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Lit Fariha Róisín on debut novel “Like A Bird,” an ode to healing

Sep. 16, 2020
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In her debut novel Like A Bird, Fariha Róisín weaves a profound narrative of heritage, loss, estrangement, chosen families, and resilience in the aftermath of trauma. Born to a Jewish mother and Bengali-Indian father, Taylia, the perceptive teenage protagonist, is weighted by the heavy demands of her overbearing parents and comparisons to her white-passing sister, Alyssa. Then, after a harrowing sexual assault, Taylia is disowned and kicked out of the family’s New York apartment. She begins working at a cafe and living with friends, using her newfound independence to venture out on her own and look inward. 

“All of my work is about survival,” Róisín says over Zoom. “It's not about stewing that feeling of pain. It's being like, how do I move through this? I need to move through this. I need to clear the stagnancy.” Survival, for Taylia, means processing the trauma of assault and estrangement, and prevailing as a woman of color amidst pervasive racism, the latter being an experience nimbly layered through Taylia’s relationship with her parents. By virtue of being darker and curvier than her sister, Taylia is the primary target of her white mother’s relentless fault-finding: “Mama would add to this by watching my body with a glaring awareness that pivoted to perpetual critique. As if all I needed to do was embrace x, y, and z—and I would be beautiful. ‘Just lose a bit of the baby fat,’ or ‘Don’t walk so heavily on the stairs,’ or ‘Eat less at night.’”’

In these redolent scenes, Róisín probes the relationship between identity, trauma, and healing. While some of the subject matter is, naturally, heavy, Like A Bird is brimming with light, swift prose and evocative imagery. In the opening chapter, Taylia describes her entrenched self-loathing: “Like a frog in warming water, I had spent much of my early years feeling as if I were slowly simmering toward my own demise. As if I were sedately, on a low setting, boiling to death.” Róisín’s writing is deeply poetic, yet it never blurs or circumvents the painful, difficult, and complex realities of Taylia’s experiences, or of trauma in general.

The novel’s approach to healing is radically forward-looking, and it comes as no surprise that Róisín herself has a history of activism and organizing. She grew up in Sydney, Australia, raised by a Marxist father who taught political science at a university. At the age of twelve, she joined Amnesty International, and later, Oxfam. Róisín laughs, recalling how she recruited a friend to join her in canvassing the streets for the Make Poverty History campaign. After moving to New York to study human rights law, she interned at the United Nations. “This [internship] coincided with the understanding that most people don't want to interrogate too deeply,” Róisín says. “Most people do not have the investment or actually the foresight to want to change things deeply. And so I think that to me was the major sense of disillusionment that I felt because I'm not engineered like that.” Róisín dropped out of school to pursue writing full-time. Since then, she’s authored How to Cure a Ghost, a collection of poetry on ancestral trauma, Being in Your Body, a guided journal for body positivity, and is currently writing her first work of nonfiction, Who Is Wellness For: On Radical Wellness. 

In publishing Like A Bird, Róisín wants to relieve conversations about trauma from shame and encourage survivors of trauma to acknowledge and talk about their trauma. “A lot of us do experience traumatic experiences or events, and we don't know how to talk about it and we're not allowed to,” Róisín says. When suppressing trauma is normalized, survivors are prevented from accessing support systems, making the process of healing even more difficult. “We become very good at climatizing ourselves to trauma,” Róisín says. “And more often than not, people actually have a deep desire to be better and healthy and probably have an instinct that they need to clear a few of these things, but it's so much work that they just don't, and it builds. That piles on.” While dealing with trauma is painstakingly difficult work, Róisín encourages survivors to keep moving forward: “What I would say to anybody is that if you are having a desire to go to dark places, go there—just be conscious and aware and gentle.”

Due from Unnamed Press on September 15th, the publication of Like A Bird is the culmination of over half a lifetime of labor. Róisín has been writing the story for eighteen years, since it first appeared to her in a dream when she was twelve years old. “I was watching a lot of Cruel Intentions at the time,” Róisín says with a laugh. “So I don't know if that had something to do with it back when I dreamed it. It's not exactly the same story. It was a lot more pop and rom-com-y. But the crux of a story—all of that remains true. All of that is still what I conceived. And then I basically finished a very rough draft when I was 15 and sat on it for a long time.” Over the years, Róisín revisited the story, and for the past eight years, she’s been working on it consistently. In March, the book was finished and awaiting publication. Then, the pandemic hit, and publishing was brought to a standstill.

During this time, Róisín gave a copy of Like A Bird to a friend, who returned with notes. “It's really, really, really wild because the book was going to go out and if a pandemic hadn't happened, it would have been this earlier draft,” Róisín says. “I basically rewrote entire parts of the book in six weeks, and now it's like at a place where I'm like, this is the book. It's finally where it needs to be.”

Preorder Like a Bird and follow Fariha Róisín on Instagram or Twitter.