fri 19/07/2024

Extract: 'On Loneliness' by Fatimah Asghar, from 'The Good Immigrant USA' | reviews, news & interviews

Extract: 'On Loneliness' by Fatimah Asghar, from 'The Good Immigrant USA'

Extract: 'On Loneliness' by Fatimah Asghar, from 'The Good Immigrant USA'

One of 26 powerful essays on being made to feel other in today's America

Poet and performer Asghar: 'I hold hands with words only to find out that they’ve betrayed me and mean something else'Courtesy of Dialogue Books

The infamous border wall. Prolonged detention. Children in cages. Even as Biden's election promises a sea change in Trump's devastatingly hardline immigration policy, immigrants, both first- and second-generation, face a spectrum of prejudice, violence and categorisation in the increasingly divided "land of the free".

In the wide-ranging collection The Good Immigrant USA, editors Chimene Suleyman and Nikesh Shukla make it their aim to "finally let immigrants be in charge of their own narrative" as writers and artists from Teju Cole to Jenny Zhang and Chiogizie Obioma to Dani Fernandez confront "the most vital question we now face: What do we want America to be?" Acutely observed and sensitively ambivalent, the essays in the collection track the joy as well as loneliness of living between cultures. Fatimah Asghar's piece is prompted by the too-familiar question: Where are you from? 

A few days ago I order an Uber pool on my way to my friend’s surprise birthday party. I’ve just moved to Los Angeles and am new to this city, my loneliness creeping up like an old shadow around every corner. The driver double-checks my name. He asks me where I’m from. I knew this was coming. The question “Where are you from?” has punctured most days of my life, and has been both innocuous and frightening. “Where are you from?” usually means “How did you get here?” or the clearer: “You don’t belong here.” A few weeks after September 11th, I showed up for middle school soccer practice half an hour early, and three older boys followed me around the park, yelling, “Where are you from?” old beer bottles they found around the park clutched menacingly in their hands. I rarely answer this question honestly – the real answer is that I belong to many froms. I was born in New York, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but made Chicago my home after college. My mom was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, but fled the violence of Partition with her family, moving to Lahore, Pakistan. I don’t know where my father was born, but his family also eventually moved to Lahore. When I was young, both my parents died, and along with them, the stories that could have helped me answer the unending questions.

Book cover The Good Immigrant USA“Where are you from?” usually bothers me, but tonight I note his brown skin, and I know it’s not the same thing as a white American asking me the same question. I note his Muslim name. His question is not an attack but an invitation, a cup of tea, from someone who also feels lonely in this country and is looking for a bit of home. There’s no one else in the pool, so I don’t have to put on for outsiders. He’s from Lahore, but actually from there, as in was born and raised there, whereas Lahore is just in my blood, the clearest origin point of my lineage. My Lahore is romantic, a place my parents were alive and loved each other. It was their city, their home, their history that I can’t access. A Lahore of the ’70s and ’80s. A city stuck in time. His Lahore is real, concrete. Modern, updated with cell phones and internet. His Lahore is stores and shopkeepers he knows. Where he had his first kiss, where he took his first steps, where he learned to drive and shave. But here we are, in an Uber in Los Angeles, linked by a different city halfway around the world, both real and imagined.

I’ve often, to no avail, tried to figure out how much of my loneliness comes from my race. Or how much comes from my queerness or my confused gender. How much comes from my bad relationships and desire to be loved. Growing up, I loved books and TV, often using those stories as a way to escape from my real life. But I wonder now how much of my loneliness comes from never seeing myself in those spaces and instead consuming so many stories in which the protagonist was always white. I recently saw a video of artist Kathleen Collins giving a talk at a university. She spoke about how, as folks from marginalized backgrounds, when we see only white people on TV, we begin to think of ourselves as not human, and our feelings as not worthy. Because we see only white people fall in love on screen, we mimic them, contorting our feelings into an approximation of white heterosexual love rather than Brown or Black or Queer love. Therefore, we are not only isolated from traditional representation but also isolating ourselves from our own feelings by not thinking that we are capable of defining love or anger or joy or hurt on our own terms. If whiteness is human, then anything else becomes inhuman. This is the crux of so much of our loneliness: the early set belief that not even our feelings are real, that nearly everything we do is mimicry or an approximation of whiteness, a cry to be seen as human.

As an artist, I’m always struggling to manage the well of my loneliness, how much of myself I can give away to satisfy others’ thirst. Working in entertainment, it’s not uncommon to walk into a room, pitch a South Asian or Muslim-specific idea, and have an exec say that they don’t think their audiences will connect to it. In these spaces, even my loneliness isn’t palatable. I wish there was a pie chart for loneliness, a way to submit a blood sample and receive hard data on how I can quantify it, what I can use and what I can put away, and why I’m always dragging my loneliness behind me, hoping someone will pick it up.

If I'm not allowed to laugh at my own life, then who is?
I’m an orphan. I find things funny that I shouldn’t. When I make orphan jokes, no one laughs. My humor is purely mine, and my sister’s, and slowly the people who love me and understand my brand of wickedness. But if I’m not allowed to laugh at my own life, then who is? My sister always doubles over laughing when she tells a story about how after my parents died, when I was in first grade and she was in second, I was crying uncontrollably in the lunchroom for no apparent reason. Her teachers had to pull her from class to sit with me because no one else could calm me down. I know why I was crying: I was being crushed by the weight of my loneliness. I didn’t know where my parents were. I was just starting to understand that they were never coming back. But when we talk about this story now, neither of us can stop laughing. We find it so funny: the image of me as a first grader, in my hand-me-down American clothes, crying uncontrollably because I was realizing that I was going to be alone for my whole life, while all the other kids happily ate their pudding nearby.

Part of loneliness comes from having to explain the things you think everyone should know but they don’t. That nagging feeling that you are not normal. Whenever I’m having a conversation with someone new, there’s always a moment when I feel I need to explain myself, or we hit a roadblock in the conversation. I remember getting into an argument with a friend I had known for years because he didn’t know that my parents had died. He acted as though I’d betrayed him, said that I’d been “withholding” something from him. I hadn’t been doing it intentionally – it just never came up. I suspect he felt betrayed because he’d thought I was normal and I turned out not to be. But it’s annoying to have to define or qualify myself in every conversation. Hi, my name is Fatimah and I’m an orphan. Hi, my name is Fatimah and I’m queer. Hi, my name is Fatimah and I’m Muslim. Hi, my name is Fatimah and I’m and I’m and I’m and I’m and I’m. . .

My Uber driver starts asking me if I’ve seen any Pakistani movies lately, if I listen to Pakistani music. Hearing the excitement in his voice, I feel like a disappointment when I say no. I often feel like a fraud when I talk to South Asian people who weren’t raised in America. He asks if I speak Urdu. I give him the standard American bastard first-generation answer: “I don’t speak Urdu, but I understand it fluently.” Our conversation stalls; we are both familiar and unfamiliar to each other. Race often feels like a planet I don’t understand, one whose rules I’m trying desperately to figure out. What makes us the same? What makes us different? We’re strangers – I literally met him a few moments ago when I got into his car, and yet there are layers of shared understanding between us. Even in our moments of silence I feel sadness tinged with history and diaspora. A desire to connect, to bridge the distance of land, sea, and childhood in order to find a mirror we can recognize ourselves in.

At the same time, I know that he can hurt me more than the average person. When he asks me if I plan to marry a white man, it feels as though he’s asking if I’m going to betray him. I can’t tell him I might not even marry at all, let alone a man, because I don’t want his judgment. Because his judgment would be too close, would be the judgment I feel in my family, the reason I’m on the other side of the country from them. I’ll rationalize this to myself later: what makes him think he can ask me such personal questions; why is he making assumptions about me; I don’t owe him an explanation; we’re speaking completely different languages. And, yes, we might be actually speaking different languages.

When I hear an Urdu word or phrase, I understand it by the texture it gives meI want to tell him that I understand Urdu by its texture. Here’s a scene from my childhood: a friend comes over for dinner, and one of my family members asks them if they’ve eaten enough or if they want more food. I stare at them, waiting for the response, and they look confused, eventually whispering, “Fati, I don’t know that language.” I can’t tell when my family is speaking English or Urdu; in my aunt’s mouth, her voice is just her voice. The boat that carries the cargo. Perhaps this is because I am a poet, but language has always been a multidimensional plane to me. My college friends make fun of me for how wrong my grasp of English is, how I use words incorrectly all the time. “For a writer, you don’t know shit about language.” Yeah, yeah, fuck you. I’m constantly aware of how little I know of English. But my strained need to appease my colonized tongue keeps me stuck in this language. It’s the only language I know well, yet it still denies me my freedom. I hold hands with words only to find out that they’ve betrayed me and mean something else. I’m a native English speaker, but Urdu was my first language. I spoke both Urdu and Saraiki before my parents died, and now I don’t speak either. When I hear an Urdu word or an Urdu phrase, I understand it by the texture it gives me. The knowledge of its intention, the direction it pushes me toward. For example: “bas” means “stop,” “enough,” “this is the limit.” Depending on how it’s said, it’s a cry or an apology. Is there an English equivalent for that? Is that language or tone? I’m not sure. When I ask my uncle how to say “I’m sorry,” he says we don’t have a word for that. The closest is “Mooje maaf kijye,” which is more like “Lend me your forgiveness” or “Give me pardon.” It’s all mixed up in my head; I don’t know where a word starts or ends, just the feeling that I’m left with when it’s gone.

I both belong and don’t belong to AmericaIt’s not that I think race is oppressive. I try not to trap myself in narratives that present race as automatically equated with hardship or negativity. Our identities as people of color should not be defined solely by our struggles. But, as we are perpetually made to feel like others in this country, that’s how we are taught to understand ourselves. There’s so much love in my race. I’ve been trying to think of my race as a site of joy. The feeling I get when I see a South Asian or Muslim person succeeding, like I’ve swallowed a handful of fireflies, lighting up my stomach. I glow into the night. When an older South Asian woman I’ve never met calls me bayti and she transforms into my auntie. When a bhangra song comes on during a party and all the South Asian people sweep in from the corners to form a circle. When I see a flock of South Asians in traditional clothing crossing a street in a crowded city, and we catch eyes. When my older family members ask if my tattoos are bird shit. My people, my people. How I love you on sight, how you make my heart beat a crowded symphony in my chest. Half the time I want every single one of you as my kin, and half the time I want nothing to do with you. Perhaps this is the source of my loneliness: belonging and not belonging, always, to you.

I both belong and don’t belong to America. When I’m in America, I’m constantly reminded that I’m not actually from here, that I can never have the same access as white Americans. But when I’m abroad, I feel the most American I’ve ever felt: hyperaware that my cultural reference points are American, that I can’t shake my American entitlement, that once I open my mouth and talk, I am perceived as an American.

I learned to be who I am by approximating who others are. When my classmates wore T-shirts, my auntie went to the fabric store and hand-sewed us T-shirts made out of a flower print fabric with a yellow background. My aunt is the best seamstress I have ever seen – I remember when she made me a beautiful green velvet frock with a matching scrunchie from fabric she got at the store, and I proudly held her hand as I wore it to the fanciest place we could think of: the McDonald’s a few blocks away from our house. When I showed up at school beaming in the T-shirt she made me, all my classmates laughed at me. All their clothes came from stores, where they could pick them off the shelves, stamped with brand names. Not made at home or thrifted from a bargain store. I wanted to be like them, enjoy their inborn American ease. But my approximation was always off, a little bit distorted. There’s a photo of me from when I was around six or seven years old: I’m wearing a huge puffy pink princess dress with knockoff Timberland boots. The majority of my classmates wore Tims, and I wanted them. When I asked my family if I could get them, they agreed that they were practical shoes, good for winter and snow. We went to Payless and bought the closest things to Tims, and I practically lived in them until they were so broken down that I had to let them go.

At the mosque, I watched the other girls wrap their hair up effortlessly, not a strand poking out of place. I tried to do the same, only to have a random older woman come over to me and tug my dopatta over my head to hide all the wisps of hair I had let escape. At parties where there were South Asian people who had parents, I watched them interact. I noted the easy way Urdu poured out of their mouths, the way they complained about their parents being too overbearing or involved in their lives. The kurtas their families sent home for them from stores in Pakistan or India. Later, when my uncle died and I had to buy a white kurta for his funeral, I researched all the South Asian clothing stores I could get to by bus from my house. I arrived and fingered through all the racks, not knowing what would be appropriate, or how to negotiate in Urdu. I tried to practice in front of the racks of clothes and felt defeated. The shopkeeper took pity on me and became an auntie, helping me pick out what to wear.

When I told my uncle if I ever got married it would be for love, he responded with, “We aren’t Amreecan. We were never meant to fall in love.”

My Uber driver asks if I have heard the saying about Lahore, and I almost answer yes: “You haven’t really lived until you’ve lived in Lahore.” I’ve heard this a thousand times, along with the sayings about how Kashmir is the most beautiful place on earth. I wonder if every city has its own mythology, or if Pakistani people are just more romantic than most. When he speaks, it is a different saying: “A person who’s lived in Lahore can’t ever feel at home anywhere else.” I ask him if this is true. He takes a long time to answer and then says no. He’s lived in the US for fifteen years now, and the first time he went back to Lahore was after seven years away. All the streets had changed, and the shops had turned over. It was an unrecognizable city. And he felt like a stranger in the place that was supposed to be his home. He’s only answering part of the question, saying that he doesn’t feel as though Lahore is his home anymore. But he’s not answering the harder question: whether he’s found home anywhere else.

Before I knew the word for gentrification, I saw it happening in Cambridge. I don’t know if what happened in his Lahore is gentrification or not. But I know we both grew up in places that are no longer home, places where we can no longer return. I’d come home every few months from college to fancy produce stores and chains where there had previously been run-down local bakeries and businesses. The new additions to our neighborhood – wealthy, white – spoke often of how nice these new stores were. Meanwhile, my friends’ families found themselves unable to afford the apartments they had been renting for years. Growing up, I lived in a Cambridge that was very Black, Brown, and immigrant. When I meet people now who aren’t from there but lived there as students or adults and they complain about how white or affluent the city is, I want to hit them. It bothers me that they can so easily dismiss an entire city without understanding that they are part of the problem. It bothers me that people don’t take the time to see the Black, Brown, and poor people who have lived in a place for generations.

What does home look like when we’ve been displaced?My Uber driver tells me he’s in the US Army now, that he joined to help get citizenship. He’s not allowed to visit Pakistan anymore because he’s in the army, and they have rules against their soldiers going to countries like Pakistan. He traded one home for another. I wonder if this is a rule just for people like him, like us, or for all their soldiers. I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to return to Pakistan now that he’s in the army, if that ban will ever be lifted for him. We might be American on paper, but we aren’t granted the same privileges of Americans in actuality. Like how even though I have a US passport and haven’t been to Pakistan since I was four or five, it’s complicated for me to go to India because I’m of Pakistani origin. I would have to apply for a special visa and renounce any ties to Pakistan. I’ve had cousins who were denied visa entry into India and could not attend family members’ funerals because they were Pakistani. The concept of being from “both” places or from multiple places is hard for governments to understand or acknowledge. Since I am not able to go to India, I am not allowed to return to Kashmir, where my mom’s family is originally from, because it is on Indian land. I might never see the place where she was born, the place where my family lived for generations before the violence of Partition made them refugees. My loneliness heats inside me, reaching its boiling point. What is my home if there’s no real place my people are from that I can return to? What is my home if I’m not allowed to go back to it because England drew some arbitrary line in a land they did not know, a line I now can’t cross?

What does home look like when we’ve been displaced? The enormity of this question makes me feel like I’ll never have a place in this world, makes me feel such a sharp loneliness. When I’m at my loneliest, I think about my mother. My displacement means nothing compared to hers. How many “homes” she had, how each uprooting was a kind of violence: her entire family forced to leave Kashmir, living in Lahore through multiple wars, getting married to a stranger and having to leave everything she knew behind for London and then New York. And her death, which maybe was a relief for her, was, and continues to be, a kind of violence for me. I try to build my home in people, but then they disappear. One of my poetry mentors, Willie Perdomo, once said something along the lines of “Home is nothing but a memory.” It’s a place we can only return to in our minds. And therefore, “home” is as unstable and impermanent as memory. We reinvent it at will. And each time we revisit it, we might accidentally change one detail, which ripples and ripples until the whole thing is distorted. Home is my childhood: the boys who followed me around the park with glass bottles in their hands, falling asleep on my Qur’an at religious school, my sister knocking all the air out of my body as she slammed her fists into my stomach. It’s also dressing up as a bat and holding my aunt’s hand on a Halloween night. Sitting with a boy I liked at the bus station for hours as we ignored the buses that would take us to our separate homes. Stretching before a two-mile run to practice, my whole team at my side.

My driver’s phone goes off; another rider is added to our trip. We pull down a few streets to grab them, and as soon as they get into the car, we stop talking, our fragile Uber home interrupted by the presence of an American, a real American. The rest of the car is silent until he drops me off. And then I say goodbye, close the door, and never see him again.

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