A Conversation with Fatimah Asghar
BY AUDREY ZHAO & PETER LABERGE
For this installment of Conversations with Contributors, we chatted with the brilliant Fatimah Asghar about cultural appropriation, poetry, and her chapbook After, recently released from the ever-luminous YesYes Books.
Fatimah is a nationally touring poet, performer, photographer, writer and thinker who is almost always in-between two places. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Gulf Coast, The Paris-American, The Margins, The Offing, Word Riot, and many others—including The Adroit Journal! In 2011 she created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS, while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-genocidal countries. She is a member of the Dark Noise Collective and is a Kundiman Fellow. Check out her work in Issue 14, visit her website, and read on to learn more about what she’s been up to and why we think she’s so cool.
This question comes from our last featured contributor, Keith Leonard. So, to start: What’s the best imaginary museum you’ve never visited?
FA: The best imaginary museum I’ve never visited would be a museum dedicated my parents and my family, in Kashmir. I’m an orphan, and my family was forced to migrate from Kashmir during the Partition of India, which led to the subsequent creation of Pakistan. I’ve always longed to know more about my family, my culture and my parents. I’d love a place, one single place, where I could walk in and gain all that knowledge. I don’t know if I would ever leave.
I’ve noticed that you have poems with topics that range from Hermione Granger to Pluto shitting on the Universe to cultural appropriation. It seems, to me at least, that you find inspiration everywhere. How do you think being a poet affects the way in which you interact with the world?
FA: It makes things slow down. Our world is so fast—we’re always rushing somewhere, eating something on the go, on our phones. Poems create a space for reinvention, and in doing so they slow down time. Even a fast-paced poem, like Pluto, slows down time. Poems snapshot a moment and give us the gift of space. I also need time when I read poems. I can’t read a poem on my phone or when my mind is tired. Being a poet also makes me a more generous person, which is something I’m always trying to work on.
One of your lines in “Ways I Am Tired” is, “the white women in my timeline / think I’m racist because I write / about cultural appropriation. / why can’t we have that too?” It would be silly to ask whether cultural appropriation exists in the literary world and the world in general. (Of course it does.) How do you think we, as writers of colors and allies, can most effectively shut down this appropriation and contribute to our generation’s moving away from it?
FA: Appropriation is hard, because there’s a lot of things at play: power, erasure, appreciation, and histories of cultures influencing each other that people forget. Sometimes as people of color, we think in a binary system and only think about our relationship to whiteness. This is super damaging. We are also used to being erased and reduced to stereotypes and that pain causes us to get into a this is mine mentality without realizing that pre-European colonization and exploitation cultures of color were interacting, learning from each other, and developing customs and rituals in tandem. I think we need to interrogate the root causes of why appropriation feels painful, be honest about that, and have spaces where we can be heard. We need allies to advocate for us and explain to people why appropriation is fucked up, and how they can use their platforms to give people of color power, not just erase them and take their styles. But I think we also need to learn ourselves and our bodies outside the whiteness, and look at some of our histories of interacting with other cultures as beautiful and a place to build solidarity. I think at the heart of my frustration around frustration is the way people try to pawn it off as solidarity, but how its not actually solidarity. No one is gonna get free by a white person wearing dreads and putting on a bindi at concerts. We all, collectively, need to realize our liberation is tied to each other and work towards a world where we are advocating against injustice, wherever we see it.
On a lighter note, do you consider yourself a hip millennial? If so, how does that affect your approach to writing?
FA: I’m very uncool. Get to know me more and you’ll see.
We’re super excited about your recently released chapbook After (YesYes Books, 2015). It’s your first, but oh, it’s so good. For those who may not be as familiar with it, can you talk a bit about your inspiration in creating and assembling the chapbook? Were there any challenges you confronted that you weren’t expecting?
FA: I was working through experiences I had with sexual assault and was tired of all the silences in our society around those experiences. I tried to write poems that I wish I had. I’m glad I expelled those poems from my system. Something bad happened here and some clean up of the mind needed to happen. I think some of the biggest challenges were around having a chapbook full of poems that were so personal and vulnerable out. I’m really proud of the book but its also frightening to have people who don’t know you know what happened to your body and how you attempted to rebuild it.
In your fabulous TEDx talk “We Own All the Language in the World” [this will be embedded above this question], you note, “In our society, it’s easy to pretend like people are one-dimensional … versus looking at someone like a full, nuanced human being. For example, how can you be both Pakistani and American? How can you be both Muslim and queer? … I shied away from sharing aspects of my own identity with my peers, and even my own family.” You then describe the moment when you found spoken word and witnessed its power to unabashedly claim and reclaim identity from the flat, one-dimensional world. Many of our teenage readers, staff members, and mentorship students—especially those who are poets and writers who are in one way or another marginalized—are currently at this stage with poetry, whether spoken word or on the page. Many are, I’m sure, frustrated with the complicated process of reclaiming themselves through writing and art. Do you have any specific advice for these students?
FA: You are the expert of your own stories. Write the things you need or want to see in the world. Fuck everything else. It’s been my experience that the more I write, the more I find out who I am. I am very thankful to poetry for offering me that.
If you’d like, give us a question to ask during our next Conversations with Contributors.
FA: What projects are you working on and where do you see your craft heading?