"We write for our community and the people that we love"A Q&A With Brown Girls Creator Fatimah Ashgar

New webseries Brown Girls feels familiar—familial, even. It’s as if writer Fatimah Asghar scripted our very own private conversations—funny, gross, full of anxiety—with our friends who are our chosen family. The show is a candid look into the everyday messy lives of writer Leila and musician Patricia, who are a loose amalgamation of Asghar and one of her real-life best friends, artist Jamila Woods. In the first moments of the opening scene, we see Leila stumbling around a bedroom after waking up just before noon, answering her phone, "As-salaam alaikum, Auntie.” She convinces her aunt that no, she didn’t just wake up; no, she’s not having sex; yes, she will go to mosque later; and she needs to get off the phone right now because she’s actually at work. Just as Leila hangs up, we see her lover, Miranda, roll over in bed. After an awkward exchange with Miranda about keeping their relationship casual, Leila busses over to her BFF, Patricia, and they lounge on a bed day-drinking and toasting to the “Single Girls Club.”

Director Sam Bailey, who created and starred in her own web series, You’re So Talented, about a young struggling artist, has done an incredible job of pulling great performances from novice actors and bringing Asghar’s vision to the screen. In this story, Asghar captures much more than the individual narratives of Leila and Patricia. This is a show we didn’t know we deserved, and it is so necessary to see ourselves reflected back at us, in our messiness, in our richness, in our small funny moments—in our own stories.

AMY LAM: In terms of your writing, I know you as a poet. Why did you decide to write a web series as opposed to a novel or a play?

FATIMAH ASGHAR: I've always loved film. It’s the blend of something onscreen, being able to watch it whenever or watch it repeatedly, and the combination of visuals, text, music, acting. It's an art form that is so hybrid and so collaborative and has always been really, really appealing to me.

It's also always been really daunting to be like, I really love this art form. And I love being a consumer of this art form, and I don't know if I could ever be a maker of this art form. This web series is my first foray into anything like this in terms of writing out a script that's meant to be said by other people. I thought, Oh, cool. I can just write this out, these short episodes, and I can do that. Then we'll see what happens. That was kind of my mindset every single step of the process. When I was writing it, I was like, No one's gonna read this. No one's gonna see it. I'm just writing it because I wanna just try it, and it'll be fun. Then being like, I have a whole draft of this, so I'm going to do a staged reading of it, just to hear it out loud so I can hear what it sounds like. And then Sam [Bailey], the director, approached me after the staged reading, and the folks from OpenTV said, "We wanna do this. We wanna make this a show."

There were times while I was watching it, I thought, "Fatimah's writing the story that satisfies her."

You totally are right, yeah [laughs]!

That makes it even more fun to watch, because I thought, She's not writing this to say, “I need to reach this untapped market of viewers.” She's writing it because she wants to tell the story.

Yeah, that's exactly it. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect people to react to it the way that they have been. As you said, I was doing this for me and Jamila and our friends, and it's really incredible to see the way that people have been responding to it.

The show touches on so many different things. Some of them are really serious, like coming out and being scared to do that or pursuing the things that you really want to do with your life. But also there's so much humor in it. I was wondering what was behind the balance of dealing with serious shit and then writing all that humor in it as well.

That balance is just what I know of in my own life. If we're talking about the scene with Leila and her sister, when Leila is basically super nervous to tell her sister that she’s queer. And then her sister's like, "And? I know. What else are you trying to tell me?" And Leila has that moment of relief. Then they hug, and her sister calls her nasty and pushes her away because she snotted on her. That is literally exactly all I know of my relationship with my sister, Khudejha.

It's just kind of like a default way of speaking. We all make jokes all the time, and we're kind of all cracking jokes at each other and digging at each other all the time. Interactions with human beings can be so freaking awkward and weird. In this show, what I was just trying to do was think about people as people. And real people bring these different kinds of humor and these different kinds of quirkinesses to the conversation. That's kind of what allows for the blend between levity and seriousness in the series.

I could tell that Leila's based off of you just from certain points about who she is in her life. She's a writer, she's an orphan, she's kooky [laughs]. But it didn't click for me until the very end of the series that Patricia is based on one of your BFFs, Jamila Woods. The show is based on real life. What made you be like, "This is a part of real life shit that I want to write about or put on TV?"

The characters are loosely based on us. Like, the kind of archetype of the characters in terms of their identities are based on us. What I really wanted to highlight as true to life was the texture of the friendship. It was really, really important to me that the friendship, how it came across in the series, mimicked the friendship and love that we have for each other, from the way we constantly rely on each other and are really ride or die for each other.

Some of the specifics are not real. Some of them are exaggerated; some of them are played down. It was interesting 'cause I once, me and Jam, we brought our students that we were teaching from Young Chicago Authors to set, and they were shooting the scene where Patricia has just been fired. And it's the scene after, when Vic is talking about how they need an intervention. One of our students was like, "Oh my god! Did Jamila get fired?" And I was like, "No!" I just can't imagine Jamila ever getting fired from any job she's ever done. She's so diligent, and she just would never, ever do that. It was so interesting because they were like, "What is the line of what is autobiographical in something?"

There’s a lot of Jamila that's actually in Leila. There's a lot of her quirkiness in Leila that I think is really, really great, and I think there's a lot of my bluntness that's in Patricia. Identity-wise, they’re based on us, and then they're like a hybrid mixture of us personality-wise, which makes for more of a dynamic thing than a one-to-one this is Jamila, and this is me.

I think it works so well because they're both very distinct characters. So even if they're a mix of both of you, each one, you can really tell them apart. Speaking of the characters, the actors Nabila Hossain and Sonia Denis are so charismatic, so funny. I was floored by how good the acting was throughout the whole series. I was just sitting there like, "Seriously. How come this isn't on HBO?" I'm not even trying to blow smoke up your ass.

[Laughs.]

The acting's so good and so natural that they felt like people I know!

I think what's cool about that is neither Sonia or Nabila, I don't think either of them would've said that they were actors before this production. Nabila, who plays Leila, is a friend of mine from elementary school and high school. I've known her forever. We used to act in high school, but now she's an engineer. That's what her job is. When we were auditioning people, in the back of my head the whole time, I kept thinking, There's someone I know who isn't an actress who would be amazing for this. And I shot her a text, "Could you send an audition tape? I don't know if this is ever going to work, but do you want to just try?" And she ended up being that role.

And Sonia is a comedian. I think this is her first time ever really acting in this way. So the two leads aren't actresses, and they just killed it. They just did so, so, so good at everything. I think it's because they're real people. I think it's because they're not caught up in what it means to be a good actress. They're just having fun and doing it really well and are really talented!

Wow! I'm floored that both of them are not people who are hustling trying to be actors, because they were so good in it. And I'm not trying to talk shit about web series, but sometimes you watch web series, and you're like, "Wow. Hmm. Maybe those people need to go back and take some acting classes."

[Laughs.] The way we found everyone—cast, crew, everybody who worked on this—was just in our network. Everything that we have done is so DIY. We write for our community and the people that we love, and we were able to make it.

We really kind of were flying by just our community, and our community rode for us. So that is why this project has been so much of a joy for everyone who's worked on it. And I think it’s the reason why people are gravitating to it. It's just really a love song to so many people who are behind the set who wanted to support it, who are just in the community that just rode for it. I just love them and really appreciate that that was the way that this kind of came about.

I don't know if this is something you intentionally did in terms of writing the scenes: In the majority of the opening scenes in the series, there were things that I had never seen open a show before. Like the very first episode, the very first words that are uttered from Leila when she's on the phone with her aunt are "As-salaam alaikum." I've never heard that as a first lines in a show before. In the second episode, Patricia is talking to her Tinder date person and the words "pussy juice" are in the conversation [laughs].

Another episode opens with Leila cooking roti and dhal before her sister visits. And then in episode four, there’s the accusation of "Did you have poop in your eye?" to one of their friends who has pinkeye. Then there’s the episode where Patricia is working at the bar and her coworker's talking about the idea of chugging semen [laughs].

Sometimes we don't pay enough attention to how shows open because it's just a brief moment. But for these episodes that are so short, how the show opens says a lot about what's going to be happening for the tenor of the show. The variety of all these random things that I have never seen on television shows period, but to see it open the episode was incredible. That just really struck me as being like, "This is going to be fucking special." I was wondering, is that something that you intentionally did, or did it just happened that way?

It's so hard for me to be able to know that because it was my first time writing anything like this. It just really was very natural. I was like, "This is the first scene." The first scene never changed from the second I wrote my first draft of it to the end. Those first words never changed. And it wasn't like I was trying to say, "I'm establishing her Muslimness.” It was more like, "This is the conversation. This is a conversation that happened." Her aunt calls, and then she's like, "As-salaam alaikum," and then goes into the kind of thing about her having just woken up but pretending to be at work and trying to get her aunt off the phone while her lover is in bed. That just made sense.

When I was writing this, I wasn't thinking of what else was out there and how am I making my thing different. Literally, I thought, "I'm just trying to write something that I think my friends would want to watch."

by Amy Lam
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Amy Lam is Bitch Media's contributing editor. Find her at @amyadoyzie.

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