Extraordinary stories from the most interesting artists, writers, athletes, and thinkers on the kaleidoscope of Muslim experience.

Season two of This Being Human is proudly presented in partnership with TVO.

FARIHA RÓISÍN

Season 2

EPISODE 5 - FARIHA RÓISÍN

Faria Róisín spent 18 years working on her debut novel, Like a Bird, since dreaming about it as a child. She talks to AR about art, migration, the “new Muslim Renaissance” and how writing helped her deal with childhood trauma.

ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:

Welcome to This Being Human…I’m your host Abdul Rehman-Malik. On this podcast from the Aga Khan Museum, I talk to extraordinary people from all over the world whose life, ideas and art are shaped by Muslim culture. 


NADIR NAHDI:

There's a new generation that has a very unique to how they see themselves as young Muslims in the modern world. 


TANYA MUNEERA WILLIAMS:

I am this wide-eyed girl. I'm like, I want it all, I want to experience it all.


GINELLA MASSA:

Everyone has a story. Sometimes you just have to ask and find out what it is.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER:

Like the poem that inspires this podcast, The Guest House, by Sufi poet Jallaludin Rumi, we’re talking to people who seek meaning and joy in work and life…regardless of what the day brings us. 


FARIHA RÓISÍN: I don't know a lot of people like me. I'm incredibly vulnerable right off the bat. I want to be like that. That's how I connect to people. I don't have a lot to hide. I don't really have anything to hide.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER: Those words from writer Fariha Róisín could not be more true. I spoke to her last fall, around the time her debut novel Like A Bird came out in paperback. The book had been a work in progress for 18 years. She started it when she was 12, when the idea came to her in a dream. Imagine living with a piece of art for that long, to revisit something created by your younger self, and then to finally let go after all that time. Like a Bird follows a mixed-race girl who gets kicked out of her New York City home after being sexually assaulted. She has to find a new path in life, with the guidance of her grandmother’s ghost. And though the book dives headfirst into thorny territory, it’s not without hope. Fariha wants to tell a story about moving forward and healing. The resulting book was praised and featured by places like The Globe and Mail, Vogue, and Refinery29. Like a Bird isn’t her first foray into the public eye. She’s released a book of poetry and has written articles for places like the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Village Voice, often focusing on issues of Muslim identity. And just like her writing, our conversation was powerful and intense - but what came through was hope and passion.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Fariha Róisín, welcome to This Being Human.


FARIHA RÓISÍN: Thank you. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: I want to sort of start in some ways at the crossroads of things, at the intersections of things. You've lived between a lot of worlds, Canada, Australia, Bangladesh, where your ancestors are from. And now you're in New York City, this famed metropolis. What does New York mean to you as a home now, given that you've come from all of these different places.


FARIHA RÓISÍN: Wow, what a big question. So, you know, it's funny, like, I just turned thirty one, which I think to a lot of people is like a baby. But to me, it's like I'm thirty one. I've lived a lot of lives, as you just pointed out. And the thing that hit me was, I'm not American. I don't have American sensibility. I have a faux American accent that I picked up. I don't know how. A lot of myself is a mystery to me, but I go with it you know, I think that that's probably what is the most obscure part of me. Like, I trust myself. I trust where I take myself and I think that that says a lot about how I follow the sense of geography that pulled me to New York. Growing up in Australia and growing up I think also particularly in a very abusive household, which unfortunately kind of marred my entire experience of being young. And I think when you're, when you're in that kind of situation, there's a lot of domestic violence and there's a lot of just dissatisfaction with your life and with your parents and with your family. And my parents are extremely talented individuals, but they've, you know, I've seen the ways in which colonization, partition, the Liberation War, being an immigrant, how that's broken them and, I'm seeing now how I believe I was time traveling. I believe now that I created the reality of this, this 12 year old created this reality that could exist 18 years later, which was completely against the grain of what I was raised with. I don't know how I did it, but I think New York kind of became this like way of like trying to fight for something. And it was this - both a vessel and, a crucible, I think, for me, you know, it was I knew that it was going to be like this reckoning and things were just going to come out of this experience. And I think a lot of, like, weird kids, kids that feel like outsiders, are drawn to New York because it is this, there is this commiseration to the city you know that you will come to the city and it will understand you. And that is, I think, a very felt experience of Taylia in Like a Bird, she - the city revives her. You know, she's never alone because she's with the city. And I feel the same way. I came to New York through a dream.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Do you feel like you've arrived home in a city like New York City? 


FARIHA RÓISÍN: I did. I really did. So I've had a lot of romance with the city. You know, I came here when I was 18 for the first time and did an internship at the United Nations. And was, and wanted to be a human rights lawyer. That was my track. And basically came and was like, that's not for me, I'm not doing this with my life. And then came back the next year for school - ended up dropping out, stayed, and then because I'm not American, I've had a lot of on and off chances to live here. And now I think to go back to this idea of like being like, oh, "I'm not American," has a lot to do with the fact that I'm very much an immigrant and that I'm on a on a visa that calls me a "foreign alien," you know, like I am that person. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: I am too. I feel it. I feel you. 


FARIHA RÓISÍN: Really? Yeah. OK, so you get it. And it's, you know, being Muslim in America, not to go right there immediately, but it's true. You know, there is a different kind of tenor to our reality here. We're watched differently, we're surveilled differently. Those are things that even I think in a pre 9/11 world was like, alive. And for me, I can't divorce that from my experience because I'm so - I'm such a proud Muslim. So I see Islamophobia everywhere and I've always felt it. I felt that more than anything else in my life. I keep bringing back to you "I'm not American" because New York is beginning to surprise me and fail me in ways that I didn't expect. And I think that that's also part and parcel of America and living in America. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: You know, I think so much of it comes down to the experiences of movement and migration. And like you said, you know, migration and movement is in our DNA. When I reflect on my own family, and as you were speaking, it was sort of ticking those boxes, the experience of partition in 1947 and becoming refugees. And then for your family and for my wife's family, the experiences of 1971 and the independence of Bangladesh, but then moving from the subcontinent and then moving again to another place and then moving again to another place, it feels like migration and movement is in your DNA and in your ancestors’ DNA. And you know, when you move and you migrate so much you're contending with but also have the ability to contend with lots of change. And I am wondering that in all of these changes in these migrations in these movements, what were the books that captured your imagination, kept you company, gave you solace, grounded you? 


FARIHA RÓISÍN: I read voraciously. I always have, because, again, I think, it was a way that I tended to my loneliness. I was able to find myself in books. So you know, from childhood, I've been reading from everything from like, you know, Lord of the Rings, I was obsessed with Lord of the Rings, I changed my name to Arwen when I was 11. I demanded everybody call me that. So I was a major, major nerd. I learned Elfish like, I just, I think actually it's technically Elvish, so yeah, just gotta fix that technicality, you know. But, and then I also had a radical father that was, you know, telling me to read Empire by Arundhati Roy. So like Arundhati Roy to me is an incredibly important figure in my own politicization. But also just as somebody that I look to as a lodestar, you know, and Women that Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and a lot of Audre Lorde's work, James Baldwin, June Jordan, you know, the autobiography of Malcolm X, Noam Chomsky, those were the works that really, really, really, really, I think helped me with my identification and understanding myself as a racialized person in a white supremacist world, which is very much, I think, a foundation of my dad's teaching. He's a Marxist and he's a poli-sci professor. I mean, in terms of literature, Zadie Smith, I was reading a lot of Zadie Smith trying to, you know, White Teeth, she has this Bangladeshi character and, you know, like again, like London and British eco-systems, culture…they factor us in a lot more. Our histories there are so alive. And so we exist in their temporalities, in their understanding of, like the world. We're not just nothing, a blank slate. But the cool thing about being a blank slate and I will say about reading is that what I also think I started to do because White Teeth had such a phenomenal impact on me. I read it when I was 11. I started writing Like a Bird when I was 12. So it was like I think it must have been sort of the friction that I needed to believe that I could exist on the pages, that my story could exist. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: You talk about starting your novel at the age of 12 and we're going to get there in just a second. But I kind of want to know, how were you, like, as a kid, if I met Fariha at school what would be the Fariha I would have encountered? 


FARIHA RÓISÍN: I might cry. I've been doing a lot of inner child work. I was a really good kid. And, it's funny because when I was 12, I was a really good kid, I was incredibly involved in social justice, I started the social justice group at my school and it was very much my dad's doing. I was really involved, you know, I was canvassing for Oxfam and Amnesty and, you know, I just became vegetarian and I was very, I knew who I was. And I guess the reason I'm getting emotional is because in my adulthood, I'm reckoning with the fact that I'm a child sexual abuse survivor. So that is a really huge part of my life that I hid from because I thought that it was easier to not acknowledge it, to just feel like it was a thing that I survived, and I think that that's a very South Asian thing as well. It's a very Muslim thing. These are the things that exist in our cultures and our societies as much as any others. So it's important that we talk about it, it's important that I feel I am honest and, I just name it, I don't even have to go into it, I just have to name it, because it's an act of solidarity to say that this happened to me. And it does change the way that I remember myself, because I remember myself more clearly now and I can remember how the goodness and the wanting to be very…I was a very…I was really invested in being a good person, as I still am. But, so much of that was a reaction to my terrible home life. And so I always just thought that it was like, because I was a good person and that because I had God, I really, I have always felt very close to God. And I think it's because God and Islam were ways that I saved myself, it was the thing I held on to. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: You talk about a dream that you had when you were when you were 12 years old and this idea of a novel came to you, which 18 years later turns into your debut novel, Like a Bird, which has won accolades upon accolades all over the world. What was the dream, Fariha? 


FARIHA RÓISÍN: It was a dream that I would be heard. It was very simple, you know, sometimes it's just so, so simple, what we want. It's just to be heard and you know, I wrote this story because I couldn't tell my own. And so, it became that and it became Like a Bird and at a certain point, and I guess I've hit that point, I'm having to acknowledge that as I face this book and it's very humbling work. You know, it's the work I want to be doing. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: I think the book has been so well-received and has moved so many people because it's in a way unafraid and forthright about so much, and it deals with, you know, what reviewers like to call "difficult themes." Sexual assault, a broken family, race, class, migration, movement, memory. And even as you've been talking, we know that there is so much of you and your experience in this. But you've also talked elsewhere about it not being autobiographical, but it being part of an internal dialogue, which I find so compelling. What does that mean as a writer? 


FARIHA RÓISÍN: Yeah, I think a good writer can see a lot of perspectives, you know? I think that for me, even just in my own family, understanding that it's not just about right and wrong, it's not interesting when it's just about right and wrong. I think that there needs to be a moral code in writing. I recently watched this beautiful interview with Toni Morrison where she was just talking about how being kind is more interesting and being evil is boring. And I related to that so much because-


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: So powerful. 


FARIHA RÓISÍN: Yeah, because it's actually as simple as that, you know. It's actually so much more compelling to be kind and to write things that are about the process of evolution, as opposed to the process of just like looking at all that is ugly, which I think you have to do, I think you have to acknowledge and face those things, but then I think in everything that I write, the theme is how do we move through this? 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER: Fariha’s protagonist is Taylia Chatterjee, a young woman growing up in an affluent family in Manhattan, struggling to find acceptance and love. After a violent sexual assault, Taylia is disowned, her only companion the ghost of her Indian grandmother. And though the book dives headfirst into thorny territory, it’s not without hope. It’s been praised in places like the Globe and Mail, Vogue, and Refinery29, some critics calling it a stirring story about a young woman “breaking free of oppression and trauma."


FARIHA RÓISÍN: It's not autobiographical, and it is, at the same time. As everything with art, I think often is. It is a pastiche of all the things you pick up on and especially something that you've been writing for so long. And for me, I didn't want to write characters that were just one dimensional because I don't think that that is a service to humanity. Even with Simon, who is, I guess, sort of in a way, the villain, there are ways that I wanted to redeem him and just I didn't have to do it outrightly, but I wanted there to be like small moments of very quiet redemption in Taylia, and it wasn't really to do with him, but it was really to do with her and how she was digesting those moments in herself, a moment like that for me is like when she's looking at herself in the mirror towards the later chapters and she's finally establishing an understanding and awareness of her own body, which she's been disassociated for so long. So that is a giant act for somebody who suffers with disassociation to actually see themselves in a mirror. And then, of course, her family, her parents, who I actually think are so cool, even though they're so complicated, because to me, they're the kind of aunties and uncles and even though her mother is white and Jewish, I think that that was also a really important aspect of this assimilation that we see. And that was like really the underlying factor of her family that both of her parents assimilated to white supremacy. Both of them assimilated into American culture, believing that it would buy them the absolute redemption. And ultimately what they have to face, with Alyssa and Taylia further down the line, is that you can't force children to become what you want them to be because they will take their lives in their own hands. They will take their own mortality if they have to. You know, like, especially growing up in a household that didn't show a lot of love, I think that, I wanted to write something that was about each family member trying to see the other for who they are and in her small and very idiosyncratic ways, I think Taylia really did begin to see her family and see her parents at the very least, and even see her sister a little more complexly at the end as well, and not just put her on a pedestal of perfection, but actually see her flaws and what ultimately brought her to the place that she eventually came in her own life. And I think that dialog, again, that friction and that ability to use conflict as a way to sharpen and become clear in your, not only your own perspective, but also your objective as a human being. I think we all are and when you know you're in like sort of a healed or healing relationship, that helps. Or even when you're in an abusive relationship, you can fortify your own soul and your own state of evolution by actually using that energy to help you shape shift.


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER: Although Fariha’s writing can be deeply personal, she also considers herself to be part of a wider cultural shift. It’s one that she and others have referred to as a new Muslim Renaissance. 


FARIHA RÓISÍN: I believe that we are pulling ourselves into the next renaissance and that I want to invest in Muslim thought. I want to invest in people who are thinking outside of the parameters of being. So to go back to this idea of "read" and the way that Muslims for the next eight hundred years, during that beautiful age where we were investing in sciences and arts and translations like even something like the House of Baghdad, which was created by the Caliph, by Caliph Al-Ma'mun and his wife, Queen Buran, who was an astrologer, who was the first, one of the first documented female astrologers in the world, and she and him created this place where they were asking people from all over to bring books so they could translate them into Arabic. What kind of foresight does that take? What kind of belief does it take? That to me is what I'm fighting for. That is what keeps me going. It's that belief that there is so much here in this world, in this planet, in this earth, outside, in those trees, in those animals, that there is something to protect here. And that in order to protect it, we need to understand ourselves and we need to understand this world. You know, that to me is what "read" means, that first word is so iconic to me because it is about pushing the boundaries and the limitations of your own mind. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Fariha, I so appreciate and am moved by the imagery of of renaissance and a Muslim renaissance, an Islamic renaissance, and I think you, along with so many incredible creatives in writing and in music and in art, are showing us ways of being Muslim at the intersections, being Muslim in the whole of ourselves and everything that we are, and yet being confident about all those parts and being confidently Muslim. And, I just read your piece in, and I think it was Women's Health where you speak about faith. And you wrote in that piece, "my faith brought me so much peace, I don't know if I would have survived my life without it." Tell me a little bit of that journey, of that space of faith and faithfulness.


FARIHA RÓISÍN: I love God. I really do. I don't know why I have this deep devotion inside of me, but ever since I was a kid, I could feel it. I just had a deep, deep love for God. And my sister would always tell me that, she would always tell me that I was very close to God and and her and I have a very interesting relationship, too, because in a lot of ways, she sort of pursued more traditional aspects of Islam. She put on the hijab and she had sort of this whole "that life" for a very long time. And I never wanted to look outwardly religious. I didn't have any interest or investment in that. I think it's because, again, like I had a father who showed me I didn't have to do that, I didn't have to look a certain way to consider myself Muslim or to consider myself of God, you know, and I think because I have, it was never dogmatic. It saved me. And I believe because I understood at a young age that I was being so betrayed by a caretaker that I needed another caretaker that I could just fully give in to. And, yeah, I mean, my faith is why I didn't kill myself honestly, and it's not because I was afraid, but because I knew God had given me this life for a reason and I needed to see what I had to learn from this life. And because I didn't have any other choices and I was really pushed into a corner, I think I just got on my knees and prayed. And that's where I've been my entire life, just in prayer, because it's the only thing that brings me any peace. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: Fariha Róisín, what does this being human mean to you?


FARIHA RÓISÍN: I have so many things I want to say, God, honesty, kindness. Truth, integrity. All of those things that Rumi had, it feels so potently through his work. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK: You know, we get a lot of amazing conversations, but this has been remarkable. Thank you Fariha for being on This Being Human


FARIHA RÓISÍN: Thank you so much. 


ABDUL-REHMAN MALIK VOICEOVER: Thank you for listening to This Being Human. You can find more resources related to this conversation by clicking on the link in the show notes.


This Being Human is produced by Antica Productions in collaboration with TVO.


Our Senior Producer is Kevin Sexton, with production assistance from Dania Ali and Abhi Raheja. Our Executive Producer is Lisa Gabriele. Mixing and sound design by Phil Wilson. Original music by Boombox Sound.


Stuart Coxe is the president of Antica. Katie O’Connor is TVO’s senior producer of podcasts. Laurie Few is the executive for digital at TVO.


This Being Human is generously supported by the Aga Khan Museum, one of the world’s leading institutions that explores the artistic, intellectual and scientific heritage of Islamic civilizations around the world. For more information about the museum go to www.agakhanmuseum.org


The Museum wishes to thank Nadir and Shabin Mohamed for their philanthropic support to develop and produce This Being Human.

Fariha Róisín spent 18 years working on her debut novel, Like a Bird, since dreaming about it as a child. She talks to AR about art, migration, the “new Muslim Renaissance” and how writing helped her deal with childhood trauma.


  • In this episode, Fariha talks about: 
  • Her experiences relocating to New York and her thoughts on American perceptions towards Muslims 
  • Why dissatisfaction with her childhood ultimately inspired her move to New York 
  • How living in a major city has helped to inspire her book Like a Bird 
  • The importance of reading voraciously as a young writer 
  • Reflections on her childhood, her experiences with childhood trauma, and how she has made sense of trauma as an adult
  • The importance of being heard as a young person, and how her desire to be heard inspired her writing
  • Why stories exploring what is ‘right and wrong’ often fall short 
  • Why being evil is boring
  • How her own experiences with abuse inspired the journey of her book Like a Bird’s protagonist 
  • Why she wants to invest in Muslim thought as we enter a new Muslim Renaissance 
  • How her desire to protect the planet is informed by her desire to learn more about herself and the world around her 
  • The extreme significance of God and Islam throughout her life  


Quotes:


“Sometimes it’s just so, so simple what we want. It’s just to be heard. And, you know, I wrote this story [Like A Bird] because I couldn’t tell my own.” – Fariha Róisín, 14:45 


“I think a good writer can see a lot of perspectives…[writing is] not just about right and wrong. It’s not interesting when it’s just about right and wrong.” – Fariha Róisín, 16:14


“You can’t force children to become what you want them to be. Because they will take their lives into their own hands.” – Fariha Róisín, 20:02 


To learn more about this conversation, AR recommends:

  • Fairha Róisín’s website: www.fariharoisin.com/ 
  • Read more about Like a Bird: www.fariharoisin.com/new-page 
  • Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés:  https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/241823.Women_Who_Run_With_the_Wolves 
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3711.White_Teeth 
  • New York Times article about Like a Bird: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/27/books/fariha-roisin-like-a-bird.html 
  • Fariha’s article about childhood trauma from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/18/when-it-comes-to-a-family-trauma-who-gets-to-tell-the-story 
  • Toni Morrison on goodness and evil: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/04/toni-morrison-god-help-the-child-new-york 
  • House of Wisdom: https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/iraq/articles/iraq-s-golden-age-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-house-of-wisdom/