risk and play
An Interview with Fatimah Asghar
Interviewed by John Lachausse
Fatimah Asghar, a Ruth Lily and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, is a poet, screenwriter, and educator based in Chicago. Her chapbook After (Yes Yes Books) was published in 2015, and her debut poetry collection If They Come for Us (One World/Random House) was released in the summer of 2018. She is also the creator behind the 2017 Emmy-nominated web series Brown Girls, which is now in development at HBO. Her work can be found in Poetry, Gulf Coast, The Margins, and many others. Her Twitter is @asgharthegrouch, and her website is fatimahasghar.com.
TMR: What brought you into writing?
FA: I started writing Harry Potter fanfiction in the early days of the internet, in chat rooms. In middle school and high school that's all I did. But when I went to college, I met my best friend Jamila who asked me to come to a poetry meeting. I went, and I was really inspired by the way that these people could stand by their writing and perform it. That's how I started writing poetry.
TMR: How did your writing change once you saw people on the stage? How did you move from fanfiction to poetry?
FA: A lot of my fanfiction came from escapism. Poetry offered me the first time I could be openly vulnerable about some of the things that had happened to me in my childhood. A lot of the fanfiction acted as a cover: This stuff happened and I can write about it, but with fictional characters and fictional worlds. In terms of content, there is definitely translation in all my writing — it all comes from the same place. When people ask me, so what's the difference between how you write Brown Girls and how you write poetry? Where are the lines between this is screen and this is a poem? It's all just writing. This is a story I want to tell and this is how I want to tell it.
TMR: You went from escapism to writing content like Brown Girls, If They Come For Us, and After. These works deal with the idea of the cover being blown off right before our eyes, and the exploration of fairly heavy stuff. Do you remember a moment when you started to foray into these more personal insights?
FA: There were a lot of moments like that. I'm an orphan, didn't have parents growing up, and I had to lie about that a lot in school to just be able to function. My friends had no idea. In college, one of the girls who I was in a poetry club with was talking about her parents and I was like, "Oh yeah, yeah," and did that kind of vague thing I would do in school, and she was like, "Are they dead?" She was the first person who bluntly asked me, and I realized it's okay to not have a normal family history. It's okay to write about this stuff, to not shy away from it.
It's okay to write about this stuff, to not shy away from it.
After was a hard book to write, it's a lot about sexual assault. I was focused on writing about the pain, and not a lot about my childhood or anything that I found beautiful. Nothing about my race or my cultural heritage. That was an aha moment, and it registered that I wanted to write about these other stories too. Every project leads you into another. It might take a long time to discover what that next store or window is, but your work is a body and it shows you the different avenues into other things that you can explore.
TMR: How do things change for you after a major publication? Does your perception of the work change?
FA: The process of publishing is a long one. The process of creating anything, unless you're writing a poem and then immediately going to read it at an open mic, is a long one. I often write quickly, and after I'll hold myself in judgement. Once it's published, I never read it again. I still haven't read If They Come For Us again. I've worked on it, it's out, I'll read it if I have to read from it, but it's not a book I'll read again. When Brown Girls came out, I couldn't watch it.
I feel that way a lot about my art. There it is, that is a stamp of something that I was at this moment when I was writing it or when I was working on it, now it's out in the world, and it's not always who I am now. That's a hard thing, because you go on tour and you have to read from your book and there's this interesting relationship that you have when your work ceases to be just your own, and it becomes other people's. It's a very fascinating switch that happens.
TMR: Do you feel that you're starting to set expectations for yourself? How do readers’ reactions change your self-perception?
FA: I tend to not think about that, which can be difficult, especially with social media. Social media can be amazing, but it can also be a real hindrance to creators because you have to figure out ways to mitigate expectations right then, and I don't know if that's always healthy. I don't know if you can make your most daring work if you're always hyper aware of what everyone is saying about everybody else's work.
Something I always try to do is make spaces in creation. I always want to have a space for joy and play, spaces where I try something new and do something I haven't done before. I never want to be a person that you can always expect everything I'm about to do. I don't want that, it seems boring, and it seems to not live to my — or anyone's — true potential. If my next poetry book is completely experimental, I think that's great. The possibility of art and creation really excites me. I want to try this thing, I want to take a risk if I can, and I want to be able to live in that space of risk and play.
TMR: Regarding Brown Girls, where is everything at with HBO?
FA: We're in development with HBO. The thing is, which I didn't realize until I started this process, is that TV is really different than other things. You can be in development with a network, which means you're actively working with them to make the show and a season, but there's a possibility that they won't put it on air. Think about something like Insecure, which was in development for two and a half years at HBO before it came out. Development, particularly at HBO, can be a really long process, but I love our people and I think we have a really good internal team. There's a lot about the show that makes me super excited, so I'm hopeful that it'll come out.
TMR: How much input did you have with the script writing? Are you workshopping this script with a bunch of other people?
FA: I wrote all of Brown Girls, and I'm writing the pilot right now. It's my baby, even if there's other people involved. With the webseries, I wrote the whole thing and then did a read-aloud, and then people gave me notes. Sam Bailey, who's my director, said, "Here are some areas that I think we can fluff out a little bit more and stretch." We worked it out and went and shot it. It was a very fast process, and it was very internal. It was me and my friends that I trust to hear what they think. The process of writing a pilot and working with a network is a little bit longer. We have producers and a script supervisor and our execs, so every time there's a draft we all have to sit down and say, "This a draft, this is what's working, this could be improved upon." Eventually though, they become an internal team, a team that you trust, and I can see where they're coming from and I can see their taste and what they're doing, and we can all work together to make this the best possible shot at being on air.
TMR: There's a quote you have that says, "The more you write, the more you find out about yourself." During the process of Brown Girls, how has that applied to you?
FA: Before Brown Girls, I had never written anything for screen before. A lot of it was intuition, but that's also the case with poetry. You write your first poem, and then you study the craft and you're like, oh, shit, there's all this mechanical stuff that I didn't know about or I didn't really pay attention to and this stuff is important. That's the biggest thing I've felt, learning from the more mechanical stuff as I've been going.
When you think of yourself as an artist first and genre second, you allow yourself to do it.
If I want to try something, then I do it, and I've always been that person. I have this really cool idea for a photoshoot I want to do, but I don't really know how to take photos. Okay, guess I'm going to learn. When you think of yourself as an artist first and genre second, you allow yourself to do it. I'm an artist, I want to make this project, what are the things I need to do to make this project? You learn the things that you need to do. Whereas if you say, I'm a poet but I want to make a photo thing, you don't learn that. You trap yourself.
TMR: How involved are you with the beautiful artwork on your books? Similarly, what’s your hand in the visual direction of Brown Girls?
FA: I've always been artistically inclined and interested in the visual arts. In middle school and high school, I was a painter, and I almost went to a visual arts school. Part of the reason I went to Brown was because of their relationship to RISD, and I wanted to take classes there, and then I got totally sucked into my academics and didn't do that. I love visual art, and I love collaboration. My book cover is by Shyama Golden, she's an incredible artist. I had a really different idea about what the book cover was going to be, and Shyama read my book and gave me a mock-up of the cover and reasons why she did it the way she did. It was just so beautiful and so well thought out that I was like, "Oh. Great. I fully trust you, go with it." Same thing with Sam, my director. With Brown Girls, I had pulled some visual references and ideas, but Sam incorporated them with her own style and filmmaking and made this really fucking incredible visual thing. Same with Jess Chen and my cover for After.
When you work with people on the same wavelength as you and start collaborating, they add their own brilliance and take things in directions that you couldn't have possibly thought of. That's what I find really amazing about filmmaking and the process of making a book, the way that it lends itself to convergence and collaboration, and that is really exciting.