Fatimah Asghar’s much-anticipated debut collection of poetry spans the divide of Partition, community, loss, and love.
Motion connotes a certain amount of freedom. It belongs in the air, in the depths of the ocean, in the fingertips of flames reaching for something greater, more infinite. But the movement of Partition relied on boundaries to restrict it, a line drawn by a European man over a land he’d never set foot on. Forced movement despite wishes to stay rooted. Movement with no possibility of return. Movement that is the erasure of a past.
Fatimah Asghar’s debut collection of poetry, If They Come For Us, is a contemporary history, one that traverses time and place to consider the recurring trauma of Partition. To read it is to confront a violent past, to feel its weight bear on your shoulders as you realize that past is already inside you. The book opens by telling the reader that at least 14 million people were displaced in the process. An estimated one to two million lost their lives. Asghar establishes and then builds on this history, reflecting on how that displacement continues to affect her own life generations after her family was forced to leave Kashmir. What emerges is a meditation on the affects of movement and estrangement.
“you speak a language until you don’t. until you only recognize it between your auntie’s lips. your father was fluent in four languages. you’re illiterate in the tongues of your father. your grandfather wrote persian poetry on glasses. maybe. you can’t remember. you made it up. someone lied.”
The poem is called “Partition.” It contemplates the things her family lost in the flux of transition – the languages, stories, and histories disappeared as her family moved across the globe. It is one of nine in the collection that hold the same title. It is one of nine because Asghar is not concerned with a singular event, but one whose ramifications have cycled through the last seventy years, affecting the children of the divided country for generations to come. Asghar asks us to reconsider histories we think we know. She reminds us that Partition was and is global, displacing tens of millions of Muslims and Hindus, and that this violence is destined to cycle until the culture of the dislocated is lost, each generation becoming strangers in new lands, their families’ histories left to speculation and distant memories.
The power of this collection lies in the poet’s ability to demonstrate how violence can recur in new contexts, adapting to the languages of its environment seamlessly. Asghar identifies those languages, painting moments from her own past as she reflects on her experiences growing up as a queer orphan in America in poems that move between the heart-wrenching and comic, poems that consider history not only as a tragedy but as a complex reality where amidst moments of trauma, she also shows the mundane: eating at an Old Country Buffet, posing in front of suburban gazebos, covering for her friends’ indiscretions.
Her best poems are those that capture the ambiguities of her past, the ones that point to the expansive in-between that first generation migrants to any country traverse in a journey to make the unfamiliar familiar, creating a sense of home even without particular roots to a place. She captures what it means to be a stranger in the country you were born in, a stranger, too, in the country you’re told is your own:
“when’d the west set in your bones? you survive
each winter like you were made for snow, a stranger” (“Ghareeb”)
The book is filled with lyrical truths, small moments of immense power that emerge as Asghar navigates tumultuous waters of religion and sexuality, loss and redemption, all in search of a home she realizes does not reside in a particular place, but in experiences of solidarity, experiences of love and community.
If They Come For Us is ambitious, striving to capture an essential truth of a centuries worth of history without collapsing or too closely paralleling the traumas inherited by the descendants of a divided subcontinent. She writes, “I pluck my ancestors eyes / from their faces / & fasten them to mine,” reminding us of her goal to see her self as an iteration of a repetitive past. Asghar never shies away from the challenge she gives herself, pushing the work to engage not only a story that is too often glossed over in historical accounts but to also demonstrate its immense relevance in a moment where borders have become politically contentious once again.
This book is filled with irredeemable loss, of violence and traumas that are an undeniable part of a collective South Asian history, but Asghar does not deny us hope. Amidst stories of bullying and abuse, there is the joy of childhood. Of finding home in immigrant communities and communities of color in cultures that bear remarkable similarities to our own. Of experiencing adolescence and feeling free even as the scars of history reopen, reminding us of the work there is to be done. Most critically, there is triumph. A sense of a future that is resilient, defined by the love that survives.
“our names this country’s wood
for the fire my people my people
the long years we’ve survived the long
years yet to come I see you map
my sky the light your lantern long
ahead & I follow I follow”