Talking Haram Auntie Poetics: A Conversation with Fatimah Asghar

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Halal If You Hear Me is the third volume of the Breakbeat Poets anthology series from Haymarket Books, featuring Muslim writers who are women, queer, nonbinary, genderqueer, and/or trans. Co-edited by Fatimah Asghar and Safia Elhillo, the writings featured within explore the mythology within family, the memory that is preserved within recipes, the impact of America’s Islamophobia both pre- and post-9/11, the beauty of kinship, and much more.

Fatimah Asghar is the creator of the Emmy-Nominated web series Brown Girls. She is the author of If They Come For Us and a recipient of a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship. She is a member of the Dark Noise Collective and a Kundiman fellow. In 2017, she was listed on Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list.

Asghar and I talked over the phone in March about the early brainstorming conversations before Halal If You Hear Me, her connection to Harry Potter, and the vulnerability that can be shared when community is gathered.

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The Rumpus: Both you and Safia contributed to the first volume of the Breakbeat Poets. Did you know when the book was released that the first volume would expand into an anthology series? What was your reaction to the first volume’s release and reception, and how does it compare to the new volume’s release?

Fatimah Asghar: I don’t think anybody anticipated what the Breakbeat book was going to do for poetry in general. It was such a huge moment when it got the portfolio in Poetry, because it knocked down these boundaries particularly between people of color and publishing. The anthology did so much in terms of having different voices taken seriously in a poetic landscape. We had no idea it would become a series.

We’re very glad to be continuing the legacy and lineage of that, but we’re also very aware that we are our own different thing. What we’re doing in terms of crafting space for Muslim folks of other marginalized identities is a very specific project, and we’re really really excited to be doing that. I don’t think it’s necessarily about comparison, in terms of “Oh, this is what the first one did and this is what the third one did.” That feels a little off to me, but it is about being an entire lineage. All these projects like Black Girl Magic, the first volume, Halal If You Hear Me, and all the volumes to follow are going to create space and room. Something Safia and I are really proud of is that a ton of contributors told us this this is their first time having a physical copy of their poems. We have a range of experience, and we have a range of dynamics when it comes to publishing. It’s such an intimate collection because of the nature of what we’re doing. It is so amazing and should be celebrated, and it’s also a particular project that stands out from the rest of the volumes in the series.

Rumpus: When I think about the follow up to the original, Black Girl Magic, and now Halal If You Hear Me, and then the upcoming volume LatiNext, like you mentioned it’s not like they’re the same project, but it’s Haymarket giving the reins over to editors who are going to do a really intentional job of representing communities that have not always been visibly represented in poetry by other institutions. Can you tell us about your and Safia’s approach to the call for submissions and curation of the anthology? What considerations or ideas guided the process for you?

Asghar: We wanted to have as inclusive of a process as possible, so we put out the call on Twitter and Instagram. That was cool because we were getting a lot of people who don’t normally submit to things who were finding it. In cover letters and emails we were getting people saying, “Hey, I’ve never submitted to anything before, but this call just felt so warm to me and who I am specifically that I had to submit.” It’s a really cool thing that happened. And again, Safia and I know an anthology can’t include everyone. There’s just so many writers and so many amazing people, and what was hard [laughing] was Safia and I really wanted to include as many people as possible but then we would have an impossibly long anthology. So we really had to figure out how we were going to narrow down. Ultimately we just had to consider which poems and essays we found compelling, the point of view, it was all kind of a combination of that. It was a real process.

Rumpus: In the foreword to the anthology, you illustrate how The Salon and the hamaam provided a strong sense of community to you and other Muslim women during your visit to Jordan. What have you learned from the community you’ve gathered for this anthology?

Asghar: It’s so nice because it feels like there’s so many different perspectives that are coming into this anthology, and I really wish for more spaces where people who have the identities of people in the anthology can come together and have a conversation, you know? Away from prying eyes, away from the eyes of people who are not Muslim, away from men. There’s a kind of vulnerability and intimacy that happens when we’re able to be together. And we don’t fully have our shit together; our communities are not perfect. There’s a lot of hurt that lives within the way we treat each other, and I think those are such important things to unpack. I’m really grateful that we gave a little space—both physical and literary—to people for loving.

Rumpus: You mentioned the anthology feeling like it was developed away from prying eyes. I think that reflects the level of intention that you and Safia curated with, because it very much feels like a project that the reader has a wonderful opportunity to read, but that it was going to exist the way it exists regardless of whether there was a reader or not. That community-first approach is really clear.

The five sections in this anthology are named after the five pillars of Islam, which present the religion’s emphasis on faith (Shahada), prayer (Salah), fasting (Sawm), charity (Zakat), and pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj). How did you and Safia decide which poems would go in each section? Do you think there’s a reason that the third section, Hajj, includes the most poems compared to other sections?

Asghar: Oh, that’s so fascinating, I didn’t know that it did. [Laughing] I think that’s because it’s so much about home and belonging and journey, you know? So many of our contributors are writing in diaspora, and are really grappling with ideas of home and the journey to the place of your people. So I think that’s definitely why that section has the most.

You know, we were trying to think about how we could structure the anthology and then we thought, “Mm, maybe we should do the pillars.” That felt very right, and then when placing poems we considered what themes we were encountering. We were thinking of which poem leads nicely into another, thinking of the structure like that. It was a way of thinking about the themes we were finding and fitting them in a framework of Islam.

Rumpus: I like that idea you mentioned of the Hajj representing this journey to home, or this process of going home. Can you speak more about how you thought of the other sections, or the other pillars?

Asghar: Yeah, and so all of this for us is very loose and open to interpretation. You know, the Shahada, a lot of the poems that we put in there were kind of about faith. Fasting, we were thinking particularly about things that dealt with emptiness and absence, like withholding. We would take the pillar and then we would break out all of the possible iterations it could contain.

But what a lot of this comes down to is intuition, right? For us it was reading through and being like, “This poem feels like it should belong in this section.” And we might not be able to explain why, but it feels that way. And this is what’s really interesting about editing along with a really dear friend of yours. [Laughing] We were very much on the same page about a lot of our intuition, so we were like, “This feels right, this feels right,” and that just kind of naturally occurred.

Rumpus: Were there any things you were struck by that you saw multiple poets reflecting on, and are there any individual poems or poets that stick out to you when you think about this collection as a whole?

Asghar: Yeah, I mean there’s so much. There’s so many poems about how people have felt relief in their practice of Islam. Whether that’s relief from their parents, from men, from non-Muslim people, or from Muslim people who are not of your race—all of these elements of self-policing that happens in our community kept coming up. There’s a lot of themes grappling with sexuality, grappling with sexual awakening, grappling with desire, there’s a lot about reacting to Islamophobia. A lot of themes about belonging, or loss of and then desire for belonging.

And then there are real beautiful essays. What I really love about the essays is that they’re so different from each other. Like Mahin Ibrahim’s, which is about wanting to disappear in modest clothing, and then you have Randa Jarrar’s essay about sex and navigating being a dominatrix in the BDSM world. I think that that’s really beautiful, that those two essays can exist together in the anthology we have. That both of those people are Muslim, and that you can have such different perspectives and outlooks and all of that is okay. I don’t think we’re often given that space. There’s just so many poems and essays in that book that are doing really incredible work to delve deep into the particularities of subjects, and that to me is what makes good work.

Rumpus: What did the process of editing and curating an anthology teach you about your own writing? In the preface essay you wrote, you describe your process of writing as “haram auntie poetics.” With identifying that as your personal style and then having this collection spotlight other voices considering what is haram vs. halal, how has your experience writing been shaped?

Asghar: What’s interesting is I wrote that essay in 2016 when we put out the call for submissions. So the reason that essay is included is because it was the invitation to take part in the anthology. You know, haram and halal is a line I try to trouble a lot in my work. I think everyone navigates that line differently, and we cling to those things. But they’re not for anyone to judge, but Allah. We spend so much time worrying about other people and how other people practice, and it’s just needless. I think it’s really beautiful to see all these people troubling these lines—but also not sometimes, just kind of leaning into who they are in their own work. Part of the selfish reason of why Safia and I wanted to make this anthology was to read work from a lot of Muslim writers, and that’s just been a really cool thing to get to know people through their work, and seeing these snapshots to how they think of something for that one moment. I’m really grateful for that.

Rumpus: There are some folks in the anthology who make more assertive claims or statements on what they believe, but largely what stands out for me is what you mentioned earlier, that there are as many ways to be Muslim as there are Muslim people. What stands out is not any one decisive statement on what is halal vs. haram, but the act of collecting community.

I’m curious, with you growing up before this anthology was published, what other people or forms of art served in its place in your youth?

Asghar: I think that’s what marginalized identities are asked to do all the time. A lot of times media won’t represent your exact identity or your exact experience, but they cut at an emotional truth that you have, and you can graft yourself on to them. For example, one of the books that moved me most when I was young was Harry Potter, right? That has no overlapping identity with who I am. [Laughing] But it meant a lot to me, because it was about this kid who was an orphan who was trying to fight for good, and was a teenager dealing with what it meant to not have family, and constantly trying to find family. That was my whole life, you know? So I felt really connected to that book, even though it’s from a cis, straight, white, male, British perspective of the narrator. But still I felt like I could graft myself onto that book very easily. Another book I enjoyed was Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, and that too at its core is about a struggle of finding your family’s history. I love that book.

So much of my politics have been shaped by all of these amazing American Black writers, and in a lot of decolonization theory. I didn’t really find people like Arundhati Roy until later, who I love, and she has my racial identity, but not my religious or sexual identity, you know what I’m saying? I’m very grateful for the legacies of the people who came before me. I’m very grateful to all of the political writers who really continue to inspire me and shape my thought, make me a better thinker, and I’m very grateful to writers of all different backgrounds for making me a better writer.

What’s cool recently is to see slivers of representation that I never saw of myself growing up, and then being like, “Woah.” Just the feeling I get from that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, because I can’t tell you a single South Asian, Muslim, queer person in media that I saw. I’m starting to see it now in smaller ways, but that didn’t exist when I was growing up. Or maybe it did, but I couldn’t find it easily. I think that’s an experience that so many people from marginalized identities have, and it’s so weird to me when they cast a person of color in Star Wars or something, and white people are like, “That’s our thing.” Like, what? Were you not aware that every other identity was already not seeing themselves directly, but still seeing a humanity? You can’t do that? That’s wild.

Rumpus: Part of what’s so skilled about any hegemonic society, so in our American context keeping a white, cisgender, male dominant influence and power, is this idea that coalition building cannot be attainable, or that there’s not roots of commonality between these many groups. And what you’re hitting on is that there’s tremendous strength that exists by resisting that and affirming that there is commonality, there is strength in building those coalitions. It’s not something that white people often feel inclined to do or connect with when the roles are reversed, like you mentioned.

Asghar: Yeah, because for them, they’re the norm. So then it feels like their role as the norm is threatened, and after everyone has always had to adjust to them they don’t want to do the same. That to me is so deeply sad, because that’s the only way that we can exist in the world and topple things like white supremacy, is by building solidarity that doesn’t imply we’re all the same, because that’s not true. We really need active solidarity and coalition building and to understand that we’re gonna get it wrong sometimes, but that we’ll learn from each other. If we’re not listening to each other and different voices of political thought, then what are we really doing?

Rumpus: You open this anthology reflecting on a physical community where people were gathering at a hamaam. That transitions into the collection where a community is being gathered on a page, but there’s also going to be a lot of release events where community will physically gather. Something I admire about you is the ways I’ve seen you work with VAM Studios and the level of curation that you put into events—I’m thinking specifically of your release event for If They Come For Us, and seeing how gorgeous the space was. If money were no issue, what type of event would you like to create to release this book into the world?

Asghar: Honestly, I would do a weekend retreat and it would be every single one of the writers that were in the anthology would fly out and we would have this space where everyone could have their own room, but we have communal space together. Maybe on a farm or something? But we could just spend a weekend being together and talking about writing and being Muslim and being artists, and then we’d have an outward-facing event at the end as an invitation to come onto this farm that would culminate in a reading. It’d be more of a community building event, where we could actualize this community on the page into a physical space where everyone is in comfort. Where we don’t have to worry about funds, about child care, and just have the mental space to be among a community of writers where we can grapple with the issues that emerge within the book.

Rumpus: Well if there are any generous millionaires reading this interview, maybe they can make that happen.

Asghar: [Laughing] Absolutely, that’d be great!

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Photograph of Fatimah Asghar © Cassidy Kristiansen.


Levi Todd is a queer poet and lifelong Chicagoan. They serve as Poetry Editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal and relationship health educator with youth. Levi’s work is published or forthcoming in Pinwheel, Cotton Xenomorph, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and elsewhere. Levi tweets @levicitodd, where they’d love to hear your favorite Carly Rae Jepsen song. More from this author →