DON’T LABEL HER BUT LISTEN TO HER - THIS EMMY NOMINATED WRITER IS CRUSHING LIFE

FATIMAH ASGHAR: WRITER

I’d heard Fatimah was a woman to know.  I hadn't seen her Emmy nominated web series - Brown Girls - but knew that she was a brilliant writer and poet. Two minutes after meeting her I understood her allure. Crazy intelligent, Intriguing, and frankly not the run of the mill typical celebrity I'm accustomed to interviewing.  I hope you enjoy this refreshing conversation about country, family and freedom.

  ROAD TRIP NATION

 ROAD TRIP NATION

Catt:
Fatimah, tell me about your roots.       

Fatimah:
I was born in New York, but my family is from Kashmir.  My mom and her entire family were born in Kashmir. Immigrated to Pakistan, immigrated to London, immigrated to the US.

C:
I see, but you grew up without your parents, is that right?

F:
Yeah.
I have two older sisters, and my mom died when I was really, really young. At like one, she had cancer when she was pregnant with me, and then my dad died when I was around five. We were living in New York, while he was alive, and then when he died I moved to Boston with my sisters. Our legal guardian was an uncle of ours but was in and out of the picture. Then in high school, we didn't have adult supervision. The three of us just kind of like ... he had an apartment, he owned an apartment complex and we were in an apartment by ourselves. So it was like a really interesting way of growing up - totally absent of a lot of intense day to day adult supervision.

C:
Are you still close with your siblings?

F:
Yeah. I'm really close to my middle sister. We're like really, really, really close.

C:
Wow. So how did the artist that you are, and the writer that you are - how was that born out of some of your upbringing do you think?

F:
You know, I did a lot of theater when I was in high school, and it was like a really great way to get to be on stage and be someone else. Then it wasn't until I was in college and in a slightly more stable situation that I started writing. It was because I was able to then talk about some of the stuff that happened, versus living through it and having to deal with that. It was me and my sisters growing up, but we had a lot of people who were not blood, but who were like our aunts and uncles, who acted like they were. We would call them aunts and uncles. Or like our friends’ parents, who swooped in to help a lot. I kind of had this really weird constellation family network that was not blood family but who I consider my family.

Since a lot of that mentality of non-traditional relationships has been like a guiding principle, it’s appeared in my work. I really, really value friendship and those moments of real deep connection with people. So for me, I'm like okay if I find someone and I'm connected to you, you're like family to me. That's, I think a lot of the way, because of how I grew up.

C:
I love that. Because family is defined in so many different ways. So would you say as far as female mentors or heroes, or figures that maybe shaped you, who sticks out in your mind? Because you seem like such a strong, very bold, very independent woman. So are there any forces in your upbringing that stand out to you?

F:
My sister Khadijah, is like really someone who stands out to me. It's really interesting because she when we were growing up, she was like always like really, really small, but was like a fighter. Like she had this kind of mentality of like she could take on the world. She is amazing, she works in public health, and she basically lives in New York but travels a lot for different work. She looks at gender-based violence as a public health epidemic. So she’s a huge, huge inspiration to me.

Also, I have a mentor, named Christa Franklin, who is an artist, but she does a lot of like hybrid, cross-genre work. She makes paper, and she's a writer, and she's a poet and a visual artist. It's so fascinating because I think of myself as someone who loves to exist without category. I really like existing, both in terms of my identity, but also in terms of my art, in that way. I think she's someone who really does that. I think it's like really incredible right now to look around and be in an age of like really dope women, who are artists, public figures, and who are standing up for rights all of the time. After all of the bad things that have happened over the last three years, it's been really amazing to see women and people of color, and all of these people who are just like really, really inspirational.

C:
Why do you think people tend to gravitate to labels and identifying with only what they know? Like you just said, we're so prone to just putting people in a box, and putting them in a category, and putting on a label.  Is it just fear based?

F:
You know America just has such a binary system of everything. It's like so black and white, you know woman and man, it's very, very binary in terms of how it thinks of a lot of things. It's hard to exist within any kind of spectrum. It's hard to go against that. There are so many kinds of these people. And there are so many kinds of identities and expression. Yeah, I think it is fear based, but I'm really hopeful that we're moving towards a direction where people are more open to that kind of stuff.

C:
Or at least the conversations are being had. There's more dialogue than there used to be and a lot of that is because of social media and all of that. But your writing - you're Emmy nominated for Brown Girls which is so cool - and you've got this book coming out. Where and when did you know that that was kind of your offering to the world?

F:
Like I said, I did a lot of theater, and then in college I started doing spoken word and writing poems. I remember that feeling of being like, “Man it is so amazing to see someone read something or perform something that they wrote and not hide behind a character.” Just be like “This is who I am.”  That was such a vulnerable thing to see and I think for so much of my life I had spent hiding. So I really leaned into poetry.

Like kind of what you were saying about even why you do this interview series - just to have things be raw and open and whatever because I don't think that we get to do that that often. Then people kind of build these walls up or they don't talk about things and we don't have the dialogue that we need to be having. So that's kind of where I came into writing. And then Brown Girls really just came from, actually a break of poetry. I was writing my book and there was some real sad stuff that I was writing, and I was like “Oh, this is like a light fun thing it's like my little side passion project. I'm excited about it. We'll see.” It was the first thing I'd ever written for the screen. I showed it to a bunch of friends and they were like, "We have to make this." And I was like, "Great, let's do it." And so everything felt like a step-by-step. It was like, what's the next step? What's the next day? Do we have the money we need? Do we have the actors we need? Are we going to do this? It was kind of this really beautiful process where we had no expectations on it for anything. It was just a thing we were doing because we wanted to. And then to see where it is now, it's really amazing. I think about this a lot because younger writers or emerging writers will be like, "Well what's some advice you have?" And I'm like, “Honestly, just make the stuff you want to make because you want to make it. Don't make it with the intention of, it's going to be this thing,” because I think that's where the most honest and vulnerable art comes from.

 Instagram @asgharthegrouch

Instagram @asgharthegrouch

C:
You actually said something that I loved in a quote that I found online. It kind of speaks to this. It says, "You are the expert of your own stories. Write the things you need or want to see in the world. Fuck everything else. It's been my experience that the more I write, the more I find out who I am. I am very thankful to poetry for offering me that."

F:
Yeah.

C:
I love that so much. If They Come for Us, is your book not yet released.  Tell us about that a little bit.

F:
It's a collection of poems, but it really is organized by this principle of partition, which is when colonial Britain left South Asia and South Asia devolved into violence. I think that there were 14 million refugees that crossed borders. There was a ridiculous amount of violence and retributive genocide on both sides, from Hindu to Muslim, to Muslim to Hindu to Sikhs. There was all this violence. And it's not something that anybody talks about. It happened in '47 after World War II.

C:
Unbelievable.

F:
Yeah. And it happened over the course of a few months. Just thinking about 14 million refugees over the course of, what, maybe three to four months is kind of ridiculous. And yet no one talks about it. My family who was all alive then, my parents' generation, they were in Kashmir, and ever since '47, Kashmir has been a disputed state between India and Pakistan. The book really kind of looks at the history of partition and has these poems that are about partition, but then also follows my family's path of immigration. So it's them in Kashmir and Pakistan during partition, them in the United States, me growing up an orphan without my parents. And I was in the 7th grade when September 11 happened, so really thinking about the idea of what it means to belong to a nation. Because my parents' generation, my mom was Kashmiri, was Pakistani, was British, was American in one lifetime. And that kind of transitory idea of identity is a theme, but then also having a very different idea of what it meant to be American before September 11 and a very different idea of what it meant for me as a Muslim, brown kid to be American after. So it really kind of fits into that.

But also it's an immigrant tale. I have a poem about Old Country Buffet and how that was where I learned American cuisine because that is where my family would go. We didn't eat that food and we were like, "Ooh, biscuits!" So excited. These little, little small nuggets of things that are actually really joyous and really about what it means to be a young person figuring out America. And there are a few poems that touch on modern day stuff about Trump and things around the Muslim ban and stuff like that.

C:
So obviously you wrote the book as it's your personal experience and how it ties into your world, but obviously, when you write a book, you're writing for people to read. So who is the audience?

F:
The audience, to me, I really thought about young folks. The content is mature, but I was thinking particularly about a younger version of myself. I was like, what would I have read to make me feel less lonely when I was growing up? And this is kind of the book that I wrote for that. I work with a lot of young folks in Chicago, and although in a way my work doesn't matter, any of my art, but I kind of have them in mind when I'm thinking about stuff. I super, super love high school kids and I'm really about them because, you know, when you're in high school you feel everything so closely. Your heart is right under your skin. And I think in a way we forget that when we get older.

C:
I have a 17-year-old and let me tell you, I can relate so much because every day you'd think it was the last day of living. If I did not let him have the friends over last night and the girls in the pool, you’d think his life would've ended it was so important to him. Every day is that intense. And they do feel so deeply, and it takes you right back to how it does feel at that age.  I love that you're targeting them, because also through my own experiences recently, and just with everything that's going on in the world, I am particularly inspired by this next generation.

F:
Yeah, me too.

C:
I'm blown away by how smart they are and savvy and fearless, and everybody's got a voice and they're using their voices. Do you feel the same?

F:
Yeah. I love them. And especially working with kids and thinking about specific high school kids that I love and have worked with, so smart. So ahead of their time, having these ideas about even gender and queerness that I really, really love. It took me so long to learn and to see them. And then I worry too. I love social media and I also worry that it can be a really negative place sometimes and I worry about what it feels like to live in a world ... I was introduced at the tail end of high school. And we had Myspace growing up and AIM and stuff, but for the most part, we could turn it off. And I wonder what it's like for young people who their entire lives have been that. They can't turn it off. And what that does to your sense of self and community. But I think that they are incredible organizers, incredible thinkers. And I'm really excited just to see what they do. They give me a lot of hope for the world.

C:
In your book, there is this exploration of what it's like to be an immigrant and then you look at what's happening at the border and with kids in cages today and everything else going on. Does it ever make you feel anti-American or less patriotic when you look at what's happening? Or not at all?

F:
Absolutely. A lot of what the book grapples with is the idea of being like, what is a nation? And do I believe in nations? It's hard because you can't change it, right. But, to me one of the saddest things is partition. It is so deeply, deeply sad that people could not live side by side. You know, people who had lived side by side among different religions, among different ethnicities, among different languages for generations then suddenly polarize and could not live with each other. And the amount of like tribalism of that and being like we don't, we can't.

Now we have this nation that's for Muslim people. Now we have a nation for Hindu people. Now we have violence that continues to this day in both of those nations that are anti the other group. I don't know if I really believe in nation-state, right. And thinking about America and thinking about America's kind of long history of violence towards people of color and the way, you know, indigenous genocide and slavery, and the ways that America has not really publicly reckoned with some of that stuff. And then it continues to exist where they’re, you know, making policy and stuff that's based off of that, and it contributes to these kinds of structures that are unequal.  I just don't really rock with it. I don't think I can, you know? And when I think about allegiance, I'm like what, who, what is my allegiance to? It's like to people. It's to people I love. It's to communities that I love. It's a real grounded kind of allegiance. It's not to like a kind of arbitrary idea of what a nation is.

 www.fatimahasghar.com

www.fatimahasghar.com

C:
Your career is taking off, and you're doing so well, you're growing your audience. Well, what is the ultimate “it” for you? You’re published now. You've got the web series. Where do you want to go next?

F:
I want to make art that really makes me proud, you know. I want to collaborate with good people. I love collaboration, but also relationships mean so much to me that I want to be like these are people I like. This is great. Because so much of art is making stuff, you have a product, but the process is really important. My editor for If They Come for Us, Nicole Counts, is incredible. And she has become a very close friend because of our edits and because of this process that we went through.

I feel the same way about Sam Bailey, who's the director of Brown Girls. Our friendship and our love solidified for each other over the course of making Brown Girls. And to me, that's success and beauty, right ... Yes, it had this other impact but what it gave me was all of these ... people in my life that I can love. That's amazing.

I don't want to be pigeon holed into one thing. I want to be able to make a bunch of different art that kind of hits at really, really different things that I'm interested in because I think all of us are such complicated people, right. And it's like you have all of these stories inside you and just to kind of allow that. And so, I really want to be able to make TV and film and books that are really, really vastly different, but feel authentic and speak to something I want to tell or kind of talk about.

C:
Okay, on a very less serious topic or subject.  What do you binge on Netflix?

F:
Oh my god, everything. So, I binged all of Thirteen Reasons Why because my kids watched it, you know. I love The End of The Fucking World. It's so good.

C:
Really?

F:
Yeah. It's really good. I binged it so fast. It's really bleak, dark comedy, but it's really, really, really good. Yeah. I love Atlanta. I binge all of Atlanta. I loved Fleabag on Amazon. It was really, really good. Yeah.

C:
There's so much isn't there?

F:
There's so much. And there's so much good content out where you're just like, "Oh, cool. That's great,” you know. I also love music videos and I will go on YouTube where I'm just watching music videos and go down these rabbit holes of music video finding.

C:
What'd you think of This is America?

F:
You know, I think that it was ... I love Donald Glover. I think it's hard to kind of see that kind of violence a lot, you know, but I also think that ... I know that was a really controversial music video. A lot of people loved it and a lot of people didn't. I watched it once and I think the song is good.

C:
What advice would you give your 12-year-old self? For whatever reason, a lot of my audience seems to be younger and are looking for inspiration or you know, they're trying to break into the business. Is there any advice you could bestow upon them that you think would've helped you along the way?

F:
Yeah. I mean, it's kind of the thing you were talking about with your son where I just wish that I could be like “You are going to be okay. Not everything is the end of the world, right? You're going to be-

C:
It is very Thirteen Reasons Why.

F:
Right. Yeah. And I remember there was a scene in Thirteen Reasons Why where she lost money that was for her family or whatever and it felt like the end of the world to her, and I remember that. I remember that feeling of being like, "Oh no. I lost twenty ..." small amounts of money and just feeling like my whole world was over. And so, I kind of wish that I could be like, "You're going to be okay.”  And then also to not care so much about what other people think about you. Especially young women, so many people struggle with this kind of thing about what it means to be beautiful. And just to be like, "Yo. That's not …” There are so many kinds of beauty and you don't need to be worried about that, you know? Just be yourself and don't care what everyone in high school says or whatever. Things will actually be fine and work out. Once you kind of feel more confident in yourself, that's really where beauty comes from. I know that sounds really cheesy, but it's like this thing where it doesn't matter what you look like and your whole life is going to be a journey with your body and what it means to be you in your body. To begin that process, to be generous to yourself versus being like, "I'm ugly" or "I don't look like the other girls.”

C:
It's so hard to not do that. I mean, I think we all struggle with that. Somebody said to me the other day. "Beauty lasts for five seconds." Because then what, you know? And it's really true. And we all age. Everything changes and we're all headed the same direction. That's super old if we're lucky.

F:
Yeah.

C:
That's really good advice. I think it's harder now more than ever because again of everything they see that isn't real at all anyway and thinking that it is.  Well, thank you for what you're doing.  You're fascinating.


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IF THEY COME FOR US

By Fatimah Asghar
Release Date: August 7

 
Catt Sadler