Womanism 1.3 // Fatimah Asghar
by Kristen Gonzalez·
If you are hearing the name Fatimah Asghar for the first time, there is no doubt in our minds it won't be the last! Where to begin? For starters, she wrote the perfect web series for you to binge watch with your best girlfriend called, Brown Girls (Did we mention Emmy-Nominated?). She is a poet, artist, performer and her debut book of poems, "If They Come For Us" is going to become part of our reading lists in the fall. In conversation with Sam of Selva Negra, Fatimah eloquently shares insight of her creative process, discipline and her jaunt as a writer. We're excited to jump back into the series with her – enjoy!
Q + A
SR: I wanted to start by asking you a bit about where you grew up and if you feel like that has specifically informed your work at all?
FA: Yeah! So, I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and I went to school in Providence. I spent a year abroad on Fullbright and then I moved to Chicago for six years. I think in a lot of ways every single place that I've been has really influenced who I am and my work. You know, when I think about my work in general, it's like every life experience, identity that I have, and place I've lived has really influenced it. I grew up in a place that was super, super diverse. It was predominately people of color; a lot of folks were from immigrant families. So, I think that was always just my norm, being around a lot of different people of color. I think it has always influenced my work and my want or desire toward creating and fostering solidarity among folks of color. I think it's really, really important. Then, you know, when I moved to Chicago, I was right out of college and I had moved knowing I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't really know what that looked like. I didn't grow up with examples of people who are artists in their long-term life. So, it felt a little daunting to be like "I want to do this this thing and I'm going to be that".
FA: But yeah, my best friend Jamila is from Chicago and was living there. She was like; "hey, this is a great place to be a young artist and to live and get a grapple on your voice." So, I think about Chicago a lot and the Chicago artist community as the way I raised my artistic voice. I was really able to step into who I am and my thing. I think it was the first place that I actively chose my home or to make a home as an adult and not out of circumstance. It wasn't like I was there for school, you know. I chose to be there, live there and really be part of the community. So, I have a real love and indebtedness to Chicago. It terms of my work, it's a huge place of importance for me.
SR: That's amazing! I had no idea [Chicago] is where you started. So, before moving to Chicago and making that move a reality, when did you feel like words and writing were your weapon? When did you know writing was a gift you had and wanted to use?
FA: I didn't feel that way until pretty late, actually. When I was growing up, I really loved storytelling and writing, but I didn't necessarily connect that. I remember being pretty young, I think I was in 2nd grade and we were doing this project where we were making little illustrated stories; everyone spent so long making one and I made like five! I was so excited about them. But also growing up, I really loved painting, drawing and was in theater. The thing that I did most was theater and I really thought, "Oh, I'm going to be an actress." I think something that happened was – I really didn't start writing forreal, forreal until I went to college. I knew I really liked spoken word, I enjoyed watching it and didn't really have much experience with it before; it wasn't super robust in the community I was in. But, I went to Brown and there was this great organization that was about spoken word poetry, that was where I rested. I think there was this moment where I realized I was using acting as a way of hiding myself...
SR: Getting to be someone else?
FA: Yeah, I get to be on stage and be seen, but as someone else. I could deny that character is who I am. In poetry, you can't do that. In writing, you can’t do that either. It felt really vulnerable to me in a way that was important. So, that's when I started writing in college; not even my first year but more of my sophomore year. I think about that a lot. Many of my friends who are writers, have been doing it pretty seriously since they were young! So, there are moments where I feel...a little newer to everything. But, I really do love writing and it was in college where I started to recognize the power in what it meant to tell your story.
SR: That's so empowering – Just jumping into a bit of the unknown and learning what your voice is such a part of the process. Speaking of, what is your process like now in terms of your writing? Has that become in any way a formula or is it completely organic and different based on whatever project or idea you have?
FA: I – honestly, right now I feel like a bit of a machine workaholic. [Laughs] I think that I write a lot of different kinds of things, so they never feel formulaic. I write poetry, I write screen-writing, I'm trying to write more fiction and non-fiction and essays. It's really dependent on the voice that I'm trying to go for. I think formulaic writing sucks to a certain point. Even if people can't tell it's formulaic, it's just not fun creatively and it doesn’t feel good. So, I try not to do that. But, something that I think about a lot is discipline. I think as an artist, you have to be really disciplined and I think that it's really easy to think, "Oh, this stuff is just magical and comes from this place" and I don't think that's true. Craft is a thing you have to work at and that only happens through discipline. So, in the sense of formula that's what I mean, because you have to study craft but not in the "these are the steps I take and everything follows the same kind of pattern".
SR: That's so real. Do you feel like you've always had discipline or is that something you had to teach yourself?
FA: You know, in general I've always been a pretty disciplined person but I also think that there are moments where it comes in and out. You know, where I'm disciplined, not disciplined and disciplined again – it really just depends on the moment I'm in. But in general, I'm a pretty disciplined person and have always been.
SR: That's great! Brown Girls, which is hilarious by the way, was so impressive in its writing and was executed so well! During character development, did you feel connected to any one specific character or was there an aspect of each character that you found familiarity with?
FA: I feel all of the characters had aspects to myself in them. You know, there was kind of a way that I was like "this is this articulation of myself to its extreme, this is another articulation of myself to its extreme." It's really funny because a lot of people say "You're like Leila" or think "this character is based on you." I think identity-wise Leila is based on me but not personality-wise. And Sam (Side Note: Sam Baily is Director/ Co-Producer of the series) says this funny thing, everyone wants to say you're Leila but you're really Vic because you're really nasty! [laughs] I think they're kind of blends of myself and the close friends that I have. They are really their own characters, you know, they're not at all one-to-one me or my friends. They really occupy the space of being their own selves.
SR: Is that therapeutic in any way? Do you feel like you're confronting anything about yourself when you're developing characters that somewhat reflect you?
FA: Yeah, I mean I think there are definitely moments of plot where I'm just like, "Hmm, that's just a little too real!" [laughs] You know, I think this happens a lot too in poetry, especially when you're writing about stuff that is hard or things of the past, where people equate the writing to therapy. And I do think that there is a catharsis that you get from writing, right? There definitely is – but I get nervous about equating because I think a lot of people do this and I think it's damaging and also damaging our communities. If you equate writing to therapy and say "Oh, I worked my problems out because I wrote three poems about this," you're not really working things out. I do think in general, art and particularly writing – you have to be really in-tune with your emotions and the way emotions work within people. So, there's a thing of self-reflection, right? In what other career; I mean unless it's actual therapy, your job is rarely to consider and dissect human emotion...with the exception of academics or clinical psychologists. But as a writer, this is what you do, right? You're like, these are people and this is how they work and function, this is who I am and this is how I work and function. So, there's kind of this way where you're constantly analyzing yourself and constantly analyzing people [laughs]. I'm just like, "oh wow, I can't stop." You can never really turn it off.
SR: [Laughs] I can imagine! You know, the way the series ended leaves a lot of room – I kind of wanted more, I definitely felt there was a chance for continuity...Is that the hope for the series or did you decide, "I want to leave this where it is"
FA: You know, when I wrote it, I felt this was a contained story. Here's the thing, it was my first time ever writing anything for the screen. So, it was kind of like, "this is the story." When I wrote thinking about what happens next, I was thinking about what the story line was. But then, as we went into production, I was like, oh man, there are so many storylines for these girls, so many things I want to do and talk about. It felt like a little bit of an introduction. I think that's what propelled us into thinking this could be a ripe thing to explore for translating into an actual tv show as opposed to some stories that don't really have anything else there to continue. I think that is what's so beautiful about web series and shorts and also limited series; those are contained stories, it was told in one season, I only needed like ten hours of this story and I'm OK with letting it go. I think it's so interesting – it takes a lot of bravery, too, for creators to let something go when it's done well. Like, you spend so much time building characters and building worlds, they become your friends! It's really hard to say that this is the end of us, you know? I definitely don't think that this is the end of our show and our characters, so I'm excited for development.
SR: Amazing, that makes me so happy to hear! So, your book! How are you feeling?!
FA: [Laughs] I feel good, I feel really good!
SR: And this is your debut book, right?
FA: Yeah, it's my debut book and it's interesting because I have been working on it for a really long time. I feel like I was writing and editing the poems before it was even a book. So basically, one year ago Random House One World picked it up. The development of it from a year ago to now – it's a very different book, you know? It's just super interesting because I thought I was coming in knowing what it was, and I did, but in the moments of real evolution it changed a lot and for the better! The process of writing a book is super fascinating and so is writing a tv show. Doing them simultaneously was really, really interesting as well. It's a hard thing to write a book and it's a hard thing to write a poetry book that's really personal. I am super nervous about the reception and how it's going to be but I am really excited.
SR: Yeah – since this collection of poems are so personal, do you feel like this is a form of exposure you haven't really felt yet?
FA: You know, I've been writing poetry for some time so there's kind of a way that I'm used to being that vulnerable in some aspects to be honest. But, I do think something that I've noticed is – I never expected Brown Girls to be a big deal. I thought, "it'd be great if my friends watched this." So, when Brown Girls started to become bigger, I subsequently started to realize I was not prepared. I'm used to being a public artist, but my idea of what a public artist means is actually quite small. Now, I'm being kind of thrust into like a bigger sphere with more attention and that comes with a lot. I'm so used to being honest and open about who I am all the time, I'm questioning if I want to continue doing that while I have a bigger platform. I think there are definitely things that I question in the book for that – what does it mean to think about having a poetry book that's pretty vulnerable and intense of coming out when there are potentially more eyes on it, right? I think I just had to think about trusting my writing and voice and say, this is it. Also, I've had to change my relationship with how I act in public or how much I want to go out in public. I've definitely become more of a hermit in the last year, I would just much rather kick at home with my friends than to constantly attend events. That is really the thing I have felt the most! I feel like I can continue to be a vulnerable public artist, but that means I kind of have to shut off always being out, does that make sense?
SR: Completely –
FA: To maintain a sense of integrity, safety, love and hope I will put up the barrier in my personal life to continue to be a vulnerable public artist.
Special thanks to Fatimah Asghar and her PR representative, Sarah Coakley