Fariha Roisin, LIKE A BIRD

Fariha Roisin, LIKE A BIRD

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Fariha. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Like a Bird: A Novel.

Fariha Róisín: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Your book, I read it at night. I was so disturbed and scared from some of the scenes. I loved it. It was gripping and powerful. Then I was almost closing my eyes at some of the things were happening. It’s rough to take. It was gritty and out there. That’s what a good book does. It makes you feel. Why don’t tell listeners what it’s about?

Fariha: It’s funny. Under close inspection, it’s about so much more than just the broad strokes. It’s a survivor story. It’s a story about, this young biracial girl is gangraped by a family friend. It’s really in that lurching from her family, being disowned by her family, that she realizes that she actually has a lot more autonomy than she ever thought she did. That, for me, is such a personal story as well. I think a lot of women probably relate to that experience of being raised a certain way and thinking certain things about your capacity and who you are and how you should be defined and what determines you. Then you go out into the real world and you’re like, oh, I have all of this that I can actually find and discover about myself. It’s all of those things, but it’s also the cracking of a family and the rupture that happens when people don’t talk about their emotions and when they don’t talk about the gravity of what they’re feeling and experiencing in a day-to-day way. There’s a lot of themes that might sound kind of out there, but they’re also really real, like ancestral trauma. This idea of epigenetics, that’s something I really wanted to bring in just even as a subtle motif because, again, it’s something I think about so much. Some of us do become bearers of a familial burden, and we don’t even know what it is that we’re experiencing.

Zibby: Wow. This particular family has gone through so much trauma in a relatively short period of time. The scene where you have the mother when the main character is leaving after she’s been cast aside and you have the mom wailing left alone with her two daughters without them, that was so powerful. I know I keep saying the same thing. I’m sorry. I know you know it’s powerful and everything, but I’m just reiterating.

Fariha: It’s important to hear this, honestly. It’s very validating.

Zibby: How closely does your background align with your character’s?

Fariha: Not at all, really. I’m of South Asian descent. Taylia, the character, her mother is half Jewish American and her father is half Bengali Indian. That was also something I really wanted to explore because, again, the failures of assimilation and the failures of wanting a life that you think you deserve and you do deserve, but then what is lost in all of that? What happens in that transaction when you do prioritize certain things about what your family looks like, what the façade looks like as opposed to what is going on internally? Her parents are so cool. That’s something I really wanted to show. Katherine and Adi are both really smart people. They’re very cultured. They have taste. They want to see the world. Katherine is political. She married her husband even though her parents didn’t want her to because she believed in her beliefs. She wanted expansion. She wanted to see what was outside. Then she married him. Because they kind of signed onto the same contract of living a lie together of something, there is another rupture with them that I think is so important. It’s such an important facet of the story that I don’t think we ever talk about, when parents, who are people, don’t know what to do with themselves.

Zibby: It’s so true. You were so funny writing about her mom. You wrote, “Like many white girls, even Jewish ones, Mama wanted to cause her Ashkenazi parents deep distress. She watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with a sadistic revery and preached to her friends that the racial divide was the true abomination in American society. Ignorant to the fact that her white-girl utopian idealism was a privilege in and of itself, she considered herself a savior and thought her protests were enough.” Love it.

Fariha: I like that you like the humor because I wanted it to be funny as well. Humans are so funny. We’re so strange. We have so many contradictions. It’s not like Taylia’s the victim. Everybody’s the victim. That’s something that I really also wanted to show. That’s something, definitely, I can attest to in my own life. Maybe the similarity between me and the family is that I had a pretty traumatic life. I think that’s actually kind of common. We experience so much more than what we’re willing to put into language. Really trying to see them through a lens of humor and trying to place them contextually in a way that’s honest was really, really important to me. I didn’t want it to seem like they were two-dimensional. That’s also why in the end of the book there was a return to the idea of memory. What is memory? Can we trust it? She starts to replay these memories that she has of her mom and ideas that she has of her mom. Even writing them, I was just like, I’ve never seen this anywhere before, that questioning of, do I have this right? Did she love me? Maybe. I don’t know. That was really fun and heartbreaking to play with.

Zibby: As someone who feels like she’s losing her mind every day, this is very comforting to hear because I’m always like, wait, I’m sure this is what happened when I was growing up. Then of course, I’m like, maybe I should call my brother and just find out. Of course, I’m completely wrong. It’s close enough. I’m like, I think this happened with this girl on this Valentine’s Day. Anyway, you also poked fun at these poor parents where you were talking about how they achieved a new class, essentially. They had become wealthier throughout their, not hippy-dippy — what’s the right word? — very, very liberal anti-wealth dogma. Then suddenly, they’re wealthy, but they don’t want to accept that about themselves because what would that mean to their whole identity? They kind of pretend that they’re not. Yet they’re living the high life in some regards. I thought that was very funny because there’s so much of that, I feel like, now. You have to wonder with all this anti-wealth sentiment everywhere, if you won the lottery tomorrow, would this still be the same rhetoric or would it shift a little bit?

Fariha: Exactly. Capitalism, especially right now, it’s something that we’re all thinking about. I was raised by a Marxist. I was raised by a very intense Marxist. He’s very anti-wealth. That’s how I was raised. I have a lot of family members that are really rich. You’re always navigating and seeing how they interact with their wealth. Oftentimes, there is this deep un-comfortability with the things that they’ve achieved. I can say that about my own life. I have a good life. I’m an artist. I’m a writer. I did this on my own, so I think I feel more vindicated by that. There are those contradictions that we all have to face. That’s really what the book is trying to get you to do. It’s trying to make you question yourself and question the way that you live your life.

Zibby: It’s also, not the kindness of strangers, but whereas there’s such capacity for these hateful, horrific acts, there’s equal capacity for love and caring. I always forget everybody’s names in books, but how the coffee shop owner takes her in not only to give her a job, but into her actual home. Then is it Kai who comes into the store and then offers her a place to live as well having just met her and saying, “It looks like you need a friend”? These are really wonderful things. I think it’s important that you highlighted those too as opposed to just this tale of doom and gloom because that is what’s so crazy about the world. You can have these diametrically opposed responses to the same person, essentially.

Fariha: Exactly. That is another reflection that I definitely had in my own life. I moved from Australia when I was nineteen to New York and didn’t know anybody, came to go to school. I was very naïve, very vulnerable, and met so many people that lended me a hand in way or another. After having such a traumatic, almost loveless upbringing, I really needed that. I really needed to believe that there were people out there that could offer me things that I felt were just too big. That’s something she tries to explore, the guilt and the shame of taking things, of wanting things, of wanting safety. There’s a lot of shame around that. You think that because you’ve never gotten it, maybe that’s just how your life is going to be. Then when someone offers you a hand, it causes you to question everything that you’ve accepted before that moment. In a way, I know that it probably seems quite dramatic, but those things that happened to Taylia have all in one way or another happened to me. I negotiate them as an adult all the time. The sexual violence didn’t happen like that, but sexual violence has happened to me in my life. I am constantly having to balance those extreme moments with joy and community and real care. That, to me, is the plight of being human, as you kind of said.

Zibby: Wow. So really, just some tiny minor themes here in your book, nothing too deep. Did you have a relationship with a tree in the same way?

Fariha: I have relationships with trees, for sure. I’m definitely a little bit of a kook, I’d say. I do a lot of plant medicine, so trees are really important. The natural world has so much to teach us. Again, it is this sweet sentiment that I wanted to bring out. When I was young, I didn’t have a lot of friends that I could lean on. The natural world became my friend, sticks and stones, whether it was a little patch on the grass that I knew was mine, that kind of stuff. Especially when you don’t have a lot, you find ways to protect yourself, totems.

Zibby: Pretty close to, actually, a totem pole in form and shape. My heart breaks that you experienced some of the same things and emotions because the experience of this character, Taylia, broke my heart over and over again. That devastation and loneliness was really tough. I’m sorry if that was part of your upbringing. That’s not fair. That just stinks, honestly.

Fariha: Yeah, I had a really bad life. I had a really hard life for a really long time. I’m a child abuse survivor. All of those things come from deep, deep places. I don’t know if you knew this. I wrote this book over eighteen years. I started writing it when I was twelve. I actually wrote myself out of my pain. Through a therapist, I’ve kind of figured out that even though it wasn’t my life completely, I was creating a story a way to have a cathartic process. My family, we didn’t know what therapy was. None of those things were options to me eighteen years ago. For whatever reason, I figured out at a young age that I could do this. I had to survive. I had something to say. That’s really what carried me through. I don’t even know how I did it, but I did it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, bravo to you. That’s amazing. When you said you started this eighteen years ago, I was like, you must have written this when you were five years old. I’m thinking, did you start this as a drawing? You look so young and everything. I think you might win the award, then, for longest time it’s ever taken anyone to write a novel.

Fariha: It’s funny because when you write something, when you work on something for so long — also, naturally, who I am, I’m very self-critical. That’s why it’s validating to hear that you like the book because I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone’s reading this book. It becomes such an isolating experience when you put something out. I hope for the best. Here’s all of my pain and trauma on the page. I’m trying to also show people that survivorship is real and possible. You question yourself. Especially after this long, you’re like, is this story even good? It’s an everyday process of reminding myself that at least I stuck to something for eighteen years. If that’s all I have, that’s pretty remarkable. I always have to pat myself on the back for that because I don’t really know how I did it.

Zibby: Turns out it started on a floppy disk. Then you put it on a CD-ROM. Now you finally have it on your phone.

Fariha: Google Drive. The evolution.

Zibby: The evolution of Like a Bird. It actually started as a baby bird. Now it’s grown and flown away.

Fariha: I love it. Exactly.

Zibby: Did you start by handwriting this? How did you end up deciding now is the time? You’re still only thirty. You could’ve done another eighteen years on it. That would’ve been justified.

Fariha: I know. I started writing it on hand. Then eventually, maybe a couple months later, we had a family computer. I was talking to my dad about it, who’s a professor. He was like, “You should start typing it.” With his direction, I started typing it. I would show him the pages and be like, “This, this.” I have a really close connection with my dad. I was always looking for his approval. Then eighteen years later, it’s a book. It’s a three hundred-page book. So much work has gone into it. The evolution is, I started when I was twelve. I finished a first draft when I was fifteen that doesn’t look — it was more of a basic simple draft. All of the things are basically the same, which is wild. I finished it when I was fifteen.

Zibby: Did you lose a sibling?

Fariha: Mm-hmm. Everything — oh, I didn’t personally lose a sibling, no, no, no. Thank god. I was around a lot of death. It was a really palpable thing for me to think about death. Around the time that I started writing this, my favorite grandfather died. I was just being faced with a lot of death. It makes sense to me in the universe of Taylia to have something that triggers her into motion. It’s not the rape. The rape isn’t what triggers her. That’s the last straw for her. She’s just like, no, fuck this. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to live like this anymore. It’s really the loss of her sister and trying to compute why somebody would do this that brings her to her own evolution. Then I formally started writing this book again when I was in my early twenties. I’ve been working on it more full time for about eight years.

Zibby: It’s so crazy to think when you were twelve, you were writing this. When I was twelve, in my journal, it’s like, I slowed danced with Chris McFarron.

Fariha: I love that.

Zibby: It’s insane. Now I feel horribly guilty for having these ridiculously middle school traditional privileged ups and downs. Then this is going on in your head. It’s just insane. Yet here we are as adults just having a normal conversation. What you bring to it, what I bring to it — not to say I haven’t had lots of trauma in my life. It’s just not at that young age particularly. Then the way that that informs how you grow up and what you do with your life is so important.

Fariha: Don’t you think that we all — I don’t know if this is how you feel. We all become products of our lives. We make choices. At a certain point, maybe you did this as well, but I wanted a better life, so I fought for it. I think the things that happened to me, my therapist might disagree, but I’ve come to place of a lot of peace. It brings me pain, but I have a lot of peace with my life because I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t go through it. I like who I am a lot. The fact that I can write this book — I’m being clownish and light. I obviously want people to read it. I obviously want people to connect with it. That is my offering, sourcing all this pain and putting it onto the page so people can have a toolkit. If every survivor is able to read this book, and there’s a lot of survivors on this planet, that would mean so much to me. From my heart, it’s been written to aid people through this journey.

Zibby: It’s beautiful that you did that. I feel like I should put a theme song to this episode that’s like, “I’m a survivor.”

Fariha: Destiny’s Child.

Zibby: Yeah, exactly. Thank you. Yes, Destiny’s Child. Thank you for not stopping the singing. That’s my first singing on a podcast ever, and my last.

Fariha: It’s great.

Zibby: Thanks. What’s coming next for you? In, let’s see, 2038, will we have your next novel eighteen years from now?

Fariha: I’m working on another novel which I’m really excited about. It’s still really early stages, so I won’t talk about it, actually. I’m also writing a book of poetry called Survival Takes a Wild Imagination. Then I have my fourth book that comes out January 2022 or spring 2022 about the wellness industrial complex. It’s my first nonfiction. I’m diving into, again, the things that we’re talking about, trauma and my own experience and rooting it in my own experience, but also looking at the failures of the wellness industrial complex and how we very much owe it to one another to care more about one another, and especially in this climate and everything that’s happening and where the world is going with climate change. It’s going to be really, really interesting. Those are my two major book projects that are coming up. Then the novel, I think in a couple years. Stay tuned. Then I’m writing some screenplays as well. A lot of things are happening.

Zibby: Wow, that’s great, as they should. You deserve nothing but success, especially having taken what was so painful for you and given it, as you said, as an offering to others. I hope that the circle of life gives back to you what you needed from it. It’s just great.

Fariha: Thank you.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Fariha: Trust your voice. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have something to say. If you feel like you do, really trust it and nurture it. Read. Read a lot. I think enough writers, or enough people, don’t read. We do need to read more. I know that your podcast is about that.

Zibby: I would agree with you. I agree with you. I agree. Not enough people read. I actually read some crazy statistic recently how the average American reads one book every two years. I probably just botched that statistic, so nobody quote me on this or write it down. Just pretend you didn’t hear me say that, but it’s something like that. A lot of people hardly ever read. A lot of people don’t even own a lot of books or any books. I just donated some books to this school in Texas. None of the kids had ever owned a book before and were writing me all these thank-you notes. “Oh, my gosh, I get to take it home. I get to keep it.” I get more notes every day from this school. I’m surrounded by books. They’re how I stay sane. They’ve helped me through everything that I’ve ever gone through in my life. I think, wow, I have these talismans of stories and experiences. I just look and I remember them. Now I’ll have yours. Then it just brings it all back. Anyway, yes, I think people should make time for books and find ways to get books in everybody’s hands.

Fariha: I love that sentiment. Reading is how I survived. If I couldn’t have gone into different universes, I don’t know what I would’ve done with myself. Absolutely, it breaks my heart that young kids don’t have access to that.

Zibby: By the way, I was going to say this earlier, not that it’s any of my business, but you should go to schools. I don’t know if you’re doing that or not. You should put yourself on the school circuit and go in and have talks and go to middle schools. You never know what’s going on with people during that time. They might really need to hear it in the moment. I know it’s a lot, this book, but I think you should do it. I think you should try a few schools and see what happens. I think you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll be able to affect change at that level.

Fariha: Okay, thank you. I’m going to listen to that.

Zibby: Just my two cents for what it’s worth.

Fariha: Thank you.

Zibby: This has been unexpectedly fun. I thought this would be so deep and disturbing and intense. I think I had to lighten it up a bit as self-protection or something for both of us. Thank you. This book was beautiful. Your writing style is beautiful. When you said you weren’t sure if people were going to read it or whatever, I found your writing style to be something that was so captivating and a little bit different and a unique voice. I just kept reading and reading. I really liked it. There you have it.

Fariha: Thank you, Zibby. Thank you for having me on your podcast.

Zibby: Thanks for coming.

Fariha: I’ll talk to you soon.

Zibby: Yes, keep me posted on the meaning of life and everything.

Fariha: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Fariha Roisin, LIKE A BIRD