Book Review: Exploring Identity Through Poetry in ‘If They Come For Us’ by Fatimah Asghar

If They Come For Us Book Review
If They Come For Us Book Review

Fatimah Asghar’s debut poetry book,If They Come For Us,” is an inquest into a realm most wouldn’t dare venture into.  A soul-searching, brutally honest and heart-breaking collection of poems, it highlights the complexities of being a living breathing thing of beauty. 

As a body of work, “If They Come for Us” investigates the notion of identity. Those who seek to understand it, learn early on that identity is a difficult, subjective and intimate matter. Because of this, the definition of identity varies from one person to the next. With this comes the responsibility of acknowledging that there can be parts of your identity that you whole-heartedly embrace and others that you aggressively shun. It is the lens with which one interacts with the world and vice versa. 

Exercising diligent consideration, Asghar explores all threads of their life by questioning what was, what is and what if.

Set against the background of the Partition, they explore the long withstanding repercussions of 14 million people being forced into migration to flee ethnic cleansing and genocide. Asghar, taking from their people’s history, partitions their own identity carefully and carelessly for dissection. 

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Drawing from autobiographical experiences, Asghar debates existing ideologies. As religions clashed in pre-partition India, their faith and sexuality face the same dilemma decades later,  giving birth to their search for acceptance and belonging. 

Published in 2018, the political arena in the U.S. also shaped the collection. Living through the aftermath of 9/11 as a teenager and the Trump presidency as an adult, we feel Asghar’s fears manifest in the world around them. The political discomfort makes them question concepts of home and displacement whilst voicing their sentiments of being threatened and unsafe. 

I can’t say blow out loud or everyone will hate me. They all make English their own, say that’s the bomb. I know that word’s not meant for me.

Asghar lost their parents at a young age and the impact of being orphaned is embedded in their work. In “Super Orphan” and “Portrait of my Father, Alive” they map out the ebbs and flows of grief. In “Kal,” they tackle the irony of the word, kal, in the Urdu language:

Allah you gave us a language where yesterday and tomorrow are the same word. Kal means she’s dancing at my wedding not yet come. Kal means she’s oiling my hair before the first day of school. If yesterday & tomorrow are the same, pluck the flower of my mother’s body from the soil.

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With tender care, Fatimah introduces the reader to sensitive themes. Section after section, they build on them by using motifs to create wholesome imagery. In doing so, they offer multidimensional perspectives which humanize the experiences. 

You’re kashmiri until they burn your home. take your orchards. stake a different flag. until no one remembers the road that brings you back.

In the series of poems titled “Partition”, Asghar gracefully sways to and fro with the hope of capturing the contradictions of 1947: the despair tinted with hope, the freedom under the guise of a new nationality.

1947: a Muslim man sips whiskey & creates a country. 

Jinnah’s photo framed & hung on the doors of his believers. 

Freedom spat between every paan-stained mouth as the colonizers leave 

& the date trees dance in Ramzan’s winds.

It’s not all heavy-hitting, though. Asghar’s experimental curiosity with poetic form is one of their unique talents.  They playfully curate poems such as “MicroAggression Bingo” and “From,” which are unorthodox in style to remind us that there is more than one way to the light. At the crossroads of internal dilemma, they choose the path of courage by voicing their emotions out loud. 

“If They Come For Us” was a surreal read. It felt like I was talking to myself. Things that I can’t bring myself to say out loud, I found lurking behind letters on the pages before me. Asghar led by example by allowing us into the intimacy of their mind. Their determination in rejecting a picture-perfect narrative has stuck with me. 

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Their nostalgic words lifted off the pages into reality and recreated memories of my own adolescence — from “gold chapals and Lisa Frank trapper keepers” to “birdies zipping from racket to racket.”

There were times I stopped reading and let my imagination run wild. At times, I couldn’t read on because it was too painful. And other times, my anger at not knowing more stopped me. Oblivious to a simple yet powerful detail of Partition falling on Laylat-al-Qadr, one of the holiest days in Islam, gave nuance to an unfamiliarly familiar historic event. 

There is a lesson to (un)learn for anyone who reads “If They Come For Us.” Some may recognize themselves in Asghar’s insecurity about body hair. Some may find the complex family dynamics familiar and others may catch a glimpse into the intricate lives immigrants leave behind to start anew. 

Where do we start to pick up the fragments of the world that were partitioned for us? 

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By taking us on their ancestors’ journey and connecting it with their struggles, they give meaning to thoughts, emotions and trauma, creating a vocabulary for our collective trauma as South Asians. Tired of being shackled by a bond that was forced upon us, in writing this collection, Asghar takes it upon themself to break free. 

Last year, I discovered Asghar through their Emmy-nominated web series Brown Girls. A multi-genre creative, I find their work has a degree of depth & humanity that is rare to come by. Their next book, out later this year, is a coming-of-age story about three orphaned sisters surviving girlhood. After an inspirational and raw debut in poetry, I’m curious to see them delve into the world of fiction. I’m even more curious to see where they take me next. 

In a world that can be frightening, Asghar’s poetry collection gave me comfort in knowing that I am not really alone. 

Fatimah, if they come for us again, I’ll be right next to you.

You can purchase “If They Come For Us” from Penguin Random House and keep up with Fatimah Asghar’s work here!

By Ayesha Syeddah

Hi, I’m Ayesha! My journey began in Pakistan and after a whirlwind tour of five other countries, the beautiful city … Read more ›

The Futility of Trying to be ‘That Girl’

Social media has stretched a number of news headlines:

“Social media rots kids’ brains.”

“Social media is polarizing.”

Yet those most affected by social media ideals are the teenage users. Apps like Instagram and TikTok perpetuate an image of perfection that is captured in pictures and 30-second videos. As a result, many young women chase this expectation endlessly. “Her” personifies this perfection in an unattainable figure the narrator has always wished to be. These ideals deteriorate mental health, create body dysmorphia, promote a lack of self-esteem, and much more. Even so, social media is plagued by filters and editing—much of what we hope to achieve isn’t even real. Therefore, young women, much like the narrator of “Her,” strive for a reality that doesn’t even exist.

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When she walked into my life
Her smile took up two pages of description
In a YA novel.
My arms could wrap around her waist twice
If she ever let anyone get that close
Her hair whipped winds with effortless beach waves
And a hint of natural coconut
Clothing brands were created around her
“One Size Fits All” one size to fit the girl who has it all
With comments swarning in hourglasses
But when sharp teeth nip at her collar,
She could bite back biting back
And simply smirked with juicy apple lips
Red hearts and sympathy masking condescension
“My body doesn’t take away from the beauty of yours”
“We are all equal, we are all beautiful”
A sword she wields expertly
Snipping, changing,
Aphrodite in consistent perfection
Cutting remarks with sickly sweet syrup
And an innocent, lethal wink
When she walked into my life
She led my life.
My wardrobe winter trees
Barren, chopped in half
Unsuited for the holidays
Mirrors were refracted under in my gaze
Misaligned glass was the only explanation
For unsymmetrical features
And broken hands
Still I taped them fixed
Over and over
Poking, prodding
Hoping to mold stomach fat like wet clay
Defy gravity,
Move it upward
To chest
Instead of sagging beneath a belt on the last hole
In the spring
She would stir me awake at 2 AM
“You need to be me”
Lies spilled from her tongue but
Solidified, crystallized
Fabrication spelled dichotomy
And I drifted farther out to sea
When she walked out of my life,
I was drowning.
Reliance had me capsized
Others witnessed
Furrowed brows and glances away
Like spectators of a shark attack
They can watch but the damage is done
They clung to my mangled pieces
Gravestones spelled
But I was mourning too
Today I looked back at my mirror
But glass turned into prism
Broken pieces rainbow
Colors coating clothes
She didn’t pick
Perception changing
She wasn’t perfect
Just lost at sea

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The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Kashvi Ramani

Kashvi Ramani is a writer, actress, songwriter, and singer from Northern Virginia. She has been writing songs, poetry, scripts, and … Read more ›

The Poetry Film Breaking Genres and National Borders

“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.

This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.

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After So Long (English Translation)

Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long

Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
Kya karu?
(What should I do?)
Kaha jau?
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
Barso baad.
(After so long)

I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long

Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
Wahi dil,
(The same heart)
Baarso baad.
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
barso baad
(After so long)

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Poem by Simha & Jae
Produced by Star Hopper Studios
Directed by Varsha Panikar
Cinematography and grading by Tanmay Chowdhary
Editing by Asawari Jagushte
Featuring Vaishakh Sudhakaran
Music Production by Simha
Hindi editing by Rama Garimella
Recited by Simha, Rama Garimella, Annaji Garimella
English Translation by Nhylar

The opinions expressed by the guest writer/blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Brown Girl Magazine, Inc., or any employee thereof. Brown Girl Magazine is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers. This work is the opinion of the blogger. It is not the intention of Brown Girl Magazine to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, or individual. If you’d like to submit a guest post, please follow the guidelines we’ve set forth here.
By Varsha Panikar

Varsha Panikar (they/he) is a filmmaker, writer and multi-disciplinary artist from India. They are the co-founder of Star Hopper, a … Read more ›

Moving on After Breaking up With Your Cat

“Take what you want//Take everything” reflects on a time with my partner and our cat, Layla. It’s a retelling of the chaotic night I adopted her. I didn’t know why Layla hid from me. When I chased her around, it scared her more. “Take what you want//Take everything” juxtaposes our first night, filled with misunderstanding, with the rest of the time we spent together. My fond memories call back to the loving moments Layla and I shared.

Such memories defined us; they reverberated in my partnership. I wonder if my partner, like Layla, only remembers her fear of me, over our shared moments of love. The title, a Kanye West lyric, is an acknowledgment that their happiness together–without me–destroyed my sense of self. When I see their photos, I wonder if I can see myself reflected in their eyes. I wonder if they still keep kind moments of our time together.

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Take what you want//Take everything

I remember when she would look at me from behind a laundry basket.

A small simple cat with green owl eyes. She was afraid of her new home and its owner. Shit, I remember the night I got her, she hid under my bed, in the middle just out of my reach for maybe 6 hours, watching me. She didn’t eat anything the entire day. When the night fell I was afraid she’d starve or come out and attack me. I was just scared. I didn’t have a childhood pet, I’m not white, I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the whole bed and yelled that she needed to move. I chased her into the closet with a vacuum cleaner. When she ran in, I called my lover and yelled to her that she wasn’t helping enough, she needed to be there to help me. That was our first day together, me and that cat. No one will ever have that memory but me and maybe her.

It was during Ramadan, my first year fasting.

Our problems had already begun by then. Enough so that I decided to fast and show retribution. I’d try to change into a more patient and understanding self. Like the Prophet (SAW) I guess. To become someone that my lover could feel safe around. Somehow, getting a cat felt like it fit into that picture. I’d be a cat dad, you know, gentle. We’d raise her. I’d fast and become New Again. Maybe I’d wrap an inked tasbih around myself and show I’m a man of God.

I don’t know how a cat remembers fear any more than I know how a lover does.

I know her body stored it. My cat’s must have stored it too. That first night, I wish I could tell her that I was afraid too. It doesn’t make sense that I was afraid really — I’m bigger, more threatening. We don’t speak the same language anyway, so how could I ever tell her? She learned to trust me though, in her own way. Her small bean paws would press on my chest in the mornings. She’d meow to berate me for locking her out some nights, or when I was away from home too long.

She lives with my lover now. They share photos with me, they’re happy together.

I saw my lover once, it was on 55th and 7th, Broadway shined blue performance lights over us. She wore a red sacral dress. She said her mental health has never been better. I think she was trying to tell me that she’s doing well, because she knows I care for her. I don’t think she was trying to say she’s happier without me. We don’t speak the same language. I actually think they are happier with just each other. And I loved them both, so it hurts. Sometimes, not all the time. And it doesn’t always hurt that bad. Other times it does get pretty bad, though. I probably owe it to myself to say that.

I look back at the photos, the ones of our life together, and the ones of their new life.

Two green owl eyes, and two brown moonlit eyes. I look for myself in them.

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By Umrao Shaan

Umrao Shaan is a short storyist, poet, and ghazals singer. You can find his songs on his Instagram. His other … Read more ›