Fatimah Asghar Is an Elusive Scorpio Bitch to the Core

The author of "When We Were Sisters" on their writing process and unwinding their personal life narrative

Fatimah Asghar by Mercedes Zapata

Fatimah Asghar’s debut novel, When We Were Sisters, braids lyric and and narrative vignettes into a tender, vivid, heart-aching story of three orphaned sisters and the world they create together, the great beauty and stunning pain of that belonging. The book follows Kausar, the youngest, from early childhood into adulthood, her voice captured at every age with a poet’s ear for language. The characters are so thoughtfully rendered, so three-dimensional in their flesh and blood and bone and infinite complications, their twinned capacities for kindness and for cruelty. 

What always moves me about Fati’s work is its capacity for love, actual love, the kind that takes us to account, that holds and tends and nurtures and tells the truth. That does not hide, that does not seek out the easy narrative. A character who, in the hands of a lesser writer, would have been simply a villain, is allowed the full shape of his humanity, a capacity for tenderness even in a demonstrated capacity for harm. I read Fati, I see Fati, I spend time with Fati, and in every instance am taught to be a more active, loving, attentive community member, friend, sister. These sisters will stay with me for the rest of my life. This book. This sisterhood. And I am truly grateful. 

Safia Elhillo: You work so beautifully across many forms—poetry, film, photography, television. How did this project communicate to you that it wanted to be a novel?

Fatimah Asghar: This project started when I was in a really low moment and had just been through so much rejection. And I honestly just started showing up at my computer and writing, and letting the writing lead me to where it wanted to go. And I don’t even think I knew it was a novel—I just was writing. And it was different from anything else that I had ever written before because it wasn’t showing up as a poem or as dialogue or film, it was showing up as fiction, as narrative fiction. And I just trusted that it was showing up to me as it needed to and that I needed to follow it. So, I just let these small vignettes pour out of me and then would back up and observe it and then sculpt. Like even just being like: who is this character? What are they trying to show me? And it wasn’t chronological, so there were some of the vignettes that I would write that felt very adult and then there were some that felt very youthful, and so it was even thinking about—woah, this character is coming to me in so many different ways, at so many different ages, and how do I build a path for the reader to experience who this person is. 

SEH: Though this is your first novel, it is your second book. Does it feel to you like a second book, or a first? In what ways?

FA: Strangely, it feels like both a second and a first. There are feelings that I felt during my first book that I intimately know—will people like this? Is this book any good? Will it resonate with people? The deep feeling and want to hide after releasing something that’s so vulnerable, that feels so resonate with things that I felt around the first book. But with the first book, I was more confident as a poet. Almost all of the poems in If They Come For Us had been published, or had been read aloud. This book is not that way at all‚ it’s an entirely new genre, it’s not a thing that I have a lot of experience in, and very few people have read the book or heard the book out loud, and none of the book has been published. So, in that way, it feels very me. It feels like a thing that was incubated very solo, and now is being released. And even though it’s fiction, this is probably the most vulnerable and personal thing I have ever written. And there are so many words! Which is wild. 

So, it feels very much like a first. And it’s odd, working across genre, because there’s so much rhetoric about how do you “retain” an audience across different projects. And for me, I’m less interested in that. I think I’ve worked very hard to release myself from that. And instead just trust that each project is its own thing, and each project deserves its own audience and space to be its self in the world. And in that way, this book feels very new, very like a first. And I’m excited to see who resonates with it in the world, and who finds a home in it. 

SEH: I love the tactile reading experience this book invites—redactions with their missing words displayed across the page, sections printed sideways, whole pages printed with only a single line of text. What were some of the ideas and questions around form you found yourself sitting with while writing this book?

This book made me confront so much about myself, to really sit in the narratives and stories that I had created about myself and to unwind them all.

FA: Well bitch, you know I’m a poet at heart! And a visual, weird ass poet at that! LMAO. I’m so annoying. I feel like every time I write something the editors/ doulas/ executives of my projects are like babe nooo, can you just make this straightforward? And I’m like… no. I’m an elusive Scorpio bitch to my core, even when I’m speaking to you in the most clear and straightforward way possible. My friend, Krista Franklin, who is an incredible artist, gave me a really important piece of advice when I was writing the book. I was in deep turmoil and she just told me—write it however you can, even if it comes out in scribbles. And that just really helped me write and created an opening for me. I can’t say someone’s name? Bet, let me redact. This character doesn’t fully remember what happened in this moment? Bet, let’s carve out space for her non-memory. The line won’t fit fully across the page? Bet, print it sideways. It just became a question of: how do I tell this story in the way that feels best for me? And just trusting myself and my ability to do that.  

SEH: In the years since you began this project, what changed? About the book, about your writing, about you? 

FA: Oh my love, everything has changed. Quite literally everything. This book has been chasing me for long, begging me to pay attention to it and actually slow down to write it. And this book made me confront so much about myself, to really sit in the narratives and stories that I had created about myself and to unwind them all. So it really was some huge, tectonic level shifts in terms of even understanding myself, re-orienting towards love, and making space for my wholeness. 

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