Following her debut book of poetry If They Come For Us, Chicago-based poet and screenwriter Fatimah Asghar is back with a new collection. Co-edited with Safia Elhillo, Halal If You Hear Me is an anthology of poetry from Muslim writers who identify as women, queer, genderqueer, nonbinary, or trans. Kajal caught up with Asghar shortly after the release of Halal to talk about her books, visibility, and her future projects.
Kajal: Your work has been a gorgeous whirlwind lately. It’s been a nonstop series of amazing projects. First the Brown Girls web series, then the move to HBO, then your book, and now Halal If You Hear Me! How are you feeling right now?
Fatimah: That’s so kind of you. I feel like it’s so funny cause I think when you’re in it it’s hard to see some of that. What I see most is my little failures and the stuff that I’ve been working on that I’m really in still. Like the scaffolding of a lot of that stuff. So I also tend to have a very short memory on the things that I do.
Do you feel like the reception of those projects isn’t as important to you cause you’re not in that vulnerable state of making it anymore?
The way that I take in the reception of projects has changed a lot as I’ve become more used to my work being consumed by people. I mean we talked when Brown Girls first came out, right? I feel like when that was like my first real project. That was something that so many people watched or saw or consumed and I really don’t think I was prepared for what that felt like. [I realized] I have to adjust how I intake the way people talk about me and my work. And for the book If They Come For Us, it’s such a different measure of impact as to something that’s made for a screen.
I had the incredible and slightly bizarre experience of walking into Urban Outfitters and seeing your book on the shelf. It was like we have hit some sort of zenith I didn’t realize the community could reach. Do you ever like stop reeling from that?
My way of dealing with it is I just don’t think about it. And I’m really awkward when people bring it up. But I do remember the first phone call when it was going to Target and being like, wait, what? Like my book is being sold in Target and just like my book is so much about Partition and diasporic loneliness and queerness. It’s like all of this stuff that I just didn’t think that people would be able to latch onto who aren’t immediately of that identity or background.
People often talk about you’re not an established writer until your third book. Your work doesn’t really make an impact until like your third book or until a later version. Because at the beginning, especially for poets, you’re figuring out a lot, you’re figuring out a lot about the lyric and it’s such a slow art form in terms of the time it really takes to develop the craft. For so long I felt like this book wasn’t going to get published and I just felt that so deeply. Then to have it get picked up and have the impact it did and to have it still be a first book and relatively new, like it’s still not a year out. It’s wild.
When you make stuff is there a challenge in not becoming complacent? I feel like early success can go to your head. It can be kind of limiting in some way because either you’re chasing that same success or you’re trying to make something as equally commercial.
I think so too. There’s a, a quote by the poet Terrence Hayes that’s along the lines of don’t confuse what it is for what it looks like. And I think it’s really easy to confuse what it looks like. It’s easy to, yes, become complacent and not challenge yourself to be like, how do I make something different? How do I tell a different story? How do tell the same story through a different lens? There’s so much, it’s how do you not just become a one-trick type person, you know?
I read your interview in Broadly (RIP) about the hours you spent researching Partition for your book and that struck me for a few reasons: the perception isn’t that you need to research poetry because it’s inherently personal. Then you have to do this research because we’re not taught the history of Partition. And finally it must be such a trip researching your own history.
Yeah, totally. I think Partition is such a tricky subject because it’s so convoluted and there’s so many players and ultimately what happened is there is retributive genocide on so many sides, right? You can’t be like, well the Muslims were the victims. Or the Hindu people were the victims. Like in actuality everyone was a victim and everyone was a perpetrator. And it’s just really hard to contend with a history like that because it’s just easier to not have a lot of nuance.
But for me, what was really important was it would have been a disservice to my mission and my politics if the book was further divisive than it was about wanting to heal the wounds of South Asian hardship. And so I really didn’t want to have a one-sided or I didn’t want to have, and I know I’m Muslim, I know my family is that, but I didn’t want to have it be this thing where I was pointing fingers at people.
And I think I feel really strongly about the ethics of writing, particularly when you’re writing anything that has to do with violence. I think it’s really easy to reinscribe that violence. I think that there’s all of these balances where you’re trying to show the gravity of what you’re talking about, but you’re also not trying to like be gratuitous to further traumatize people. I had to do the research because I couldn’t be out here writing stuff that I didn’t know about.
I’m also curious if you’ve ever felt like you get maybe pigeonholed for your work? Like there is a kind of a concern with media in general where people from marginalized communities are being mined for their trauma.
I felt that early. There’s a way in which you are finding your voice and there’s like some of the stuff too where you’re writing about whatever you’re writing about that could be almost self-orientalizing just because you’re alone and you don’t really know. You’re trying to make people understand you. And also sometimes the ways that you’ve been taught to understand yourself have been in this really fucked up gaze. But ultimately I make work for people who are like me, you know?
And that to me is ultimately a self selecting audience [of people who] show up for my work. There’s a lot of white people who love and read my work and I don’t think of that as a problem or anything actually, because a lot of times when I speak to them it feels pretty genuine. There’s things like queerness or like feeling neglected by their family or things that they feel like really connected to. And when you do write what’s amazing about it is you can be of a lot of different backgrounds and be connected to a piece of art. I never want to deny that to people when you see something where you’re like I am moved by this because that to me is like ultimately the human part of art, right?
That’s not to say it can’t get problematic. They can use art as voyeurism or exotification. I don’t really know what the answer is. The thing that I know I can do is be like, who do I make my work for and is my art getting to the people who I make my work for?
You’ve put out so much work in the last few years. What’s the next mountain to climb? What projects do you have coming up?
I’m getting ready to shoot a short film next month. This is the first year I’ve ever directed anything. I’ve directed a music video earlier for Jamila [Woods] this year. And now this is going to be my first narrative directing thing. And I have a novel that’s slated to come out in 2021. It’s all of this stuff in terms of trying new genres.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.