If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
One World, 2018; 128 pp
Reviewed by Kelly Lucero
Fatimah Asghar is the author of the Emmy-nominated web series, Brown Girls. She is a touring poet and performer. In Asghar’s latest collection of poetry, If They Come for Us, the speaker explores her identity as a marginalized orphan in a world that consistently tells her that she does not belong. The collection deliberates themes of racism, gender politics, and sexuality. Asghar engages her reader through her discussion of themes, as well as through her experimental form. With poems that take form as crossword puzzles or floor plans of an orphanage, Asghar offers a unique and captivating take on marginalization.
If They Come for Us opens with “For Peshawar”, which references the 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. The poem sets the somber tone for the collection, as Asghar writes of dying children: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” As the poem continues, the speaker explains that she continually collects more questions than answers as she navigates her way through life, which is effectively illustrated by the entirety of the collection.
“100 Words on 45’s 100 Days” offers commentary on contemporary American politics, effectively taking a stance against Donald Trump’s presidency. The poem’s opening line, “his last name means to win”, immediately references Trump. Further, Asghar incorporates the words “not my president” into her work, an inarguable reference to Trump and contemporary America. Asghar writes, “but children stay dead, / buried in cement in syria / or a cop’s bullet in america / & he goes on golfing, vacationing, / his belt swelling past buckle”. Because Asghar parallels the violence in Syria and America to Trump’s leisure, she demonstrates the speaker’s negative feelings toward the American president. Further, she illuminates his greed by writing of his belt swelling past the buckle. Essentially, the poem conveys Trump’s unwillingness to help others, even those who are dying in his own country.
The poem “Oil” explores the speaker’s grapple with discovering her identity. The speaker states, “I’m young & no one around / knows where my parents are from.” Because she is an orphan, the speaker struggles to identify her heritage, and ultimately her place in the world. The poem continues, “My Auntie A says my people might / be Afghani”. The speaker finally feels that she has a place in the world, taking pride in her Afghani heritage, until the Twin Towers collapse, and she discovers that “All the people I could be are dangerous”. As such, the speaker returns to seeking her place in the world.
Aside from her discussion of political issues and the search for identity is Asghar’s experimental use of form. In “Script for Child Services: A Floor Plan”, Asghar creates a floor plan of an orphanage, labeling each room and its events. In the background of the floor plan is faint print which repeats, “Repeat after me: he is not a monster. Nothing happened. She isn’t feeling well right now. That’s why she called”. Because the title of the poem indicates that it is a script for child services, and because of the use of repetition, it becomes evident that something did indeed happen in the orphanage and the children are being encouraged to mask this event. Because of this, the poem leaves the reader feeling uneasy.
“Microaggression Bingo” is another poem that takes on an experimental form. The poem takes the form of a Bingo card, with the free space reading, “Don’t Leave Your House for a Day—Safe”. The remaining spaces offer microaggressions against marginalized people, such as, “White girl wearing a bindi at a music festival”, “Casting call to audition for Terrorist #7”, and “Oh, but you don’t really seem Muslim”. The poem illustrates that the speaker, as a Pakistani Muslim, must deal with all of these microaggressions. Essentially, the speaker’s day is going to be filled with any of these microaggressions and the only way to escape it is by staying home. Moreover, despite the fact that it is a game of Bingo, the speaker will lose no matter which microaggression they experience.
Fatimah Asghar’s collection of poetry, If They Come for Us, is engaging because it presents the experience of a Pakistani Muslim woman’s struggle to find acceptance in the world. Because the speaker is an orphan, this struggle is increased. She has no parents to assist her in navigating a world that continually disregards her existence. As Asghar explains at the start of her collection, she offers no answers to the struggles of marginalized people, but rather raises more questions. By raising these questions, Asghar encourages her reader to deliberate on issues that are frequently overlooked.