reflection: Like A Bird by Fariha Róisín
~book reflection~~major spoilers~
TW: suicide, sexual assault
"Surely the violence that he had administered to me would be detectable in his voice or the linger of his sneer. There had to be signs. Like a smoker's order that always reeked through every perfume, the undernotes of tobacco lingering, there must be a way to sense terror in a man."
Fariha Roisin's Like A Bird is an indie-published, melancholic but gorgeous novel that follows Taylia Chatterjee, the half-Indian, half-Jewish daughter of an upper-middle-class family residing in Upper West Side Manhattan. After being violently sexually assaulted by the son of a family friend, Taylia is kicked out of her home by her disappointed parents who believe a false retelling of the assault. This forces Taylia to find her own way in New York as she relearns how to hold space for love (self, romantic, platonic, familial) following a traumatic event.
Roisin's Like a Bird seemed primarily focused on exploring the before, during, and after of a woman of color's sexual assault - but it also took detours to comment on other topics such as race, gender, family, class, love, beauty politics, mental health, grief, and immigration. it was enjoyably reminiscent to me of Michaela Coel's HBO tv show "I May Destroy You" in pacing, style, and substance. Both stories are kinda directionless in a good way - neither concerned with saying anything profound, but rather more concerned showing sexual assault as it is dealt with in the everyday.
I personally loved this book.
The book starts with Taylia announcing herself as a character whose default is sadness - "the most abstract of all emotions to me was happiness." It's hard to pinpoint this sadness to one thing - maybe it's even her natural disposition. But one clear thing is Taylia is alienated from her nuclear family. Her parents can barely hide their preference for her older sister, Alyssa, who is described as the "light-eyed/light-skinned cocktail" in comparison to "darker skinned and darker eyed" Taylia. In the smallest of ways - whether it's how Alyssa is allowed to break the rules with less impunity or whether it's the compliments and the natural interest her parents have in Alyssa's life - Alyssa's presence casts a shadow over Taylia.
Despite this shadow, Taylia (like everyone else) adores Alyssa, who is the closest person in her life. But this adoration is a cage of sorts for Alyssa, who ultimately commits suicide. Alyssa, as Taylia thinks years after, "punished herself for the sin of beauty."
Following her sister's suicide, Taylia drops out of Columbia University and moves back to her parents' home. When the son of a family friend asks her to come out for dinner, Taylia agrees in an effort to get back out there. The result is a violent sexual assault that is reported back to her family as Taylia exposing herself to men for attention. Maybe because her parents never cared much for her, they are easily convinced by the story and kick Taylia out of their home. Her father asks, "How could you do this to me? To us? To your mother?" never once asking about Taylia's side.
So much of our society is entrenched in rape culture, and the book illustrates how it shows up even in the smallest of ways. There are flashbacks Taylia has in the book to foreshadowing moments when her father spoke inappropriately of women. In one chapter, Taylia remembers how her father used to tell her mother to cover up - "Baba began to slowly change the way Mama dressed. It was a series of small requests or concerns, mostly cleavage based." In another, Taylia remembers her father and a male family friend scolding overtly sexual women, her father even saying "Women like that deserve to be raped."
Flashbacks are important in this book. Taylia copes with grief by remembering things her sister Alyssa would say. Or imagining moments with her grandmother in India, Dadi-ma.
The book has interesting commentary on class, immigration, and race as well. Taylia is often disgusted by what she sees in her white Jewish mother and Indian father - a dizzying combination of wanting to be white so bad, but also hating whiteness. Her parents met as radical "faux-Marxist" students at Columbia who eventually ascended the class ladder. Taylia calls her father a "law-abiding coconut" - brown on the outside, white on the inside. He wanted to be white and yet hated America for its racism. Roisin is good at describing the immigration in-between feeling: "India was home-but the United States was the future, his star-spangled American dream." But i found myself feeling that Taylia was probably being a bit unfair to her parents. I think it's easy to see immigrants as wanting to be white, when really they want to succeed - which unfortunately often requires embracing whiteness in this country.
On her own in New York, Taylia grows as she begins to experience love and consensual romantic and sexual relationships. My favorite relationship is with Kat, a Black woman who owns the bakery cafe that Taylia stumbles into after she has just been kicked out. I'm always suspicious when non-Black people write Black characters (Roisin is South Asian). It's not just white people who get our depiction wrong. I wondered if Kat was assuming a stereotypical "Magical Negro" role - the trope where a Black person supports the main character through imparting wisdom and knowledge.
Because Taylia is reeling from many traumatic events, it makes sense that she would lean on Kat. Kat hires Taylia at her cafe with no experience, lets Taylia live in her house for a long time and for little rent, and often coaxes Taylia out of herself. Even Taylia is aware of the abundance of kindness Kat has shown her. It maybe doesn't help that Kat is super into tarot reading cards. But after reflection, I've decided Kat was not that, but actually a true friend because Taylia does do some supporting of Kat in exchange, namely in watching Kat's children and holding space for Kat's past emotional relationship trauma. I'd be interested in hearing what people think of their relationship.
I watched some interviews with Roisin and it's amazing that she started writing this book at 12. I thought the pacing, though slow, was perfect. I thought her references to various music, food dishes, and locations in New York made the book alive. I thought the depiction of sexual assault, specifically as experienced by a South Asian woman, was important to tell. At times, I felt Taylia was a bit self-indulgent in her reliance on other Black characters (it's not only Kat), but I could generally look past it as a reader because it wasn't so egregious.
All in all, important book.