Like A Bird
by Fariha Róisín
Published September 2020
As an immigrant who came to this country from rural Punjab at the age of ten, I have never quite understood the need to feel Australian. I wince at the assimilationist rhetoric of this settler-colony. I am at home in my language – its untranslatability delights me – which gives weight to my being in the world. My mentor, the anthropologist Kalpana Ram, once recalled saying to the radical feminists at the University of Sydney in the 70s, ‘going home feels like taking off a tight shoe, it’s the only place where I can speak my own language, eat my own food.’ Ram’s words made me wonder, what would the abolition of the nuclear family mean for us women of colour? Those of us who find refuge only in those heterosexual spaces of reproduction. I have always been suspicious of liberal white feminism and its appropriation of the language of intersectionality, with its myriad challenges to the linear teleology of equality that posits a project with a culmination – a tidy ending.
For those of us who find our gender interwoven with the perpetual exhumation of our race and class as axes of exclusion, only the intersectionality introduced to us by Kimberlé Crenshaw and espoused by the likes of bell hooks can provide succour. As I read Fariha Róisín’s Like A Bird, I wondered where her protagonist, the half-white Indian-American Taylia, whose experiences of home and culture seemed so aberrant to me, would stand in this discourse on intersectionality.
Taylia Chatterjee grows up Indian-American with a Bengali father and a Jewish-American mother. An insipid hum, a taste of dis-ease laces Taylia’s otherwise privileged life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Like the way immigrants who desperately wanted to be white were all Gap-wearing and “Howdy,” all Wonder bread capitalism, incapable of knowing who they really were, like my father and his feelings of inadequacy, a constant lump in his throat. This is what it meant to assimilate.
She refuses the inheritance of this evasion, of a deferral to whiteness, from her parents, who have comfortable jobs as academics at Columbia. The Chatterjees’ hypocrisy incarnates as their devotion to Taylia’s older sister Alyssa – the one with fairer skin and a kempt grace about her. While Taylia’s mother gushes to her best friend about Alyssa’s black boyfriend, Taylia’s brownness is assiduously pointed out as a fault. The fact of him being African-American is used as liberal cultural capital while Taylia’s brown skin becomes an emblem for the brownness that her parents are so desperate to shed. They mingle with the same wealthy elites that their piecemeal socialism had once taught them to despise. Taylia is seared by this vapid chauvinism. Her parents, in the face of the myriad exclusions of American society, choose the immunity that wealth provides.
Unable to feel Indian, Jewish, or whatever the ambiguity ‘American’ implies, Taylia finds no stability in her self as home or at home with her family. Like A Bird captures the irreducibility of contemporary immigrant experiences in the South Asian diaspora. It represents a maturation of the Indian-American experience that was first intimated to us in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies (1999). While Lahiri forayed into the lives of young immigrants of the last century, Róisín’s narrative speaks to the second generation. A generation amongst which Taylia feels neither sufficiently white nor brown.
Unlike Taylia, home is a refuge for me. There has never been a sense of being the other, of an impending identity crisis. I have always felt grounded in what might be defined as a South Asian identity. Which is why reading Like A Bird was an exercise in understanding that my lifeworld is a perspective, and it is just that, one of the many narratives that populate the immigrant experience. Ensconced in every turn of the arc in this novel is the idea that other homes are possible, and other families too.
In search of this belonging, Taylia finds herself drawn to her Indian roots, whereas Alyssa, firm in her self-confidence, tries to help Taylia see that perhaps the feelings of inferiority are overdrawn in her mind. The relationship of camaraderie and ambivalence between Alyssa and Taylia is lost with Alyssa’s death. She has taken her own life. Losing Alyssa delivers finality to Taylia’s un-belonging. The familial warmth that Taylia lacks from her parents is embodied by her paternal grandmother, dadi-ma. Taylia fondly recollects the time spent with dadi-ma in her father’s childhood home in Bengal. Dadi-ma’s instinctive preference for Taylia over Alyssa, and her affirmative presence stay with Taylia as a pithy instruction on her right to be loved.
Within the cracks of my childhood, my relationship with my dadi-ma was the tangible kintsugi to my healing…she filled me with an intense, overwhelming serenity, but more – she initiated a healing of sorts. There was something powerful in being seen by her – the theme of my life. The need for my body to be seen in all its varying dimensions was like a drug I was hooked on; it gave me permission to like myself, too.
Like A Bird is Fariha Róisín’s debut novel, following a collection of poems entitled How to Cure A Ghost (2019) and the guided self-care journal Being in Your Body (2019). Róisín was born to Bangladeshi parents and grew up in Sydney, later moving to the United States where she now lives and writes. A queer Muslim, her voice centres the mutable and often generationally defined experiences of the South Asian diaspora in publications such as the New York Times, Nylon Magazine, and Al Jazeera. I first came across her work when I read her essay ‘Luca Guadagnino Is Love’ in Hazlitt Magazine. Her words were sonorous, and her rhythmic lilt left me with a longing for the soft depths of the cinema she described. Writing about everything from the trauma of having an abortion at 19 to her connection to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Róisín’s work has repeatedly affirmed the multitudinous nature of the immigrant experience. The diversity of her essays has signified a certain kind of growing up, of embracing our cosmopolitanism as children of the diaspora and citizens of the world.
Being rooted in a veritably Indian lifeworld, I was prone from the very outset to a certain orientation towards this story. A voice inside me was cheering Taylia on, saying: ‘Of course you are drawn to the man behind the counter at the Punjabi Deli. We will only ever feel at home with each other.’ This is not to essentialise what it means to be South Asian, a designation vexed by stagnant representations of a cultural ‘essence’ defined since the colonial era as one preoccupied with caste and religion. Neither is it a sedentarist discourse about attachment to place, but a reading of connectedness liberated from the constraints of spatiality and time. Róisín’s work makes similar assertions with its heterogeneity of themes and subjectivities. Survival is one such leitmotif around which Taylia’s story unfolds.
Like A Bird is a labour of assertion by Róisín who – herself a survivor of sexual trauma and abuse – envisions this story in the same canon as Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, in that both are stories of survival told by survivors. When Taylia is raped by a family friend and his accomplices, her parents throw her out of the family home. She finds herself adrift in the indifferent sprawl of New York, having gone from ill at ease at home to having no home. The ghosts of her grandmother, dadi-ma, and her sister visit her often at this time, providing both solace and guidance. In the unreality of what has conspired, Taylia finds rest communing with their disembodied presence.
The wounds still freshly strung across her physical and psychological self; it is at her lowest point that a sliver of self-confidence germinates in Taylia. ‘I believed in myself like a religion,’ she writes – facing eviction from home and a familiar world. She finds safety in the parks and crowded pavements of the city, and it is this wandering that brings her to Kat (Khadija).
Taylia finds herself drawn to Kat’s contagious energy. A single mother and café owner, she employs Taylia, marking the beginning of a deep friendship. For Taylia, Kat’s world is ‘A home that I had built in my mind – maybe one we all built, about the lives that we felt we deserved.’ As the unruly trajectories of community-making unfold, she finds herself living with Kat, who is dating a woman for the first time and navigating sexuality at a crossroads. At the café Taylia meets Ky, a writer in a relationship with the impassive Jade. An illicit affair ensues. Throughout the novel, Róisín reminds us that survival is strewn with the ethical solecisms that problematise any tidy images of the survivor or the ways in which healing unfolds. Taylia is not absolved of her missteps and has to live with the consequences of the relationship that she and Ky pursue.
As someone who has followed Róisín’s work for some time, I found myself thinking about the novel in relation to the author’s experiences. From Taylia’s infatuation with India, to her troubled relationship with her mother, Róisín’s protagonist treads paths the author has written about in relation to her own life with great intensity. Shortly after the novel was released, Róisín wrote a piece for The Guardian saying that the story came to her in a dream when she was 12. It wasn’t until much later, when she had been working on the novel for almost two decades, that she found out that her mother had survived extreme sexual violence at 16. Like A Bird is a story that was dormant in the repository of intergenerational trauma. Tamilian novelist Meena Kandasamy’s curt response to being asked if When I Hit You; Or, A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Wife (2017) was a memoir came to mind. ‘If I was going to write my actual life story, I would condense this entire marriage into a footnote,’ Kandasamy told the journalist. A delicately balanced bricolage of fiction and memoir, Taylia’s story transcends the personal and speaks of a universal experience shared by so many of us who are rendered feminine (queer, female, or gender non-conforming bodies) by male hegemony. The ways in which feminine bodies are policed, and the silences that heighten the trauma of sexual abuse in South Asian communities are present in both the truth that Róisín imparts and the fact of having to fictionalise it in order for it to be told.
Cultural belonging – or the desire for it – that Taylia, Róisín and I share is itself fraught with the impositions of propriety demanded from feminine bodies. As I read the novel, I was gently invited to ponder the possibility of a sense of belonging that is not embedded in a first-generation immigrant experience like mine. What happens when our cultures do not nourish us, when the familial unit I experience as a respite is a site of alienation? Does this exclusion simply become an invitation to defer to whiteness?
For Róisín, this is not the case. Taylia’s agency grows alongside the family that she curates for herself – first with Kat, and later with Ky’s sister-in-law Tahsin. She finds rest with voices that feel like home. ‘Women who knew how to be, without question or pause. Women who had no puff of anxiety breaching every interaction,’ she writes. Two spiritually grounded women of colour – Kat with her Afro-Panamian-American roots and Tahsin whose Lebanese parents moved to America after the civil war – hold Taylia through her journey to assertive personhood. Her narrative points to the quintessence of family as a community in which we feel seen and heard. Whether we are born into these affirmative connections or must forge them out of our own volition is beside the point. The perpetuity of Alyssa and dadi-ma’s presence in the novel, the myriad ways in which Taylia resurrects their memory, renders them both a part of this new family, which is both material and imagined. Dadi-ma, Khadija, and Tahsin – all of them women of colour and indelibly so – help Taylia forge a self against the grain of assimilation.
I have witnessed the need for queer people to take refuge in alternative communities through my work with transgender women in Punjab. Cast out of their families and punished for their gendered and sexual alterity, they often find refuge in each other and the wider community of performing artists to which they belong. Many of my respondents-turned-friends are also from Dalit (oppressed caste) families and face life as doubly subaltern performers who try to carve out a space for themselves on the stage and in society. That the queer Muslim Róisín has written a new family into Taylia’s narrative is telling. Taylia’s untethering from the biological family unit read to me like Róisín’s assertion of the sine qua non of survival – growing new roots.
At times Like A Bird is a laborious read; by and large because the work of healing cannot be shaped to fit into neat temporalities, bereft of the messiness of lived experience. Sexual violence, as described by survivors and those who carry its intergenerational wounds, makes demands of the reader. That we don’t let it become a spectacle and ourselves mere spectators. Taylia’s story belies spectacle as she defines the contours of her own redemption paralleled by victories, errors, and the universal pains that mark us all. Reading stories of survival carries with it the responsibility of awareness; of the inequalities that have allowed rape, the social credo that sustains it, and the definitive shift in consciousness that is needed to hold its perpetrators to public account.
Charged by the uncertainties of an inner world in flux, and the loss of one’s physical being to sexual violence, Like A Bird centres the power of alternative communities. The rhizomatic emergence of a new family in the aftermath of trauma destabilises victimhood and healing as essentialised categories. In the same vein as Róisín’s non-fiction work, this debut braids a commentary on the immigrant experience and what it brings to bear on healing, self-determination, and being a queer brown person in the world. Róisín’s re-writing of the perpetual victim back into responsible and efficacious personhood is the resounding accomplishment of this novel.