A photo of Fatimah looking over her shoulder

The Feministing Five: Fatimah Asghar

Brown Girls is the web series everyone’s been talking about.

Riding on the waves of fresh, honest storytelling that lovingly explores the lives of young people of color like Insecure and Atlanta, the new show illuminates a Chicago that’s vibrant, youthful, and brown as fuck. Brown Girls centers on the intimate friendship between twentysomethings Leila, a Pakistani-American writer coming into her queerness, and Patricia, an artsy black musician. The web series is revolutionary in its depiction of the deep friendship between two women of color from different racial backgrounds who both get to be fully realized, flawed, funny, and charmingly real people on screen. Where shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls have long faced scrutiny for their lack of diversity, almost every single person from the crew to the background actors on Brown Girls was a person of color.

The result is a show that’s beautifully affirming, that explores everything from sex positivity to queer identity to the perils of modern dating with heart and an inexplicable joy. For this week’s Feministing Five, I caught up with Fatimah Asghar, nationally touring poet, educator, and performer, who wrote Brown Girls and co-created the series with director Sam Bailey.

We talked about the process of being a first time screenwriter, the power of representation in media, why friendship is a means for collective survival, and more! Catch Fatimah on Twitter and make sure to watch season one of Brown Girls if you haven’t already.

Senti Sojwal: I can’t remember the last time I saw a friendship between two women of color from different racial backgrounds at the forefront of a movie or TV show. That seems wild, but I’m wracking my brain and really can’t. Leila and Patricia’s friendship is at the heart of Brown Girls. What was important to you in how you showcased this friendship? Where did you begin?

Fatimah Asghar: I gave a lot of thought to how I would make this friendship textured, and make it full of love. That was the primary, most important part to me — that these two women have a deep friendship, and that is never questioned. It’s a staple for them, no matter what happens, and they always return to each other. As Leila goes through this thing with Miranda and doesn’t know what to do, I wanted to have her and Patricia just lying in bed talking about it. I think that’s such a magical part of friendship for me — in the aftermath of something, just sitting with your friends and like not really saying that much, but just being together. I wanted their relationship to be highlighted, and be strong. The first three episodes are quieter than the fourth or fifth. That’s because I really wanted to show the friendship and relationship that they had, and in different ways. I wanted it to be reflected when Patricia was talking to her mom and Leila was talking to her sister. It was important to me to have the audience hear the family members talking about the friendship, about the girls to each other.

Senti Sojwal: As a South Asian, I was so excited to see the character of Leila as someone who is South Asian and gets to be a complex and full character. She’s coming into her queerness, she’s Muslim, she’s a good friend, she’s having trouble navigating her 20s, and she’s real. I especially appreciated the episode where she comes out to her sister, who was incredibly supportive. If South Asians are ever on screen, progressive is something we rarely get to be. What was significant to you in how you wanted to present Leila’s South Asian and Muslim identities on screen?

Fatimah Asghar: I agree, I feel like I never get to see South Asian representation that feels authentic to me, or nuanced. The thing about South Asian families being presented as conservative is that that’s very real. I don’t want to minimize that. I do think, though, that there needs to be a variety of stories and also reactions within the family. Leila’s sister reacts one way, but they allude to her aunt who might not be happy with her coming out, or understanding. I think with South Asians, and lots of different kinds of brown people, America does this thing where they think of us as the perpetual foreigner. It’s like, oh we can have a South Asian character, but then we always have to show them in the context of the country they’re from. They don’t get to be American. That’s really frustrating. It really erases all the different ways to be South Asian in America. You only get to be South Asian from South Asia. That isn’t to say those aren’t good stories, but it does mean that diasporic experiences are invisibilized. That was the important thing to me — to show Leila as a South Asian American. This is her, going about her day, and it isn’t all about her being from somewhere else. There’s some instances with her aunt, like when she tells Leila she’s got these men in Pakistan she can marry, but apart from that she’s really just an American. That’s something I wanted to make sure was part of her character, and really shown — the way she exists when she’s just being herself, and how American that is.

Senti Sojwal: Do you see Brown Girls as a response to the current political tensions of our time? How are you thinking about the importance of seeing diverse representations of minorities in media in a time of such intense xenophobia and state sanctioned racism?

Fatimah Asghar: The timing of all this was pretty remarkable — it came out right around the time of the Muslim ban and the talk of building a wall. I wrote the show in 2015, so I wasn’t really thinking about Trump when I was writing, but the release of the show coincided with all this stuff around Trump. I feel like I keep hearing this rhetoric of “now is the time”. I don’t believe in that rhetoric, because for so many people it has been “the time” forever, longer than I’ve been alive. I think it’s really hard being a person of color, a woman, a Muslim in this country. And it’s been that way. When people ask, is this a response to Trump? I say, well not really — but it is a response to being a person of color, being South Asian, experiencing heavy Islamophobia, xenophobia, all of that. Seeing rampant racism and hate in my lifetime left such an impression. My art, in a lot of ways, is counter to that. I really wanted to create this show that was a joyous celebration of people of color because it’s so easy to only see yourself in struggle, or only think your worth is tied to your hardship or things you’ve endured. I think it’s so great to see people who look like you laughing, and being allowed to be happy. That’s what I wanted to make and capture. I think that’s also what a lot of people respond to — the messiness of these girls, how even though everything kind of sucks they still love. They still so deeply enjoy each other’s time and company. If you have that, you’ll survive.

Senti Sojwal: What has been the greatest challenge for you in creating Brown Girls? What has been the greatest joy?

Fatimah Asghar: The greatest joy was working with all these incredible people. When I was writing the show, it was my first time ever doing any screenwriting. I had literally never even written a draft of anything before. I was always questioning if people would respond to the show or like it. I think the second we had a read aloud with the actors, everything changed. Sam Bailey, my co-creator and the director, just so believed in this project and wanted to make it happen. It felt like everyone we gathered into this experience responded so well and lovingly to what we were making. That’s one of my favorite things about this all. There’s such a great collaborate artistic community in Chicago, and a lot of people who are excited about the work they’re doing. The environment of being on set was also such a joy. It was so relaxed and it was amazing to have all these queer people, people of color, and women working on set, which is so not the norm. I think a lot of the challenges were just in my own head. Being able to write something for the first time, being able to put myself out on a limb, trying new things. I had spent so long thinking that I would love to write for TV or film, but just thought I couldn’t. Brown Girls was the moment I just decided to be like, fuck it I’m just going to do it. A lot of what I’ve learned is that if you spend all that time in your head telling yourself you can’t do it, you won’t. But if you decide to just try, you never know what’s going to happen! I think that’s a really cool thing to have learned throughout this project.

Senti Sojwal: The response to Brown Girls has been huge. The New York premiere was such a beautiful space of brown and black queer love and community. What’s it been like for you to see the response of your community to this show, and what are your hopes moving forward?

Fatimah Asghar: This started off really small, and I thought, oh, maybe my friends will watch it. Success for me meant that my friends and community would enjoy it. The response to the show has grown so much and really spiraled out of my control! It has been amazing and terrifying. I hope people understand that we had no money and really made this on a tiny budget, that it was my first time writing, that it was the lead actress’s first time acting. We were really creating a space for people to try things they hadn’t before! Sometimes when something is out of your control, you can’t really explain all those things. The response has been incredible. I think it shows that media like this is really important, and needs to exist. Think about the pushback when people of color are cast in major roles — like what happened with Star Wars, or when they cast a black actress as Hermione in the Harry Potter play. People will say things like, this isn’t relatable. It’s so awful that that’s the response there is, because it’s not true and not fair. I think that even seeing the way people have responded to Brown Girls shows that there are so many people who just want to see themselves on a screen. It’s not fair to keep denying people that. It’s such a basic thing — wanting to be seen as human. So many inspiring steps have been taken recently with regard to diversity in TV and film — like Atlanta, Insecure, Moonlight. I feel like it’s showing everyone that the stories of people of color are incredibly important and valuable. I hope things change, that we are doing our small part in showing why it’s so critical that people of color have our representation.

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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