By Zain Dada
Photos by Priyanka Podjale (top) and Rae (below)
“We’re taught marginalised identities are rooted in pain. We’re taught, that’s what we’re worth.” Kashmiri-American, Poet & writer, Fatimah Asghar explains. The question of identity politics has certainly been a topic of contestation in both the United States and in Britain, but Fatimah’s view is clear.
“When I think about what it means to be Queer, i’m not thinking about what homophobia means. I’m thinking about what that love means. When I think about what it means to be South Asian and Muslim, I’m not thinking about Islamophobia, I’m not thinking about racism, I’m thinking about what it means to be amongst my people.”
Those threads come through beautifully in Fatimah’s debut book of poems, If They Come For Us (One World) released last year. The poems certainly touched a collective nerve in the wake of tragedies like Christchurch where a self-avowed white supremacist killed 49 Muslims in two mosques in New Zealand. The last poem in Fatimah’s anthology, If They Come For Us, named after the title, was shared widely across social media by Muslims and non-Muslims alike following the attack as a way for many people to process their mourning. The poem is a sombre expression of the diversity of Muslims across the world from ‘the Muslim man who drinks good whiskey at the start of maghrib’ to ‘the Muslim man who abandons his car at the traffic light drops to his knees at the call of the Azan.’ The collection itself has also received widespread critical acclaim, the LA Times describing it as “one of the most unique collections in American poetry.” Fatimah’s own artistic journey has been a trailblazing one, alongside her debut anthology, she wrote and co-created Brown Girls, a web-series chronicling the lives and friendships of two women of colour which was nominated for an Emmy and she recently announced that she’ll be writing a novel with One World set to release in 2021.
We meet on a cold, Chicago morning in a café which was home to some of the scenes which were featured in her web-series, Brown Girls. Fatimah tells me about the new anthology she has co-edited, The BreakBeat Poets Collection Vol. 3, comically titled, Halal If You Hear Me. She tells me that the aim of the anthology is to “centre the voices of Muslims who exist on the margins of what people consider to be Muslim.” The anthology is a riposte to the idea of homogeneity of 1.5 billion Muslims across the world often peddled by journalists and perpetuated by think-tanks.
“What we really wanted to do was create an anthology with the essential cornerstone being, there are as many ways to be Muslim as there are Muslim people.”
The BreakBeat Poets series is curated by Artistic Director of community arts organisation, Young Chicago Authors, Kevin Coval and poet, Nate Marshall. Fatimah co-edits the third volume with friend, fellow poet and long time collaborator, Safia Elhillo. “Safia and I have been friends for a really long time, since 2011, a cornerstone about our friendship is actually talking about being Muslim and grappling with everything from perception and faith.” Published by Haymarket Books, Halal If You Hear Me brings together poetry and essays by Muslims who are women, queer, genderqueer, non-binary or trans. The poets in the anthology include, current Young People Laureate for London, Momtaza Mehri, Warsan Shire and Cohen Award winning Bengali American poet, Tarfia Faizullah. But the anthology also includes writers published for the first time, an important aspect of creating the anthology for both Fatimah and Safia. “It’s a project in listening. It’s a space where we can listen to each other.”
In a fraught and divided world where it was recently reported that anti-Muslim hate crime in Britain increased by 593% in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, a project in listening feels urgent. The Christchurch terrorist attack triggered swift words of regret and sadness by politicians, commentators and journalists. Despite this, the pattern of dangerous rhetoric toward Muslims continues. On the same day of the tragedy, Australian senator, Fraser Anning tweeted, “Does anyone still dispute the link between Muslim immigration and violence?” Anning went onto describe ‘the real cause of the bloodshed’ being the migration of ‘Muslim fanatics’ to New Zealand. I ask Fatimah if this relentless hostile climate toward Muslims and marginalised communities in general has resulted in a deep-seated nihilism amongst millennial artists and in particular, amongst Black and brown artists. “I think there are elements of nihilism in this book (If They Come For Us) but I don’t think it’s completely nihilistic. I think the books really about the need for coalition building and solidarity amongst different groups of colour. And even among South Asians.
In the visions we’ve drawn up since partition, and during the Bangladeshi Liberation War, and we have these traumatic histories which are perpetrated by the idea of nationhood and then we don’t talk about them. Then we kind of build on this legacy of silence.”
It is no surprise that first and second generation immigrants are highlighting these histories in both the student movements here in the UK to the art being produced by artists of colour in the United States. The term ‘snowflake’ is now common parlance in the press and social media as a way of describing those who seem to find offence in anything and everything, does this extend to analysing history to today’s lofty moral standards? "It’s really hard to move past something if you’re ignoring it. I see it similarly in America where we don’t talk about America’s history of slavery and the history of indigenous genocide and we’re expected to just move past it and that doesn’t make sense. Because when you do that, you just create this unequal system where you’re furthering oppression and you’re not really allowing people to stand in their full histories.”
History is certainly an important aspect to how Fatimah thinks about her work. The Partition of India in 1947 which led to the creation of Pakistan, the creation of new borders, left up to 2 million people dead and millions more displaced is explored in different ways in If They Come For Us. ‘Partition’ features as a title in several poems, and for Fatimah, it was important for her to look at the “on-going legacy of partition and thinking about that through a personal lens. Thinking about how partition affects South Asian people in the diaspora, across generations, and the kinds of division that happen because of partition.” I mention South Asian artists in the diaspora have a tendency to romanticise the homeland of their parents or grandparents. Is this a clear departure from that?
“Some ways diasporas are always going to romanticise back home,” but for her it’s necessary to interrogate “the ethics of a pretty violent event that you were not part of. And to not reduce to trauma porn or something which you’re talking about the violence in this way but you’re actually being responsible about how you speak about it.”
We circle back to some of the themes in If They Come For Us which take a closer look at her home, America. She tells me that her route into poetry, writing and screenwriting was not a conventional one. Living in Chicago and first finding her “poetic voice” there, she’s well versed in the history and legacy of the city remembered as the home of an iconic, 20th century literary movement, the ‘Chicago Black Renaissance.’ Fatimah cites writers such as Gwindolyn Brooks “who really honed in on the poetics of witness and observing your day to day. What it does mean to observe your day to day life.” This has certainly influenced her approach to writing and it’s evident in both the “grittier” poems to the ones infused with laughter.
When we discuss the idea of ‘success’ as young writers and artists, Fatimah offers a cautious tone. Writers should be wary of the “whims of a trend” and that the “pressure to publish young or make art young is real.” Success, inevitably was not instantaneous, “that’s the thing, we created outside of these institutions, institutions weren’t publishing us.” Social media became the platform to share both Fatimah’s own work as well as the community of Chicago artists she belonged to. “We were kinda of like, ‘fuck it,’ if no one is gonna publish these poems, and we’re responding to the issues that we think are urgent, we’re just gonna share them on Facebook and on Twitter.” This is something the often, archaic world of traditional poetry has had to contend with, given the rise of poets such as Rupi Kaur who paved a career for themselves via Instagram. I respond by commenting on her own success today, which Fatimah is quick to attribute to being a collective process. The best piece of advice she got in college is that
“Circles rise together. Actively build with your peers. Share drafts of your poems and writing and what you’ll get is a circle that comes up together.”