Document speaks with the artist about the power of social media, expanding the narrative, and why collaboration is always her guiding principle with an exclusive video by Sasha Douglas-Nares.
“It’s a really basic idea but for some reason, it’s very hard for people to wrap their head around,” Fatimah Asghar tells me over the phone one morning mid-week when describing the premise of a new book she’s been working on. “There are as many ways of being Muslim as there are Muslim people in the world.”
As a Pakistani-Kashmiri-American poet, screenwriter, and performer, Fatimah Asghar’s work is built from perfect vignettes of how she’s navigated this multi-dimensional identity. In 2017—the same year she made Forbes’ 30 under 30—Asghar received the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Last month, she co-edited the anthology Halal If You Hear Me with fellow poet Safia Elhillo, bringing together an array of new writers to counter aspersions about what it means to be Muslim. Asghar is currently writing on the Emmy-nominated web series Brown Girls, which she co-created with Sam Bailey, and which is currently being adapted by HBO.
The history of Muslims in America goes back more than 400 years, yet it’s often distilled into a handful of narratives. Popular culture tends to oscillate between the villain and the victim with little room for nuance. “It’s so cool to have a book where you have an essay about somebody who found protection through wearing the hijab and covering themselves next to an essay about being a Muslim and being into BDSM,” she says, audibly animated at the diversity of writers packed into the anthology. “There are 65 writers in the book,” she continues, “It’s the most incredible thing.”
One of the ways Halal If You Hear Me shakes off those traditional binary depictions is how Asghar and Elhillo found the writers. Starting in the summer of 2016, the two poets put a call out on social media, and started to receive a flurry of responses from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, from writers they had never read before. “We got a lot of people submitting to us who are like, ‘Listen, I’ve never submitted a poem before but this, this felt so in line with my identity and who I am as a human being that like I had to submit,’ Asghar recalls.”
The result is a series of enlightening, funny, honest, and vulnerable accounts of being a Muslim in modern-day America. In the book’s foreword, Elhillo wrote an essay called “Good Muslim/ Bad Muslim,” abridging the pair’s resolve to include multiple interpretations of Islam. “We can have a version of Islam and Muslim that kind of allows for all of these different nuances, freedoms, and articulations, and all these people can be right side by side,” Asghar says.
Challenging prejudice is rarely an easy ride. Some of the anthology’s pieces have been published under a pseudonym, while other contributors have yet to tell their families about their inclusion. I ask Asghar about how protective she felt of them. “It’s really brave to publish a quote—regardless of who you are,” she replies. “To be that vulnerable and publish that was something I struggled with when I started writing. It’s why I found spoken word, and poetry in general, so intoxicating, and also deeply terrifying.”
Asghar isn’t afraid to peel back the political and emotional compounds that have shaped her own life, as an orphan raised in America. But her first experience of creative writing is something many of us can relate to. “I wrote Harry Potter fan-fiction when I was in high school,” she explains. “I wrote it because I really loved the books, but also it was the dawn of the internet age, where, you know, we just first were starting to explore what was happening.”
From there she got into theatre and acting, falling in love with creating entire worlds for fictional personas. In college, Asghar joined a spoken word collective, where she got a taste of what it was like to perform her own characters, rather than having to adapt to others’. “I really love seeing people write their own things about themselves,” she tells me when trying to pinpoint the moment where she began writing her own work. “That felt like a deeply vulnerable thing and a really public thing at the same time, which I just didn’t know could exist.”
Eventually Asghar grew resentful of anything that took her time away from poetry. “If I had to do a paper, I’d be mad because I would really just want to be writing poems,” she recalls. She decided to pursue writing “because there was no other option for me.”
Despite forging her own career path, Asghar makes it clear she’s indebted to the people she works with. “A really fundamental guiding principle to me is community and relationships,” she says. “For me, a lot of this stuff is like a deeply collaborative process. Film is deeply collaborative, but also, for me, poetry is us gathered together, sharing poems and being in that space where we’re listening to each other’s work.”
Nowhere is that sense of collaboration more clear than in her best-known work, Brown Girls. Launched in 2017, The web series is about two girls, Leila and Patricia—a South Asian-American writer and a Black-American musician, respectively—living in Chicago. They deal with relationships, family expectations, and friendships while trying to figure out who they are by how they deal with things. Each scene is characteristically built around dialogue. It tends to be between two people, recounting familiar scenes—one-night stands, conversations with parents or friends—revealing how the protagonists navigate life.
Intrinsic to the whole series is Asghar and Bailey’s relationship off-screen. When they first started working together, they were friends, but not “each other’s writer dudes,” as Asghar describes it. Spending an increasing amount of time together—seeing films, texting, and calling throughout the day—they developed an “economy of close collaboration,” able to share opinions or feelings in few if any words. “It’s really cool when you’re in sync with each other and able to really have some of these conversations about art and creativity. People start to show you things about [what] that you wrote or directed that you wouldn’t have seen before,” Asghar says. “And suddenly, that makes the whole thing magical, right?”