How do we write and think about survival, about freedom, and about our revolutionary potential while living in a burning world? How can we begin to examine the interpersonal tragedies we’re forced to live through as parts of larger systems of atrocity that not only impact our lives but the lives of every living creature around us? How do we do that work despite (and in spite of) the fact that there are so many powerful people working against us to prevent us from doing it? Perhaps most importantly, how do we continue on with our humanity intact? How do we stay as whole as possible?
Through her newest collection of poetry, Survival Takes a Wild Imagination, multidisciplinary artist Fariha Róisín explores her experiences as a queer, Muslim, Bangladeshi woman trying to heal from a childhood of abuse and the pain of generational trauma while also providing responses to these questions and posing some new ones for us to consider as we try to move through our corners of the world.
The personal is political.
Because of the way people have bastardized that phrase, it feels almost silly to point out how closely linked our personal lives are with the world(s) outside of them, but it doesn’t make that reality any less true. The personal is political, whether we acknowledge that or not, whether we want it to be this way or not, no matter how hard we try to disconnect ourselves from what is happening and what has happened before we were even alive. Sometimes, it feels as if people are becoming more acutely aware of this, but then the modern world constructs new horrors or resurrects old ones to remind us that we still desperately need to have these conversations. We not only need to answer these crucial questions for ourselves so that we can find the strength to move forward but we also need to answer them to ensure our collective endurance and eventual liberation.
Most poetry collections at this length generally move through one or two themes but Róisín’s focuses on a variety of different aspects of her life, her identity, and her faith — her relationships with her unloving mother and her “hero” father, her relationship to her body, her relationship to desire, the importance of joy and pleasure, her belief in our ability to liberate ourselves from oppression, our connections to the natural world, among others. Although the collection is split into three sections (to hint at the ideas that connect all of the poems in that section), Róisín weaves all of the ideas, feelings, and memories she’s excavating and interrogating through one another to prove how no one experience is truly untouched by another.
In the first section, “The beginning, the body, the wound,” Róisín jumps right into the more intimate violences of her life, describes the difficulties and triumphs of healing from mental, emotional, and physical contusions thrust on her not by her own choices but by the inherited traumas of her mother and other family members, and pushes back against the systemic conditions that created those traumas. The poem “For Every Girl Who Has Had Her Throat Slit Open” directly addresses patriarchal constructions of violence and the ways men wield their power over women, each other, and the Earth. Róisín writes,
Here’s the thing, though you can pounce around in your violence all the mindlessness that becomes you. Fight wars & do whatever you need to do to tell yourself you have meaning. But nothing will salve ego without grace…
As the poem continues, she points out how men covet and use power as a way to mask the grief of their inevitable mortality and the parts of their lives that make them feel shame. But like most of the poems in the collection, she doesn’t just stop at pointing towards these truths; she also presents a resolution:
If they could only just take all the moments needed to weep & say thank you, thank you, for all of this… for a moment longer than a second…& mean it.
Two of the most impactful poems of this section, “This is for Everyone Who Had to Make a Family out of Themselves” and “Amar Sonar Bangla,” confront inextricably connected aspects of Róisín’s identity: that of a survivor of childhood domestic trauma and abuse and that of a child born to Muslim Bangledeshi immigrants whose families survived genocide. Named after the national anthem of Bangladesh, the latter poem, “Amar Sonar Bangla,” is almost a prayer about the burden and requirement of overcoming the historical and inherited trauma of her family, specifically of her mother. She writes:
You can’t ever forget, you can’t ever escape. Memory. I live it for you Every day, ammu abbu, dado, dadi, chacha, chachee. ancestors guide me out of this heat, let me heal your centuries’ worth of pain.
As she continues describing the ways her mother’s uncaring and hurtful nature helped make her strong enough to carry this burden, she hits on the radical possibility inherent in the struggle to liberate ourselves from the pains of the past:
I’m no longer mad that this was my karma, someone has to break this centuries-old grief. It’s a privilege to do it for you, it’s a privilege to do it for my people.
With this, she reminds us survival and liberation aren’t just about the destruction of the systems of oppression that threaten and dismantle our lives. We also have to eliminate those systems within ourselves.
The former poem, “This is for Everyone Who Had to Make a Family out of Themselves,” is about figuring out how to love and be loved despite years of living without the kind of love all young people deserve. It’s about trying to become a person who can give love and accept love freely, even among the ruinous nature of our society. Róisín writes:
I want a love that knows that to love a wild thing is to let it be free, & love me anyway. I want to be a person who chooses light, holy over seduction. God over money. Listen to me, I want to be a person who sings freedom & believes it.
Upon every rereading of this poem, that final line — “Listen to me, / I want to be a person / who sings freedom & believes / it.” — always feels so fitting as a summary of Róisín’s intentions with this entire collection.
The second section of the collection, “Liberation, pleasure, joy,” is the shortest section in both page count and in the length of the poems grouped there. While it may be a little jarring for some to go from reading poems about grief, trauma, and the general pain of being a person with multiple historically marginalized identities to reading poems about sex and the desire for human connection, these poems very much belong in the same collection. Actually, the fact that they exist together here elucidates how Róisín views all the different aspects of desire that the collection is addressing as springing from a similar place, from inside of us where all of our life experiences, beliefs about our positions in the world, and our relationality to others live and coalesce to create who we are.
All of the poems in this section will hit you in the gut one way or another, but the standout is really “A Pandemic Lamentation,” which sounds exactly like what it is: a kind of ode to the grief of the pandemic and a celebration of the lessons some of us (hopefully, many of us) learned from it. Through this poem, she examines the difficulty of isolation and of bearing witness to what feels like unending death. Then, she reminds us of this truth:
This tiny eternity made us collapse capitalism into a blip. Humans so greedy, they think their lives that they lead for no one will count for something, when all that’s ever mattered was how well you loved, & what you left behind of it.
The third and final section of the collection, “Finding Earth, God,” is the most poignant and critical section of the collection, especially for the current moment we’re living in, especially for those of us bearing witness to genocide and finding ways to speak out against it. This is the section where she really gets into the logistics of survival — not just our individual survival through our personal tragedies but our survival as people who dare to imagine and believe in the possibility of a better world and who have committed ourselves to doing the work that will help get us there. What is especially surprising and moving about this section of the collection is how Róisín unites all the themes, ideas, griefs, and hopes she’s been investigating and dissecting throughout the other two sections together to bring her vision of moving forward to life.
It feels impossible to choose just a few poems from this section, as they are all equally stunning in their construction, delivering their messages in ways that are both extremely memorable and feel easily accessible to readers of any experience. But there are a few I will come back to over and over again.
The section starts with so much beauty and power with a 10 stanza prose poem where Róisín speaks directly to and about her younger self called “An Ode to Baby Fa.” She writes, “So I celebrate the small grand act of making something big out of a life that coulda turned’a tragedy. No one’s sympathy will ever be a salve for the permanent feeling of loss. Whose words will help overcome generations of trauma? You can do it, Fa, you can remember yourself?” Once again, she calls herself forward to show us the promise and possibility that lies in the labor of healing and of working to free ourselves of the binds of the past.
The section continues with poems that both continue the work she’s been doing in the rest of the collection and speak directly to us, as if she is trying to point out to us that while her experiences are her own, they are connected to the tapestry of human experience that she encounters through other people and through the work she does as a writer and an activist. In “Fear, I Give You Back,” she insists we must let go of the fear of the unknown in order to truly achieve the changes we want to see in our world:
Fear, a word by any other name, would sound as primordial & yet human evolution relies on its collapse. To fear or not fear? That is the question—whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer from it, the capitalistic design that arrows outrageous fortune, & to take & take, for a hypothetical scarcity, to steal, to pillage, to bear arms to seas, to lands, to fear the unknown, than to accept the devices of our own inhumanity.
In one of the shortest and most extraordinary poems of the collection, “What Is a Border?”, Róisín constructs a kind of declaration of independence for herself and for everyone with lineages and inherited violences that are similar to hers. To some degree, it also works as a declaration for anyone who is forced to live on the margins and doesn’t fit into the dominant, ruling class’s definition of how people should be. Here, she proclaims, “I am borderless / You see, / I am not small. / I am not made out of limitations. / I am free.” It’s so simple, and yet it is so gut wrenching and formidable in that simplicity.
The poem “How to Hone Your Intuition,” a short prose poem that uses allusions from the Tarot to urge us to remember the only way forward is to “Burn it all down & start again,” and the final poem in the collection, “An Incantation,” a two part poem that brings everything Róisín has been discussing in the collection to an incredibly compelling conclusion, are perfect end caps to a collection that challenges our ideas of what survival looks like and pushes us to recognize how our individual survival is intimately linked to the continued existence of the people around us, to the creatures we encounter, and to the Earth itself. In “An Incantation,” Róisín writes, “Survival is not for the weak, sometimes / you gotta kick so hard you break your leg — / see, survival is learning how to kick the door down / with a broken, rickety leg.”
This line feels like a perfect encapsulation of everything Róisín is trying to remind us of and teach us through this collection. Each section builds on the previous one to a tapestry of feeling that brings us through the diversity of experiences, possibilities, and hopes that are often a part of existing in a world as disastrous, demoralizing, and dehumanizing as ours. Through the exploration of her own specific tragedies and joys, Róisín is able to help us imagine a way out of the harmful processes and systems that make our lives feel impossible to live a lot of the time. As she points out in that line from “An Incantation,” our collective survival and liberation is dependent upon our ability to recognize and accept the toll the work of liberation will take on our bodies, our minds, and our spirits.
Róisín points out over and over again that getting ourselves out of the mess the people who came before us made was never going to be easy, but that doesn’t mean we don’t possess the ability to do it. And it doesn’t mean we should stop trying. In fact, as Róisín points out at the end of “An Incantation,” the labor of liberation can actually make each of us better, one by one: “I love myself for committing to this / healing, for embracing it, for allowing / it to cleanse me. For not resisting anymore.”
Survival Takes a Wild Imagination by Fariha Róisín is out now.