Can You Heal From Ancestral Trauma?

Fariha Róisín, author of "How to Cure a Ghost," on the loneliness of being a South Asian poet

Illustration by Monica Ramos from "How To Cure a Ghost"
Illustration by Monica Ramos from “How To Cure a Ghost”

It’s a lonely existence, when you occupy the margins of the margins. We grow on the outskirts, looking for abundance, when the world insists in telling us that people like us will never be “normal,” will always need to fight to carve out spaces that we can exist in peace, in forgiveness, and in safety. I’m always in such gratitude when I find people who make me feel less lonely, less discarded by the side of the road. Fariha Róisín is one of those people: someone that I look to through my various chasms of loneliness, someone who I see part of myself in, who I can hope for a better future alongside. 

This past fall Fariha Róisín released a collection of poetry, How To Cure A Ghost, a lyrical exploration of trauma, loss and rebuilding. The book is expansive, touching on queerness, Islam, and institutionalized racism and structures of power, among many other things. As a fellow South Asian queer Muslim writer, I found myself gravitating towards its topics and the perspectives and lyricism that Fariha was bringing to the page. What struck me most about Fariha’s work was the insistence on healing, the commitment to being able to write through pain not to just get through it, but to heal it.  Alongside the poetry book Fariha published a journal workbook, Being In Your Body, as a space to expand the healing impulse so prevalent in their poetic work.  

In How To Cure A Ghost, Fariha writes “nurture makes you hate yourself less.” These poems are a project in nurturing, a poetics that interrogate the nurturing of an abusive mother-daughter relationship, the nurturing of a brown girl unloved by her various countries, the nurturing of having to walk through the world as a person of color under white supremacist violence. I’m grateful for Fariha’s words and Fariha’s friendship, and for this opportunity to talk to them and do a deep dive into their work.

Fatimah Asghar: A thing that struck me about your book was the deep explorations of family and trauma, particularly through the lens of your mother. What are your thoughts on intergenerational trauma, and the way that your book looks to name and grapple with it?

Fariha Róisín: Ancestral trauma, and not knowing how to handle it, is something that I find so often in South Asian communities. We all seem to be locked into some kind of horror show without knowing it’s abuse or violence that we’re witnessing. I remember telling a Sri Lankan friend of mine that my mother would regularly beat me, and her response was a bemused so what, my mother beats me all the time. It was at that moment (I was 14 at the time, so was she) I think I first understood how deep this normalization of violence was, how pathetic its normalcy was.  

The thing I didn’t know how to articulate back then is that even then, there’s always a difference between who administers that violence. For me, my mother was not affectionate. She’s probably said something nice to me a handful of times, truly. Growing up was painful because it meant there was no reprieve from the trauma she’d inflict. 

It’s something that my father, sister and I have suffered the most from… the onslaught of violence that we’ve systematically experienced from her. But also the lack of a solution. It’s been that way since she and my father married; since my sister and I was born—it’s not changed. So, what to do with the feeling of being a lost cause? 

I feel like a failure because I didn’t save her, I also feel like she’s failed us because she hasn’t saved herself. 

I was tired of not being seen, I was tired of suffocating. So I wrote this book.

I’ve rarely (if ever) read anything that described my experience of growing up. It’s lonely having been raised with no tenderness. When her hands did touch my body they were always cruel… which has led to a host of problems on my end: extreme sexual and physical trauma that’s leaked into my feeling of inadequacy in both relationships as well as my professional life. It’s extremely hard for me to feel good about myself… but this year, with How To Cure A Ghost coming out, I understood the cycle needed to stop. I had to start facing my demons. I started seeing a trauma therapist.

This is my roundabout way of saying: intergenerational trauma is not only real, its insidious. Having said that, it’s really not talked about. At least not in the context that I talk about it. I think I was tired of not being seen, I was tired of suffocating. So I wrote this book. 

FA: How has it been having a book that’s so personal, particularly around family, released in the world?

FR: I’ve probably told you this before, but I truly went insane this summer. I just had ego death upon ego death. After I journeyed (through ayahuasca) the first time something began to click… it didn’t really matter if no-one liked this book—because my god do I like this book. I still cry when I read my book. That’s real. Every time I read it… I feel closer to liberation. There’s something unimaginably powerful in saying your truth out loud. So I take a deep amount of solace and gratitude in that. I’m so fortunate to have been allowed to say what I needed to say. 

My dad is staying with me as we speak. He hasn’t been back to America since 2002, after he was detained (there’s a poem named after him and this ordeal called Being An Immigrant) as he’s a professor that’s pretty anti-American. I really seriously thought he’d ever come back—he’s a Leo, so he’s extremely prideful. I’m a Capricorn, but we’re the same in that sense—we don’t like being disrespected. And the normalization of dehumanizing Muslims after 9/11 was something that we were being socialized to take and accept… But he’s here, and it’s incredibly soothing because I’m not in hiding anymore, and he’s accepting the person that I am… not the person he thinks I should be. I’m crying. This feels like a kind of liberation, too. He seems proud of the Muslim woman I’ve become. 

When he knew I was writing HTCAG he told me, “Don’t make ammu look bad.” It’s stuck with me, but I don’t know if it’s possible if I also want to tell the truth. I don’t know if he’s read the book, I don’t know if he ever will. But I’m not hiding it, I’m letting him take his time, and I’ll be here to talk when he’s ready. I guess what I’m trying to say, is it’s a process. And I accept the process.  

FA: I love that your book also came along with a guided journal, Being In Your Body. Why was it important for you to release both of these books at the same time, and what did the construction of Being In Your Body mean to you?

FR: Karrie Witkin, who is my editor for Being In Your Body, really listened to what I wanted to achieve with this journal. I insisted it to be for any woman/femme-identifying or non-binary person to relate to because having an honest conversation about bodies is something that I also never had. There was never any transparency over a woman’s body when I was growing up and so much was shrouded in secrecy or code. I was sexualized really young as well, as a survivor, so I never really had a full understanding or command of myself. That’s why I hold a lot of trauma in my body, which means I actually need a lot of bodywork done on the regular so I don’t disassociate. 

I didn’t even know I disassociated until late last year. The process of healing is so non-linear, and our bodies are so unknown—even to ourselves. Doesn’t that say something about how unaware we are?

If I had known what non-binary was at 10, I think I would have felt a deep understanding of myself that I didn’t have until much later. That’s why it’s imperative, as writers, we speak to the things we need… because usually, that means other people need them as well. 

FA: I also love the illustrations in your book. What was the process of working with your illustrator, and why was it important to you to include visual art inside the book, alongside the poetry?

FR: Monica Ramos is such a talented, tender human. Her interpretation of the poems are her own, but what’s so intense is that they feel like me. I really enjoyed the process of being read in a different sense. I wanted her to find the ghost, the shapes and squeaks between the lines—the phantom feeling of longing, the serendipity of pain, the spirit of loneliness—and she got it all. She’s Filipina and I really love that juxtaposition against me, a Bangladeshi writer. There’s a symmetry between Bangladesh and the Philippines in many ways, the sort of feeling of a jungle… and so she picked up on so many in-between characteristics that I really enjoyed her interpretation of. It felt important to not only have a visual aid to the book but also to have a participating guide that could ease and soothe the reader. Because this book is heavy. It looks cute, but it’s a Trojan horse of healing. 

FA: On a craft level, what really excites you about your book and the process of poetry? 

FR: That even despite my own hesitations of not being a formal or trained “poet” I have an interesting way of expressing lyric that is very counter-culture, and anti-establishment in the best and most honest sense. Because I’m so naive about poetry, it actually allows me a freedom that I really enjoyed exercising with my book. I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone, I was just channeling myself. I’m proud of the integrity of the work, in that sense. 

FA: Are there any topics that you feel like you really struggled to write about or come to terms with in this book? What did the process of writing your own book teach you?

FR: Nothing comes to mind. I’ve been writing about my mother enough that I’ve come to accept my own positioning of being a writer, creator who is inspired by their own life. There’s always a moral conundrum to write about people that are real, and I don’t have any answers for the morality of it other than I try and be a person who is honest, with perspective and generous in retrospect. Maybe writing this book taught me it was okay to talk about my trauma, finally… Especially because I’m not trying to demonize my mother, I’m trying to understand her. 

FA: Your book also grapples with some of the loneliness of South Asian and Muslim identity. What does it mean to you, in particular to be a South Asian author? A Muslim Author? What is a vision for your people that you hope for?

FR: Wow. What a hard question.

Well, you and I have talked this before… how lonely it is being South Asian in our respective fields. There’s not a lot of togetherness, and then there’s just not a lot of us. You were one of my first South Asian writer friends, Tanaïs is the other. Over the years I’ve become friends with Vivek Shraya, Alok Vaid-Menon, Rupi Kaur—but the pool is small and not everyone wants to be friends which always hurts, but it’s also life. 

I get a lot from my friends that are younger SA folks… but I’ve also just started buying a lot from South Asians. I love buying my friend Tanaïs’ brand HiWildflower, I bought a painting from my friend Salman Toor, and Ayqa Khan, I love my friend Prinita Thevarajah’s glassware, Kapu… I mean the list is endless. But also, I’m loving Anupa Mistry’s podcast/newsletter Burnt Out, as well as Thanu Yakupitiyage and Rage Kidvai’s Bad Brown Aunties (Full disclosure: I’m one of the interview guests, and it’s one of the most heart-searingly honest ones I’ve ever done!). I’m loving Samavai’s photography and beautiful, genderless sari shirts

Being Muslim in this world comes with blinding pain. It’s watching your people get burned everyday.

I’m trying to invest in us. I think the future is generosity. The future is an embrace. It’s knowing we’re stronger together. That’s my vision for our people—to truly decolonize, we need to understand there is no division. But, we need to get there first. 

I talk about this with Tanaïs all the time… what it means to be Bangladeshi is different. In her words, we are a syncretic people. To be Bangla AND Muslim… is so specific of an experience. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there are lynchings happening of Muslims throughout India. I’m reading Arundhati Roy’s The End of Imagination right now and she’s talking about the pogroms of Muslims throughout India—men, women, children are being taken out of their homes and shot dead, hung—by civilians. The numbers are devastating. To have Modi as PM right now is chilling, especially as he is said to have been behind the massacre of Gujrati Muslims in 2002, where thousands of Muslims (children included) were slaughtered. Then you have what’s happening to Rohingyas, majority of whom are Muslim, in Burma—over a million refugees fleeing from Buddhist monks to Bangladesh. 

Being Muslim in this world comes with blinding pain. It’s watching your people get burned everyday—whether its with the Uighurs in China, whose organs are being harvested! Who are in concentration camps right now, one million of them! Or what’s happening in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan… my people. It hurts. 

But now that’s why we have to write, we have to work. We have to protect us. But, I also see a future where we are all protecting one another. Because we understand there’s a beauty in difference. I know I’m corny, but we’re better together—as humanity. I want to get us to that kind of enlightenment.   

FA: You write across genre a lot, and I wonder if you can speak to that process—how the craft of your different writing practices inform each other? When do you know what you have in front of you is an essay, or a poem, or a novel?

I write high a lot and then I’ll edit sober.

FR: Writing is very intuitive to me. I write high a lot and then I’ll edit sober. I don’t drink anymore, so there’s never that these days but I used to love drinking a glass or two and just releasing whatever came to me. Pure creativity!

I guess I always have a sense a few sentences in what I’m writing. God, I love that flow. It’s tantric. When the creativity starts purring through your body, my god. What a feeling. I just go with it. I really just go where it takes me. 

FA: What were the books that you found yourself reaching for when writing your book? What books do you think are your books siblings?

FR: I don’t know if it has any book siblings but I’ll tell you the books that floored me while writing this: Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Asmarani by Safia Elhillo, Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems by Robin Coste Lewis, Jane: A Murder by Maggie Nelson, Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector (Lispector is my favorite writer, and I read her voraciously while writing this book), Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick, Look by Solmaz Sharif, Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam (now Tanaïs), Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, Seam by Tarfia Faizullah, Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Simpson, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. And your book last year babe, it gutted me.

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