If They Come for Us

Poems
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Poet and co-creator of the Emmy-nominated web series Brown Girls captures her experience as a Pakistani Muslim woman in contemporary America, while exploring identity, violence, and healing.

“A debut poetry collection showcasing both a fierce and tender new voice.”—Booklist

an aunt teaches me how to tell
an edible flower
from a poisonous one.
just in case, I hear her say, just in case.

Orphaned as a child, Fatimah Asghar grapples with coming of age and navigating questions of sexuality and race without the guidance of a mother or father. These poems at once bear anguish, joy, vulnerability, and compassion, while also exploring the many facets of violence: how it persists within us, how it is inherited across generations, and how it manifests itself in our relationships. In experimental forms and language both lyrical and raw, Asghar seamlessly braids together marginalized people’s histories with her own understanding of identity, place, and belonging.

Praise for If They Come for Us
 
“In forms both traditional . . . and unorthodox . . . Asghar interrogates divisions along lines of nationality, age, and gender, illuminating the forces by which identity is fixed or flexible. Most vivid and revelatory are pieces such as ‘Boy,’ whose perspicacious turns and irreverent idiom conjure the rich, jagged textures of a childhood shadowed by loss.”The New Yorker
 
“This summer, [Asghar’s] debut poetry collection cemented her status as one of the city’s greatest present-day poets. . . . A stunning work of art that tackles place, race, sexuality and violence. These poems—both personal and historical, both celebratory and aggrieved—are unquestionably powerful in a way that would doubtless make both Gwendolyn Brooks and Harriet Monroe proud.”Chicago Review of Books

 “Taut lines, vivid language, and searing images range cover to cover. . . . Inventive, sad, gripping, and beautiful.”Library Journal (starred review)

Praise

“[Fatimah] Asghar presents a debut poetry collection showcasing both a fierce and tender new voice. . . . Through simultaneously lyrical and frank poems like ‘Kal,’ ‘Ghareeb,’ and ‘Halal,’ Asghar allows poignant contradictions to rise to the surface.”Booklist

“In forms both traditional . . . and unorthodox . . . Asghar interrogates divisions along lines of nationality, age, and gender, illuminating the forces by which identity is fixed or flexible. Most vivid and revelatory are pieces such as ‘Boy,’ whose perspicacious turns and irreverent idiom conjure the rich, jagged textures of a childhood shadowed by loss.”The New Yorker

“This summer, [Asghar’s] debut poetry collection cemented her status as one of the city’s greatest present-day poets. . . . A stunning work of art that tackles place, race, sexuality and violence. These poems—both personal and historical, both celebratory and aggrieved—are unquestionably powerful in a way that would doubtless make both Gwendolyn Brooks and Harriet Monroe proud.”Chicago Review of Books

 “Every age has its poets who spring-load every line with the personal and political so that you know what it was to be fully alive in that time and place—or torn from it. Asghar provides this anguished specificity in her debut poetry collection, a meditation on identity, dislocation, and loss. . . . Taut lines, vivid language, and searing images range cover to cover. . . . Inventive, sad, gripping, and beautiful.”Library Journal (starred review)

“In this awe-inspiring debut, Asghar, writer of the Emmy-nominated web series ‘Brown Girls,’ explores the painful, sometimes psychologically debilitating journey of establishing her identity as a queer brown woman within the confines of white America. . . . Honest, personal, and intimate without being insular or myopic, Asghar’s collection reveals a sense of strength and hope found in identity and cultural history.’”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

If They Come for Us is a beautiful book of poems that, as powerfully and deeply as any book I’ve read in a good while, wonders about, explores, and laments our many inheritances of violence, which are also inheritances of sorrow, and the ways those inheritances reside in our bodies and imaginations. And yet, the wonder of this book is the way that throughout the anguish and sorrow and rage, despite it, there is tenderness. There is sweetness. There is care. This book reminds us: These, too, are our inheritances. These, too, are our heirlooms. These, too, we must pass along.”—Ross Gay, author of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry

“Fatimah Asghar’s work isn’t simply some of the most innovative poetry I’ve read; page after page, the book weaves productive ambiguity, textured explorations of the body, and lyrical precision into a work that is somehow just as much a mammoth book of short stories, an experimental novel, and a soulful memoir. I’m not sure this nation is deserving of such a marvelous, sensual, and sensory book, but I know we needed this. We so needed this.”—Kiese Laymon, author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and Long Division

“In poems that are as historically aware as they are forward-thinking, Asghar reminds us with wit, wisdom, and compassion that a truly felt and thoughtfully written poem can be many things at once: a salve, an artifact, a puzzle, a flashlight in the face of imminent darkness, and even a whole home.”—Tarfia Faizullah, author of Registers of Illuminated Villages and Seam

Excerpt

For Peshawar

december 16, 2014

Before attacking schools in Pakistan, the Taliban sends kafan, a white cloth that marks Muslim burials, as a form of psychological terror.

From the moment our babies are born

are we meant to lower them into the ground?

To dress them in white? They send flowers

before guns, thorns plucked from stem.

Every year I manage to live on this earth

I collect more questions than answers.

In my dreams, the children are still alive

at school. In my dreams they still play.

I wish them a mundane life.

Arguments with parents. Groundings.

Chasing a budding love around the playground.

Iced mango slices in the hot summer.

Lassi dripping from lips.

Fear of being unmarried. Hatred of the family

next door. Kheer at graduation. Fingers licked

with mehndi. Blisters on the back of a heel.

Loneliness in a bookstore. Gold chapals.

Red kurtas. Walking home, sun

at their backs. Searching the street

for a missing glove. Nothing glorious.

A life. Alive. I promise.

I didn’t know I needed to worry

about them

until they were gone.

My uncle gifts me his earliest memory:

a parking lot full of corpses.

No kafan to hide their eyes

no white to return them to the ground.

In all our family histories, one wrong

turn & then, death. Violence

not an over there but a memory lurking

in our blood, waiting to rise.

We know this from our nests—­

the bad men wanting to end us. Every year

we call them something new:

British. Sikhs. Hindus. Indians. Americans. Terrorists.

The dirge, our hearts, pounds vicious, as we prepare

the white linen, ready to wrap our bodies.

Partition

you’re kashmiri until they burn your home. take your orchards. stake a different flag. until no one remembers the road that brings you back. you’re indian until they draw a border through punjab. until the british captains spit paki as they sip your chai, add so much foam you can’t taste home. you’re seraiki until your mouth fills with english. you’re pakistani until your classmates ask what that is. then you’re indian again. or some kind of spanish. you speak a language until you don’t. until you only recognize it between your auntie’s lips. your father was fluent in four languages. you’re illiterate in the tongues of your father. your grandfather wrote persian poetry on glasses. maybe. you can’t remember. you made it up. someone lied. you’re a daughter until they bury your mother. until you’re not invited to your father’s funeral. you’re a virgin until you get too drunk. you’re muslim until you’re not a virgin. you’re pakistani until they start throwing acid. you’re muslim until it’s too dangerous. you’re safe until you’re alone. you’re american until the towers fall. until there’s a border on your back.

Kal

Allah, you gave us a language

where yesterday & tomorrow

are the same word. Kal.

A spell cast with the entire

mouth. Back of the throat

to teeth. Tomorrow means I might

have her forever. Yesterday means

I say goodbye, again.

Kal means they are the same.

I know you can bend time.

I am merely asking for what

is mine. Give me my mother for no

other reason than I deserve her.

If yesterday & tomorrow are the same

pluck the flower of my mother’s body

from the soil. Kal means I’m in the crib,

eyelashes wet as she looks over me.

Kal means I’m on the bed,

crawling away from her, my father

back from work. Kal means she’s

dancing at my wedding not-­yet come.

Kal means she’s oiling my hair

before the first day of school. Kal

means I wake to her strange voice

in the kitchen. Kal means

she’s holding my unborn baby

in her arms, helping me pick a name.

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