By Nkateko Masinga
If They Come for Us
Author: Fatimah Asghar
Year published: 2018
Publisher: One World/Penguin Random House
“If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
—James Baldwin, in an open letter to Angela Davis in November 1970
The title of Fatimah Asghar’s poetry collection, If They Come for Us, feels to me like a continuation of the above portion of James Baldwin’s letter to Angela Davis. In the titular poem of this brilliant debut, Asghar writes:
“my country is made
in my people’s image
if they come for you they
come for me too…”
In “When the Orders Came,” she writes:
“hourly, growling. this is the cost
of looking the other way
when they come for us.”
I remember the day I came across Fatimah Asghar’s poetry for the first time. It was towards the end of 2015 and her chapbook, After, published by YesYes Books, had just been released.
I read the news on the internet and was intrigued by the terrifyingly gorgeous cover of the book and even more so by a poem shared on the YesYes Books homepage. It was titled “Playroom” and described what happened between the Barbie dolls in a playroom where there were not enough Ken dolls:
in my playroom.
Whole cities of beautiful
I was excited to see “Playroom” in If They Come for Us because I did not get a chance to buy a copy of After while it was still in print. Perhaps that is the cost of looking away / the other way too soon, the fact that once you look again the view has changed?
The playroom is not the only place where the unexpected happens. In “Script for Child Services: A Floor Plan,” we are invited into a home where the speaker is a child in foster care. In one bedroom of the house we learn the following:
“All orphans are raised by wolves.
I called them sisters.”
In the kitchen we find out the response when one of the young “wolves” in the house has been hurt:
We were wolves. They said we could
“Script for Child Services: A Floor Plan”, which lays out the text of the poem as if it is a home’s floorplan, is one of many poems in If They Come for Us that are written in an unconventional form. “Map Home” is in the form of a crossword puzzle, “Microaggression Bingo” is in the form of a Bingo card and “How We Left: Film Treatment” is in the form of a film treatment, homage to Asghar’s background in film arts.
Asghar’s use of the imaginative form is the mainstay of her work. In a review of After in Project MUSE, which I read to console myself for not getting a copy of the chapbook, Samuel Hovda (the reviewer) mentions that Asghar’s poem, “Partial Index of Lies I Have Told My Sister,” is constructed to look like the index at the end of a book.
The poem subtitled “August 15th, 1947” in If They Come for Us is written in the form of a Mad-Lib, a word game where words must be substituted for blank spaces, with clues given about the nature of the missing words.
Asghar uses this form to take us to 1947 when the Partition of India and Pakistan took place. This was the forced migration of millions of people; Hindus to India, Muslims to Pakistan, and in seven poems all titled “Partition,” Asghar traces the impact of this migration on her own family and the struggle to articulate her identity. In “Oil,” she writes:
“The kids at school ask me where I’m from & I have no answer.”
In “Super Orphan,” which follows the heart-wrenching “How’d Your Parents Die Again?” in the book, Asghar overcomes the grief and trauma of losing her parents by becoming a superhero:
“Today, I donned my cape like a birth
certificate & jumped, arms wide into the sky.”
The poem I referred to by its subtitle, “August 15th, 1947,” is one of the seven poems titled “Partition” in the book and is the poem that prompted me to do additional reading on the Partition, particularly to find out if the poem was an erasure of a newspaper article. What I discovered was several newspaper and journal articles about India’s Independence Day, and this interesting fact:
The phrase “at the stroke of midnight,” which starts off Asghar’s poem, refers to the “Tryst with Destiny” speech by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, which is considered one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century. In the speech, he said:
“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”
In a review of If They Come for Us for The Adroit Journal, Raye Hendrix aptly describes the book as “a navigation of home and family, religion and sexuality, history and love.” Asghar takes us through her journey as a queer Muslim woman trying to find her place in the world, and specifically in a country that continually traumatizes Muslims. In the epigraph of the poem titled “When the Orders Came”, Asghar quotes Donald Trump’s administrative team calling for an American ban on Muslim immigrants in December 2015:
“[We are] calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
In the final stanzas of the poem, Asghar writes:
“I whisper my country my country my country
& my hands stay empty
what is land but land? a camp
but a camp? sanctuary
but another grave? I am an architect.
I permission everything
into something new.
I build & build
& something takes it away.”
Asghar addresses issues that we can’t afford to ignore. She reminds us that there is a cost to looking the other way. I keep going back to the line that says “when they come for us” in “When the Orders Came” because it is truly not a matter of if but when. The shooting of worshippers in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, was a sobering reminder of this.
If They Come for Us is a captivating, spellbinding read. I do not know how I tore myself away from its pages long enough to finish writing this but here we are. I want to end this review just as I started: with a quote. This is an excerpt from “If They Come for Us,” the hope-infused titular poem:
“my people I follow you like constellations
we hear glass smashing the street
& the nights opening dark
our names this country’s wood
for the fire my people my people
the long years we’ve survived the long
years yet to come I see you map
my sky the light your lantern long
ahead & I follow I follow”