"I’m feeling a lot of things about borders," Fariha Róisín told me. "And the U.S. — and what is home."
We were speaking over Zoom, which, because of the pandemic, is probably what we would have done even if Róisín weren't unexpectedly stuck in Portugal, and temporarily unable to come back to her home in New York City. But, as it was, she was a few thousand miles away, the sound of local church bells punctuating our conversation about borders and the pandemic and the concept of home, yes, but also trauma, friendship, survival, and her debut novel, Like a Bird.
Róisín — who released a book of poetry, How to Cure a Ghost, last year — started working on Like a Bird when she was not yet a teenager, and has revisited and revised it for the past 18 years. It's the story of Taylia Chatterjee, who is raised on New York City's Upper West Side by intellectual, emotionally distant parents, and alongside Alyssa, her picture-perfect sister. Tragedy strikes the family in more ways that one, and after she is raped, her parents disown Taylia, forcing her to find her way through her oceans of pain, and create a family of her own.
Despite grappling with heavy themes — sexual assault, suicide, entrenched misogyny — Róisín infuses Like a Bird with moments of joy and visceral pleasure. It is, in many ways, a celebratory book, one that shows the ways we are resilient and capable of reimagining our lives in a manner that not only serves our own needs, but strengthens our communities. It feels like the kind of book that is particularly meaningful right now, as we all struggle with determining the shapes of our future, understanding how to move forward after so much loss.
Below, Róisín and I speak about Like a Bird, resilience, and removing outdated boundaries.
In Like a Bird, it becomes clear how damaging it is when people cling to an outmoded idea of how people and things are supposed to be and what they’re supposed to look like. Rather than figure out how to reconfigure outmoded structures and find a way to get them to work better, they persist in their old ways. It’s an interesting parallel to what’s happening during the pandemic and during this period of activism, as we’re seeing how stubbornly people refuse to change, no matter how necessary it is. But, particularly when someone endures trauma, as Taylia does, it becomes more and more vital to insist on reimagining the way we live our lives. How can this be made clear to those people who refuse to change?
We’re all reimagining our futures. We’re all reimagining survival. The fact that, en masse, we’re all thinking about abolition; we’re thinking about ending capitalism — those are motifs that have been brewing in my own life and that I’ve been thinking about in my own ecosystem of my mind and my body. I’ve been really reckoning those things. I love thinking about how layered we are as humans. In my own life, there’s such an unlayering that’s happening right now, and a portal-shifting. I’ve been thinking about the possibilities of what our future and the future of the species and the planet looks like, and that’s exactly what I reckon with in my writing. I want to focus on the small shifts of personhood. For me, I’ve never had grand awakenings. They’ve always been very gradual. And I want that to come across because it’s really necessary to remind people that survival takes a while. Survival is your whole life. It’s not just something you can figure out in 10 months, you know?
One interesting aspect of enduring trauma, whether long-term or immediate, is that you can’t really recognize the contours of it in the moment, or right after it. It’s really only in retrospect that you can have the perspective to analyze it. But even then it’s always impossible because the things that are happening to you never stop happening to you, you just continue to evolve in your relationship with them. Which is a phenomenon you explore in Like a Bird, by reflecting the non-linear way we experience time and our relationships with other people and events — another thing that feels relevant right now.
Taylia’s regard of time has to do with this underlying idea that she figures out at a certain point, where she starts to question her own memory. That was something I experienced in my own life, with my own trauma, uncovering and excavating — so many of us only have a slice of a memory. I have a trauma therapist, and so much of this is what I work through with her, how different it is for the varying characters involved in a moment, and how everyone walks away with a specific kind of idea of what happened and how special and powerful that is, and how important it is to remember. And, of course, we don’t remember. In so many ways, writing Like a Bird was just a pure act of intuition. I am so scared of this book coming out into the world [laughs], because it’s taken so long to write — it’s that thing where I don’t even know if it’s good, I just know that it’s from me. It is this essence of my experience, and that’s important.
You’ve been working on this book in one form or another for 18 years. So I can understand the strangeness associated with saying it’s “done.” What was it like to work on one project for that long? How did your work on it evolve?
I dreamt the story when I was 12 and I started writing it soon after. I was watching Cruel Intentions on repeat, and I don’t know if that had something to do with it. [laughs] But the original genesis of Like a Bird was a lot more hetero, and there was a bigger emphasis on love and romance as being the thing that saves Taylia, but in the end that’s not what I wanted to do.
I’m a Capricorn, so I’m always going to think, How are people going to respond to this? How are people going to relate to this? How are people going to like this? Those are always my questions. But, at the end of the day, I really believe in the story of Taylia. I would never hear about stories of survival. And, survival from abuse, specifically sexual abuse, specifically rape, is such a tenuous topic still. Even watching Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, people are thinking, How do we confront this issue head-on and how do we actually look at it as this complex living thing?
I did so much historical research in so many different ways for this book, and everything was so demoralizing and everything was so tragic, because everything was really proving to me how important it is to write a book like this, because many people do not have resources — whether it’s familial, or governmental, or monetary support — to protect themselves, to save themselves from this kind of experience.
How important was it to you to portray a sexual assault survivor whose story didn’t end in either tragedy or triumph? You really refused to put Taylia into that binary, even as she had no support from her family, or people from the community where she grew up.
It’s rooted in truth.There’s a specific kind of conservatism that I grew up around, where it’s like: Something happened to you, and you’re a woman? You’re disowned. And, to varying degrees, this is a quiet violence that exists in specifically South Asian communities. Although, for all intents and purposes, I was raised in a very liberal, socialist-Marxist home that was very pro-left politics — but there was so much rampant misogyny. There are things that, when it comes to a femme body, there’s just no understanding. I needed people to understand that some folks don’t have a choice, and they have to just choose themselves. I have to keep going. My survival is the only thing I have to look toward.
I had to write a story about someone who wins and who survives the most grotesque pain of not having a support system and losing your family, and then, having to heal that very specific wound. It was very difficult. I lived everything; I feel everything all the time. But with writing Like a Bird, I need it to be out there. I just hope it resonates with people, that’s all I want.
It really offers a vision of what’s possible when the boundaries you had in place from birth fall away, and what happens when you don’t have to worry about pleasing a family that can’t be pleased, and then get to create your own family.
The community that she creates is so messy. I gained so much from my own experience of moving to New York when I was 19. I was quite caged as a child and as a teen, so then to come into the big city and have so much freedom, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I experienced a lot of loss, but a lot of courage was gained, especially from the women I came into contact with. I owe the women in my life — the femme folks and nonbinary folks in my life — really everything, because I have learned so much about who I am in the last decade.
It sounds kind of corny, but we live in a patriarchal world and the relationships between women are still pretty unknown and unseen, and they’re still pretty mercurial, and I think there’s a lot about envy and jealousy that are patriarchal devices. Of course no relationship is perfect or immune to life and humanity and just the way people are, but I wanted to write something devotional about the relationships I’ve had that have just single-handedly saved me from deep darkness and have revived me time and time again.
Tanaïs who is one of my closest friends, who also blurbed this book, who also edited this book, who is the last person I talked to before doing this major edit… she helped me and she was willing to give me her time and her energy and she was willing to invest in the story as much as she would her own, and that’s something I’m really lucky to have in my life, and that’s something I wanted to put on the page, that relationship.
This is a book that has a lot of interiority, because we spend a lot of time in Taylia’s mind and in her memories, but it’s also a very visceral book, which feels important. Women are, of course, physical creatures, but it’s not frequent enough that we get these types of unfiltered portrayals of ourselves. Was this intentional or just intuitive?
I love the scene where Taylia gets a yeast infection, because I remember the first time I got one and I was like, Why do I want to kill myself? [laughs] It was such a terrible experience. There’s such a divorcing, or dissonance between the body and the mind, especially in the West. And so much of my interest in things is from this healing perspective, and so, what does it look like when a character doesn’t even have a framework for this, and has to confront her body for the first time after never confronting that she even has one?
We’ve been taught to have such disdain for our bodies and the mechanics behind our bodies that we don’t even have a relationship with these things. There’s so many ways that we can have fluency and language with our bodies, and we just don’t. So part of writing about that viscerality was and is this desire of trying to intellectualize wellness and make people think more deeply about something that really affects every single person on a different level, and what would it mean to be tapped in so we could be better to ourselves and each other.
This novel deals with so many serious issues, but there are also so many elements that are just so fun, that have to do with the most quotidian parts of life, like what kind of books Taylia reads, and it’s a reminder that even when you’re dealing with shitty stuff, you are still living and having fun.
I love touch. I love pleasure. I love seeing things. I love reading things — that pulpiness. It was important for me to have those aspects in the book that are just strange and funny, and ultimately we are lived people and the beauty of humanness is that we can just juggle so much, and we are capable of feeling so many experiences. The pandemic is a perfect example of how a worldwide thing that is so noxious can be simultaneously insanely beautiful and remarkable in moments. Despite the despair of Taylia’s life, she is trying to enjoy it, and, in her own way, actually feel what it is to live for yourself.