Fatimah Asghar is a poet, filmmaker, educator and performer. Her work has appeared in many journals, including POETRY Magazine, Gulf Coast, BuzzFeed Reader, The Margins, The Offing, Academy of American Poets and many others. Her work has been featured on new outlets like PBS, NPR, Time, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, and others. In 2011 she created a spoken word poetry group in Bosnia and Herzegovina called REFLEKS while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-genocidal countries. She is a member of the Dark Noise Collective and a Kundiman Fellow. Her chapbook After came out on YesYes Books fall 2015. She is the writer and co-creator of Brown Girls, an Emmy-Nominated web series that highlights friendships between women of color. In 2017 she was awarded the Ruth Lily and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and was featured on the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. Her debut book of poems, If They Come For Us, was released One World/Random House, August 2018. Along with Safia Elhillo, she is the editor of Halal If You Hear Me, an anthology that celebrates Muslim writers who are also women, queer, gender nonconforming and/or trans.
Darshita Rajanikant Jain: I devoured Halal If You Hear Me, bought multiple copies for all my Muslim friends. It is such an important book, feels almost surreal that it had not existed in the world before April 2019. Can you tell me about the moment you realised this book needed to exist in the world?
Fatimah Asghar: It was really interesting. Safia Elhillo, who is the co-creator of the book, and I were at a poetry thing together, and while we were there, we started talking about our friendship and how helpful it has been for me and her: just being two Muslim people who have not always felt included in our communities, felt a lot of pressure to prove our Muslimness, and like we were practicing our Muslimness wrong. We were having a really hard time talking about how we felt to other people, and somehow it was safer to speak to someone else who knew exactly what it felt like. There have always been straight cis men telling us what the right way to be Muslim is, but straight cis men are also praised for being able to have complicated, nuanced versions of Islam.
A lot of the weight of the one-dimensional conversation falls on Muslim women, Muslim queer people, Muslim femme people, Muslim gender non-conforming people. All these people are being constantly told what it means to be Muslim and that they are not Muslim enough. A lot of the time, our bodies are the site of that conversation, but we are rarely the ones in charge of that conversation—sometimes we are primarily a prop to respond to a conversation that other people are having about us. Something we felt very strongly was that we really wanted to make something where we could have this kind of conversation, especially among Muslim and marginalised people. We really wanted to have these conversations with people who have lived these lives, right? Its not outsiders waxing poetic or Muslim straight cis men talking about this in an abstract way, but coming from people who are affected by this linear narrative of what being Muslim means for us.
We had this moment over the summer of 2016, when were like, “Okay, cool. We are going to make this project. We are going to do this thing!” And that coincided with a bunch of other things that happened, like Trump getting elected. A lot of people thought we were making this anthology because of Trump, because “now is the time to do this,” but no. He was not a factor. This was a conversation that we had been wanting to have for a really long time. We have always lived in times of Islamophobia, and that’s really where the idea for Halal came from.
DRJ: I read that you and Safia posted call for submissions on your respective social media pages. Did doing that bring in more people? More voices? Did it make curation more difficult?
FA: It was really critical in the creation of the anthology. We put out a call for submissions and sometimes what happens is that you put out a call—if you decide to go through traditional methods like list servs and poetry organizations—and the only people who are already looking at those things get the call. So Safi and I just thought, Let’s put out this call on our Twitter and Instagram pages and see what happens. When we put it out, it was mostly because we were trying to make sure that we were getting it out. We wanted as many people as we could reach to see. It wasn’t intentional, but it spread really fast!
What was amazing was that we started getting submissions from a lot of people who were like, “Listen. I have never submitted poems before. I just felt called by this submission, because I am these identities, and I just don’t ever feel like there is space for me.” There were some people who felt really moved by the call and wrote poems and essays for us, and that was really cool! Our anthology is really dope, because it’s a mix of all of these different writers. Some of them, at the time of submitting, were 16! We have a lot of people who haven’t been published before, who don’t have that sort of experience, and then we have a lot of people who are dope writers who have books out, like Khadijah Queen or Tarfiah Faizullah. It’s really cool how we have a wide range of poems in this one anthology. It really gives you a lot of complexity of voice and what we have going on, and so I think that ended up being a really amazing thing. And it’s amazing how much social media helped us access those voices.
DRJ: You just had your book release mid-2018, and you’ve been curating/editing this book since 2016. How did you feel yourself change—shifting from the role of the poet to the editor/curator?
FA: I think what’s really interesting is that I just didn’t realise—this is my first time editing an anthology, and I didn’t quite realize the kind of work that was going in the editing process. What’s interesting is that when you are editing, you’re really not in writer mode. You are not creating work in that way at all. What you are doing is really, really intense curation. It’s a lot of spreadsheets, a lot of logistical stuff. So that was fascinating! It was not what I expected, but it was also great. It exposed me to so many writers who I didn’t know about. I am really grateful for that, that I have all these poets in my wheelhouse now.
DRJ: That is so cool. How did you decide on the names of each section in the book? Can you speak more about how you thought of dividing up the poems into the five pillars?
FA: We were looking at few other anthologies and particularly the other BreakBeat anthologies that we are in lineage with, and we were looking very closely at the structure. The first BreakBeat anthology is structured based on the year of the poets’ birth. So much of the work we have is really contemporary. So that wasn’t going to work for us. The Black Girl Magic anthology is structured around quotes by black women. But we realized that we weren’t finding that many quotes that we wanted that fit our identity groups, that we felt were doing the work we needed them to do. And because the book was so Muslim-centric, we decided that it felt really organic to name the sections around the five pillars of Islam. It might throw some people off, but it felt right. A lot of these themes were already coming up in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in our poems, so we tried it and we loved the way it came across, and we decided to stick with these names.
DRJ: It really made the book feel special. Another thing that felt unique was the book launch! I was at the book’s launch at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. The prayer ceremony blew me away. It was such a subtle but bold reclaiming of the Muslim identity. How did you go about doing that?
FA: The Poetry Foundation really came through, because we are part of Haymarket and the BreakBeat Poets, and they have a relationship established with the Poetry Foundation. So when the book release came up, they suggested the Poetry Foundation, which we felt really good about. But Safi and I were thinking of all the things we wanted to do: an after party with henna and mehndi and tarot. We had a lot of really cool stuff that Safia and I had planned.
With the Poetry Foundation we thought, This place is different. It is an institutional space and how do we make our Muslim people feel welcome, you know? We found the Masjid al Rabia, which was a game changer. It is the mosque version of what the book is. It is a very inclusive mosque, so we approached them, told them we really loved their mission. We asked if they could lead a prayer, and they explained how they don’t lead prayers, that they call upon the community to lead prayers, because they didn’t want a hierarchy in prayer. But they were very enthusiastic to come to the space and make a call for prayer. Safia and I really had no idea what it was going to be like, because we were in such an institutionalized space. We didn’t even know who the audience was going to be. We were hoping it would be Muslim people, but it very well might not be. We didn’t know what was gonna happen.
I just think it’s really cool what happened—to pray with people, to have that space, to see that so many people got involved, how many people were moved by it. I mean, these things are a part of us. If we are making a Muslim anthology, we also want to allow people a space to be Muslim, to not have to run somewhere else during the prayer time, or to be able to pray, to be able to be who they are. It just felt very important to us to have that be a thing that we included.
DRJ: Something I noticed about the book was how it encompasses life as we know it. With small joys and big, small pains and big, woven together. They are pulsing and breathing, not shouting out loud what is good or bad or right or wrong. But just breathing together in the same space. Was that an intentional curatorial decision? Did you have to put in effort for the book to feel that way? Or did the poems that came in feel well-rounded on their own?
FA: It’s interesting, because when we introduced what we wanted, we didn’t specify any subject matter. The only thing that was important to us was that you be a Muslim person who is also a woman, or queer, or gender non-conforming, and/or trans. That was it. It didn’t have to be about Islam, it didn’t have to be about anything. We just wanted poems from these identity groups. So we got a really wide range of poems, which is very cool, and because we didn’t specify a theme, some of the people we reached out to were perplexed. They wrote back to us saying, “I want to, but I’m sorry. I don’t have anything on theme.” And we were like, No no no no no! There is no theme. We are not doing that. We are literally just gathering poems. And when we got poems, we then went back to curate, arrange them into this anthology. Safia and I were looking at themes that we found in each poem and that’s how we organised it. It is really loosely organised on the five pillars of Islam, but it’s just a thing that happened more organically. Because we were literally just like, We want poems that are wide-reaching. All that matters to us are that they be written by people from these backgrounds. There was no call for specific kinds of poems. Just voices from these people.
DRJ: Were you surprised by anything that came about in this collection? From the submissions you got to the eventual feeling(s) it generated?
FA: There were several things! I think it was really, really important and beautiful for me and Safi to see all these people who were coming out and being like, I’ve never submitted before, but I feel really pulled by this! There were people who were like, I don’t even tell my friends that I am Muslim. Islamophobia has wrecked my life so much that it is a part of me that I keep hidden—but I am coming out. There were a lot of people who had not come out about their sexuality to their families and wanted to use pseudonyms. There was so much of that, which was really moving. Then there was some wild stuff, like people who were not Muslim but felt that they could submit. We were just like, Wait, what? What is happening right now? You know this isn’t for you, but you’re still trying to submit anyway, which is just weird!
I think just so much of this was just people who had been looking for a space like this their whole life, and to them it felt like we were trying to build it, and they wanted to be a part of it. Which is exactly how my friendship with Safia feels to me. It is a space where I feel really affirmed in who I am. We really wanted to create a space like that. We at least wanted to begin this conversation—just a space that says that we are all here, all these lonelinesses that we know so well, while in reality, we are not alone. We actually have a lot of us, together, feeling the same thing.
DRJ: I personally appreciated the deeply Southeast Asian moments that appeared through imagery in this book, like the joy of watching Shah Rukh Khan or the happiness a ripe mango produces. I read that and just smiled so much. I never thought in a thousand years I would see those mentioned in a poem. One of the most liberating things I feel as a Southeast Asian person is when I don’t need to explain my references. Was that deliberate? You often speak about knowing exactly who you are writing for. Can you tell me a little bit about who is this book for, and how much care went behind keeping it that way?
FA: The target group was the people who made this book, who are in this book. We wanted to create this anthology for Muslim people who are also women, queer, trans and gender non-conforming, because we also want it to say that we have each other’s backs. Maybe the community has problems within itself, but we can all work on our own bullshit and figure out how to be better accomplices to each other. We have our individual struggles, but really, we need to start looking at each other and recognizing that we have each other’s backs. That’s really who this book is for. In the anthology mission statement, we write about how we really want our people to feel that they are not alone—here are other people who are like you and me. That’s what we really wanted. So we made the whole anthology with that in mind. This is for these people. When other people started to look at it, talk about it, it was like, Oh, that’s cool that you have an opinion about this, but this is actually, totally not for you. We didn’t even think about you when we were making it. We weren’t considering what our cis straight Muslim male brothers would say. That is not what we were thinking about. But it’s been really beautiful. A lot of them have been really supportive and have come out and told us that they thought it is very important work, and we are proud of it and wanted to hear these voices. That has been amazing. We made this for ourselves, but it’s great that other people have been able to recognize the importance of it, especially if their voices are not centered.
DRJ: I think the book manages to subvert the American myth of being Muslim very successfully. But I am curious to know what conversations happened as a result of this book. Could you tell me a little bit about responses you got to Halal?
FA: Mostly, there have been really positive reactions, and there has been a lot of respect. Some people, of course, have been like, “Wow, this is so brave,” and all of that. And that word to me is so funny! Because it’s different when I say it about my own people, and it’s different when someone else says it. I really just feel like, Stop! I know what it really means, you know? I know what it means for people to be writing under pseudonyms, the conversations that we have had, and I know the bravery it takes for them to actually write something about sexuality before you have come out.
There are also these conversations that I feel have been something that existed in my and Safi’s career forever. We have all these people who are both Muslim and not Muslim who are just really mad at what we are doing and feel that it is not right. I think that we’ve gotten really good at tuning that out, not listening to it. We also know what we need to do to protect ourselves, what voices to hear and not to hear. I think it is part of the choice and a result of making the work that we do, and fighting for the mission we fight for. We know we are not going to beat everyone. I know that. I don’t want to. But what I am trying to do is to carve out space for people who haven’t really been able to have that space before—and if that pisses off people. I don’t really care.
DRJ: This book has so much heart. I know how grateful I am to have it. I know you are one of those artists who really looks at art as a whole and tries their hand at multiple media and projects. So before we part, what else is on the horizon?
FA: I have a novel that is set to come out in 2020/21 and a few other writing projects. But generally just doing a lot, just a little all over the place. You know?
DRJ: The best way to be! Thank you so much for this conversation, Fatimah! Wishing you so much good luck with everything. I look forward to everything you put in the world.
FA: Ahh, thank you! Good luck to you too!