Dark and Light at the Same Time: A Conversation with Fariha Róisín
Few things excite and comfort me these days like a conversation with a like-minded woman who has found her voice. So it went with Fariha Róisín when we discussed her debut novel, Like a Bird (September 2020, Unnamed Press), the story of a young woman unwinding herself from the inherited traumas of growing up in a female body, as a child of immigrants.
The novel’s protagonist, Taylia, “feels incredibly unseen,” Róisín says. She “had to put on a performance because she understands inherently that in an abusive household, the nuances of who she is are irrelevant.” Besides asking hard questions about the compromises we make to assimilate, Like a Bird is a coming-of-age story of one woman’s radical act of loving herself and finding her tribe.
While the story is not biographical, Róisín says, Taylia “is very much my own internal dialogue. I’m constantly feeling afraid to take up space, like the person that I am inherently is wrong.” Key to the novel’s emotional inertia are Taylia’s incremental acts of becoming, and Róisín is unflinching in her examination of white complicity and misogyny. Taylia embodies “that complexity of being both powerful and incapable of embodying that power.”
Fariha Róisín is an Australian Canadian multidisciplinary artist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, VICE, Village Voice, and others. She co-hosted the podcast Two Brown Girls from 2012 to 2016. Like a Bird is her first novel and third book, following How to Cure a Ghost and Being in Your Body (both 2019, Abrams). Like a Bird was named one of the Best Books of 2020 by NPR, Globe and Mail, and Harper’s Bazaar, a must-read by BuzzFeed News, and has received a starred review by the Library Journal.
We spoke via phone about Like a Bird, writing women, internalized oppression, and our mutual obsession with Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You.
The Rumpus: The novel makes me think about how we make ourselves small, the one hundred tiny ways we fold ourselves up, and what makes us stop and unfold. I couldn’t wait to read Like a Bird, because this is also the story of your protagonist, Taylia, who feels invisible growing up.
Fariha Róisín: Thank you so much; that means a lot to me. Yes, a lot of people don’t know how to be parents. They don’t know how to love, because they don’t know how to love themselves, and so it comes from this very deep place of unlovability that then is placed onto a child. I felt indebted to my mother, obligated to prop her up and make her feel good, but then had little to no energy of my own to put that into my own self. Taylia became a way that I was able to express this deep grief of not ever being witnessed as a person who was worthy. And seen.
Rumpus: What do you mean when you say seen?
Róisín: We say it a lot, especially with representation. We just want to be seen, and I don’t think people fully understand the depth of that statement. When you feel unseen, you don’t feel worthy, and when you don’t feel worthy, it’s very easy to collapse as a person. The suicidal ideation, and all of those things, were really important for me to have in Taylia’s life, because they were important in my own life. I wanted to write a character who was dark and light at the same time.
Rumpus: That brings me to another character in Like a Bird, and that is Dadi-ma, the grandmother, who sees Taylia for her true self. Can you talk about the importance of creating her?
Róisín: She embodies this being who is able to understand Taylia in a way that her parents are incapable of, because she also sees the pressure of performance and all of the things that she’s experienced in her own life growing up in India, in a world where men were domineering and patriarchy was alive and very rampant and controlling. For Taylia, it was a monumental thing to meet this woman who actually liked herself. It allowed Taylia to see that she has the capacity to love and be loved at the same time. That is integral in a lot of women’s lives, because we are so consumed by the dominant society, which often tells us that no matter who we are, or how we look, we are not enough.
Róisín: That is pervasive throughout cultures, throughout races. That’s the reality of being a woman in this world. You are constantly feeling like you are unworthy. That is exactly how I feel in my own life, still. I’m thirty years old, and I still question whether or not I am actually good enough. So Dadi-ma was important because she just was. I really wanted her to be the grandmother, and for there to be a connection to India and a connection to Taylia’s South Asian-ness. That’s also a way that she knows that this is a culture that she barely understands and has exposure to. Through her grandmother, she gains appreciation for this side of her.
Rumpus: When you wrote Dadi-ma, how did the writing come for you?
Róisín: It was really, really easy because I value older women. I value women that love themselves. It has always been such a sigh of relief to witness that. Those moments have been very pivotal for me, so I wanted to write somebody who was a little cheeky and also just completely her own being. I don’t know what happened, but I was able to really write her quite effortlessly. Even though I didn’t really have a full grasp of who she was, it was easy to understand her on some level. Does that make sense?
Rumpus: It makes perfect sense.
Okay, I’m going to change the subject because whew, can you write about desire. In addition to holding so many other ideas, this book is hot. Why was it important for you to capture the desire a young woman holds in her body?
Róisín: I was raised Muslim. I still very much consider myself Muslim, but I’m also a very sexual person. And for the longest time I thought those two things were mutually exclusive. Then all of a sudden I realized, no, they’re not. It really frustrates me that women’s sexuality is also just extremely limited in the ways it’s written.
It doesn’t even honor true sexuality or true desire. It’s often from the experience of being desired, but what is it to actually desire and want? I am a very intense person and so when I was growing up, I was just a horny kid who didn’t know what to do with it. I think a lot of kids that grow up either South Asian or Muslim oftentimes divorce themselves or disassociate from this side of themselves. Instead of doing that, I wrote this book. I started writing it when I was twelve, so really, throughout my teens, I was able to understand and garner and locate my desire and put it into the book. So, all of that experience is so raw because when I wasn’t having sex, I was writing this book [laughs], and I was able to conceptualize what I really wanted for Taylia.
Especially after abuse, your sexuality becomes a thing that’s outside of you. For Taylia, re-exploring that and trying to even put words to it or express it in her mind was important. It was important to me to show a character go through something so difficult and then regain that part of herself.
Rumpus: The novel so beautifully signals emotional change in Taylia. Can you talk more about that?
Róisín: Thank you for being so perceptive. The book is subtle in so many ways, and for me, as a highly emotional person, I am ever-changing. I often think it ultimately goes back to the way that most people don’t know how to write women, even if you’re a woman, because we are so socialized to think of ourselves one-dimensionally and emotions are truly disgusting to most people. I have been told since I was as a kid that I’m too sensitive, that I’m too emotional, that I feel too much. I’m invested in portrayals of women that are deeper and darker and really like those impossible characters that we sideline.
It goes back to what you were saying about smallness. Smallness appears, I think, when you’re told you’re too big, when you’re told that you’re too much, when you’re told that who you are is outside of the parameters of who you should be. And so Taylia can’t squeeze herself into a toothpaste tube, she can’t just minimize herself. Through those tiny emotional shifts, she is beginning to understand herself and not demonize herself, to be just to who she is, including her feelings. This is kind of a segue, but I am watching The Crown, which is unbelievable. I don’t know if you watch it.
Rumpus: I’m halfway through season one.
Róisín: Okay. In season four, Diana is introduced, and I grew up with Diana as just an incredible figment of our imagination, a princess, all these things that weren’t really her reality. She was extremely controlled, and she was in a relationship where the person didn’t really want to be with her. In season four, they portray this rapid shift of emotions. That’s what people call crazy. That’s how women have been demonized through centuries and centuries. We are told that our emotions are not correct. We feel too much, and that is abnormal. And of course, now we know that that’s not true, but the pressure in society remains, and that controlling, and that surveillance, remains.
Rumpus: Yes, there are so many times we tell our body and our mind to shut up. We discount and dismiss our thoughts.
Róisín: What does it mean to listen to yourself? It means that you are then fully aware of the signals. I planted seeds in the beginning of the story, with Taylia having an intuitive feeling about one character that she ignores. Of course, it’s not her fault. But I wanted those signals to be there for the reader who picks up on them because there have been many times in my life where I have walked into the fire knowingly and I have burned myself. I can no longer pretend that these intuitive and emotional capacities that I have are not a skill that I’m being told not to listen to. Then we hurt ourselves and we get hurt, and that leads to depression and all kinds of things.
Rumpus: How did you settle on Taylia’s emotional arc?
Róisín: By instinct. We live in and we work in a system where writers are told not to be emotional. The Western canon is so male-dominated for a reason, and yet all of the things that we can bring into storytelling have never been seen before, and we can actually do whatever we want. I wanted Taylia to have a real life, have a real experience of the ups and downs of trauma, a feeling of having fun, of meeting exhilarating people that bring her to new worlds of heartbreak, of loss. I wanted to track every little thing because that is, to me, human life. That is what I want to read.
Rumpus: You’re talking about plotting the path that someone walks to find wholeness?
Róisín: Oh my God, you just actually nailed it. That’s exactly it. I often talk about Like a Bird in private, like it’s a tool kit for anybody who has gone through the experience of sexual abuse. Hopefully, they can read this book and understand the ins and outs of what may happen and how you can move through it.
I want people who read this book to walk away believing in the immense possibility of happiness and rewriting and reimagining what that looks like, understanding that we need each other more than we think. It’s dedicated to survivors, but it’s really a story for everybody that wants to reimagine where they are in their lives.
Rumpus: The father character also is fascinating—how in his need to assimilate, he becomes complicit in American ideals and racism and oppression, in his own oppression and his passive misogyny. Am I reading that right?
Róisín: Yeah, absolutely. White supremacy is so pervasive, obviously, we live in it, but all of us, one way or another, have to unlearn whiteness. Whiteness is domination; that’s what people say when they talk about whiteness. It’s the dominant culture. It’s exactly like patriarchy. It’s exactly like capitalism. It takes over, and it becomes the thing that then everybody aspires to be.
In the book, Baba has all of these ideals, comes to America, wants to be effective and shift society, but ultimately decides making money and accruing social class is far more important than actually standing up for his ideals. I know so many people like him. I grew up around men like that. I’m so lucky because my father is actually not like that; he’s a Marxist. He’s probably the most idealistic person I’ve ever met.
Complicity is really interesting because all of us are complicit in something. We have to unlearn these structures of power that have seeped into the way that we engage with other people. I have to do that all the time. I just think of all of the misogyny that I’m constantly unlearning—I’m hyperaware of that in myself, and I wanted readers to see this and question themselves and understand that we actually all owe it to each other to evolve.
Rumpus: That makes me think about women, and our capacity to believe what the world tells us we are.
Róisín: Yeah, the patriarchal arm is not just men, it’s everybody. That’s what’s so nefarious about it. My mother is deeply patriarchal. She would tell me that women are untrustworthy or women are bitchy by nature. The idea of believing women, the fact that it’s a statement that we have to say out loud, is truly just remarkable to me in a civil society. Because isn’t that embarrassing that we still have to humanize women in every step of the way?
Unless we’re examining ourselves in a deeper way, we replicate these patriarchal beliefs. We’re constantly falling into standards of being that are truly toxic with one another. Especially if you’re an intersection, and that complicates it even more because there can only be one Black woman who is this, or one South Asian woman who is that. I am really invested in unlearning the patriarchy in myself, and I’m barely there. I’m just scraping the surface; I have to call myself out every day. We all do, I imagine.
Did you read my Guardian piece? I bring it up because women often are not trusted as narrators, especially when it comes to rape and sexual abuse. That’s why something like “believe women” is still a thing.
Rumpus: Oh yes, I have it up on my screen. In the Guardian essay, you’re writing using the context of the show, I May Destroy You, which I think is so important.
Róisín: I May Destroy You was the first time where I really saw somebody mirror exactly how my own survival story looks, which is messy. What I love about Arabella’s character is that she just continues. I think the ending annoyed a lot of people, but I think most trauma survivors that are actually facing their trauma understand how complicated it is. There isn’t just one person that you can look at and be like, “Fuck you, you fucked up my life.”
Rumpus: In the essay, you write this about your own work: “I was understanding my abuse was abuse, learning more about my mother made me want to learn more about cyclicality of trauma and what happens when you become the person in your family to want to break it.” What a huge responsibility to take on.
Róisín: I have a lot of resentment about being the person in my family that wants to break it. I think my survival is dependent upon it. When you feel this much, you need to put it somewhere. It’s sort of like alchemy. I’m alchemizing all this trauma, this lineage of trauma, all of the epigenetics of trauma, and I’m trying to turn it into gold so I can feed other people. I don’t have any backup; it’s just me and my own brain. I feel very lonely in this experience, but I have no other choice.
Photograph of Fariha Róisín courtesy of Fariha Róisín and Unnamed Press.