From simply looking at the cover photo of Myrmecophile, Ifti Nasim makes it clear that he is not here to hide any part of himself. The first image we have of him is a playful, subversive snapshot where he is decked out in full drag, donning a blonde wig, costume jewelry, pearls, and bangles. He is brash and unapologetic, in both his writing and his dress.
This 2001 chapbook spans two decades from 1980-2000, during which Nasim lived and built community in Chicago. The partying, activism, and violence of that time along with frank writing about sexuality and exile are all explored in the verses of this understudied, provocative collection.
The title itself, an ecological term for a foreign species living permanently in a symbiotic relationship with an ant colony, introduces the theme of being a perpetual foreigner in the community one calls home. For Nasim, this serves as a salient parallel to his life as a Pakistani immigrant searching for a sense of homeland in an urban American city. In “An Immigrant,” he explores the deeply personal experience of leaving his home to find a more liberatory space, while acknowledging the perennial feeling of being rooted elsewhere:
I grew up, traveled
Thousands of miles
To the other side of the sun…
I am tall and a proud
Citizen of the world’s biggest country
But my umbilical cord is still
Attached to my mother’s womb
Here, Nasim sensitively describes a state of ambient discomfort in spite of being “tall and proud,” having distanced himself from family. This vision of diaspora – specifically rooted in matriarchal, rather than patriarchal imagery – is one which illustrates the fundamentally vexed trajectory of his life; he needed to distance himself from his home in order to more freely live and write about it. Nasim mixes such personal, vulnerable poetry artfully with political and cultural activism of the moment. The AIDS epidemic, and the ensuing government neglect of the gay community, has a looming presence in the collection. There are mentions of Reagan directly throughout, and Nasim poignantly describes the loss of a queer utopia with the advent of the Reagan administration in “Time Flies:”
The bar went from dance floor to disco.
We devoured Donna Summer.
We had Two Tons of Fun…
And Ronald Reagan was nowhere to be found.
The world was beautiful.
He expands upon his experience with AIDS activism transnationally in an oral history with SAADA, but from these lines alone one gets a sense of the indulgent revelry that became casualty to the epidemic.
Addressing outright the deadly homophobia he witnessed at the time, Nasim also emphasizes the importance of community with one another as a space to heal and from which to derive joy. With this vision in mind, Nasim co-founded Sangat Chicago around this time, one of the earliest LGBTQ organizations in the country imagined specifically as a space for South Asians. While Sangat is now defunct, the support group Trikone-Chicago was forming “on its coattails,” per Kareem Khubchandani in the preface to Ishtyle recounting his career as a South Asian drag queen in Chicago.
While exalting and eulogizing the pre-AIDS era of queer debauchery, Nasim also spends time noting the everyday, unglamorous details of South Asian American life. He writes in “An Autumn Montage:”
Rich people are leaving for Florida
And Pakistani cab drivers are driving them to O’Hare airport.
Devon Avenue smells of curry and the windows of the shops
Are displaying white girls wearing ‘sari’.”
Nasim’s sardonic humor is evident in these lines, describing two different ways in which power dynamics between wealthy, white and working-class South Asian demographics in the city might have played out – the first two lines economically, and the latter more culturally. The everyday manifestations of the capitalist and aesthetic matrices embedded in the city’s race relations are captured here with a dry sense of comicality. This type of cultural criticism is some of what Nasim does best – confronting us with observations of quotidian mundanity in terms that highlight the deeper impact of these incidents.
The collection also turns from the prosaic observations of daily life to the author’s relationship to the mystical aspects of his Muslim upbringing. In “A Sufi,” he writes:
A man lives inside me…
A woman lives inside me…
And I am dancing in circles bringing them all in one…
Bare foot, disheveled hair
Waiting for Him to come and bathe me…
Wash me down with the water from fountain in Heaven
And take me to His home.
I am His bride.
Remarkably, Nasim adapts traditional Sufi themes of whirling dance and direct personal experience with divinity in such a way that it is reconcilable with his homosexuality, creating a sacred space in which Sufi worship and his queerness are intertwined. In his early life, we know that the author’s first passion was dance prior to being shot in the leg and stigmatized for being a boy interested in the art, adding a valuable and literal autobiographical dimension to this verse. The devotional, gender non-conforming, and intimate invocation of “Him” are elegantly transfused here in a way that creates an alternative paradigm of the religious elements which, to him, excluded homosexual narratives (at one point even asking How come thousands of prophets came down/ But not one of them was gay – how odd – how unnatural).
A thoughtful, incandescent collection from a man who lived a singular life writing through the difficulties and joys of being a queer Pakistani Chicagoan in the late 20th century, perhaps the most important takeaway of the collection can be found in the last lines of “Time Flies:”
But we survived we shall survive.
Look at the history.