I come across a piece by Fatimah Ashgar in a magazine and she immediately catches my attention. Because she has a multicultural background; because her multicultural background is very different from mine; but above all because of her singular voice.
Ashgar is a Pakistani-Kashmiri-American screenwriter and poet. She grew up and lives in the United States. She has relatives and visits Pakistan on a regular basis. She also travels around the world. In the magazine piece she writes about “never knowing why your identity might spark some trouble: because I’m Muslim? American? queer? brown? a woman?” The answer, of course, varies depending on where and with whom she is. In each of her communities she seems to have to negate, or at least explain, some facets of her self.
I make a bee line to her recently published collection of poems, If They Come For Us. Her poems interweave the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan and how deeply it affected her family; how she relates to her Kashmiri-Pakistani heritage; what it means for her to have grown up and to live in the United States. So many threads entangled in one life. Her writing is fresh, sometimes playful – Microaggression Bingo lists things that make her brown self cringe in a spreadsheet format, sometimes infused with pain. There is sweetness. There is defiance. There is complexity.
Throughout the book, several poems are titled Partition. This is probably the one word that carries most meaning for Fatimah Ashgar because it is at the intersection of her family history and her own experience of disconnection between the parts of her life, whether this sense of disconnection comes from inside or is imposed from outside. The first Partition poem speaks to her identities and how they have faded in the course of her still young life — she’s only 28.
“you’re kashmiri until they burn your home.”
“you’re pakistani until your classmates ask what that is.”
“you speak a language until you don’t. until you only recognize it between your auntie’s lips.”
“you’re american until the towers fall. until there’s a border on your back.”
She is in-between but not in a wavering way, quite the opposite. She strikes me as someone strong and full, someone able to draw from her plural identity to create something meaningful to people who do not share her circumstances. Perhaps she could go as far as sketching a quirky multicultural road map for this kaleidoscopic country. Here is to hoping Fatimah Ashgar will continue to share her perspective with all of us who welcome new insights about the heterogeneous American people. I think we seriously need it.