If They Come For Us
I wouldn’t say I’m particularly well-versed in contemporary poetry. As an English undergraduate approaching the end of my final year (eek) I have of course studied a lot of poetry. But these have been the works of Plath and T.S.Eliot, Shakespeare and Milton, Poe and Dickinson - AKA not anything written in this century or by anyone remotely of colour. Thus, I believe that what makes the aforementioned poets great is not necessarily what would constitute a great poet by today’s standards. As a result, I tend to judge contemporary poetry largely by my emotional response to it and not its literary elements.
If They Come For Us is the debut poetry collection from Fatimah Asghar which captures the experiences of being a young Pakistani Muslim woman in America. The collection begins with her accounts of India’s partition and then transitions into the narrator’s life in America, exploring how the violence of her ancestral past has influenced how she navigates the world around her. Themes include identity, sexuality, race, religion, violence and coming-of-age.
...I live/ in a country whose sun is war/ we keep rotating around its warmth/ our faces, sun-kissed, each & every morning.
Asghar’s poems at once represent themes of the South Asian diaspora and of the ‘third culture kid’ and the intersection between personal and social history. I loved how despite moving in between the historical and the autobiographical, the poet still manages to maintain the same impact throughout all of the poems. I enjoyed the narrator’s accounts of her childhood in America, which examine American culture in the form of fried chicken, Uber rides and micro-aggressions, but personally the poems entitled ‘Partition’ were my favourite.
The most successful poems in this collection were the earlier ones which spoke about the lives of women during partition and the use of honour killings to score points against the other side in the civil war. These poems in particular were incredibly raw and full of emotion.
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 intergenerational themes were especially interesting as she explores how trauma can be passed down through generations. During Partition, at least 14 million people were forced into migration, an estimated 1-2 million people died and an estimated 75,000-100,000 women were abducted and raped during this period. The poems foreground complicated discussions surrounding an individual’s concept of home when their home has been torn apart and the only people who link her to this homeland are now dead. She explains how she has been pulled into a world full of conflicting loyalties. In America, people are unable to tell the difference between Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus and in light of the events of 9/11, which saw all three groups discriminated against, she finds herself forming bonds with the very same people that her ancestors were fighting.
...I want to believe in rebirth// that what comes from death is life, but I have blood/ from someone's father's father on my hands/ & no memory of who died for me to be here."
Vulnerable, compassionate and deeply moving. I felt at home in Asghars’s poems and have honestly never before connected with a poetry collection like I have with this one. I would highly recommend this collection to anyone who enjoys contemporary poetry, however please be aware that it deals with some heavy subject matter. 10/10.