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On Being South Asian, Muslim, Queer & American: In Conversation with Fatimah Asghar

By Naomi Joshi

Fatimah Asghar is a Pakistani-Kashmiri artist and writer, who was raised in Boston and New York, and is now based in Los Angeles. Asghar finds the comfort of home and belonging in the Muslim, South Asian, queer, POC communities she has actively worked to build throughout the years. Influenced by poet Ross Gay, in his unique way of tackling the complications of joy, and inspired by Arundhati Roy’s ability to write and be an active political figure in speaking up against injustice, Asghar expresses that writing is the only thing that makes her happy - she is resentful when doing anything else. Fatimah is the writer and co-creator of the web series Brown Girls (2017), she recently released her collection of poetry titled If They Come For Us (2018), and she wrote and directed her first short film this past summer titled Got Game?: a video game-esque short following a recently single, queer woman of color at a kinky party.    

Asghar explores what it means to be a brown, South Asian, Muslim femme, growing up in post 9/11 America, through a real reckoning with history. Tackling concepts such as Partition, trauma, identity, family, queerness and more, Asghar’s phenomenal and inspiring work is resonating with people all over the world.

What is your relationship to writing?
The only thing that makes me happy is writing, and I’m resentful when I’m doing anything else. So it became really clear to me that it was the only path for me. I think there’s some people that feel like they really want to be a writer, but for me, I just had to be one. I had never seen anybody who was making a living as a writer - I didn't grow up with that and I didn't know anyone who did that. But I was just like, I don't really care, I have to do this. It's my calling.

In what ways have you been able to build communities and empower them through your creativity?
Community is so, so deeply important to me. I think in part because of being queer and really battling with family stuff. And thinking about how important chosen family is, I really do love my people. I define that really broadly. I think South Asian people are my people, Muslim people are my people. I think queer people of color are my people. The ways that I grew up being Muslim and South Asian, and the ways that certain things were taught to me, I'm constantly challenging tradition - like, hey this is hurtful or this isn't good for us. And I think that community is really important to me in having an understanding for those who have been taught similarly & challenge these teachings similarly. Community has also taken a really active role in my art making. There’s just no way to survive as an artist without community. Even that financial aspect around community is so important, but also the validation you get - you’re not seen as legit in any other sphere. And so it's important to cultivate a community where you can say this is who I am, this is who I write for, and this is who I create for.
When the book came out, and also when Brown Girls came out - both of these things were bigger projects that I think I had always intended to make for my friends. I want to make my friends laugh. And when I wrote the book it was very similar, I was writing for people I know - I’m writing for my aunt, I'm writing for my sisters, I knew who I was writing for.

Where does your inspiration come from?
It kind of comes from everywhere. I think sometimes it'll be a feeling I have and then that will lead to a poem or sometimes it'll be a dream, and that would lead to a scene in a film. It's really about being porous and open to the world and also open to myself. For me, the act of creating is so important, it’s like a spiritual path. I feel like it's really doing some interior work, and it means that I have to be in a place where I'm really in touch with myself. When I feel like I'm off balance, it's so hard for me to make anything. So, all of these things feel of the same coin to me: my personhood, my art, my sense of spirituality and sense of self. All of the kind of interior work I'm doing is to heal myself. All of that is very much in conversation.

Are there any pieces of clothing or jewelry that you particularly love? Has your sense of fashion/style been influenced by South Asian design & textile?
Every piece of jewelry reminds me of something special. Even if I get it for myself, it’s something where I think, oh, this reminds me of my culture or this reminds me of that moment. I’m deeply connected to the things I wear. I’ve been wanting to wear a lot of bright things lately, a lot of patterns. For so long, I was convinced I had to wear things that were muted and now I think I’ve decided no, I’m just going to wear all of it.
When I was growing up, I didn’t want to wear any pieces of clothing or jewelry influenced by South Asian design or textile, but as I got older, I realized this stuff is so beautiful. We’re so lucky. We come from these incredibly rich cultures - the kind of vibrancy and the patterns that I’ve been wanting to embrace, really comes from being South Asian. I remember going Saree shopping for a wedding, and the woman at the shop told me, you’re young, you have to wear bright colors. And I was like oh! But she’s right. There’s something really beautiful about this brightness, in jewelry as well. I tend to like really chunky, gold jewelry. I really love things that feel deeply South Asian.

Are there any personal pieces that have been passed down from your family?
My parents died when I was really young. So, a lot of my relationships to stuff has actually been kind of fraught because there’s been this whole jewelry debacle in my family, where my sisters and I haven’t seen any of my mom’s jewelry. I felt like I was always waiting for things from my family, because especially in South Asian culture, there’s so much being passed down: jewelry, necklaces and even things like a dowry. And so I always thought, oh, I can’t get these things for myself because someone else has to get it for me. And then there was just this moment where thought, I see the way my family fights over things and I’m not into it. I could wait my whole life to be validated by my family or I could just choose to be self-sufficient and do it myself. There were a lot of moments, even this necklace [points to necklace she’s wearing], it says Allah and it’s usually something where you think that gets passed on to you in a rite of passage. But I got it in the year that Brown Girls came out and it now marks a significant moment for me. This is what matters to me. So, it’s been a lot of reclaiming of stuff. In the sense of family items that have strictly been passed down, my sisters and I just don't have it, we don't have access to it.And that's been a wound that I feel like I've been trying to heal. 

How would you describe your upbringing, in regards to family & belonging?
My upbringing was really wild. Like I said, my parents died when I was really young, and I was never adopted. I come from a place where my family has been clipped from me. I had a legal guardian, my uncle, but he didn't live with us. And we moved around a lot between people who were not blood, but family. And then in high school, my sisters and I just completely lived by ourselves. So we were little wolves - we didn't have parents and we didn't have adults who were really governing us. My uncle would occasionally come down and say you're not allowed to do this thing - he was a very fearful figure in my life. But he didn't live with us. And so there was a real sense of practicality that was really different, when you're three teenage girls and there's no adult supervision. It lead to some real intense shit - we had to grow up a lot faster than I think most people do.
At the time, it was very hard to go through and we had to lie about it, because if anybody found out that we were three girls living by ourselves we were fucked. And so, there was always a fear that we would be taken away from each other. I think a lot of my high school friends just didn't even really know that my parents had died. Because we grew up in a place that was very immigrant heavy, it was very normal to live with an aunt or a grandma. There were a lot of situations, where your family or your parents might have not been with you, because that was the pattern of immigration, or that was what it meant to be a person of color in America. When I started to write about my upbringing, it was a healing process for me. It was a real ability to say, this is who I am. I had both a very beautiful childhood and a very painful one.

Can you introduce your latest collection of poetry If They Come For Us? What are the main topics this book explores?
The collection grapples a lot with being, what it means to be South Asian and what it means to be American at the same time. But also what it means to be Muslim, what it means to be a femme and what it means to be queer and how to navigate all of that. What it means to have a body that looks like mine, and what it means to have inhabited that, but all of this through a real kind of reckoning with history. I think we often don't talk about history, and so we're sitting on these wounds that are really deep, and we're not dealing with them. And when you talk about identity in the aftermath of an event like Partition, that just tells you everything you need to know about history - two nations that were created in that one year, which was not even that long ago. When I look at my mom’s lineage and her family, they went from being Kashmiri to then being Pakistani to then being British, to then being American - that is a ridiculous journey of identity. And so that was really what I was thinking about, and then me being severed from her and all her stories. These are the things I was really trying to grapple with. It was questioning, what does it mean to be a product of all of these things and not have immediate access to them? To me, that's really what the book is about. And that poem [If They Come For Us], that title, is the anthem: the kind of rallying cry of a pledge of solidarity to my people in whatever way they may be, and the knowledge of what it means to show up and say, I'm here, and we are here for each other, when we have historically not always been.

How does the notion of identity speak through your book?
That to me, is really what the book is about: being one thing and then being another thing and then being another thing, based on your context. I think there's these ways that people talk about identity that's so fixed, but nothing about identity is fixed because it just changes so often - it literally changes based on the city you're in. I think a lot of my work in general, questions, what does identity mean? How does it change? And so that's really the thread of it. I think I feel so much freedom when I don't have to identify. Especially around my gendered and queer lines. When people say things like we are women, I think, hmm I don't know. And I understand that women are a marginalized group, I just don't feel like I need to identify that way. When I'm able to be at my most open self, there's so much of that stuff that gets shed. But it's easier to say I'm a woman of color or I'm a woman - it's easier to say that because it's recognizable, but that's not actually true. I feel that same way about being South Asian, I always go for the broadest definition rather than the most specific one. It can be a trap, you know, and it’s just so relative - it’s about the moment and it's about who's trying to define you and why. In regards to the book, I didn't translate many words because that's the way my family speaks, and so that's the way the book is going to be. This is a huge part of my identity. It was important for me not to italicize non-English words and not to translate them because I want to stand for the truth of how I know my family and the people I love, to speak and I don't want to cut that out.

How does the concept of Partition flow through If They Come For Us? Did you feel the need to provide a certain context for the readers who might lack knowledge of the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan?
I didn't learn about Partition until super late. What I mean is, I didn’t really understand Partition until really late. I think that there’s this kind of narrative that states: we used to be one and now we're not, but it’s so much more than that. Usually when Partition is talked about, it’s about Gandhi and the freedom movement, a non-violent movement, which is just not what happened, but that’s really what the West says. So, when I started hearing these stories about my family, I became very obsessive. And in doing really deep dives of research, I knew I was bringing out stuff that other people wouldn't know either, including Muslim, South Asian people, but also South Asian, non-Muslim people. It was important for me to think: how do I give this context? But how do I not overburden this?
The event of Partition is something that you need to know, to understand who I am, because it's in my body. These moments of fragmentation, both in terms of Partition itself but then also how I grew up, they’re so connected. I knew my family's stories around it, but then there was this moment in college where I was in an ethnography course, and we had to interview someone. I interviewed my uncle and he just told me this super violent story of leaving Kashmir. And the way he said it was so nonchalant and I was like, wait, what the fuck? What happened? And only then did I go on this search to find out more, and realized how truly violent it was. I didn’t even know there were retributive genocides. I didn't realize that my family was literally being forced out. These realizations launched this obsession in me, where I wasn't researching to write the book, I was researching because I needed to know. Then, when my book got picked up, I was trying to make sure I was threading together all these gaps, but also not laying blame on anyone because I think the tricky part of Partition is that people receive such a nationalist rhetoric.
People will say, all the Muslims did this or all the Hindus did this or all the Sikhs did this. And you can't make a statement like that, because everybody was a victim. Every group was a victim and every group was a perpetrator. I tried to work really hard to make sure that stance wasn't in the book and that's why ultimately, we decided to call the book If They Come For Us. That poem is really about how all of this history exists, and yet, we look for love for each other.We look for solidarity. How can you stand on such a complicated history and still look for love? That's what I hope to always do.

How is the inheritance of trauma explored in the book?
The way we inherit trauma is so deeply important, which is why the book is really reckoning with Partition. There's just so much shit we’ve inherited, and when we don't acknowledge it, and we build on top of it, we fuck ourselves over. It's the same reason why America just continually has issues, because they can't acknowledge slavery or indigenous genocide and then they build on top of an erasure, and that's just never going to help. I think it’s difficult for America to have a conversation about indigenous genocide and slavery because this is antithetical to America's creation of the land of the free, it’s not a pretty narrative, and it's in the best interest of the nation state to not talk about that. However, it is really important for there to be public monuments, public memorial sites and public acknowledgment where people can go, grieve and deal with this trauma publicly and collectively. And I think the same thing for Partition in South Asia - South Asian people building with each other and also with other groups of color. I really hope for that. I've been called super naive for wanting that by multiple people, but that's what I'm fighting for and that's what I will always fight for. We can't move on if we don’t acknowledge trauma.

What does home mean to you?
I'm always trying to figure out what home means and I don't know the answer. What I’ve found is that I feel at home with people that I feel really comfortable with. For me, it’s less about geography because that's such a transitory thing, and there's some homes that I'll never get a chance to be in, like Kashmir. It’s so sad, but I just really don't know if I will ever be able to go there. I only visited South Asia when I was a kid, so the last time I went was when my father was still alive. I think I remember snippets of things. So in that sense, then home is only a story that someone has passed down to you. That's a very poetic understanding of it, but that's how I have to think about it.

What was it like being Muslim in the United States, especially post 9/11?
It was intense. It was intense before 9/11 and it was even more intense after 9/11. This event was a real moment where a wave of Islamophobia swept over the United States. I was in 7th grade when that happened and I remember it came with a lot of shame, of not wanting to acknowledge my being Muslim or display it publicly. Only in the last decade have I spent a lot of time learning about being Muslim and actually finding sources of pride and joy in it. I really feel so unbelievably grateful to be Muslim. I'm grateful for a lot of my Muslim communities and friends. I think that we really cobbled together a kind of ‘outsider Muslim community’: people who've been rejected from traditional Muslim spaces, like queer Muslims, a lot of Muslim women, but also Muslim femmes. It's so unbelievably beautiful to be in those spaces because there are a lot of people who are rejected because of the patriarchy and homophobia, but who are still so connected to their faith. I find these new spaces deeply empowering.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the South Asian, diasporic communities around the world?
When I saw my book being celebrated by people who I didn't personally know, it was really moving. It was also really scary because you're putting something of yourself out there, and then people were responding to it, who I would have never expected to. For example, when the book came out in London, I went there for the book launch. And I kept thinking to myself: I’m not from here. I don't live in this country. I don't expect people to roll out for me. Then I got there, and my reading was so packed it was so hard to move. And then there was this huge line after it, and all of these people were saying we've been so excited for you to come.And I just couldn’t believe that the book I wrote here [in the United States], is making an impact in this country that I don't live in. That was mind blowing to see and I felt really humbled by the fact that I don't have to know you for it to resonate with you. I think sometimes people want you to be what is most convenient for them. And so, I feel very grateful because the majority of the feedback I’ve gotten on my work has been really positive. And then occasionally, there's those who say I'm too Western, which is pretty clearly homophobic.They’re always like how could you claim this identity? Or, your look is too Western, you can't be Muslim and look like the way you do, you can't be Muslim and love the way you do, you can't be Muslim and talk about sex way you do. It's all kind of coated in the idea that I’m too Western. But I've also gotten the opposite: you’re not South Asian enough, you're not Muslim enough or you're doing that so you can be accepted by white people. But I literally do not give a shit.There's always this feeling like you're never going to be enough. And I’m quite good at being like, I see exactly where you're coming from and I don't have to engage with it. And it’s gotten easier. I think in the beginning it felt really insistent, and really targeted towards me personally. But then, it got easier.

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