Fatimah Asghar’s insistence on joy is a refusal of the demand that marginalized writers flatten trauma for the white gaze
October 15, 2018
Blood is an unwieldy metaphor. It is sacred, like the blood of Christ, and sinful, in that its stains signal guilt. Blood is a measure of perceived racial purity. It also runs through a nation’s body, binding its citizens together through a supposedly shared ancestral origin. But, as Rebecca Solnit writes,“blood is what mixes things up.” Its defining quality is that it circulates. The body isn’t home to an uncontaminated stagnant bloodstream, but to one that is continually ferrying a variety of substances.
In her debut poetry collection, If They Come For Us, Fatimah Asghar has a poem titled “Oil” that is really about blood, and that recognizes the significance of its fluidity. Largely autobiographical, the poems in this collection link together Asghar’s coming-of-age as a queer Pakistani American woman in post-9/11 America to the Partition of India and occupation of Kashmir, where her late parents were from, to the present day in the U.S. under Trump. In “Oil,” she recalls losing her parents as a child and going to elementary school during the beginning of the War on Terror:
Two hours after the towers fell I crossed the ship
out on the map. I buried it under a casket of scribbles.
All the people I could be are dangerous.
The blood clotting, oil in my veins.
Her selfhood is foreclosed by 9/11 and the resulting culture of fear and xenophobia: the ship sinks, her blood clots. “Oil” serves as the flimsy motivation for the invasion of Iraq, and also a stand-in for everything Asghar has lost as an orphan and as a brown girl during the War on Terror. “I have no blood. Just my body & all its oil,” she writes near the end of the poem, summing up her alienation from a body brutally marked by race and war. Orphaned as a child and marginalized in America, Asghar captures the plight of alienation on a personal and political scale. Blood versus oil, the girl she knows herself to be versus the political self, victimized by the state.
As a poet, Asghar’s work is deeply tied to collectivity and community. Coming out of the vibrant Chicago poetry scene where she made a name for herself as a slam poet, her writing is as informed by slam’s overt linking of the personal with the political, as it is by formal experimentation and lyricism (she cites Douglas Kearney and Terrance Hayes as influences). Along with poets Jamila Woods, Nate Marshall, Aaron Samuels, Franny Choi, and Danez Smith, Asghar is a member of Dark Noise, a multiracial poetry collective whose work addresses shared themes of intergenerational trauma, racial injustice, and queer identity. For Dark Noise, the work of the poet is inseparable from politics, and If They Come For Us is a collection that reflects those shared aesthetic and political commitments. In an unofficial manifesto, their “Call for Necessary Craft and Practice,” Dark Noise urges writers and artists to join them in a shared creative practice that is anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and refuses to “turn away from the unjust political times we find ourselves in.” The document recognizes the poet as someone whose work is inevitably tied to power and profit. It is a call for a poetics that combats those relationships: “We reject attitudes that view the lives of marginalized and terrorized people as profit, as click-bait, as tickets to fame, as anything but people deserving of better.”
Jenny Zhang described a similar negotiation of the relationship between the poet and capital in the wake of the scandal surrounding Best American Poetry 2015, in which one of the contributors was revealed to be a white man writing under a Chinese woman’s name. Zhang pointed to the lose-lose situation writers of color face: Pander to the white literary establishment by exploiting trauma for publication, or risk being ignored and silenced. “One quick perusal through the shelves of world literature in any bookstore confirms just what the literary world wants to see from writers of color and writers from developing nations: trauma,” she writes.
Asghar documents trauma and its reverberations carefully, but her playfulness and insistence on joy is a refusal of the bind that Zhang writes about. If the “literary world” calls for a flattening of experience, Asghar’s response is to revel in the specific. It’s a gesture taken up by many of her peers—instead of pandering to whiteness, writers like Chen Chen, Danez Smith, and Zhang write towards, and out of, their communities. “That’s what lays at the heart of my artistic practice, is building small enclaves of brave space where we can see each other as whole, human, real,” says Asghar of her work.
The expansion of the popular landscape of poetry leaves more room for writing that isn’t limited to representation, and for a readership outside of the white gaze. “How we master the forms we choose to write in and speak back to our own traditions is a personal choice,” writes Momtaza Mehri in her critical defense of “instagram poets” like Rupi Kaur, who is often accused of commodifying trauma and her own marginalization as a brown woman. Like Dark Noise and Zhang, Mehri insists on a poetics that pushes back at the limiting prescriptions of a white capitalist publishing machine: “We have the right to our own specificity.”
Asghar, too, asserts that right. Her references to pop music, odes to her pussy, and jokes about microaggressions are purposefully incongruous, and with them she defies the gaze that Zhang and Mehri write about. One of the collection’s several “Partition” poems begins with a riff on the Beyoncé song (“If I say the word enough I can write myself out of it: / like the driver rolling down that partition, please…”). That playfulness is central to the book, and appears through inventive formal choices—there are poems written in the form of pop quizzes, film treatments, crossword clues, and bingo scorecards, in which each box contains a different example of casual racism, i.e. “I went to India once, to find myself.”
Partition, the 1947 cleaving of British-ruled India into three separate countries, India, Pakistan, and now-Bangladesh, serves as the central trauma of the collection. In each of the book’s seven “Partition” poems, Asghar traces its legacy, but she also considers the metaphorical and physical partitions of her life. One “Partition” poem swings between 1947 to the present day, collapsing time in a way that illuminates the ways what happened then affects her now:
1993: summer in New York City
I am four, sitting in a patch of grass
an aunt teaches me how to tell
an edible flower
from a poisonous one.
just in case, I hear her say. just in case.
With If They Come For Us Asghar joins a rich history of Partition literature. Poets in the diaspora have mined the relationship between the violent remapping of the subcontinent with the instability of South Asian identity, language, and citizenship in their work. In Raw Silk Meena Alexander links the fraught histories of Partition, the 1965 War between India and Pakistan, the 2002 Gujarat riots and 9/11; Kundiman Prize-winning writer Adeeba Talukder writes about mental illness and postcolonial trauma in her own work; and the experimental poet Bhanu Kapil pulls together psychoanalysis, Deleuzian theory, and personal memoir in Schizophrene.
Critics have often noted the gap between the staggering violence of Partition—which displaced over 14 million people and whose death toll is estimated to be 2 million—and its representation in literature. This is the other bind of writing mass historical trauma into poetry—that “true” representation is necessarily impossible, but also that diasporic writing about Partition is often accused of exploiting historical violence for the sake of personal narrative and aesthetics. In Schizophrene, Kapil tackles the problem of representation by writing towards lacunae. The text, formed from the scraps of a burned notebook chronicling a circuitous reverse diaspora, is deliberately fragmented and refuses easy interpretation.
Asghar’s approach is similarly multimodal. She expands the scope of “Partition” to include the violence of WWII, the Islamophobia of post-9/11 America and Trump, Beyoncé, the “partitioning” of the apartment she grew up in. The “partition” of If They Come For Us memorializes the violence of borders by refusing the limits of the word partition itself. It is a deliberate rejection of a colonial logic, but it’s not always a successful gesture. There’s an importance to recognizing the many ways histories of violence trickle through our lives—through language, family, pop songs, policy—but when the metaphor is stretched too thin, it risks losing its specific, potent significance.
But Asghar recognizes the limits and violence of language. “you’re kashmiri until they burn your home,” she writes in the first “Partition” poem, delineating the ways bodies and identities are at the whim of the shifting logic of borders. “you’re indian until they draw a border through punjab… you’re american until the towers fall. until there’s a border on your back.”
The collection’s titular poem is its final one. In it Asghar addresses “my people my people / a dance to strangers in my blood.” The poem references “First they came…,” the oft-quoted Martin Niemöller condemnation of Germans who acquiesced to Nazis, but where Niemöller denounces the cowardice of those who didn’t speak up for the persecuted, “If They Come For Us” is a firm declaration of loyalty and love to Asghar’s community. “my country is made / in my people’s image / if they come for you they / come for me too,” she writes. It is a paean to her family—blood and not—who she turns to steadily, out of the past and into a shared future: “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.”