In My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, author Resmaa Menakem challenges us to think of white supremacy as “white-body supremacy” because “every white-skinned body, no matter who inhabits it — and no matter what they think, believe, do, or say — automatically benefits from it.”
In Like a Bird, Fariha Róisín’s debut novel, Taylia Chatterjee, a twenty-something born into an upper-middle-class family of Jewish and Bangladeshi descent, confronts white-body supremacy in her own family. Her sister, Alyssa, has a “light-eyed/light-skinned cocktail” which leads her Hindu father to talk about her as if she is “a specimen of grand genetics – ‘An almost Kashmiri!’” Taylia admits: “I was darker skinned and darker eyed […] I felt the darkness in my center of not being enough, even for my own family.”
Taylia grows up emulating Alyssa until she is forced to begin shaping her own destiny after a series of traumatic events, including her sister’s death. She is also raped by Simon, the son of her father’s close friend. Before she can speak about her own pain, Simon insinuates his own narrative of Taylia as a woman “out of control.” With page-turning nuance, Róisín weaves a narrative of violence, particularly regarding “honour,” a value deeply embedded in patriarchal South Asian culture, with shame and silencing at its heart.
But Like a Bird is more than a story of victimhood. It is a timely epic of female friendship. We follow Taylia across the sprawl of New York City, where she ekes out a life after a fortuitous meeting with Khadija a.k.a. “Kat,” a café owner who gives her a job, a place to stay, and who becomes a close confidante. Even though her meeting with Kat is too good to be true, we can’t stop yearning for Taylia’s happiness and self-realization.
When Kat encourages her to write, Taylia buys a fancy pen and settles over her notebook. Kat says, “You’re doing it, bitch!” Taylia responds: “I just wrote my name! That’s all!” Róisín’s writing twinkles with humour and ways of being that are wholly contemporary, endearing us to Taylia.
Although the novel clocks in at almost three-hundred pages, the weave between the past and the present keeps the story alive right to the end. Memories of Alyssa are honoured in the “dream plane” and time spent with Taylia’s grandmother offers resilience in her search for love and happiness, forging a vivid account of the way memory can nurture reinvention. Taylia’s journey towards healing and self-acceptance finds timely thematic resonances, such as those in British writer-director Michaela Coel’s HBO series, I May Destroy You, and Leila Slimane’s novel, Adele, which centre female desire and reclamation. Like these, Like a Bird is a tour de force for women of colour and survivors of sexual assault.
Like a Bird
By Fariha Róisín
Published September 15, 2020