Fatimah Asghar is a writer extraordinaire. This is evidenced in her poetry, which has appeared in publications ranging from Buzzfeed Reader to The Offing to Academy of American Poets. Her work come cross in the form of relatable humor and poignant observations. It is often reflective of the world we live in, especially for those with hyphenated identities.
Luckily for us, we get much more of her poetry in the form of her upcoming Random House/One World book “If They Come For Us,” which delves further into the themes she writes so well about. Asghar is also the writer and co-creator of “Brown Girls,” a delightfully real comedy centering on two best friends.
We spoke to her about working on the new book, what inspires her work in the current political climate, the possibility of HBO adapting “Brown Girls” as a television show, and her thoughts on South Asian representation.
The Teal Mango: Congratulations on “If They Come For Us.” I’m excited to read it. What can you tell me about it?
Fatimah Asghar: It’s a collection of poems and an exploration of identity. Coming from an immigrant family and also kind of growing up in America post 9/11, I was thinking through some questions around what it meant to be a young Muslim girl growing up in a time when things were pretty intense and there was a wave of Islamophobia, which is kind of happening again right now under the current administration.
TTM: That sounds very topical. How important is it for you to find a balance in your writing to tell your story and narrative but also ensuring readers can connect with or learn from it if they’re not aware of your perspective?
Asghar: I don’t really write in terms of thinking about ‘oh, this is a non-Muslim or non-people of color audience and I am writing for them.’ That’s not the way I write. Instead it’s about an experience I had, that happened to me, that I want to and am writing about. I think it does us a disservice if and when everything centers around whiteness and white supremacy. I don’t want my own work to stand for that. When I think about who my intended audience is, I think about the younger version of myself or people who look like me or have similar experiences.
TTM: That makes sense because there aren’t as many poets for that target audience. You said your target audience is basically a younger you. I’m wondering who your own idols were or who you looked up to growing up, who you could really relate to?
Asghar: I felt a real lack of representation in a lot of ways, both in terms of screenwriting and watching TV, and just generally speaking, in the media. I think when that happens, you kind of read yourself into different things in order to make up for that. There’s definitely things I read that I felt were really informative in terms of voices but still, none of those books really had representation of myself. I think that’s a thing I definitely felt growing up and is partly why I feel it is important for me to be a writer and be a creative person.
TTM: Talking about your actual writing process then, do you actively seek inspiration for your work or do things just often strike you with everything you see?
Asghar: It varies. Especially when you are working on a project where there is a lot going on, once you tap into a vein, sometimes it’s just like ‘here’s this aspect or here’s this aspect.’ Whether that’s my book on the partition, and I do research on what I’d want to write and read. I spend a lot of time around the material. And then, sometimes you just wake up or something happens and I just think, ‘cool, I want to write about this.’ It’s important as a creator to be open to the ways that things will inspire you.
TTM: Absolutely. I’ve noticed your poems and writing reflect our real world and get intense. At the same time, your stuff is funny and light. Do you want a good mix of both in your work or is it like you said, you’re open to it all?
Asghar: I think I’m very open to the differences. I’m often thinking about whether what I write is something I want to tell or an image I want to go for and what the right voice is around it. Sometimes its humor, sometimes its not, sometimes it is a combination. It’s really about being open to whatever feels right in terms of the story.
TTM: I’m very curious about the spoken word poetry group you started in Bosnia and Herzegovina, REFLEKS. What can you tell me about it?
Asghar: It happened organically while I was there. I was struck by the way everybody I talked to in Bosnia and Herzegovina sounded like a poet and storyteller. They were poetic while talking about their lives and had things they wanted to say. Poetry is usually considered classical or Shakespearean. We’ve internalized these elitist notions of what poetry is. This was a space for people to perform their work and explore spoken word as a genre. It was really great and interesting to have this be oriented around language and in a bilingual sphere. I’m glad that I was able to witness that space and hear those writers. I think they really influenced me and made me grow.
TTM: It sounds absolutely amazing and a great opportunity for everyone involved in it. Who are some of your writing inspirations, whether they are poets or screenwriters, who do you look up to or want to emulate?
Asghar: I don’t know about emulating because it can get dangerous when you can’t remember what your own voice is. There are a lot of writers I look up to, both my peers and people who came before me. Ross Gay is one of my favorite writers. I love the way she hashes out this complicated joy and reinvents what it means to be writing about nature, the lived in world, which I appreciate. I love Patricia Smith, Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy. There’s a lot of people whom I feel really lucky to have read their work and exist in a time where I could read their work.
TTM: Talking about your upcoming book and your previous book, what were some of the differences you noticed between writing the book.
Asghar: My first book was a limited run, so I knew that only 300 copies would exist of it in the world. When you have something where you know its going to be only 300 copies, it is a different artistic mentality altogether. You are able to tell more intimate stories when your audience is smaller. Both books are very different in terms of content so in that way, it was a different approach.
TTM: You’ve also written the web series “Brown Girls.” I was wondering why making it was essential because it tackles stories from the lens of two best friends, one is a Muslim queer woman and one is an African-American woman.
Asghar: There’s a lot of love in that series. It’s reliant on a real and intimate look at this friendship. When I write for screen, I really try to approach characters as human. Sometimes it can be disheartening to see representations of people of color where they are just stock characters, like ‘this is a smart Indian girl’ or ‘this is a sassy black friend,’ and that’s all they’re about. What I was trying to do was paint these characters as nuanced humans and I hope that came across.
TTM: I know that HBO is considering turning it into a TV show.
Asghar: Yeah, we’re still working on that and we’re in the development stage.
TTM: Seeing it on the big screen would be really cool. Web series are really having a moment. We’ve seen a surge of them being adapted to TV shows like “Insecure” or “Broad City.” Who are your inspirations in that arena?
Asghar: The director of the “Brown Girls” episodes Sam Bailey, she has a web series called “You’re So Talented” that she made a while ago. It’s really good. I really love “Atlanta” and “Fleabag.” I have a wide taste. I love “Game of Thrones” and how they’ve built their worlds. I watch a lot in the same way that I read a lot. There’s a lot of good content out now, which is exciting.
TTM: Have you noticed a rise of South Asian representation? There’s a long way to go but what do you think has helped an increase in this more accurate representation?
Asghar: If I’m honest, I don’t know if I have been seeing it. A few shows do that and when they do, everybody is obviously celebrating them but we’ve not solved the problem of diversity. Often the shows, like on network TV, are still often told from a male perspective or a straight perspective. There’s still a lot more to do. In general, a lot of people of color have been doing really well in terms of quality of work and with market needs.
Networks and studios are risk averse and don’t want to take chances. They see people of color doing content as risky. What’s happening is creators of color are proving that that’s not true and there’s a really big market for this content and there is a big want for it. If studios are smart, they will continue to pursue that and prioritize those stories. It’s pretty clear that there is a want for them. I hope the industry morphs and gets out of the somewhat tired notions that people won’t want to see it or buy into it. I’m hopeful about it.
TTM: What are some future projects you’re excited about?
Asghar: I’m working on a lot of different things but I’m actually really trying to focus on being living in the present and being a human being right now. I’m a workaholic and I often get stuck in my work. So, right now, I just want to recognize that but also think of how I’m enjoying my life outside of that, too.