Fatimah Asghar’s first collection of poetry, If They Come for Us, is a warning about the consequences of ignoring history | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

Fatimah Asghar’s first collection of poetry, If They Come for Us, is a warning about the consequences of ignoring history 

The Brown Girls cocreator examines the effects of her own family’s trauma.

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Fatimah Asghar

Fatimah Asghar

Cassidy Kristiansen

The Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 is rarely spoken about in American history classes, much less in poetry books. The forced migration of 14 million people—Muslims to Pakistan, Hindus to India—left divisions that families still grieve over today. Writer Fatimah Asghar, 28, spent most of her life not knowing how partition affected her family, until the history was passed down to her when she was in college. Now, in the wake of the Trump administration's many crackdowns on immigration and border control, and its separation of families, Asghar's collection of poems reflecting on her family's history, titled If They Come for Us, reads like a warning. Her poetry examines the recurring nature of borders. When an invisible line is drawn, people are divided by varying ideologies, faiths, and politics.

She first learned about her family's history in the India-Pakistan partition from her uncle. He told her the story of how the family was forced to leave Kashmir for Lahore, which sparked her obsession with researching the history. "I've been constantly thinking about it, and looking back into it," she says, "and trying to understand exactly what happened." Her uncle's story isn't explained in any detail in the book, perhaps intentionally, but the emotional weight of his forced migration is felt in every poem. Though the countries and other specific details differ, the impact of forced migration has caused similar trauma for many families. Asghar didn't intend to write anything about her family's history or broadcast a politically relevant message under a controversial administration, but she has done just that. "I spent a lot of years writing the book before Trump really was a prominent political figure" she says. "I've been writing about this stuff for a really long time."

Her poetry criticizes a president who stokes fear in "a country whose sun is war / we keep rotating around its warmth" and reminds the reader that communities of color are often displaced by a nation's battles. She describes on a personal level what it's like to feel at war with one's own skin color when under the watchful eye of kids at school. She writes about her siblings elbowing each other to get into the bathroom to get a moment of peace. She describes an aunt teaching her what a poisonous flower looks like. Asghar's poetry collection ultimately does the same thing: it educates her audience about what poison looks like in this world, no matter how it's presented.

If They Come for Us explores what borders mean to humanity, not just what they represent to a nation's leaders, but also how a family is influenced by the lines that have been drawn. Relatives are separated by them, and their children, like Asghar, are raised in a world that accepts the past separations as ordinary.

Asghar's parents moved to the United States from Lahore in the mid-80s, before she was born. They died when she and her siblings were still very young; they were raised by other immigrants in their family and community. Asghar writes about finding a family that transcends blood because its members bond over a shared history. She makes the case that family transcends borders too.

In writing this collection, Asghar rebels against the habit of historical ignorance that marginalizes people of color. "Politicians try to do that," Asghar says. "[They] can continue these really terrible systems of racism. There are not really a lot of public conversations about partition, and it's this way in which people fall back into that violence."

She's not just concerned about the India-Pakistan partition. Her book quotes pre-presidency Donald Trump directly in his call for an American ban on Muslim immigrants. That promise, which Trump has tried to uphold since he was elected, echoes a long tradition of politicians not learning from past leaders' mistakes. History has repeated itself consistently and has shown many leaders to be apathetic about the effects of enforcing a border or a ban or attempting to erase a group of marginalized people. These borders and bans lead to generations of trauma for the victims' descendants to grapple with.

"There is a lot of historical amnesia in the world, and we just don't know a lot of our own history," Asghar says. "If there was a way that was more commemorative and memorialized, I think we would be better people. America rarely grapples with its history of slavery and indigenous genocide. We're on this land that has witnessed really painful things, and yet there's no real public places of memorializing this trauma. Therefore, everybody is able to not look at it and sweep it under the rug."

If They Come for Us is Asghar's way of grieving her family's own overlooked history. The stories of her family's forced migration are still relatively new to her, and her poems are often a painful examination of that trauma. But while the book analyzes the larger politics of migration, it also explores Asghar's relationships with friends and her queerness. The webseries Brown Girls, which she created with her friend Sam Bailey and which has recently been picked up by HBO, has presented similar story lines. Queer people and people of color, Asghar says, "should be able to write the work that they want, whether that's hard, whether that's joyful. And if that turns away from politics or leans into it, ultimately that's up to every individual artist." She finds that each of her creative projects fulfills a different need in her life. "Brown Girls was about a friendship and love that exists there, and this book is meant to be about history and borders, and therefore the tone is darker."

Asghar does think the webseries' themes surrounding sexuality and what it means to be an adult are contemplated in the book too. Some of the poems—those about friendship and body exploration and playing with Barbies—do shift from the political toward the intimate and personal. But while those poems are a relief from the weight of more serious topics, they are still reminders that her particular point of view—that of a queer woman of color who was once a brown girl who played with white-skinned Barbies—has often been marginalized or overlooked.

Mostly, though, her poems are the memorial for the trauma she still dwells on. She hopes that people who read them will be reminded of the history that's been so often ignored, particularly during this recent resurgence of immigration issues. "We fall back into these divides that were stoked by these nationalistic rhetorics," Asghar says. "We need to have more conversations about our history. If there's a warning, that's it: What does it mean to sit with the complications of history, and can that help us be better in the future?"   v

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