Interview with Fariha Róisín

Photographed and interviewed by Rebecca Storm
Originally printed in Issue 20

Throughout our adolescence, those of us privileged enough to have access to an education learn very few practical skills— instead of learning how to do our taxes, how to cook on a budget, how to manage credit, we learn about chemistry, English literature, calculus. We are taught very little about love. Despite its innate prevalence as a term and commodification as an emotional experience, the era in which we live illustrates its profound lack. Loving is difficult, especially when we are coming from a place where we never learned how to love ourselves. It’s her pilgrimage toward this act that writer and activist Fariha Róisín leverages for the purpose of healing, exemplifying the power of transformation— learning the political act of self-love. “Never give more than you’re comfortable not receiving in return,” she once mentioned to me casually at the supermarket. A statement that feels so acute it perplexes—loving yourself often begins through learning paucity with the energy we give others. Fariha, who was born in Kitchener, ON and raised in Australia between Brisbane and Sydney, has found it difficult to settle on minimums. Following her instincts to New York, she finished 2019 touring her book of poetry How to Cure a Ghost through North America, with her next novel, Like a Bird due for release this fall, and is currently working on her third book, her first non-fiction, Who is Wellness For. “I feel more myself than I’ve ever felt before, it’s really odd but an incredible feeling,” she tells me. “Just feeling things fall into place for me. I’ve been trying to put ‘abundance’ out there.”

What do you mean by abundance? How do you manifest that?

I had dinner with a friend, she’s an incredible filmmaker. She’s really on a different tip than me in so many ways. She’s so much more successful in a linear, tangible way, in the sense that she’s made two movies and a TV show. She was feeling sad and uninspired, she’s wanting to make bigger films, but turning down things that aren’t “her.” And I was just like, “What do you want?” For me, abundance is a very difficult thing to tap into, because you have to unlearn absolutely everything you’ve ever known about what is a resource and what is possible. To truly be abundant, you need to rewrite all of that for yourself. After that dinner I felt kind of embarrassed about my dreams. I was like, “Am I fucking delusional? Here is this person who works in Hollywood and knows how it works and I’m sort of walking in being like, ‘I got this, here are my theories.’” I’m constantly questioning my state of abundance. Even though I believe in it, do I believe in it all the time? No. Is it hard for me to constantly remind myself that I deserve it? Yes. A lot of those struggles are people being very scarcity-driven and being very afraid and working within that fear, and that is the opposite of how I see the world. I think everything is possible, and I’m realizing that even if people think I’m naive, I have to hold onto this belief.

So it’s all about the power of your mind.

It truly is. Look at me! Look how big my dreams have gotten, and where I’ve come from. It’s really taken me a long time to get here. Especially when you’re an immigrant, you’re not white, you’re struggling with what it means to be a person who wants nice things, who wants a good life, and beyond that, navigate what institutions or what white supremacy puts on you. Everything gets harder and harder and at a certain point you have to look beyond the things that are blocking you.

Like focus on what’s possible rather than what’s standing in your way…

Exactly. I don’t think Black and brown people are given that permission enough, to be like “You can have the thing that you want.” I feel like this is a weird segue but rap really offers that, in a purist sense. Maybe all art illustrates that you can have more than what you were given. That’s the story of abundance.

Before you went on your first book tour, it seemed as though you weren’t really sure what to expect.

More than anything, what I took away from it was, “People need this.” Healing is something that a lot of people are investing in. Regardless of racial divides, or access to wellness, people are beginning to start thinking about healing, and I really want to encourage that. Everybody needs to heal. Everybody needs to want to. Because if everybody does, then we can have the world that we want, where we’re looking out for others, caring about others. Everything is an offering and I’m accepting what I’m being offered.

You often draw on your past trauma and personal experiences when you’re writing— do you feel like mining those experiences is something you want to move away from, or is there more that you want to unpack?

Mining your own lived experience for art is one of the trickiest things. Even when I am talking about darkness, I talk about it with an element of light, or the possibility of lightness, and in a way that’s helped me work toward something bigger with my pain. At the same time, there is something really pure about talking about trauma, and especially the nature of trauma that I had—abuse from a parent—that is so deep. Something that somebody told me before I went on tour was that I chose this life and this body because I wanted to be the actual embodiment of healing, and it’s so interesting, because the more that’s unfolded to me, it’s actually a miracle that I’m alive. In terms of mining trauma, I am really curious to see how that evolves in my career. I hope to always talk about trauma in a way where I use it as a vehicle for something bigger.

Do you find that speaking about your work, which is inherently personal, ever feels like a performance?

I’m obsessed with authenticity in a way that has been a barrier for me in the past. But we work under capitalism, so in order to sell a book, in order to be charming, 100% there is a performance. And as much as I might think I am performing, I’m also being authentic. Can those two things coexist? I guess they do because that’s how I feel about it. When you see me on stage and I’m in my element, I’m very comfortable in my element, I’m not faking it. I’m not just this blanket performer, I’m also a human being who is feeling things, and being honest about that is always a beautiful thing that you offer the audience.

There’s one line from one of your poems, “After the Loss” where you describe yourself as being “cocky with my pain.” Can you talk about that?

For the longest time, my pain became a shield. I didn’t think anybody could understand me, like parental abuse, the way I experienced it, made me feel very isolated—or am I isolating myself? Keeping my pain close to my heart and then putting myself in danger when I did open up my heart, because then the expectation of what I will receive in return is so much greater. Like “I’m going to be seen and heard,” and very often that’s not the case, and very often I’m extra hurt because people don’t understand it, or misuse the information. So that’s what I mean, cocky with my pain, it’s not helpful when you hold those things so close to yourself, because there’s nowhere to go from there.

The tongue comes up a lot in How to Cure a Ghost. Is that a symbol for finding your voice? Or is it the opposite, maybe not having the right words?

I think it’s symbolic for finding a voice when you feel as though you were never given permission to have one in the first place. So, then, what do you do with your voice when you realize you have one? For so many years I tried to hide because I didn’t want the job of doing what I do, because I’d have to step outside my comfort zone too much and that was really scary. I don’t always feel like I am articulate but at the same time I just have to try in whatever way makes sense to me. It’s constant work, telling yourself, “You do have a reason to speak.” Your tongue isn’t always going to serve you, because it’s an art form to know how to speak as well.

I remember we spoke recently and you were talking about how you wanted to write more about something that wasn’t you or your own experience. Do you still feel this way, given the success of your poetry collection?

I think that that’s really the big thing that’s shifted in me, I have more respect for myself. I thought healing and wellness were really anti-intellectual things, and when you work as a writer you want to be taken seriously, but I’m just not that person. I think I can be taken seriously for sure, but I don’t need to sound smart for the sake of sounding smart. I’m talking about things that a lot of people are not talking about, especially someone who looks like me, and I’m introducing it to people that deeply need it. It doesn’t have to be in The Paris Review for it to be important. I’m realizing that institutions, institutional support, awards, all of those things—do I think that they’re the be-all/end-all of why I work? No. And allowing myself the space to create what I need to create for myself has been such a beautiful gift that I’ve given myself.

Another difference too seems to be that you’re now able to physically connect with your audience. People come to your readings, you’re talking to them, as opposed to publishing all of this raw personal material online.

Exactly. There’s a tangibility to it that feels so sacred.

What color is your aura right now?

I don’t know.

Maybe it’s green! New beginnings, new energy, new money.

Let’s say green. I feel green right now. That makes me happy. Things feel abundant.

Find Fariha’s latest book Like a Bird here, or at your local independent bookstore.