Poet Fatimah Asghar Speaks About Survival, Language, and Diaspora

Photo by Jason Riker

Fatimah Asghar’s poetry is brutally beautiful. Her stanzas are heavy with pain yet buoyant with light. Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Pakistani and Kashmiri immigrants, Asghar now resides in Chicago and is a poet and performer whose work leaves you reeling and repeating lines to yourself the same way you memorize lyrics to a favorite song. Is it possible to read her poem “Pluto Shits on the Universe” and not utter to yourself, “I chaos like a motherfucker”? That singular line can also describe the energy of Asghar’s work, as she tries to make sense of the chaos in our own histories of diaspora, place, belonging, and language. 

Asghar talked to us about her first chapbook released earlier this month. After, published by Yes Yes Books, is a collection of poetry that explores the aftermath of violence in a relationship. The book is unforgiving in its honesty in examining desire, anger, and power. 

We Own All the Language in the World by Fatimah Asghar - TEDxRushU

AMY LAM: How did you find your way to poetry?

FATIMAH ASGHAR: I found my way to poetry through spoken word. When I was a freshman in college, I joined the spoken word poetry team at my school. I instantly fell in love with the art form. It was so stunningly radical to me to see all of these people onstage sharing their own stories and talking about themselves with such confidence. There was something inside of me that woke up and made me think that this was something that I wanted to try to do. And I’ve just been doing it ever since. 

Was it is something where you felt like you had something to say? And what about poetry versus filmmaking, or writing prose, or expressing yourself in another way? 

I think I did feel like I had something to say. Growing up, I did theater all of the time and I really loved being on a stage. I loved performing. But the thing that frustrated me about theater was that it was really just one or two people’s major idea, like the director and playwright. You could be a good actor, you could be a good performer, but it wasn’t neccesarily your voice that was shaping the production. And I really wanted to do that. 

When I saw spoken word, what made it really beautiful for me was that you didn’t really need anything. All you needed was paper and a pen and anybody could do it. It felt very accessible in a way that other art forms didn’t. I just really wanted to do it. 

Your first book, After, was just published. Can you tell us a little about what the collection is about? 

The collection is about a problematic relationship that I had with a male partner that was abusive both around sexual assault and also in terms of verbal stuff. The book explores poems that are related to that experience, not just in that relationship, and other things that I have had experienced. A lot of it is about body and having your body unmade and putting it back together, and just details and explores issues of sexual assault. 

But in my work right now, I’m exploring lots of things about family and being a part of the Pakastani, Kashmiri, and Muslim diaspora and just thinking about what it means to grow up in America. And also what it means to grow up as an orphan and grow up in America without understanding my relationship to this country and my relationships with my countries of origin, and trying to figure out things about my family. I’m working on a new collection that’s really rooted in the project of looking at my family and also thinking about my experiences of growing up in an immigrant family and the way I looked at America and how that gradually changed the older I got. 

Do you need poetry to navigate your identity? Or does poetry need you and your identity, if that makes sense? 

That’s a great question, I hope poetry needs me! That would be awesome [laughs]. For me, poetry was an instrumental way in learning to talk about my own identity and learning to talk about my life experiences. I grew up as an orphan. My parents died when I was really young, which made it interesting trying to think about who I was. So much of the way that I learned my identity then was not always through a positive way, but through a negative way through which the media portrayed people like me—especially after September 11th. Poetry was a way of exploring some of that hurt, and also exploring some of the joys of being Pakistani, and Kashmiri, and from an immigrant background, and an orphan, and all of these different things that are vastly complicated. 

My identity is in everything that I do, because it’s who I am. That’s true for all of us. We see the world, we see everything around us, through the lens of our different intersecting identities. My poetry, in a lot of ways, is reflective of my identity because of that. We’re seeing this really beautiful moment in contemporary poetics in which a lot more stories from voices of color, marginalized voices, are being heard and put into the limelight. That’s a really beautiful thing because for so long our voices, and our stories, and our narratives were excluded from mainstream poetic discourse. We’re kind of pushing against that, that’s not say that we’ve completely succeeded, but it’s to say that there’s a movement in which people are very much trying. I’m really honored to be a part of that movement. In that way, poetry needs all of us. Poetry needs all of our stories and our voices in an attempt to break the elite standards that poetry has been confined to for so long. 

In that vein, what is the experience of being a person of color in a literary landscape that largely might not reflect who you are? 

It can be really frustrating. I’m sure that a lot people feel this way about different things like academia or job markets or whatever. Sometimes when you’re the only person, or the one person at the table, and it can feel really lonely. There’s this incredible pressure to get everything right. And if you mess something up—to be a spokesperson for everybody is just not a good position to be in. You want to be a spokesperson for yourself and for your lived experience. The thing that I tell my students often is that we are the experts of our own experiences and therefore we should be in charge authoring our image and writing the poetry that talks about our lives. 

When I first graduated from college, it was really hard to think about navigating the literary landscape, which is often so full of rejection. There are all these stories about people who submitted their books or their poems over and over and over and were rejected time and time again. That was a daunting thing for me. Me and my friends created a poetry collective of poets of color from across the nation and it was just a way of trying to go against that and trying to create a family of poets of color who could support each other in navigating the literary landscape. Places like that and places like Kundiman and other poetry organizations or literary organizations that are dedicated to people of color are so important for our survival and for us to be able to build together and network. To challenge the way that the landscape has been set out. 

I’m so glad you brought up the organizations that serve writers of color because I was going to ask you: how does one assert oneself in a space like that? Because it can feel really daunting, especially as a person of color growing up in a white-dominant culture, your whole life is trying to fit in and to break into systems where historically you’ve been pushed out or left out. To think about in terms in the literary world, it’s really opaque and difficult to penetrate and get through. How do you keep going, in the face of all of that? 

I totally agree, it is really hard to penetrate and get through the literary terrain. It’s especially hard in the literary world because it can be so elitist already, and then it’s all white, and then there are all of these vanguards that are meant to keep you out. I keep going because we have to. We have to say yes to each other, we have to believe in each other. We have to break these narratives, because these narratives are actually really damaging. There’s been several controversies that have come out in the literary landscape this year including the Best American Poetry and Michael Derrick Hudson, who used the name of a Chinese poet in order to get his poems published. It’s a very real thing when the majority of America doesn’t think of people of color as human beings, then we need to push against that. We can see it everywhere. 

For some people, they say, “Does it really matter? It’s literary journal. It’s a niche market, nobody really cares.” Yeah, it’s a niche market, but it’s actually a microcosm of a larger world. We live in a world in which people of colors’ lives are being erased daily because our society and our media likes to portray people of color as though we’re not real, as though we don’t deserve full narratives, full characters, and full stories. It’s our jobs to push against that. And when we meet resistance, when they say no, it’s our job to create the spaces in which we can say yes. 

Fatimah, that was so beautiful! I’m so glad you exist and that your art exists! This is another question I’ve been brewing on, in terms of writers or artists or who are children of immigrants: Is English your first language? 

English is my native language, it’s the language that I speak the most. When I was growing up, my family all spoke Urdu and Punjabi. I understand both of those languages very well, almost to the point where when I’m at home I can’t really differentiate when my family is speaking what language. I know what they’re saying, and it’s the language of home. But I always answer back in English. Which I think is a thing that happens with some immigrant families, where the newer generation will answer in English or the language of the place they are surrounded by. I actually don’t really speak Urdu or Punjabi and I’m trying to learn it right now. 

Also my family is Muslim, and I learned how to read Arabic very young. I learned how to read Arabic so that I could read the Quran, and I would read it over and over and not necessarily understand the meaning behind it.

This is kind of a selfish question on my part, as a person whose first language wasn’t English but now my entire life is English. I do the same thing that you do, where when I’m with my family I speak this broken Cantonese Mandarin thing. It’s even more complicated, because even though we’re ethnically Chinese, they’re from Vietnam and have completely fluffed off Vietnamese because they don’t want it to be part of their identity. Language plays such a big role in who we are and how we navigate who we are. This is a question that I’ve been thinking about for myself, as a writer who writes in English, and I’m asking writers this because I want them to tell me the answer. Do you often think about what it means to write in English? 

Yes, I think about it all the time. When we’re talking about decolonizing our minds, then what does it mean to be a writer who is writing in English? What does it mean to be a writer whose writing in English who is against systems of colonizing, of racism, of imperialism, of oppression in those systematic ways. I think that’s why I’m trying to teach myself how to speak Urdu. It’s not just to be able to write in Urdu, but it’s to be able to communicate with my people in some ways. To be able to preserve that part of myself and my identity, rather than letting it be assimlated away. Something that I’ve noticed in my own writing in the past year is that I’ve been actively introducing Urdu words into my poems. I’ll write a poem and a lot of the words will be in Urdu or in Punjabi and they won’t translated. I’m not going to translate them at the end, they’re just going to exist on the page. It’s up to the reader to just read them and infer what they mean or to look them up. That’s a way of pushing against that overwhelming prevalence of English across the world. It’s kind of like saying, “I’m going to honor my languages as  best I can, and I hope that in my life, I will continue to honor the languages of the places that I come from, or the people who have raised me, or the people who are my ancestors, or who laid the framework.” Especially as an orphan, that’s really important to me when I think about having kids or having a family or continuing a life in which writing and words are so important to me, I have to ask myself the question of which words? Which language? How can I make sure that I’m putting priority on the ones that have the most danger of being lost. 

by Amy Lam
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Amy Lam was a contributing editor and co-host of Backtalk at Bitch Media. Find her at byamylam.com & Twitter / Instagram.

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