For poet Fatimah Asghar, the word ‘orphan’ has more than one meaning

Sometimes, English needs to be broken, according to poet Fatimah Asghar.

Asghar described “brokenness” as an opportunity — a chance to use language in new ways and to address stories at the margins, including her own. “I think that’s what poetry can do, which is why I really believe in it,” she said.

Asghar’s parents, who were born in Kashmir and Pakistan and moved to the U.S., died when she was five. These dual identities — of being Pakistani living in diaspora, and of being an orphan — have influenced each other and her work throughout her life, she said.

“Being a part of any kind of diaspora is such a beautifully haunting and strange experience, to kind of constantly be working back toward a place where your family has left, or were exiled from, or can’t go back to,” she said. “That’s a kind of orphaning in its own self.”

Spoken word is a tool with which she can address these two experiences, she said. In 2011, Asghar spent a year on a Fulbright researching the way that political and ethnic-based violence in Bosnia affected the fields of theater and art. While she was there, she created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first spoken word poetry group, REFLEKS.

Unlike many forms of theater, in which there is a separation between playwright and actor, spoken word combines those roles to “empower people to be experts in their own stories,” she said. “Everyone [is] required to be a writer in order to participate, and in that way, everyone [is] contributing their unique voice and perspective.”

Spoken word also blurs the line of who is a “poet” and who is not, an unnecessary designation that can discourage people from participating, she said. “Spoken word … is demystifying what it means to be a poet,” she said.

Asghar’s poem “Super Orphan” cycles between questions and statements of fact, employing periodic breaks and pauses. Its sparseness reflects the fact that her story lies at the margins, both on the page and in society, she said.

“The piece always felt very bare to me, and fragmented. It’s talking about fragmentation. it’s talking about collage, coming out of diaspora and a layer of history that is built out of the margins and not necessarily centrally framed,” she said.

Hear Asghar read “Super Orphan” or read the poem below.

Super Orphan

Today, I donned my cape like a birth
certificate & jumped, arms wide into the sky.

I know—once there was a man.
Or maybe a woman.

Let’s try again: once, there was a family.
What came first?

What to do then, when the only history
you have is collage?

Woke up, parents still
dead. Outside, the leaves yawn,

re-christen themselves as spring.

Lets try again. Once there was a village
on a pale day, unaware of the greatness

at its gate.

Today, I woke:
Batman, a king over Gotham.

The city sinning at my feet
begging to be saved.

The same dream again:
police running after my faceless
family with guns

my uncle leaps into a tulip
filled field, arms turning to wings
as bullets greet him.

Today, I woke, slop-lipped
and drunk, cards in my hand,

Joker in my chest. Today I woke
angry at the world for its hurt

wanting to make more like me.

Are all refugees superheroes?

Do all survivors carry villain inside them?

Today, I donned my cape like a birth
certificate & jumped, arms wide into the sky.

How else to say I am here?

Fatimah Asghar is a nationally touring poet, photographer and performer. She created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS, while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-violent contexts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY Magazine, The Paris-American, The Margins, and Gulf Coast. She is a Kundiman Fellow and a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Her chapbook “After” is forthcoming on Yes Yes Books fall of 2015. “Super Orphan” was originally published in “The Offing” and “The Margins.”