Australian-Canadian writer Fariha Róisín’s latest novel, Like A Bird, out now, has been in the works for 18 years. When we reach the New York-based author and poet to talk about its release, she is in the same Montreal bedroom that she wrote much of the book in. “I was not expecting coming to Montreal, so being here is this really mysterious, almost cyclical experience,” Róisín explains. After returning from Lisbon where she was visiting her girlfriend, the How To Cure A Ghost author was unable to re-enter the United States due to the pandemic [she is not a U.S. citizen] and had to make a detour to Canada, where she is now staying with a friend who took over her old apartment.
Like A Bird tells the story of Taylia Chatterjee, a bookish young woman living with her parents in the Upper West Side. Drawing from Róisín’s own experiences, the novel explores Taylia’s attempts to heal from the trauma caused by harrowing experiences, including the death of her sister, being raped and then disowned by her family. We spoke to Róisín about her 18-year writing feat, the nonlinear process of healing and why she thinks astrology should be taken more seriously.
Can you talk about the genesis of Like A Bird? I’m curious how you developed it over the 18 years.
I lived through that narrative. I couldn’t really face the violence of my home. I had a very tumultuous upbringing and a violent mother. I had to create an ecosystem for myself. I dreamt the story and I decided to write it – simple as that. I don’t even remember why I started to write it, maybe because I needed distraction. I wasn’t allowed out of my home very often. I was extremely surveilled. My room became this place where I was able to be free and explore. That’s why I like reading, writing, watching movies. [They] became really important resources for me, because I didn’t have the outer worlds.
I finished the first draft when I was 15. I showed my teachers, my dad, and probably my mom. My sister was recalling reading those pages recently and thinking it was such a good book, which, hearing now at age 30 sounds absurd. But it’s interesting how people have different perspectives of your writing. Even my father, who is a professor, was telling me he remembers reading some of my work and just thinking that he didn’t even have students that wrote like me at the time. It’s really weird to hear people talk about your writing back then. Part of the work for me now that it’s out is actually coming to terms with the fact that I wrote this and that I don’t want to feel embarrassed by it anymore. I’m currently trying to go back and really sit with myself, to have love and understanding and awareness that a 12-year-old started writing this story. Eighteen years later, I’m publishing it – that, to me, is just such a weight [lifted]. I haven’t really fully embraced that.
What was your relationship to the story like over that time period? Would you chip away at it every now and then, or was it something that you were pretty preoccupied with?
I finished it when I was 15 and then I don’t think I really looked at it for maybe two years. My dad had a friend and colleague who worked at his university. My dad essentially asked him if he would be down to read the manuscript. That was the first time I sort of started doing revisions. I remember him being very excited by the fact that a 17-year-old had finished a book. I maybe started working on it again at 19. I didn’t get to it full-time until about 21. Even then, it took me coming to Montreal at 23 to [fully] work on it. I’m really thinking about how interesting it is that I’ve been forced to come to Montreal now – like I say that with love, but this was not a choice. With How To Cure A Ghost, I sort of went through a mental breakdown before it came out as well. Putting out work for me is extremely spiritual. It’s extremely uncomfortable. I don’t enjoy it, but it’s a necessary part of my practices. As an artist I am committed to putting work out.
You recently tweeted that “Putting out work is so embarrassing.” How do you reconcile those feelings? And how do you decide what work to keep private versus public?
I’m actually an extremely private person. It’s so funny, maybe because I’m open about things that other people aren’t open about, people assume that I’m extremely extroverted, but I am a deeply private, introverted person. I need to be alone. I didn’t have a phone for four years. It’s extremely hard for me to be a public person, I don’t enjoy it. At the same time, I’m so honoured that I get to be a vessel where people feel seen. I wrote this newsletter yesterday, and I’ve already had so many people I know and complete strangers reach out to me about it. It never gets old. That relationship is just so sacred. I think back to being a teen and reading somewhere that Thom Yorke from Radiohead said ‘I want to be seen and unseen at the same time,‘ or something along those lines. That was just so pertinent. The nature of my work is so delicate. What continues to surprise me is my readership. People of all genders of all ethnicities, if they read my work and relate to it, that, to me, is such a generous relationship.
Social media is kind of an extension of the public persona. You’re pretty active on Twitter and Instagram. When I was reading Like A Bird – and I mean this in a complimentary way – it felt a bit like scrolling through Twitter because it was a mix of these funny and sweet and tender moments that you sometimes see on your timeline, along with some more personal and confessional aspects, like discourse around identity politics and trauma – a real smorgasbord of all these different parts of life. So I was wondering what your relationship to social media is like, and how it informed the book, if it has at all?
I grew up on Tumblr. I don’t really enjoy Instagram or Twitter. I hate the gaze of expectation, though critique can be very vital. I’ve learned a lot from people critiquing me. I stand by that and I think that it’s a really powerful tool. At the same time, I also know that people are unkind and cruel. It can be a very violent experience, because anybody can assume anything about your life. I started Two Brown Girls, a podcast, in 2012 and I was just getting weird, shitty things written about me or people sending me things that they thought about me. It was one of those times where I began to really realize that not everybody wants you to succeed. That is what I hate about social media – there’s a lack of true comradeship. There’s no emphasis on being human and all the corny aspects that I really gain a lot from, like community care.
I really liked this idea that was in the book about healing being nonlinear. I rewatched the Princess Diaries recently, and there’s one scene where Anne Hathaway’s character, Mia, is with her friend, Lily, and Lily makes a comment about Mia’s dad who died a couple months earlier, saying “I thought you were over it.” In your book, it’s the opposite – characters are being generous and patient. Taylia is told that she doesn’t have to heal right away, she can heal when she is ready. How did you decide the way you wanted to portray the healing process?
Healing is not linear. I know this from personal experience. I’m currently in it. I’m flabbergasted by the process, it’s so hard. That’s why people don’t go on this journey. They know it’s so fucking hard. I hope the book can be a roadmap for anybody that’s experiencing any kind of abuse. Healing and life itself is really a process of letting go and accepting whatever comes. There’s no way that I could have controlled not being able to go back to New York. Sometimes, you just need to surrender to the world and to your life and to the powers that be, whoever they may be for you. I watched I May Destroy You earlier this year. People have talked to me about similarities that they feel about I May Destroy You and Like A Bird and that’s the first time I had ever seen something that questions abuse in such a tender and honest way.
Michaela Coel is a fucking genius. One of the things that I feel like I relate to a lot in her work, which is something I hope I achieved with Like A Bird, is that if you’re a human person that’s fucking up, you’re not a victim. If we want to have a more complex understanding of abuse, we have to understand that these are people. That’s what we see with Arabella. She’s so messy and it’s so satisfying, as much as it is annoying to watch her fail, because you’re like, ‘Oh my God, you are not good at this either.’ We’re given this pristine idea of how to be a woman. You have to be sober and beautiful all the time, but not talk too much. You can’t make too much sound. I was criticized about how loud I laughed, how I walked on the floorboards; everything was very watched. In my adulthood, or at least when I was able to escape from home, the thing that I really wanted to do was be messy, to explore messiness. To see a Black woman be able to explore that on TV and just be is revolutionary. For her to experience what she’s experienced, and have that memory be so fractured and complicated… the way that it was told was truly sublime. That’s really what I was trying to do with Taylia. This is why the story hasn’t ended. It’s merely just a footnote in her life, like, what is to come? We don’t know. It ends on a hopeful note.
Did you always know how you wanted Like A Bird to end?
The last draft that I did of the book, the ending completely changed. It was always a love story between Taylia and somebody else. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but there was always going to be this state of forgiveness, which was really my own experience with my own mother. I wanted to forgive my mother, I wanted to come to terms with her, and I really wanted my healing journey to be involved with her, or to be alongside hers. And at this point in my life, I don’t want to talk to my mother anymore. So I think it was also a reflection of my own experience, and sometimes you can’t return to something.
There are a bunch of astrology references in the book and you used to be an astrology columnist. How did you become interested in astrology and what does it mean to you?
I got my first astrology report when I was 18. I was already thinking about potentially dropping out of school to become a writer full time. Three times in my chart, this woman goes, ‘you should be a writer.’ It was like a lightning strike, because nobody knew that about me at the time. I was always thinking I would be a human rights lawyer, because that’s what I wanted to be since I was 14.
Even things about who I am: I’m a Capricorn sun and a Cancer moon… all of these things [in my chart] that I started to learn more about gave me a language for these intricacies that I never fully understood about myself. We are told very limited ideas about who we are, at least when I was a kid. Astrology was a template for me to understand who I was. Early in my 20s, when I moved to Montreal and was trying to make money off writing, I was trying to freelance but I was making like $50 an article, which wasn’t helpful for the longterm. So I started writing charts on Tumblr for about a year and charging people for personalized charts. That’s how I started building my spiritual ecosystem. It was sort of a harkening back to what I was raised with – understanding Islam in the 15th century. These men were Renaissance men, they were poets and musicians and astronomers and they had such a beautiful understanding of the stars. I definitely consider myself a student of astrology. That’s why it’s in everything that I do, because I can’t divorce myself from astrological thought. It’s fucked up that a lot of people I know have made fun of it over the years. I’ve had people say stuff, like, ‘I thought you were smarter than this.’ I have a very tenuous relationship with my astrological self, but the more I talk about it, the more I want to demystify it as being some woo-woo.
Is astrology something you keep in mind when developing characters in your writing? Like, “She’s going to be a Cancer”?
I absolutely think about people like that. In the seventh chapter, Taylia talks about [her sister] Alyssa and she’s like, ‘She’s such a Scorpio.’ It’s almost like having a character analysis and being like, she has a Gemini moon. Those things become personality traits as well. It’s a really cool roadmap, when you’re writing a character, to see what kind of personality traits they have and then align it with their astrology.
How do you hope readers will feel after reading Like A Bird?
I really want this book to be read by survivors. If I could ask anybody who might read this interview to do something: if you know somebody that needs this book, please buy it for them. I kind of just want to give it to them, because it’s something that I wish I had when I was growing up… that’s maybe one of the reasons I wrote it. It is an invitation and a toolkit for people to take solace and comfort in someone else’s evolution and to believe in a future where they can be happy. I want people to believe that their happiness is possible.
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