eschews conventional methods of poetry: crossword puzzles, madlibs, floor plans, bingo micro-aggressions are in place of stanzas. By defying what poetry should be and how it can be interpreted, Asghar has created a book that speaks volumes on partition, a long-silenced topic.
We sat down with Asghar before her reading in London, her first outside of the US, to discuss If They Come For Us, identity, and partition.
How long did it take to put If They Come For Us together?
Fatimah Asghar: The earliest poems are from 2015. I overwrite a lot, so I was like: “where are the themes? How do I compile it down?” It got picked up for publishing in the spring of 2017. It was already shaped and then I was like these are the gaps, these are the things I want to work on, so re-order, re-order. I finished it in 2018, in January.
It’s kind of weird because it feels like it’s not that long. I think a lot of early writings are attempts at a poem that you’re trying to write which are about study and voice and craft elements. While it sounds like a really short timeline, I feel like I’ve been writing this book forever. I also feel like I’ve been writing it very quickly.
Do you think writing it was in some way interacting with your past, reconciling with your history?
Fatimah Asghar: Yeah, I think history is really important to me and it’s often done away with because people don’t give history the space often that it needs, especially in America. It was important for me to say that this is something that happened. This is why, you know, these things don’t go away. They’re intergenerational. They don’t just leave. People don’t just experience trauma like this and just leave. I’ve been surprised because this is my first time doing a reading from the book that’s not in the US. In many of my readings in the US, young, South Asian people will come up to me and say, ‘I have never heard of partition’.
I feel that. Like, we’re not taught that and if you are, in my family, for example, if you bring up stuff like this, they’re like ‘yeah, that’s really painful, that’s really ugly’.
How much research did you have to do on partition to write this?
Fatimah Asghar: A lot. Part of it was that I knew my family’s story. It was also a thing that I was obsessed with forever. I’ve been reading about partition for a really long time and then I started to really see that it was the building blocks of the book. With something like partition, where there was a retributive genocide on so many sides, everyone is a victim and everyone is a perpetrator and it was a really hard thing to talk about.
“There’s a responsibility to community, there’s a responsibility to being an ethical person, there’s also a responsibility to myself” – Fatimah Asghar
Do you think about your audience much when you’re writing?
Fatimah Asghar: Absolutely.
In what sense?
Fatimah Asghar: Because they’re real. It’s that thing where I exist in communities, I exist in spaces in which I go and read these poems and see up close the audiences’ responses. I also think about the youth a lot in my work, especially the ones I mentor, the ones I work with. They’re smart. They’re not being into being talked down to, so I don’t want to talk down to them.
When I’m writing a broader work, I often think about a younger version of myself who’s lonely and needs someone to be like, ‘Hey, you’re not so alone’. That’s kind of where when I’m thinking about that where that's coming from
Do you think that’s where your responsibility lies: helping the younger version of yourself?
Fatimah Asghar: There’s a lot of things: there’s a responsibility to community, there’s a responsibility to being an ethical person, there’s also a responsibility to myself. Wanting it for queer people of colour, wanting it for Muslim people and South Asian people to feel like there was something that they could hold.
Sometimes, I think about the things that I’m scared to write about. Like, partition was a thing I’m scared to write about. But it was the thing that I felt was a responsibility to myself to try. You don’t have to share everything, but you can? I think that you can. I think people can live so many lives. What you need is the freedom to live that kind of life or the ability to be like, ‘I can fail or I can fuck up and that's okay because I'm a human’. It’s just really looking at that internal well of the emotions that I have, and what are they showing me, and following that. When you’re an artist, when you’re creating work that’s from vulnerable spaces, if you are transparently on the page you’re still in control of it.
I know you have a lot of projects on going right now. What does the rest of the year and the near future look like for you?
Fatimah Asghar: The thing I'm trying to do in 2019 is finding the ability to surrender. Just to be like, ‘I don't know what’s going to happen’. For the last few years, I was sprinting so hard that I couldn’t take a break, and January felt like a break. I felt a lot of release in ways that were helpful to me so I feel good and renewed and restored in that way. But I’m lucky. I get to write for a living. It’s really beautiful that I get to do that. It’s really lovely that that's my life.
If They Come For Us is released on Corsair and available to purchase here