Writer and co-creator of the Emmy-nominated web series “Brown Girls” and poet of “If They Come For Us,” Fatimah Asghar read her poetry and spoke to a full audience in the Brown Alley Room on Tuesday about how her struggles with judgment and labels led her to embrace her unique identity.
“I've never been such an attentive listener in weeks,” sophomore Roberto Chia-Balmacecla, who attended the event, said.
Asghar spoke as a guest of the University of Richmond’s WILL* program’s annual WILL*/WGSS speaker series. This year’s series is in honor of the 40th anniversary of WILL*. The event was also a part of the annual “UR comes out!” series to celebrate LGBTQ+ history month.
Asghar is Muslim, queer and gender-fluid, although she often refers to herself as a woman in order to simplify it for others, she said.
When asked by an audience member if her experiences were reflected in her work, Asghar said that many of her poems definitely reflected and were based off of her life experiences but were not necessarily line-for-line biographies. A common underlying theme of not conforming to labels and being outside of the norm was present in her poems.
She grew up struggling with her own identity because of stereotypes and was judged in terms of physical characteristics by her Muslim relatives and others around her, Asghar said.
The death and loss of her parents when Asghar was young was a common theme in not only her work but her life, she said. She said that the concept of how one could choose their own family and the idea of home being people instead of a place had been important in her life, and that she was not entirely sure how to answer questions about where home was for her, likely due to her being orphaned at a young age.
“I know that writing this book was really important to me and my sisters because we grew up really intensely in a really intense environment, and we had a lot of psychological abuse thrown at us, and so to be able to write that book I know was really important to me, and just helpful,” Asghar said.
Richmond resident Adria Williams said she had enjoyed that she could identify with Asghar throughout her talk.
“It’s always really interesting when people from different backgrounds talk about their experiences and you see the parallel between experiences,” Williams said.
As Asghar delved into topics of gender, sexuality, religion, politics and activism, she was asked by the audience about her gender identity.
“Where they just see you as all your complicated selves and don’t need these labels, that’s when I feel most free,” Asghar answered. “I think that’s what I’m always trying to get to in my writing and in my art, is just that space for that freedom of going beyond these kind of categories that we have that I feel are really limiting.”
After reading one of her poems based off of Partition, a period of violence following the British relinquishing control in what is today India and Pakistan, Asghar talked about how it impacted her and her work as a South Asian woman.
She related this to how the labels placed on a person were based on how the context around that person changed -- an example being how living as a Muslim in the United States changed after 9/11, and how historical events still had consequences today.
“Nations don’t often publicly talk about the bad things that they’ve done,” Asghar said. “When we think about America, there’s not really much public discourse on indigenous genocide or slavery, which is such a fundamental part of the fabric of this country and what to means to be human.
“And when those wounds are not talked about, it just festers more and more of the same problems because there is no way to address institutional racism and institutional problems when you don't address the core thing that happened.”
Junior Liam Lassiter attended the event for a creative writing class.
“She’s literally doing exactly what I want to do with my life, so I was super excited to hear everything she had to say,” Lassiter said.
“I didn't know she was queer when she got here too, and she’s gender fluid, and so I was like, 'I’m trans.'"
Lassiter added, “I was really excited about that, because I didn’t know that coming in. And I read the poems beforehand and was like ‘Wow, these poems are really heavy and sad,’ and then hearing her read it added a new layer.”
Fatimah Asghar is a poet, screenwriter, educator and performer whose work has been featured in American Poets, PBS, NPR, Time, Teen Vogue and The Huffington Post.
The next speaker for the WILL* 2019-2020 Writers’ Series will be poet and educator Chet’la Sebree on Tuesday, Nov. 19.
Contact news writer Eileen Pomeroy at firstname.lastname@example.org.