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Fatimah Asghar On Our Unseen Identities

We're not always what we seem.
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“I think that me being an orphan is something that permeates everything about me. It permeates everything about my entire construction of the world, and yet it’s the one that’s kind of in some ways the least talked about because family identity is not one that people often think about, because they’re like, “Oh, it’s too personal.” — Fatimah Asghar 

What happens when a cornerstone of your identity is an identity that makes the people around you anxious? And when the greatest markers of your identity are invisible to the outside world? The poet, writer, and creator of the amazing Brown Girls series Fatimah Asghar shared with us on the pod.

Rebecca Lehrer: Hi, I’m Rebecca Lehrer.

Amy S. Choi: And I’m Amy Choi, and we are The Mash-Up Americans. I feel like the more conversations we have, the more we learn about how people can define their mashiness, and it’s not always the identifiers that you can see or the ones that you would assume. Actually, it’s often the ones that you wouldn’t even guess at that define you the most.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, and also the combination of them, right? The combination of hyphens and identifiers that is what makes you unique and so particularly interesting. So I think for me, the fact that I have family, on both sides of my family, all around the world, also, three or four generations of us live in the same neighborhood in LA, so it’s both hyper-local and totally global. I can go a mile to my one grandma’s house and then fly around the world to another, and both of them are totally who I am.

Amy S. Choi: Yeah, family structure is so important. Well, our guest today, Fatimah Asghar, also claims an identifier about her family that you can’t see.

Fatimah Asghar: Me being an orphan is something that permeates everything about me, and it permeates everything about my entire construction of the world, and yet it’s like the one that’s kind of in some ways the least talked about.

Rebecca Lehrer: Fatimah Asghar’s star is on the rise. She’s not even 30, but she’s published two books, produced a massively successful web series, and has been features on the Forbes 30 under 30 Hollywood and entertainment list.

Amy S. Choi: Yes. Well, we first learned about Fatimah when we came across her Brown Girls web series that she created with fellow brown girl, Sam Bailey. It stars brown girls obviously, but it also centers queer identity and explores the idea of home.

Rebecca Lehrer: It’s so good, so good that they are developing it into a full-blown TV show at HBO a la Issa Rae and Insecure, who they cite as one of their major influences.

Amy S. Choi: I would like to do anything a la Issa Rae.

Rebecca Lehrer: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amy S. Choi: Maybe we could just become Issa. I don’t know.

Rebecca Lehrer: I’m trying.

Amy S. Choi: It’s an aspiration.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, it really is.

Amy S. Choi: Fatimah has also published a collection of her poems. It’s called If They Come For Us. She explores identity, sexuality, violence, all with the backdrop of contemporary America, and it is just so good and raw and mashy.

Rebecca Lehrer: In addition to her work, she’s built an incredible community of artists and chosen family. She’s the daughter of Pakistani and Kashmiri immigrants, and an orphan who was raised in a big extended family. Because her parents died so young, her idea of home isn’t a place, but a feeling.

Fatimah Asghar: I feel the most at home when I don’t have to explain myself, where I don’t have to explain different identities or who I am in that way, and they just get it. I think a lot of the people who I really feel at home around, I’ve morphed into my chosen family.

Rebecca Lehrer: Do you have any memories [inaudible 00:03:13] the first time, I’m thinking in teens but who knows, when you were like, “Oh, these are my people,” like the chosen people, your chosen people? I’m like, “The chosen people.”

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah. I think that, even younger than teens, when my parents first died and this aunt and uncle who are actually not my blood family, but despite happenstance ended up in the same apartment complex as us and were like, “Oh, these girls are by themselves and we’re going to help take care of them.”

We got really close. I was pretty young, and there was just definitely a few moments in which I was like, “Oh, this is my family. This is who I think of as my family.” And then when I was in eighth grade, they moved away, and so it was a real moment of being like, “Oh, we’re a little bit of a team together.” Because they weren’t my parents but they were also new to America, it felt like we were exploring, and we were kids. Me and my sisters were kids. It felt like we were exploring what it meant to be American together, what it meant to be in America, and then it was gone. I think in that kind of presence of them not being there, I was like “Oh, that was my people, and now they’re not here anymore.”

So I’ve definitely had that at so many different moments. I did a lot of theater in high school. We used to go and compete with theater. Every time you’re in a cast, you get just really close to your folks and you’re like, “These are my folks.” That’s kind of it. I feel like I’ve always been blessed to find little groupings of people and family who really feel like they are looking out for me.

Rebecca Lehrer: We talk a lot about bringing your whole self to everything you do. In one way, part of that is you’re talking about finding community and different ways you find community. We recognize that that can be hard, too. As a brown, queer Muslim, is there an identity that you have leaned into more at different points? When you’re finding these communities, there’s the ones where you can be your whole self and there’s sometimes ones where you’re being your whole self, but one of those identities is the lead, the lead hyphen.

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah. It’s so interesting because I think that they all affect in such different ways. Even for example, I think that me being an orphan is something that permeates everything about me. It permeates everything about my entire construction of the world, and yet it’s the one that’s kind of in some ways the least talked about because family identity is not one that people often think about, because they’re like, “Oh, it’s too personal.”

Rebecca Lehrer: Or they take it for granted.

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah. I think that’s it is a lot of times people just take that for granted, so they don’t understand that a lot of families are shaped in different ways and your family and your upbringing in terms of your family and how you relate to humans is such a fundamental part of who you are. It just really depends on the space and what the norm of the space is.

Amy S. Choi: I have two questions. One is, is that you have been intentionally creating communities through your life. Have you, outside of your sisters, sought out a community of other people who lost their parents when they were young?

Fatimah Asghar: No, I haven’t. I think that when I was in college and stuff, I would work and volunteer at orphanages. I work a lot with youth, and there’s a way in which I get really sensitive around there, when something is going wrong in their personal or their family life and stuff like that. But I also just think it’s interesting. You tend to attract folks that are somewhat like you, especially when you’re an artist and you put out work, but I think that there’s a lot of friends I have that have family issues or were in and out of foster care systems or have these different, I would say, relationships to family. But I haven’t intentionally sought out building with orphans who are my age.

Amy S. Choi: Right. I totally hear you on that, ’cause I feel like you attract people with similar baggage. I certainly do. All of my best friends were almost all first generation immigrants and all have similarly complex relationships with our families and our elders, and then when you meet somebody that has less of that, you’re like, “What? You’re best friends with your mom? What?”

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah. I mean, it’s beautiful. It’s so beautiful, but [crosstalk 00:08:02] you’re like, “Oh wow, that’s a different”-

Amy S. Choi: This is a whole other world and whole different way that people operate.

Rebecca Lehrer: Well, it’s another way in which, again, we’re also informed by our experiences, and then those are the assumptions we make about the world. It’s hard not to do that because it’s all we know until you start living. You’re like, “Huh, that wasn’t everybody.”

Amy S. Choi: To go back to what you said about often the most easily identifiable part of your identity is your race, and I think something that we found compelling with your Brown Girls series is that it’s about brown girls, but it’s not necessarily about Paki girls or Muslim girls, of which in Chicago where it’s set, there’s a strong community there. How did the Brown Girls series come to be like that?

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah. I think for me, a lot of my friendships are with women of color and queer people of color. It is kind of the natural inclination of so much of my friendships, and really kind of existing in these communities of color, and I just feel like I never get to see that onscreen. It was this thing of just being like, “Huh.” Usually when you have two women of color in the same capacity onscreen, they’re often at each other. They’re often in conflict with each other or fighting for the same boy or the same job or catty and whatever, and that just felt so not like my friendships at all.

It was just a thing of just being like, “But this is what my friendships are like. We’re all friends. We’re all different, but we’re all friends.” That’s just kind of the natural progression of what I always felt in my life, and that active thing of being friends where you don’t even realize it, but you’re like, “Yeah, I’m friends with people who all are people of color, but we’re all from different backgrounds.” That’s just normal. It just felt like a very normal thing in terms of the construction of the show because that’s the construction of my life.

Rebecca Lehrer: What are your favorite shows right now? What are you watching that inspires you and you feel excited about?

Fatimah Asghar: I love Fleabag. I love Atlanta. I love Legion. I love Game of Thrones. I have a wide taste and what I really, really love, but usually it’s around characters I find compelling and story structure that I find innovative.

Amy S. Choi: We think about … We say it a lot. It’s very, very hard to be something if you can’t see it. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Not impossible, just very difficult. Who did you see growing up that made you think, “Okay. Well, I can have this life. I can be a writer and a poet and a creator and an academic fellow all at the same time”?

Fatimah Asghar: It was a lot of my friends. We were all young and trying to be artists together, and it was this thing where I realized I was just like, “Everything else makes me miserable.” I resent any time that I’m taken away from writing and I’m taken away from creating something. I was like, “Okay. Well, I don’t know how to do this, but we’re just going to try.”

But it really came from my friends who were my same age who were in my same year, who are a year above me, a year below me, who were just like, “Cool. We don’t know how to do this, but we’re just going to see. We’re just going to go perform at open mics and go on these Greyhound bus tours for $50 a show and sleep on people’s couches and just figure it out.”

So it really existed there for me. It was actually in a really hyper-local world. It wasn’t in a, “Oh, I saw this celebrity and that made me think something.” That’s just totally my path in terms of that way. It was really just seeing these young people of color make things on their own terms and make their own paths of life and pump money into each other and self-sustain a circuit of money where we were buying each other’s chat books and we’re paying each other to come perform in our living rooms, but then we’re also getting paid by each other to go perform in their living rooms, kind of keeping that money tight in those circles.

Amy S. Choi: I love that. I love the image of everybody in each other’s living rooms.

Rebecca Lehrer: And also just paying each other the same money.

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah, it’s really just a money hand over. Yeah.

Amy S. Choi: A beautiful little circle.

Rebecca Lehrer: Just out of respect, you should always be paid. Here’s $20. Next week, you pay me $20.

Amy S. Choi: Is there a place now where you see your experience reflected that is not something that you have made?

Fatimah Asghar: Unfortunately, no, not quite yet. I think that there is moments or small slivers. I remember when I first saw the ads for Quantico and I saw Priyanka Chopra on bus stops, and I was like, “I’ve never seen a South Asian woman on a bus stop.” That was really, really cool. I’m not an FBI agent who’s wrestling the world.

Amy S. Choi: Married to Nick Jonas.

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah. So there’s small moments, and it comes in really different ways. I saw American Honey and I loved American Honey. That’s not my experience, but I felt really seen in that. There’s just kind of ways that I think you just continue to graft yourself onto things that you love and that you feel emotionally connected to in certain ways.

I think that there’s definitely small things like that, but in terms of a holistic, is this thing a thing that completely get me or completely sees me, I don’t think so. But I think that that’s very much a part of the work of an artist, is it doesn’t matter even if you have someone who has the exact same identity tropes as you. They’re not you, and so they probably don’t have the same outlooks to every single component of your life that you do, and you don’t always feel reflected in their work.

Rebecca Lehrer: But there also can be a drive there, right, that drives you to tell your story even more, tell the stories you want to tell.

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah, totally.

Rebecca Lehrer: Right? That’s part of it.

Fatimah Asghar: Sometimes I think about when I see things that have South Asian people where maybe I just don’t agree with or my loneliness actually feels amplified because I’m like, “Wow, that’s just so not my experience.” That’s usually a motivator for me to be like, “I want to tell this story,” or, “I want to do this thing,” in a way where what people sometimes talk about with Sex and the City or something where they’re like, “Yeah, there’s just no people of color on that show. That just made me feel really, really lonely and I want things where women of color get to talk about sex and talk about whatever.”

I think that all of that is so legit, is it can be a driving force or it can be a thing of, “Wow, this is so beautiful and I really love it, but I still don’t see myself.” So it’s a way of opening a little bit more of the idea of possibility of what I can do in my art making.

Rebecca Lehrer: Also, I think as a creative person, but I wouldn’t say I’m an artist in any way, but there’s a way, and also when it’s not my story that’s reflected but rather the community around me or my world is, that’s also really wonderful and exciting, too. Even in a silly way, but like To All the Boys I’ve Loved More. For me, watching that, it’s not like, “Oh my gosh, I’m a young hapa, Korean hapa girl who is a teen.” That part of the story isn’t, but there’s the part that there’s this smart girl who reads, sure, but also just that woman, Laura Jean, looks like my friends, and that world looks like my world and the way she interacts with her friends and her boyfriend or dreamboat McGee is also reflective of the world I live in, and that moves me deeply, in that again, that’s not my story, but it’s the story of my world, whereas I watch a story where there’s just only white people and I’m like, “What is this? It doesn’t look like my life and the dynamics”-

Amy S. Choi: You know what’s so funny as you say that, and I’d never really thought about this before. God bless John Hughes and his problematic ’80s movies, in hindsight, but also, all of those uber-white teenage movies that we watched, because they were actually set in the suburbs of Chicago, I was like, “Oh, I know all of this.”

Rebecca Lehrer: Totally.

Amy S. Choi: It does feel like my world.

Rebecca Lehrer: Totally.

Amy S. Choi: Now I look back and I’m like, “Jesus.”

Rebecca Lehrer: What is that? But it is, but right. There is a way that that did reflect, even just visually, or the school dynamics. Of course, not-

Amy S. Choi: Long Duck Dong?

Rebecca Lehrer: Right.

Amy S. Choi: He was a real problem.

Rebecca Lehrer: Right, although frankly, the fact that there was only one Asian person in that school probably did reflect your experience. I mean, I do think that there’s something. That feels important, too. To your point, Fatimah, there’s different signifiers and there’s different ways you can either feel more alone or more connected into the thing.

Amy S. Choi: There’s nothing … I think you’re right … nothing lonelier than trying to take in an experience or a cultural moment that on the outside should be for you and not feeling a part of it, and you’re like, “Oh no. Oh no. My outsiderness, it’s been made in triplicate here. What is going on?”

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah. It’s such a painful moment where you’re like, “Wow, how does this feel so wrong, and I’m being told that it’s supposed to make me feel at home, and it really doesn’t?” I think that that’s just such an awful feeling-

Amy S. Choi: I think there’s also some-

Fatimah Asghar: … a motivating one.

Amy S. Choi: Yeah, but there’s something about the work that you do and the work that we do feels so super important personally, is that it’s one thing to be like, “Oh, there’s Laura Jean,” this Korean girl going through the world with her sisters and yada, yada, yada. And then also thinking, “Oh. When that’s a singular representation, that’s the only way to be a young Asian girl who is gorgeous and petite.” There isn’t the wide array of representation. So where are the fat Asian girls, or where are the tall ones, or where are the ones that don’t excel? I feel like we’re just starting to-

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. That’s really interesting, I think. How do you get all the versions of-

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah. I mean, I think that-

Rebecca Lehrer: We cut people slack, too.

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah. I think that’s part of the thing, though. Like you were saying, when there’s just so much pressure, when you have one movie every three years that’s a South Asian movie or a South Asian story that is made and distributed, the pressure is unreal because you have an entire diaspora community that’s looking to something and hoping they feel represented, and what it is is a singular story of one person. What it is a singular story of one character that’s not perfect, and then everybody’s let down or feels a type of way or is expected to feel a type of way about something, and you’re just like, “That’s not fair.” It’s not fair to the creator and it’s not fair to whatever, but it still is that feeling.

I often have to battle where I have to have a conversation with myself and be like, you can dislike someone’s art. You can dislike someone’s art who has your background, and that’s okay, or you could dislike that movie. It doesn’t have to be an entire career as an artist that you dislike.

Fatimah Asghar: But I think that that’s just such an important thing is the pressures that we feel because there’s just so few, and then suddenly those things have such a burden of carrying everything. It’s often talked about as the South Asian perspective, or the Muslim perspective, or the whatever, perspective.

It’s like, no, there is no the. That doesn’t exist. If we can do away of that, then what we get is a plethora of stories, of people who get to be failures, who get to be all of these different things, and have a wide range of emotions. That doesn’t have to be a stand-in for an entire race. That can be really thought about as a particular character.

Amy S. Choi: How do you deal with that pressure? I think about, we have also enjoyed watching the new freshman congressional class of women of color. People are stumbling. There are some real challenges there, and also, we see a place where you’re like, “Yeah, when we say that we’re going to be twice as good, we mean it. We come prepared. We’re doing the work.” Do you feel that when you’re putting work out into the world?

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah, absolutely. I think in general, I just have a high bar for myself in general, internally. There’s always a moment right before I put something out where I’m like, “I don’t think we should put this out. Maybe I should just not release my book. This is all trash and we’ve got to”-

Amy S. Choi: Just kidding. That was a joke.

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah, like, “Okay, we’re not doing this.” So there’s definitely moments like that that I have that I think just come from being an artist and being a particular kind of artist and knowing the vulnerability that comes with putting out something in the world. There’s often a pressure I feel about, is this right or is it wrong or what does even right or wrong mean when you’re talking about fiction? Where do we get off having these ideas of right or wrong?

Then, there’s also I think the element that I feel of representation, like, are people going to be angry about this? Are they going to be mad that the story’s like this or that this has a queer protagonist? It’s just all these kind of combinations of things, of anxiety.

Something I try really hard to do is I try really hard to just shut that down, shut it out of my head. It’s very, very, very difficult. I feel like it’s hard, ’cause you’re always creating something and you’re almost always releasing. It’s all happening at the same time. You’re always talking about work and stuff.

But I try harder to spend less time on social media, especially if I’m actively writing something, because I need that to be a space of what I actually want to say versus allowing perceptions or the idea of perception to get into my head. So I try really, really hard to shut that down.

Also, I think that there’s a thing I think about, too, where it’s like, I’m not trying to make work that’s on trend. I’m trying to make work that feels real and authentic to me, and that might mean that it’s not always received well or it’s not always liked, or it takes a great deal of courage or bravery to say certain things. I could be wrong, right? I could think it in a minute and then the next minute be like, “Oh.” But all of that is okay. It’s about being human, right? It’s the ability to be allowed to fail.

Rebecca Lehrer: Amy, this is our ongoing conversation that we’re deep in right now, off air, but thinking about what success means, ’cause I know you in lots of ways have had proximity to some really significant markers of success, right? So whether it’s going to Brown or being in the array class and being with Ava, or there’s certain things where you’re like, these are things that are signifiers-

Fatimah Asghar: Of success.

Rebecca Lehrer: … of success to a lot of people, and maybe even to yourself. That’s part of my question. I think that one of the things that Amy and I always talk about is, of course, would we want everything to be huge, make a lot of money, and be exactly what we want it to be in terms of the content? Of course.

Rebecca Lehrer: But there’s also some ways in which that’s not necessarily what we’re seeking in each realm of our work as The Mash-Up Americans or each realm of our lives. It’s the constant checking in with ourselves individually and ourselves as a team to ask, “What are we jealous of with that person, or what does it really mean to us, just separate from anyone else, to be successful?” So I guess my question is, in this moment, ’cause it’s evolving, what does success mean for you?

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah. This is the thing I grapple with a lot is that question. I think it’s different for every single project, right? To me, though, success, I had to kind of take a moment and really think about defining it, and I think for me, there’s kind of three components that I think of as what I think of something as successful. One is, did I show up and did I do my work, and did I do it well, right, and then two, did I love people, and three, did I leave the world or the thing that I was doing a slightly better or more just place, right? That to me is at all moments when I’m asking myself, “Am I successful?”

Those are the three calibers that I have, and then it’s about scale, right? So the scale of it could be a poem or it could be a conversation with a friend or it could be a protest, right? Or it could be a big project, like a novel or a collection of poems or a TV show, right? It’s kind of about those are the centerpieces to me, ’cause you know when you don’t do your work well. You know when you’re cutting corners, right? You know that about yourself. You can feel it when you’re just like, “Oh, I’m on autopilot right now. I’m doing the same tricks that I do because I know how to do them.”

You can really have that conversation of, “Did I show up and did I do my work, and did I push myself and did I do it well,” right? Two, “Did I love my people? Did I center my people,” right? Sometimes loving your people means having hard conversations with your people, right, but did I do it? Did I do that? Did I come in the spirit of wanting to love my people? And then three, did I do the work that I needed to do in order to make the world a little bit more just, right? The world is so unequal, and that’s such an important thing to me. So did I do that?

And then everything else, that to me is what I consider successful. At any point, if I ask myself that, there’s probably one thing I’m not doing, right? There’s always, I’m like, “Ooh, yeah, I probably should spend a little bit more time or energy on that.”

So I think in terms of a life, when you’re thinking about a holistic, successful life, that’s what I think about. Those are the components that I consider successful in terms of a life. That can be different based on the project or whatever, but a lot of times, we focus so much on work and the productivity of work, and I think it’s also about the larger being, the larger self, like, did I show up for the people I loved? Did I show up for my friends? If I’m not living a life where I’m doing that, where I’m not showing up for the communities I care about with the people who I consider family, then I don’t think I’m living a successful life. I try to think of it as a holistic approach to things.

Rebecca Lehrer: That makes a lot of sense. I think-

Amy S. Choi: We’re nodding vigorously.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah. I think there’s a part for me. It’s connected, but I think about what is success, who do I need to think I’m successful for me, whose recognition do I need, and that includes myself, and then also, what is a good life, and actually in the way you’re describing it, it’s like those are all one thing, not what is somebody else. You really didn’t describe, which I love, anybody else’s recognition, but for me, there’s some point where I’m like, “I don’t need to be the top of the charts for X thing.” That’s not what I need. What I want is Fatimah, who I like her work, to be like, “You guys are the shit.” There’s a way in which I want that kind of recognition from people who I respect to think that we are excellent at what we do and to want to be great partners.

Rebecca Lehrer: So I think in the list of things, I might add a fourth, or it’s related to how are you treating your people. Part of that is how you build teams. Whether that’s running a production or partnering with whoever, the people that you work with, how you treat them and how you build relationships is a huge marker of success.

Amy S. Choi: Yeah, and the piece about loving your people, like how do you host your friend in your living room?

Rebecca Lehrer: Here’s 20 bucks. Here’s 20 bucks in the-

Amy S. Choi: In the life deposit box.

Rebecca Lehrer: Yeah, totally.

Amy S. Choi: Thank you so much, Fatimah. It was a total delight.

Fatimah Asghar: Yeah, thanks for having me.

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