I haven’t had this much fun researching words, phrases and historic events I’ve only heard in passing in a long time. This is why I like learning languages in the first place – each language represents a different way of perceiving the world and the things surrounding us. And while analysing contemporary issues in her own way, Fatimah Ashgar paints very vivid images of the chaotic modern world, which only a person who has experienced such pain can.
If They Come for Us, although a poetry anthology, does have a plot. Usually if there is a common theme, it’s either an event, a social problem, or a universal struggle. In the case of If They Come for Us, all of the above is gathered in Fatimah’s character:
- A traumatic event: Even though she was born after the Partition of India, Fatimah was directly affected by it. She lost her parents at an early age; spent her childhood surrounded by loving aunties, but in a strict household; and she didn’t feel like a right fit in her religious community, in school, even among her sisters.
- A social problem:Whether it’s the colour of her skin, her sexuality, her origin or her religion, Fatimah and many others in her position are considered not only the embodiment of a social issue, but the problem itself, sticking out like a sore thumb.
- A common struggle: As much as Fatimah is different from her peers, she shares many universal pains with just as many other people who, compared to her, have very different backgrounds.
This is what makes the anthology relatable. I cannot fathom what it is to be a Muslim, or what it is to be a Muslim in the US for that matter. I also cannot imagine what being an orphan is like. However, I can definitely relate to feeling like an outcast among my own. In Partition Fatimah says:
“you speak a language until you don’t. until you only recognize it between your auntie’s lips.”
Being born to parents from different countries, my mother never spoke to me in her native tongue. I used to speak it fluently until it was something to be teased about in kindergarten because it sounded funny. Then I stopped. Now, I butcher simple sentences while trying to communicate with my grandma. The irony here is that I’ve studied foreign languages for the majority of my life.
“an aunt teaches me how to tell
an edible flower
from a poisonous one.
just in case, I hear her say, just in case.”
Poverty and learning how to survive go hand in hand. Many people go to great lengths, by hoarding items or developing eccentric hobbies, just in case worse comes to worst and you have to rely on those skills to stay afloat. To stay alive.
In Ghareeb, Fatimah speaks about how “on visits back your english sticks to everything”, thus you’re called a ghareeb, a stranger in your own home. Although it was not meant to be taken literally, I immediately thought of my life in the UK. My views on life have changed because of my stay there. Evolving your understanding of the world around you is natural. But not everyone understands, or likes, change.
The anthology resembled a blog with scattered thoughts. Some of the poems did not have the “traditional” format usually associated with poetry. There were snippets, crosswords and bingo templates. Each served its own purpose to convey a message. I did not mind the alternative way of presenting, but I was annoyed by how certain topics were mixed.
The Partition of India and division within oneself are key factors in how Fatimah sees the world. Thus, discussing about topics, which seemingly have nothing to do with each other, such as past events, growing up, puberty, sexuality, war, immigration, etc. are jumbled into one book. Each topic is a part of Fatimah and each poem is the constant flurry of intrusive thoughts, which are meant to explain what’s happening to her. But they don’t.
With that being said, there is nothing wrong with questioning and exploring each topic individually, but the raw presentation and some of the wording makes me feel uneasy when discussing genocide, on one side, and sexual acts, on the other. I think each topic deserves its own separate book, in order to have the freedom to explore everything more in-depth and to properly honour her past. Maybe I have a purist way of thinking on the matter, but that’s my personal preference.
Another problem I had with the poems is that I usually don’t read poetry. I’m familiar with the classical styles, where free verse poetry is seldom seen. I tried to follow the flow, but it was difficult at times. Maybe if I heard someone reciting the poems, the impact would have been greater.
I have mixed feelings. There were definitely poems, which I liked immensely and I think should be publicised more. However, there are also those, whose rawness was a bit too much for me and I think should be deliberated in a different setting. Giving a voice to social problems is a great start, but leading the discussion in a responsible way is the trick.
I will jump off-topic for a minute. I live in the UK, in a city with a large student population from all over the world. I am also a keen public transport user – a decision for which I have many reasons, none of which matter in this review, but please ask me if you are interested. These two things – my location and transport means – expose me to a huge variety of peoples and their cultures. I overhear conversations, music, and bear witness to all manner of interactions both on my commute and at work, or at the pub, restaurants, the streets. I participate actively in those exchanges too. If you live in a country or city with predominantly one nationality or culture, you may think you understand what I’m talking about. You don’t. You may be able to imagine it pretty well, and get a fairly good idea, but until you have lived in such an environment, you don’t understand. And that’s ok. That’s what travelling and books are for. And book reviews.
I have also always been keen on learning about other cultures, but when I was younger this was limited to ones I perceived as more exotic – Egyptian, Tibetan, Japanese, etc. Especially since I became a bit more self aware and pursued my interest in writing, this desire to explore “the other” expanded to all cultures, including my own.
If They Come For Us
Bringing us back to If They Come For Us. This book was another title listed under the Goodreads award nominations for last year, which is what brought it to my attention, and along with The Hate U Give, which we will be reviewing later in the year, is a title I chose because I wanted to explore cultures other than my own. An added challenge for me was the book was a collection of poetry, rather than a novel.
In high school, I was lucky enough to have a very good literature teacher. At the time I did not appreciate her as much as I do now, it is only as I have picked up a poetry book I realise how much she has done to educate me on how to read, analyse and appreciate measured speech. Even so, If They Come For Us was a challenge to read as a book.
What I Struggled with:
Whilst I have had some education on reading classical poetry, which conforms to stricter rules on rhyme, flow and repetition, modern poets makes use of these rules as they see fit – as they should. The challenge this posed for me was that Fatimah Asghar’s style of writing is frequently loose, informal, like daily conversation, and this does have its benefits – it’s easier to absorb and relate to, it avoids pomposity and can affect a reader on a more personal level. The difficulty this posed for me is that it sounded like spoken word, only written. I did my very best to respect all the comas, new lines, capital letters, italics, or their lack of, but had I heard Asghar recite her poems, I guarantee I would have been moved much more deeply than the pale imitation of her voice I had in my head.
If They Come For Us is not a large book, but it is definitely brimming with content. The difficulty this posed for me is that the titles selected and their order became repetitive. This is perhaps too harsh a criticism, as any writer, poet or not, naturally explores a topic from multiple angles and produces varied content around it. But as I was reading, I did not find the content varied. Little had changed, evolved or shifted in the point of view of both author, lyrical speaker or subject matter. In my eyes, this can be avoided with stricter selective process, and a slight restructure of the content included.
What I Enjoyed:
By this point you might think I hated the book. On the contrary, I enjoyed it a fair bit. Fatimah Asghar has lead a very different life from mine, her culture and experiences are seemingly nothing like my own, and yet there were so many themes throughout the poems which struck an emotional resonance in me. It further went to prove a standpoint I have on differences and culture – yes, we are different, but that does not make us ‘other’, because we are also similar.
Some of the themes I could easily relate to were the exploration of the self as a child growing into a teenager – Boy, for example brings up the realisation society enforces two genders – male and female, and being a female with a “boy inside” makes you strange, weird; and hairiness – Haram, amongst others, highlights how in the eyes of Allah the body you are born with is perfect and should not be altered, and society – in the form of the lyrical speaker’s auntie – calls aspects of your body “haram” (hairs on this occasion), or a blasphemy against god.
Another topic I could find in my own experiences was the theme of being an immigrant, although I was much older when I moved to live in the UK, it was common to misunderstand, be misunderstood and to wish to be more like the people around me. Microaggression Bingo hits so many nails on their respective heads, even if there is an argument it isn’t a poem, it serves the purpose of one admirably.
On the other hand, there were topics I could only relate to by the strength and power of Asghar’s expression. Such topics were the warfare and separation along the border of India and Pakistan, being a muslim in post 9/11 America, being treated like a worthless object for being a female. They all evoked a fitting emotional response in me, and I would like to believe I am more educated and empathetic having read and felt the poems concerning them.
I greatly admire Fatimah Asghar after reading If They Come For Us. She has a lot to say and has found her medium. I loved all her experimentations with language, and appreciated the effort of formatting her poems in their written versions as to bring them closer to their more evocative spoken form. Speaking of which, Nelly has found this link to her reciting the title poem of this book, and this is how I will leave you. Enjoy!
Edition Published: 2018, First Published: June 26th 2018
Language book read in: English