Like a Knife: A Review of Fatimah Asghar's If They Come For Us / by Peter LaBerge

BY RAYE HENDRIX

  If They Come For Us , by Fatimah Asghar (One World/Penguin Random House, 2018).

If They Come For Us, by Fatimah Asghar (One World/Penguin Random House, 2018).

The experience of reading Fatimah Asghar’s debut book of poems, If They Come For Us, is one of being gripped by the shoulders and shaken awake; of having your eyelids pinned open and unable to blink. If They Come For Us is a navigation of home and family, religion and sexuality, history and love. The speaker of these poems appears at once old and incredibly new, a dichotomy that is upheld as the narrative jumps from past to present and all over the last century. And yet, even when we’re told some of these memories and experiences are not the the speaker’s, they still are, somehow. A homeland, even one never seen, sticks in her blood; the trauma endured by her ancestors lives within her DNA. The cultural memory is lodged in the speaker like a knife—one that she may not be able to remove, but one that she could choose not to twist. But twist she does, and by doing so, opens herself to everything, from painful truths to the kindness of strangers. The cultural memory that lives in the speaker’s body is inescapable, but rather than run from it, she faces it boldly, writes it down, and shares it. In these poems, Asghar invites us to stare into the wound and—hopefully—learn from it.

Asghar’s book opens with invocations of history. Epigraphs from Korean-American poet Suji Kwock Kim and Rajinder Singh, a survivor of the India/Pakistan Partition, and an explanation of the Partition prepare us for the painful, but necessary, poems to come. (The Partition was the division of British India into India and Pakistan in 1947, which, Asghar writes, resulted in the forced migration of at least 14 million people as they fled genocide and ethnic cleansing. It’s estimated that 1-2 million people died and 75-100,000 women were abducted and raped in the ensuing months.) Multiple poems, all titled “Partition,” navigate not only the literal and historical meaning of the Partition, but also the divisions of the home, of gender, family—and, at times, how those divisions might be reconciled, if possible.

The book’s opening poem, “For Peshawar,” immediately draws the reader into the lasting conflict and fear with an epigraph that reads, “December 16, 2014 / Before attacking schools in Pakistan, the Taliban sends kafan, / a white cloth that marks Muslim burials, as a form of psychological trauma.” Likewise, the first stanza unsettles, introducing readers to the threads of grief and uncertainty that weave through the rest of the poems: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” More than grief, though, this poem, and the poems that follow, drive the narrative into questions of home: Can a place be home if the people who live there, as “For Peshawar” questions, are meant to bury their children? What is home if it’s a place you’ve never been to and can’t touch? And what is home if the place where you are—both in public and in private—rejects critical pieces of who you are?

In America, the place that is ostensibly “home,” the speaker faces that rejection both in her family life and in society at large. In the poem “Microaggression Bingo,” Asghar uses the physical image of a bingo board to highlight the frequency of those microaggressions the speaker faces on a daily basis. Examples include both visual and verbal instances, like the first square, which reads, “White girl wearing a bindi at music festival,” and another on the bottom row where an unnamed speaker says, “I love hanging out with your family. It always feels so authentic!” Readers are also given a glimpse into the frequency of these occurrences via the text of the middle square, which reads: “Don’t Leave Your House For A Day – Safe.” In the same vein, the poem “Oil” walks the reader through the speaker’s experience as a young Pakistani Muslim woman in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks. She writes of her heritage, “All the people I could be are dangerous.” The speaker, whose parents have passed away, learns of her heritage from her relatives, who are “not-blood but could be,” further muddying notions of home, or where she truly belongs—often, this results in the idea that she doesn’t truly belong anywhere.

The speaker’s feeling of un-belonging continues even at home, as she comes of age without the guidance of a mother and father. This is true not only of race and heritage, but also of gender identity and sexuality, and many poems attempt to navigate those complexities—in terms of a relationship with the self and a relationship with religion. In “Other Body,” Asghar writes, “In my sex dreams a penis / swings between my legs,” and mentions how her moustache grew longer than anyone else’s in her class at school. She refers to herself, not unlovingly, as a “boy-girl.” Towards the center of the poem, that desire for a guiding maternal figure enters with the lines, “Mother, where are you? How would / you have taught me to be a woman? / A man?” And again, in “The Last Summer of Innocence,” questions of the role of the body, and of gender norms, resurface. In the same poem, the speaker’s sister defies Islamic law by shaving her arms, and Asghar writes in response, “Haram, I hissed, but too wanted to be bare / armed & smooth, skin gentle & worthy / of touch.” That is, until the sister’s body betrays her with an ingrown hair that lands her in the hospital. These poems return to the question of what “home” means, asking what it is to be in a body that doesn’t always feel like a safe place.

If They Come For Us gives readers lyrically beautiful but painfully true glimpses into a world we may not be familiar with and asks us to reckon with our place in it—whether that’s a place of commiseration, understanding, or of recognizing our own hand in upholding power structures that thrive off racism, xenophobia, and nationalism. But as important as those revelations and experiences are, the feeling I’m left with after reading through these difficult but necessary poems is one of optimism. If the speaker, who comes from a lineage of heartache and violence, and who lives through her own kinds of violence, can still look at this country that “has failed every immigrant to enter its harbor” and find kindness in the cracks, how can we not too have hope for a better, more inclusive, kinder future? Asghar’s book is many things: defiant, subversive, grief-stricken, angry—but it’s also full of things like bravery, friendship, family, and love. Amid the hurt and darkness that exists in this world, Asghar’s poems prove that hope is out there, if only we have the courage to look for it.

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Raye Hendrix is a poet from Alabama who loves cats, crystals, and classic rock. Raye is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, where she serves as the Web Editor for Bat City Review. Raye was a finalist for the 2018 Keene Prize for Literature and received honorable mentions for poetry from both Southern Humanities Review’s Witness Poetry Prize (2014) and AWP’s Intro Journals Project (2015). Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Indiana ReviewThe Chattahoochee ReviewShenandoahThe Pinch, and elsewhere.