For the past few weeks, I have been reading “If They Come for Us,” the 2018 debut poetry collection by Pakistani American writer Fatimah Asghar. Asghar has lived a life defined by history and culture, both of which are evident in her poetry. Through her writing, Asghar considers issues relating to the Partition of India — the forced division of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947 — as well as personal, cultural and sexual themes at the intersection of religion and politics.
Asghar opens with the poem “For Peshawar,” which serves as both a title and a sort of dedication. It is a response to the devastating terrorist attack on a public school in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2014, where 132 two young children were killed, along with nine others.
In the poem, Asghar asks if, from a baby’s birth, we are to “lower them into the ground?” In her despair she dreams of the children alive, and at play; instead of the common refrain of wondering what incredible feats they could achieve, she wishes instead for them to have a “mundane life,” filled with all the normal aspects of growing up, like “arguments with parents” and “chasing a budding love around the playground.” She wants for these children taken too soon “nothing glorious,” just simply, “A life. Alive.”
I will never forget attending a community vigil in my home town of Fort Wayne, Ind., to remember and mourn the children killed in this devastating attack. I remember my dad translating from Punjabi to English the words of condolences and support from several resident Sikhs: their message of love was a sign of the connectedness and overcoming of religious and ethnic boundaries among South Asian peoples.
This same spiritual and personal connection among South Asians divided by Partition is evident when Ashgar writes, “Jaspreet’s family was Punjabi too, from the other side of partition,” and “all our food, shared.” The children in the poem were unspoiled by the big, nationality-based conflicts, and had no affinity for the “lines the West drew in them.” This theme of transcending national boundaries is repeated when the children visit their Bengali friends’ home, where the Pakistani American children would happily exclaim: “All my people from Bangladesh!”
Asghar writes, then, of the ways that South Asians are bound to each other, how love endures despite the national lines imposed by colonial powers. Of course, as Asghar notes, the harmful legacy of colonialism and partition endures and continues to influence nationality and religious-based division.
A crucial and characteristic aspect of Asghar’s poetry is her innovative writing style. Much of her poetry involves unusual media and visual displays, as well as a kind of spatial experimentation. For example, one of her poems, titled “Script for Child Services: A Floor Plan,” displays a floor plan of an orphanage house, with each location (bedroom 1, living room, etc.) filled in with words like “I was young. I didn’t know any better.” In semi-translucent text the background of the floor plan repeats sequences that essentially state the words of someone coaching the children on what to tell protective services.
The poem alludes to a significant conflict in the orphan house — that abuse of some sort is being covered up. This part may be drawing on Asghar’s own life, since she grew up as an orphan after her parents, who had previously fled Partition, died when she was five.
Other spatially innovative poems include “Map Home,” which takes the form of a crossword puzzle, and “Microaggression Bingo,” containing filled-in racially inflammatory experiences of South Asians like “Casting call to audition for Terrorist #7,” and “Oh did your parents make you wear a Hijab?”
Another powerful aspect of Asghar’s poetry is her condemnation of many different forces of harm. In addition to her criticism of the colonial British, she discusses forces which perpetuate violence against women, including men who “can’t touch anyone without teeth & spit,” and who “take & take,” yet are idealized. She writes, too, of dangerous religious judgment and violent rhetoric against women. In response, she dreams of a life “brimming with my contradictions,” where the identity and faith of Muslim women are accepted, regardless of how they choose to practice.
Among her more contemporary topics is her powerful critique of former President Trump, whose last name she describes as meaning “to win,” and who “drops bombs flattening children to prove he can,” while “vacationing, his belt swelling past buckle.” She also focuses further on America’s relationship with Muslims following 9/11, when Islamophobic rhetoric and behavior reached violent levels, something I have experienced growing up as a Muslim American.
Her collection’s concluding poem, “If they Come for Us” caps off an incredible body of work. In this poem, she asserts “these are my people,” whether it’s the “Muslim man who abandons his car” to pray, or the one who “drinks good whiskey at the start of maghrib,” or the “Sikh uncle at the airport.” To Fatimah Asghar, being South Asian means that with “my people I can’t be lost,” as it does to me and many other readers.
“If They Come for Us” is a powerful discussion on topics central to South Asian and American identity, on the political, social and sexual forces driving conflict, hope and love. Grab a copy: it’s essential brown reading.
Nile Adhami is a rising sophomore in the College. Gazing East will appear online every other week during the summer.