Boys Will Be Boys, Girls Have to Cover Up
Fariha Róisín, author of "Like A Bird," on adding nuance to South Asian stories
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In Fariha Róisín’s debut novel Like a Bird, protagonist Taylia Chatterjee lives a privileged life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her sister Alyssa. Alyssa often receives preferential treatment from their liberal, overbearing parents—a white Jewish mom, a Hindu Bengali dad. Taylia is described as the unloved sister, darker-skinned, ignored. Their family dynamics seem almost harmless, until Taylia is sexually assaulted by the beloved son of a close friend. Her parents throw her out of their home. That’s where Taylia’s story begins, as she finds herself thrust into lower and lower Manhattan, moving through the uncertain, rocky process of reclaiming her power through new friends and new loves. It’s a tale of two lives: one before rape and one after, both set in New York.
With the lessons it holds on survival and strength, Like a Bird could be set anywhere; it could be a memoir, or it could be fiction; it could be about any person attempting to start anew. And that’s where Róisín makes her mark as a writer, whether it’s in Like a Bird, or in her book of poems How to Cure a Ghost released last year. She’s able to communicate eternal, relatable truths through her characters that make you feel as if she’s writing your life. At times, the shape of Like a Bird is ethereal, larger than any characters, plot, specificities. But Róisín is also uniquely talented at drawing out the particulars of human behavior. Taylia’s outspoken political nature, her wisdom, and her strength add depth and imagination to the story of survival.
I spoke to Fariha Róisín adding nuance to South Asian stories and what it takes to call sexual assault what it is.
Meghna Rao: You’ve been writing your book for 18 years. Thinking—and writing—about rape at 15 is a lot. Rape is a heavy thing to think about as a kid.
Fariha Róisín: I didn’t really have much of a conception of what rape was at 12, but I knew it was bad, you know? In chapter eight, Taliya asks her sister what rape is, and I had a similar question for my sister when I was 12.
It’s gruesome that we live in a society where women have to learn about certain violences that we just have to accept. Boys will be boys, girls have to cover their bodies. Women and femme folk are under constant pressure to conform to the male gaze, and even if you wear a hijab, or a niqaab, or a burqa, it doesn’t matter. The conversations we have about rape and sexual assault are so rudimentary, and as a young person to see that injustice, I just intuitively understood that it was bad.
And so, writing that part of the book just happened. And so many of those questions still haven’t been answered. It’s sad that rape is still very much a question all these years down the line. Things like—how one recovers, how one finds justice, or legal support, or communal support. These questions are still very much a part of all of our lives. More of us can relate to sexual abuse than not.
MR: I thought you made a really poignant statement earlier: “calling a thing what it is sometimes takes a lot of time.” That feels particularly true of sexual assault. It takes shedding so many layers, to point at it and say—this is what happened to me. That feels like it would take 18 years.
FR: I never had anything like Like A Bird when I was young. I sure as hell never felt supported and I think, somewhere deep down, I actually wrote it because I had to sublimate my own abuse into something. I think I wrote it, in a way, because I needed to survive. That’s why stories of survival are so important. They’re rarely spoken. It’s rarely done. And we need more conversations about what it looks like to move through sexual assault.
MR: And what it looks like to relapse.
FR: Yeah. And to also feel. Healing is complicated and it looks different for everyone. I’m healing in a different way, Taylia is healing in a different way. She’s finding peace within herself, and it’s powerful. She’s barely beginning this relationship with herself, and in a way, it’s pointing a very small light towards how people can move through this.
It can be hard to justify writing for me. Writing can be seen as pretentious, and it’s historically been exclusionary. But for me, its importance is revealed when you can write truths that haven’t been named yet. And that’s what I try to do, to see what can I say that is still resonant.
MR: There’s another theme that really stuck with me. When Taylia’s parents hear about her sexual assault, they kick her out of the house. It’s never even a question if she’s been assaulted, she’s just seen as the provocateur. And before that, her sexuality is diminished, she’s the darker, less attractive sister. It’s either seen as violent or it’s diminished.
FR: I don’t think people understand how common it is for rape not to believed for South Asian femmes. I think North American and Western audiences aren’t aware of how rampant that is as a phenomenon in our community. People ask me, do you think that’s realistic? And I’m like, homie, that’s so real.
We are so rejected by our families so often. I think that storyline was really important. Not to create a stereotype, but we don’t talk about this enough, how violence exists within our communities, and in our own families.
And we don’t talk about that specific, violent patriarchy that runs through our families—my father wasn’t like this, but I had a violent relationship with a South Asian man when I was younger that had a lot of that. And then a really lovely one right after. It’s not a monolithic experience, but it’s important for us to engage with it. The villain isn’t always who you think it is.
MR: I found it intriguing that Taylia was biracial, half white. And later on, during the part of her liberation, she moves downtown and through white spaces. Was that intentional?
FR: With the biraciality, I don’t know why she first came to me like that. It’s something I’ve stuck with because there’s tension with aspirational whiteness I can play with. Aspirational whiteness is something that a lot of South Asians have adapted to varying degrees. It relies upon this idea of white supremacy, to be white is better, so as close as you can get to emulating that, the better it is. And that was something that was really my experience until I moved to New York.
Ultimately we, of course, aspire to whiteness. It’s all around us, it’s ubiquitous, it’s the dominant culture, and it really determines the way that we view ourselves, and the way that we consider ourselves worthy or not, of validation or not. It seeps into every facet of one’s being.
And when I started to write the book, very transparently, I didn’t really have the conception of myself that I do now, it was so abstract. Taylia and her family’s life is very much what I assumed would be the experience of a wealthier South Asian person. And that wasn’t my experience. I saw a lot of Bengali Indians have this wealth, and project that Muslim Bangladeshis didn’t. And to make her half-white was to show that privilege.
MR: It was cool to see Taylia in cool parts of New York, not just Queens where the South Asians are usually pictured. Finding her way in the Upper West Side, and downtown, in these places that are often just implicitly unwelcoming to brown people.
FR: So yeah, I started writing the book again around 21. That’s when I started changing it, and I was infusing it with the same shit I was going through, you can see it in my writing. I haven’t been to Cafe Reggio in eight years, but when I put it into the book, that’s where I was going. It’s cool to see how certain places influenced her over the years. It’s cool because I get to trace myself back in the story.
And placing her in New York places like the High Line, like you said. I wanted to have a modernity to her, but also—we don’t see South Asians in pop culture. There are so many of us in New York. But there’s no Girls for South Asians.
And now we’re talking about caste, class, all the intersections of anti-Blackness and colorism. There’s still a heavy presence of all of these things, and we’re still conceptualizing what a South Asian even looks like. Maybe that’s what’s stalled us from writing the work where we’re at the center.
I really wanted my main character to revere being Indian in a way that we don’t always see. Take her relationship with her grandmother. It’s one of those relationships of memory, and love, and how powerful those things can be.
There’s also a scene toward the end of the book where Taylia questions her memories. I think that’s really important because we don’t always see ourselves as dynamic, we don’t see ourselves as people who are quirky or different or rounded. And to have a main character who’s South Asian, who does mirror me in many ways, she’s very self-aware, especially politically, in a way that I wanted to juxtapose her with her parents, I wanted her parents to be forgiven to a certain degree. I think that’s really one of the themes of this book. It’s playing with memory and it’s playing with who gets to remember things, and what it actually means to remember.
MR: These are very South Asian subtleties, and it’s amazing to read on paper. But were they difficult to get by publishers?
FR: I’ve never gone with a major publisher, so I don’t know what it would be like to be confined to a bigger house, but my experience with Unnamed Press was unparalleled because I knew I was getting a lot of attention. Basically, Olivia [Taylor Smith] allowed me to write whatever I wanted to write. She never challenged me on any character level or story level, it was just grammatical. And that’s something I really appreciate, I have pure space to tell my truth and just to write what I wanted to write. I really appreciate that experience because I would never be able to not say what I needed to say.
And those South Asian subtleties are really intentional, because I wanted us to be able to see us, in the pages, and for it to be nuanced, and relatable. This is a thing for a South Asian audience. We need ourselves, we need to see ourselves.
And then I think back to writing this when I was young, and the aspirational whiteness I felt, and how hard it was to access me as a whole. I needed to write this in full.
MR: Taylia has a really beautiful evolution by the end of the book.
FR: Her evolution was quiet. It was very quiet. And that’s how shifts in humans happen. We’re always going through these lessons in life, and something like rape is a test of faith. But there’s something to be said about surviving, about the power that you can gain from it.
I don’t know if you watch Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You—she’s brilliant. Her series is about confronting sexual abuse, she’s a comedian and it’s her take on how she interacts with rape and sexual abuse, and talks about the layers of shame, discomfort, bureaucracy.
It’s something you don’t see often, people who have been abused writing stories about us. Rape is a motif and it’s historically been written about by men. There’s no layers to it. There’s no context. It’s just a fucking motif.
It’s really liberating for me to write about it, and it still is, just thinking about it—I needed to write this book for myself. That’s why I needed to do it, and that’s why I wrote it.
MR: How do you feel now that you’re done?
FR: In 2020, I confronted my own inner capitalism, these tendencies I just accepted because I like my space and it felt like I needed to have money for that, and that’s where I constructed a lot of the parts of myself out of.
Honestly, because Like A Bird didn’t get a seven figure book deal, I’ve diminished my own work to myself. I don’t take myself seriously enough in a way that I think getting a million dollars for a book would have. And it’s sad that that’s the way i interact with my own work. It’s very Capricornian. I have to work really hard, but if I work really hard, I also have to get the biggest reward.
But having a book out in the world is ego work. You have to let go of expectations of how it’ll be perceived, and if that’ll reflect poorly on you. And I doubt myself all the time, I don’t know if I’m a good writer or a good storyteller, but I know that it’s instinctual.
MR: Maybe this is a book written for little Fariha.
FR: In my trauma therapy, that’s what I’ve been doing the most—talking to this baby child, little Fa. In a lot of ways, this book is me witnessing this baby part of me, and honoring the story that she collected from God knows where. But she did, and I hope I can have more respect for myself for doing this. I know that having integrity in this story was important for me. I needed to really tell the truth and just write it beautifully, and to write it with complications, so people can walk away knowing more about a survivor’s story, and what it means to keep going.