ANCESTRY & INNOVATION: A CONVERSATION WITH FATIMAH ASGHAR.
FATIMAH ASGHAR Thank you so much! I used to write a lot of lyric essays, so I've always been very interested in hybridity, the ways that writing can exist within and out of genre. I think that we have a tendency to trap ourselves in ideas of genre that are deeply uninteresting to me--I can't tell you how many times someone has told me I'm not a poet because my poems are not "poems." Folks have said that they are "too narrative" to be considered poems or that because my poems don't have meter they can't be considered poems. When someone says something like that, it feels like a failure of the imagination to me. Much like my politics around identity, I'm not interested in looking at genre as a constraint or limitation, but rather as a site of freedom and possibility.
TD In the poem "How We Left: Film Treatment," specifically the section "Legal & Ethical Considerations," I wonder what the poet's responsibility is when dealing with ancestry. In the first line of that section you write, "History didn't give me a blueprint for loving you," a line that does so much work and shows the challenges I know at least I face when writing about those who have passed on. How do you write about ancestors with no blueprint? How do you know you are honoring them (if that's what a poet is trying to do)?
FA I'm very interested in questions of artistry and responsibility--both in terms of responsibility to yourself to tell the stories you need to, and also larger responsibility to community and, as you say, ancestors. I'm not sure how to write about ancestors with no blueprint, other than to just try and give yourself permission to be messy and allow your doubts to sit with you. That poem wears its doubts on its sleeve. That was the only way that I knew how to write that poem--just to be honest about my blind spots, shortcomings, and failures. It's challenging, when writing about real folks, to know if you are honoring them. Honoring doesn't just mean writing an ode to them or praising them, but carving out space and room to contend with the reality of that person in a specific moment. For example, I think that "How We Left: Film Treatment" seeks to honor the neighbor that saved my family's lives by pulling them off the bus that was bound for slaughter. But it's a complicated honoring: he saved my family because my grandfather was his teacher, but who didn't he save? Who did he participate in ending? I've written poems that I saw as honoring people, only to have them be embarrassed by them or not feel honored. But I think that there's a lot of power in honoring both the good and the bad; otherwise we get a really simplistic idea of a person, of their history. People are beautiful to me for their complications, not for the flatness of a convenient narrative.
TD I love the poem "How We Left: Film Treatment" for its language, movement, and originality. How does your work in film speak to your work in poetry--do they help each other out?
FA Usually, I think of what story I want to tell and what's the best way to tell it. That's how I dictate the boat on which it sails. My works are all formed and informed by each other. I don't like to think about taking folks' work out of context, or just looking at one piece of art in a vacuum. They all lean on each other--once you can look at them together you can get a full sense of an artist, of their journey, of their vision.
TD The first "Partition" poem in If They Come for Us is a great example of threading personal/historical narratives together. Though the dates listed in the poem aren't in chronological order, the poem still has a narrative structure. How did you go about crafting the narrative of this poem?
FA This poem felt like a rush. It felt like a need to trace back, a need to explain in human terms some of the fracturing that exists within me and within my people. Having grown up as a South Asian person in America, I often feel like people don't know anything about South Asian people. They divorce us from our context and our history a lot. In a lot of ways, that severing of history feels akin to the violence that comes from immigration and assimilation as well as being a refugee and/or orphan. It's really violent to have people look at you, at your entire people, without considering your history. So that particular poem really leans into that. I don't really think the chronology or the non-linearity mattered to me. So much of that poem is an exploration of trauma, which never comes as linear. The non-linearity of the poem speaks to that frantic fragmented sense, the ways that identity shifts and changes and never feels fully secure.
TD When I teach, early on I ask students what their personal narrative is, where they grew up. What was the economic environment of where they grew up? Did they live in a single-parent home? Did they move a lot as a child? And then I ask them to start investigating their narratives. In If They Come for Us, the speaker's personal narrative is chained to a historical narrative that is also moving through the book. When crafting the order of the poems in the collection, how did you think about this weaving of personal/historical narratives?
FA I'm actually terrible at order. So I grouped poems that I thought were in conversation with each other, which included poems that were directly about the 1947 Partition and poems that were more contemporary. In 1947 colonial Britain left South Asia, and the area devolved into rapid violence as the two nations of Pakistan and India were formed. There were about two million people murdered and 14 million refugees in the span of a few months. It's one of the biggest human rights crises of the last 100 years, and yet it's not spoken about.
In thinking about the book, I thought a lot about how I wanted to make a lyrical argument against forgetting, an argument for remembering the complications of history and how they still apply today. The last section to me is a deep plea, a plea for love as a verb and for active, urgent solidarity. I feel like each poem in that section is a soft "please." I hope it is heard.
TD Oftentimes in this book, the speaker doesn't step back to let the reader take a seat, but steps to the side to make room for the reader. For example, in the poem "Oil," the language is turned upside down and it feels like we are entering the mind of the speaker. What would you name the world created in If They Come for Us?
FA I'm not sure about the world, but the word that encapsulates If They Come for Us is Partition. It's the way the ghost of Partition and fragmented identity lingers everywhere, informs everything. The Partition of India was an incredibly traumatic event. The Holocaust happened and the world said "never again," only to have it happen a few years later to brown people. Britain carved arbitrary lines into a land and stoked religious hatred where folks had been living intertwined lives for hiindred of years. These two national identities--India and Pakistan--were formed in opposition to each other. Families were separated with no hope to reunite. There's so much violence in our history that stems from this moment. I can't explain the ways that Partition continues to affect us, apart from what my poetry attempts.
TD I've been thinking a lot lately about art and text, mostly about how to turn text into art not only through language, but also visually. The poem "Map Home" is a great example of that, how did this come about?
FA It was the feeling of being so stuck and unable to find home. I honestly don't know if I'll ever find a home that feels secure for me. The closest thing to home I have is my friends, my chosen family. So "Map Home" became a crossword puzzle, because I find them impossible to solve. Each number is correlated with an actual word that you can fill out. I've hidden all the answers in the book. If you read really closely, you can fill it out, though I don't expect anyone to. If anyone actually did manage to fill it all out, they're probably my soul mate. Or someone I would be deeply terrified of, for knowing me so well.
Fatimah Asghar is the writer and co-creator of Brown Girls, an Emmy-nominated web series that highlights friendships between women of color. Her debut book of poems, If They Come for Us, was published by One World/Random House in 2018.
Tyree Daye is the author of River Hymns, winner of the 2017 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. His second book, Cardinal, is forthcoming in 2020.
Caption: Fatimah Asghar (photo by Jason Riker)
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2018|
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