Inside Issue #22: Fatimah Asghar

Interview by filmmaker Minhal Baig

photo by  Rae

photo by Rae

When Rivka reached out to me to do a profile on Fatimah Asghar, I could not have been more excited to interview someone whose work has affected me so much personally. Fatimah is the writer of the Emmy-nominated web-series Brown Girls, which has been picked up for development by HBO, and has a collection of poetry, If They Come For Us, published by One World, coming out August of this year. I will confess that I know Fatimah a bit personally, and so much of what I wanted to discuss were things I had always thought about asking her, but felt almost afraid to, until now. 

Initially, I was very curious about how she felt about poetry being perceived as an elitist medium. 

“When I first learned about poetry, we’re often thinking about Shakespeare, or Homer, or the Odyssey, and it’s interesting because, during their time, they were speaking in colloquialism,” she says. “Poetry exists in so many communities of color, and has such a rich historical tradition. It’s fascinating to me that that can be overlooked. A lot of authors of color are constantly overlooked. To do away with some of that, why can’t we have poems that are lyrically vulgar, or sound like me and my friends speak? My work rides that line, how [poetry] can be lyrical and everyday.”

There is a poem of hers, titled “Super Orphan” that contains the line: “What to do then /, when the only history you have is collage.” I wanted to understand, what is it like being Pakistani and Kashmiri and Muslim and living in a diaspora?

“To me, being an orphan, you’re born into questions,” she says. “Who am I? Who are my people? What are the stories that I don’t have access to? A lot of my art comes from wanting to grapple with those silences. What does it mean, to be able to invent a kind of family history?” 

I read another poem of Fatimah’s, entitled, “Oil,” and in it, she speaks about what it was like for her as a child after 9/11. “I felt a palpable difference. Where I grew up, it was super diverse. I was watching the news with my aunts and uncles and that feeling, and I remember feeling like once I realized that the people on the planes were Muslim, it was ‘oh, shit.’ The whole room shifted and it was this feeling … things are going to get bad. I remember going to school the next day. People were asking me, ‘where you from?’ in a threatening way. Being at recess, I was with my best friend Marilyn, and this boy came up to us and basically kind of like, so where is she from, and is she Muslim? My friend Marilyn said, she is but she’s cool. She’s one of the good ones. I feel eternally grateful for her saying that, but what does it mean, to be a good one?”

Fatimah has a book coming out this August, but before this collection, she also had a chapbook titled After that was published a few years ago by YesYes. A mentor had told her, “your first book is your first book”, and after a while of struggling with a collection of poems that delved into her sexual assault experience, she decided she would curate the poems and put them into a chapbook instead. The book was only limited to 400 copies. 

“It got easier to get a lot deeper to get into that story of sexual assault when it’s 400 people. And these 400 people are going to get that super intimate story, told on my terms. I actually don’t want my first book to be about my sexual assault, I wanted my first book to be about a lot of other things,” she explains. “I crafted a really intimate story and this is ‘After’ and you have it when you have it and then it’s gone. That was a really fascinating experience. The book sold out in pre-order, and that was it. It was gone. What does it mean to make an art for an audience that’s huge and for an audience that’s really small?” 

We get to the part of the interview where we talk about Brown Girls. Since there are so many interviews about where the work comes from, and what it means, I wanted to instead focus on the experience of transitioning as a poet to a screenwriter.

As she describes, “I think of poems and web series, especially as I’m developing a show from a web series. A web series is also about moments, distilled moments which you get down, which is very similar to a poem. I’d been writing a lot of poems and I was always interested in screenwriting, and this is the first time I’ve written something like this, and not even taken a class but I’m going to try.” 

Fatimah says Brown Girls was her first experience in screenwriting. “It was just really fun. Literally fun, just to try this. And now these are the characters, and where they live and how they talk to each other. Sometimes, too, because I was working intensely on my project in poetry, it was a great release to work on, just for fun, that I’m trying.” 

Her book, If They Come For Us, comes out this August. The book recently received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. “[This collection] is a deep interrogation of statehood of everything: race, religion, gender, sexuality and nationality. What does it mean to draw a border and say that this is now this thing. So that’s really what the book is about?” 

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Fatimah spoke about how she decided on the collection’s themes after her first chapbook: “After After, I started to write a lot. I didn’t touch my childhood in my writing. When I really think about it, was it as bad as all I remember? I leaned into the moments I loved as a child, and the moments I felt nostalgic for. I started writing these poems, high narrative, high nostalgia, of being an immigrant and being from an immigrant family.” 
Through some digging, I found out that Fatimah had written fan-fiction (and yes, for Harry Potter). A lot of writers are often shy or embarrassed about having written fan-fiction, so I was genuinely so surprised when Fatimah embraced this part of her own narrative. “Fan-fiction taught me so much. It taught me a lot about, how this is an existing world, and what are you able to play in. I wrote mostly male characters and mostly male storylines and I don’t think that’s weird. I definitely was writing slash, and I wrote a lot of darker characters. I was fascinated by the friendship of the four boys, by James and Sirius. There was a lot of richness, in the older generation, that I didn’t always find in the younger generation [in Harry Potter].”

I wanted to know Fatimah’s secrets. First, how does she write so much? And from where does she draw her inspiration? She has a good answer for that: “I’m very disciplined. Art and craft, you have to be disciplined to be good at [it]. I don’t have the time or luxury to wait for inspiration. It can be a bad draft, and that’s the thing. I write in the mornings and I write at night, that’s when I write the most.” 

And finally, we talk about what she’s working on next — a question I personally hate asking but it needs to be done. “For myself, I’m working on a feature, and I have a draft, and I’m getting it to a place that I’m getting it to a place I feel really good. I have a dramedy pilot and there’s a more traditional drama pilot. Those are the things that are purely mine.” 

We delve into some of her inspirations, literary and otherwise: “I’m really inspired by so many people. I feel lucky to be alive. I feel grateful to have seen two visual albums by Beyonce,” she says. You know right away that Fatimah is a voracious reader and lover of her own medium, as she lists off the poetry that she’s loved recently: "Dictee, by Theresa Hutchins, it’s a really tragic story, and it’s so good. Split by Cathy Linh Che. I love Ross Gay’s writing, and I think he’s such a visionary as a poet. Patricia Smith is very similar, and she’s an amazing writer and poet, and has taught me so much about form and craft. My friend just published a book called Not Here’’ by Hieu Minh Nuyen, and Danez Smith’s book, Don’t Call Us Dead. I love Toni Morrison. The God of Small Things (by Arundhati Roy) is a masterpiece. And Junot Diaz. Drown and This is How You Lose Her. Junot speaks to men the way that a lot of women can’t. What I’ve seen is that his work makes cis men better. Junot is such a master. He’s one of the most important writers of our time.”

What is all the more impressive about Fatimah is that she is not just an artist, but also an activist. “I want to build active solidarity amongst persons of color. How do I show up for other groups of color? How do I constantly want to learn and be in solidarity with other people. I am pro people of color telling their own stories. I am more excited more people of color having platforms to be poets and make a living as a poet, as a screenwriter, things like that. Those are all things I’m passionate about."

view the whole spread here.

He Said You Were a Writer

by Morgan Martinez

by Morgan Martinez

In the back row of a theater, I feel shapeless, that my body is secondary, that I’m leaving this world behind me, and I won’t be back, at least not for a while. This is what they call a real surrender.

The lights are dimming now, and I am transported back.

Two years ago, I am hunched in the corner of a hospital room; the floor is slipping out from underneath me. My father, having just turned sixty-nine years old two weeks ago, is lying in a hospital bed, hooked to a ventilator, fighting for his life. His eyes are closed, but even when they are open, they do not look. He sees, but he does not know. He does not know what we are about to do, what choice we are about to make; we cannot undo this. What is about to happen will change the rest of our lives.

We are “pulling the plug.”

What a fucking awful term, as if they thought of us as machinery. The white suits, they come in and appear concerned. They look at me, as if I am an animal being led to slaughter. I’m not here against my will. I chose to be here. I wanted to see him die. The room is so small, it can barely contain the two of us, but it will be big enough for me soon.

I don’t remember what day it is. The ventilator is a muzzle; it keeps him from speaking. He is too weak to write. Bodies come in and smile and say something nice and then they leave. They don’t acknowledge me. I’m still of the living. I have the rest of my life to be ignored. When someone is dying, they steal the gravity from underneath you. Will they, won’t they, will he, won’t he.

I am wearing two sweaters. He is cold, but not dead yet. My siblings and I come in and out for days. Seventeen days. Each day feels like a year. I must be forty-one by now. The hospital room is the worst form of theater; everyone has a part to play. Look, there’s the nurse. There’s the doctor. All their dialogue is scripted, like they’ve seen this so many times before; the stock phrases, the false apologies, the worried faces may as well be masks. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s on fucking repeat with these people. It’s not their fault. I get it. I want to understand. I want to be okay with this, I want to let it go, but I can’t and I won’t and this is when time stands still.

I wondered what it’s like inside of his brain. Wondered if he knew what was happening to him; are you really aware of death, or does it sneak up on you? The religious aunts and uncles come in and they say, perhaps it’s time, God will take him when he wants to. I am furious, I’m so fucking mad I could lose it. I am not sad. I cannot cry. I am upset that I can’t cry about this, can’t cry about losing my father. I am not human.

I had dreams about it. I was sleeping on a couch in a friend’s apartment for several months, trying to figure out how I should be spending my time. I’d taken up a job as a sales associate at Gamestop, as a way to make some money; as a way to pass the hours. I was getting lost in my head, in my writing, in the words about nothing. Where is your perspective, what the fuck do you care about? On a constant loop inside of my head. So of course, I took up a mindless job, to remind me of the realities of adulthood: keep your mouth shut, take your paycheck, drink your cheap coffee and eat alone in cafes because you’re too lazy to cook and you don’t have any friends.

I woke up one morning to a phone call from my sister. The prognosis is not good, she said. You should come, she said. Even if you are still mad at us, you should come, she said. I don’t remember what else. She could have been speaking a different language. Grief makes us speak in tongues; we are incomprehensible.

I had left home months earlier and I remember the words that came out of my mouth: “You don’t care about me.” I hurled these words at my father, who was sitting in a wheelchair in the living room at the time, and he said nothing in return. He didn’t see me leave. There was no final exchange; just my juvenile monologue met with silence. Maybe he was tired. Look, even adults don’t know what to say sometimes. I know what he would have said. I can’t write those words, though, because it feels wrong. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. There is no mouth to say them.

“We have to make a decision,” a white suit said. No, I have to make a decision. You get to see me make it, you asshole. For those few days, all of the thoughts in my head were so obscene, it made me question my sanity. Why are you so fucking angry all the time? I would ask. Why are you so upset? Did you think this would end differently? That you were going to be the exception? There was one-half of me that wanted it to be over. The other-half wanted me to feel this way forever, as if I deserved this.

Death should be more swift than this. Seventeen days is a very long time to watch somebody die, but I’d also been watching him die for a few years now. First, there was the cane, then the wheelchair, then he would lie in bed for hours, then days, and now he was here, unable to speak or make sense. My siblings brought him cake for his sixty-ninth birthday. I was not present, because, like I said, I had “run away from home” and had committed to being angry. What bullshit. Such Yale bullshit. I have to be consistent, or they’ll never learn their lesson, I had thought. What lessons did my father have left to learn? He couldn’t eat the birthday cake. The sugar, my mom said, the sugar, that’s what did him in. Diabetes. Coronary bypass. Liver failure. Kidney failure. Heart failure. I’m a fucking failure.

After my freshman year, I took two photos of my dad: one in which he is on the couch, looking forward into the future (did he know what would happen then?) and one where he is looking straight at me. This is my father as I remember him; in my living room in Chicago, on our couch, turning his head to look at me as I take this photograph. Looking at me, looking through me, as if to say, you are what will be left of me when I am gone.

I held up the whiteboard, with these words: “We are taking you off your ventilator.”

I have written about this before, about this moment where I write these words, about when I hold up this whiteboard at the foot of his hospital bed, hoping that he can make sense of them, of our decision, of what is about to happen to him and to the rest of our lives. I could write about this moment a thousand times, and it would be different every time, but the whiteboard and the words are always the same.

It only takes a few minutes after they “pull the plug.” His breathing is quiet. My breathing is loud. My heart is racing. His is failing. What is the fucking point of this world if we eventually lose everyone we love? I want to say I’m sorry, but it’s too late, he’s already slipping. Maybe he understood what I meant when I said, “You don’t care about me.” You care too damn much, I really wanted to say, but I am too young to say what I mean. I just say the words that hurt hardest. Because I am a fool.

The religious people enter and they pray. They say, if we pray, maybe he will recover, he will come back. Are they really that stupid? Prayer means shit now. Somewhere, my dad is laughing; he was a scientist, after all. When people look at me now, they see him; I lose my temper, I talk too loud, I am (sometimes) too smart for my own good, I am demanding and ambitious and depressed. I don’t want them to see him when they look at me, but they do. Somewhere, my dad turns his head to look at me, in the living room of our home in Chicago, as if to laugh, as if to say: fuck them.

Hey, he said you were a writer or something, a long-lost, distant relative told me. I didn’t hear them say it the first time. What? Your dad said you were a writer. No, I’m not a writer. I just feel things, and it’s too hard to hold them in. That’s not being a writer. That’s just being a fucking human.

The following summer, somebody asks me: does it get better? No, it doesn’t. It never gets better, you just get better at coping, at learning to live with a loss you didn’t choose. It doesn’t matter if it was two years ago or five or ten. I will never get over it, I am committed to this loss. I will carry it with me until I am dead.

The summer was so hot, everyone lost their minds in our cramped house, with all of his things lying around as if we were waiting for him to come home. Whenever the doorbell rang, I ran to answer it. I am still making sense of this nonsense, of the lost time; it was as if I’d lost consciousness for the days I’d spent in the hospital, and when I woke up, I no longer had a father.

The lights come back up in this theater. I’m leaving this behind. I don’t want to write about this anymore. I just want to feel human.