Illustration by Michelle Dudley
Instead of heading back to my dorm at the end of the day on Oct. 25, I headed to Monmouth in a car with a couple of other Knox students. Ignoring piles of homework and projects that were due, I attended a conversation with Fatima Asghar — a Muslim Pakistani American poet.
A few minutes into the session attendees saw a clip from Brown Girls, a web series screen written by Asghar. The extremely realistic and contemporary web series explores problems faced by South Asian girls in America. Afterwards, Asghar read the crowd some poems from her upcoming book ‘If They Come for Us’.
Her poems are based on a spectrum of personal and sociocultural themes which reflect the very real problems faced by people of color, especially the brown and the Muslim population in America. A mix of pop culture references like singer Ashanti and Islamic allusions in Arabic and Urdu, Asghar’s poems manage to be unapologetically bold and sensitive.
Her poems talk about her personal experience as an orphan. She often writes about yearning for her mother, her roots amidst the violent Indo-Pak dispute over Kashmir and her place in today’s America amongst the trending Islamophobia and the nationwide political chaos.
Speaking about experiences that led her to write her poems, Asghar explains the events in her life that have stayed with her throughout her life before each poem. She feels the tragedies in her life need to be talked about more openly.
Questioned about the reception of her very South Asian work in America, Asghar admits it is a lonely feeling when her audience cannot always relate to her experiences and culture. However, that becomes the very reason for doing her work, as often Americans talk about South Asian culture in a very misinformed manner. On these occasions, Asghar thinks to herself, “you don’t know anything about my culture, about South Asian people.” Thus, her work as a person from a South Asian background becomes pivotal as it creates awareness and educates Americans on things they have minimal information about.
In her work, Asghar liberally uses swear words and talks about subjects that would normally be taboo in the very conservative South Asian culture. She discusses grooming habits, the ‘hairiness’ of brown girls, sexuality and dress code. Having lived in Pakistan for all of my life, I was able to identify with her poems very personally. It was an amazing experience to see a woman who came from a similar background, but was able to break through traditional expectations and form her own identity. Asghar gets to decide how much of a Pakistani, how much of a Muslim, and how much of an American she is,
and she is all of those very passionately.
Asghar is also a major believer in the power of brown women. In her own life, her major support systems are her brown friends, aunts and sister. Her courage to go out every day and speak about what she believes in comes from her circle of female friends. They are home for her. In her work, Asghar fiercely supports and stands with her Muslim friends and fellow people of color regardless of their country or race. She always looks for more works that represent people of color and those people of color actually having a chance to represent their cultures responsibly.
An animated and interactive personality, Asghar smiles abundantly and combines the sensitivity of her concerns with witty conversations. As we say goodbye to Asghar and head back to Knox, I am filled with a sense of confidence and reassurance. No matter where I go in the world, as long as I am passionate about what I believe in, I am a brown girl who can make a hell of a difference.