interview issue 31 Miami Book Fair International

Fatimah Asghar on When We Were Sisters, Screenwriting, and Social Media

by Madison Whatley

Fatimah Asghar is the author of If They Come for Us: Poems and When We Were Sisters: A Novel. They are a poet, filmmaker, educator, and performer. They are the writer and co-creator of Brown Girls, an Emmy-nominated web series highlighting friendships between women of color. Along with Safia Elhillo, they are the editor of Halal If You Hear Me, an anthology that celebrates Muslim writers who are also women, queer, gender-nonconforming, and/or trans. Gulf Stream Managing Editor Madison Whatley’s interview with them at the 2022 Miami Book Fair is below.

Fatimah Asghar, photographed by Cassidy Kristiansen.

MW: First of all, how was your trip? What do you think about Miami?  

FA: It was great. I got in yesterday from LA. Me and another writer, Safia Elhillo, were on the same plane, and we’re really good friends. We got dinner last night, and it was really nice. I love Miami. I’ve been here a few times for different festivals. 

MW: That’s awesome. How does it feel to be longlisted for The National Book Award?  

FA: It feels good. It was really surprising when it happened. My book hadn’t come out yet, and it was like a whirlwind. I woke up, and I had a bunch of missed calls and text messages, and everybody was like, “Oh my God,” and I was like, “What just happened?” 

MW: What made you want to write your first novel? 

FA: It came to me kind of organically. I was just writing these little vignettes and wasn’t quite sure what it was. As I went, the more I wrote, the more I was like, “Oh, this is a specific character that’s coming, and this is a novel,” versus a book of poetry or something like that. 

MW: What is your personal process for writing about family, trauma, and grief, and how do you find joy when you need it? 

FA: That’s a good question. I feel like when you’re writing, you’re in deep uncharted territory. There’s a way in which I often felt like there was no blueprint, like I didn’t fully know how to write about certain things, and if people would be mad or if they wouldn’t. I would call other writers to ask for advice and help, and everyone had a different approach to it. So, I just followed my intuition. I tried to follow my own integrity about what felt right. I would tell certain people certain things and include them in certain processes and just try my hardest to stay true to the intention of what I was doing, which sometimes made me change things or be like, “I don’t feel comfortable necessarily going forward with this.” In terms of joy, writing this book was a very difficult process. There’s a lot of grief, but I found a lot of joy in things like spending time with friends, finding love and community, and having moments that felt like a break from it, like being in nature. Being by the ocean felt really healing to me.  

MW: I relate; I love the ocean.  

FA: Me too. 

MW: As someone who writes about young people, how do you think they can take their power back when they feel stuck or alone? 

FA: When you’re young, you’re just so vulnerable in a particular way, and so it’s hard to feel like you have power, and yet you do. Sometimes you develop these coping strategies just to get you through, and then when you’re older, those strategies keep you from having good relationships. I think that for me, writing was always so helpful. Like I wrote a lot when I was young, I didn’t show anyone. I was very nervous about sharing my writing with people. It became a place I could escape into, and felt like it was wholly mine. In that place, I was able to have my imagination access to power. I could be an author of something versus being subject to everyone else’s control. Even now, when I can get into that place where I can make something, it feels like the place where I’m me, you know? It feels like the most me I can be. To me, a lot of that was around the reclaiming of narrative, reclaiming of your story, and being able to say this is what I experienced versus what everyone else is telling me I experienced, so you can have those moments where you get to have your story validated. 

MW: So, I was first exposed to your work a couple of years ago in a graduate poetry class taught by the poet Richard Blanco, and it was called The Poetics of Protest. We read your poem “WWE” as part of our unit on feminism. And so, I wanted to ask, how do you feel about being seen as a protest poet or a feminist poet and being introduced to people through that lens?

FA: There’s so many ways that you’re read or that people put a label on you, and you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” But I feel very honored to be seen as a protest poet. I feel very honored to be seen as somebody who is creating work that feels like a protest or feels like it’s a disruption against the state. I feel honored to be seen as someone who’s creating a feminist work or creating work about reclaiming from patriarchy. As someone who’s femme and queer, that feels really good to me. That’s a huge part of my experience, being hurt by the patriarchy in many ways and trying to resist that. For example, when I wrote this book, I didn’t know if it was going to be taught as a feminist book. I don’t know the lens that this book will be spoken about or taught. When writing, that’s the farthest thing from my mind. It’s only when the thing is out in the world, and it’s doing its thing, that I am like, “Oh, it’s interesting how people are labeling that.” And that’s cool because, in the construction of it, you’re not writing from the place of wanting to categorize it. You’re writing from the place of wanting to honor the feeling and the story. 

MW: You also write for Miss Marvel. What is it like to write for TV? 

FA: It’s amazing and very different than anything else. Screenwriting, in general, is different. It’s even different programming that you’re using on your computer, and the formatting is different. You’re balancing a lot of characters and scenes and stuff, and when you’re in a writer’s room, you’re working with a group of writers every day. You guys are all breaking the entire story of the season, and the entire story of the episodes and the pilot, and everyone’s weighing in their ideas, and so it can feel beautiful because you propose an idea, and then someone rips off that idea, and then someone else rips off that idea, and it becomes a better idea by talking with seven different people in the room. It’s a specific type of story creation that just feels so exhilarating. It’s collaborative in a way that it’s hard to even yoke out how collaborative it is. There are moments where we would project the script, and all of us would be facing the projection and watching it, and we would be line by line writing, and somebody would say this line, and then someone would say another line, and someone would say another line. It’s amazing when stuff like that happens because it’s a type of writing collaboration I’ve never experienced before. It’s great. 

MW: OK, so I’ve been following you on Instagram for a while, and I wanted to ask, how do you think of social media as a writer? 

FA: Yeah, that’s a great question. My relationship to it has changed throughout the course of my career and in my life. In the beginning, when social media was first introduced to me, it was kind of like your journal, like “I ate this today” or “I’m feeling like this.” It was across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It was just capturing your day-to-day life and your friends. It was for your friends and your family to see what you were up to. It was a different space. You’d share your poems, or you’d be like, “I’m doing this,” or “I’m frustrated about this thing,” and what started to happen was that you were like pulling or cultivating an audience. People were starting to follow you that didn’t know you. I think a few years ago, I had a really big Twitter. I had a relationship with social media where I just felt like I was too porous for it. I was absorbing way too much, and it was hard to write because then I was getting in my head about writing, and I was like, “this can’t happen,” so I deleted my Twitter for a year. I forgot about it. By the time I tried to sign in again, it was like, “This account is deleted permanently.” And I was like, “OK, cool.” And so, now, the kind of relationship I try to have with social media is that I’m showing parts of my life, but I’m not so absorbent so that I can retain my own thoughts and create from a place that is me and is from the things that I want to say rather than getting swept up in something that’s not me. 

MW: What are you watching, reading, or listening to right now? 

FA: I’m watching this show called Interview with the Vampire. Have you heard of it? It’s so good. I love it. And I’m watching a show called Moe right now. I’m reading The Man Who Could Move Clouds, a nonfiction book that is really, really good. It’s a memoir. I just got Sandra Cisneros’s new book of poetry, and I’m really excited to read it because I love Sandra so much. She was such a big influence throughout my whole life.

MW: That’s great. Actually, we’re also interviewing Sandra Cisneros about that book today. 

FA: Amazing, amazing. 

MW: Thank you so much for your time.

FA: This was great. Thank you.

Fatimah Asghar,  the author of If They Come for Us, is a poet, filmmaker, educator, and performer. They are the writer and co-creator of Brown Girls, an Emmy-nominated web series highlighting friendships between women of color. Along with Safia Elhillo, they are the editor of Halal If You Hear Me, an anthology that celebrates Muslim writers who are also women, queer, gender-nonconforming, and/or trans. In When We Were Sisters: A Novel (One World), Asghar traces the intense bond of three orphaned siblings who, after their parents die, are left to raise one another. When We Were Sisters examines the bonds and fractures of sisterhood, the perils facing Muslim American girls alone against the world, and show how those who’ve lost everything might still make homes in one another.

Madison Whatley is a South Florida poet, an MFA candidate at Florida International University, and the Managing Editor at Gulf Stream Magazine. Her poetry has appeared in Variant Literature and FreezeRay Poetry and is forthcoming in Cola Literary Review. She is on Instagram @hawttymadison.