Australian-Canadian multidisciplinary artist Fariha Róisín on restoring relationships to ourselves, to one another, and to the earth.
Fariha Róisín is an acclaimed poet and novelist, as well as a queer Muslim who grew up immersed in Buddhism and Hinduism—while reading Spirituality & Health. She also grew up with unspeakable abuse. Her new book is Who Is Wellness For: An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind. It is a critical memoir about the formation of a pioneering spirit for our times.
Let’s go back to your earliest memory: Your mom is tying herself to a railroad track, screaming that she wants to die. That’s extreme.
I’m sure this is very apparent in a lot of my work, but I grew up around and witnessed extreme violence from a very young age. And I think when you are able to face those parts of yourself and acknowledge something as dire and sad as realizing that my earliest memory is of my mother tying herself to a train track and being unfazed that her children are watching … yeah, it’s just a lived reality of mine. I know that it may sound incomprehensible to a lot of people, but it’s my reality.
By the same token, your parents experienced genocide in Bangladesh during the 1970s. That’s hard to grasp. When did you begin to tie those stories together?
From my childhood to my mid-20s, I was in survival mode: “I just have to keep going. I just have to keep going. I just have to keep going—Just get to the next thing.” I think I was always in motion until I hit a wall of severe depression at 25. Through that I realized that there was so much that I didn’t comprehend about my ancestry, about my mother, and about epigenetics: The reality that we carry trauma and that it is passed down through generations. I think my incapacity to really face those elements of myself led me to a point of no return: The point I realized that it was either I leap or I die.
I had access to spiritual thinking from a very young age, which I think is what eventually saved me. I chose God. What I didn’t have was the foundational understanding of, Why am I this person? And why did these horrifying things happen to me? I think for a lot of people when they choose God or they choose spirituality or they choose Dharma or even if they simply choose to get better, there has to be a motivating factor. And I think for me, it was very much understanding or gleaning that there was more that I had to know.
“I had access to spiritual thinking from a very young age, which I think is what eventually saved me.”
I’d always known something of what happened in Bangladesh, but it was very scattered. It was a dark shadow in the distance of my family. And then in my 20s, I woke up to three million people dead! 400,000 women raped! And finally beginning to understand that all of that was a genocidal war tactic … what does it mean when your family has experienced that kind of violence? Finally facing that was supremely devastating. And then the layers of my mother started to unravel. I started to see her for the first time in a more human way. She was no longer this Disney villain who would ruin everything. She was now somebody who was complex and raw. She was also somebody who had clearly been hurt by her family and by her society, by her culture, by her womanhood. I related to that, and I also understood how lucky I was. Just a generation after her, and I didn’t have to deal with any of that. The reality of that started to clarify my life a little bit more. I think compassion rose from that.
Another memory you write about is your mom attacking your sister with a kitchen knife and your dad not really doing anything. It seems your dad was ineffectual in protecting you. At the same time, you write about the problems of patriarchy.
Well, I think so much of my mom’s disdain for women comes through a very patriarchal stance on womanhood.
My dad is a very interesting character. I love him deeply and I have a very good relationship with him in a lot of ways. He politicized me young. I was his young boy and sort of his confidant. I read every book he gave me. I wanted to know him intimately, and I wanted to know the world intimately through his eyes. And yet he didn’t protect me. And that’s such an important part of my own story and my own healing. It’s about seeing things clearly, seeing things in full dimension, holistically. It’s seeing the many different characters and the many different ways in which people played certain roles for their own reasons and their own insecurities and their own contradictions.
My dad isn’t a very patriarchal figure in my life. He isn’t authoritative. We don’t have that kind of relationship, and I don’t see all men like that. I see patriarchy as the ways in which we wield the conception or the belief in male superiority that is so present in our everyday society. Unfortunately, patriarchy is everywhere we look. These patriarchal structures are here for a reason. They are here to dominate us.
It’s important that we recognize that as the larger history of humanity in order to see where we have to go in an evolutionary sense.
You write about the problem of what you call “policing the mind.”
I think we all police our minds. We can look at it societally: Our minds are policed because we’re told to like things; we’re told to buy things; we’re told these people are bad and these people are good. Being Muslim, I saw that clearly after 9/11: The global campaign against Muslims was very present in my upbringing.
Policing the mind is also personal: If you come from trauma, if you have a mentally ill parent, if you have a family member that sexually abuses you, all that creates forms of policing that are limiting. It can be something as simple as not being able to understand that this body of mine is mine, because at such a young age, I was severed from it. And that means that I couldn’t really exist in my power.
I couldn’t really exist in my beauty because I was always just outside of it. It’s always outside of me. And that creates a narrative that becomes another way that you police your imagination, and that limits the ways in which you live and the kind of life that you expect to have.
So, I think we have to be willing to listen and care about everybody’s stories and everybody’s position. I think everybody’s dealing with trauma and grief—especially coming out of the pandemic. As a species, we owe so much to one another, and yet we don’t understand our complex ecosystems that we exist in. We don’t understand how we owe each other love; how it should be expected for us to love one another. Why is that so divorced from our realities? These are all ways in which our imaginations have been policed.
You also write about rebirth.
Yes. I love the mycelium network as an entity: They die, and in the same place they’re born again. There’s a constant beat and rhythm to nature that we deny in our humanity—that we deny in our own lives. The way we live as humans tends to be so contained. I’m actually grateful for my own foundation—as dark and deep and wretched as that experience was. I don’t want to deny that experience, but it doesn’t feel like that anymore.
With this book in particular, it feels like another part of the spiral, the never-ending spiral of life, where I’ve come to a point of understanding that my life was just the way that it was, and there’s a beauty and humility in accepting that. Because of the unconventionality of my early life, I don’t have the same anchoring that I think a lot of people do. I don’t have the responsibility to my parents or to my family because our family was so broken, so shattered. And the result is that I could be more truly myself. I now have this deep desire to experience life, and a deep desire to be true and to be honest. I think that’s the transformation, the rebirth. I’m constantly seeking truth.
I think writing for me is an act of service. It’s very much me tending to these very dark portals and very deep places in my body and my psyche in order to essentially be the medium and the vessel that pulls these things out and shows people, encourages people to look at things differently because I have my own specific wisdom.
On the Wellness-Industrial Complex
As I kept thinking about the importance of intuition and energy in traditional wellness practices, I began to see how the mischaracterization and dismissal was wielded by authoritative voices that were coded in “science” and the rationale of the West, which had to be accepted through force. Thanks to wellness marketing, the mechanics of wellness have been adapted into the capitalist machine, creating a system where people are still unconscious, still investing in individualism, without believing in the possibilities of community, openness, vulnerability, and a willingness to be well with each other. The many failures of the wellness-industrial complex are the result of the disinformation it relies on, by negating the historical context that it leeches from.
In her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes explains the way women have lost their sense of agency through the ages. “Early in the formulation of classical psychology women’s curiosity was given quite a negative connotation, whereas men with the same attributes were called investigative.” She uses gender as a binary, but to me it’s less men vs. women than it is attributes of one gender vs. another—hence patriarchal vs. matriarchal ones.
We could look at the binaries of science and wellness like this, where one is seen as more rational and intellectual, which is coded as masculine, while wellness is seen as intuitive, irrational, and therefore castigated as feminine. This is not a coincidence and goes back to the barbaric methods of the colonial project.
From Who Is Wellness For? An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind by Fariha Róisín. Published by HarperCollins.
You grew up in Sydney, Australia, and write about the whiteness around you: The underlying strain for whites of maintaining that easygoing Australian demeanor and the obvious strain for those who were not white.
Australia hasn’t really faced its past. It hasn’t really faced the legacy of being a settler, colonial nation. Those things are realities that I bring up in the book—and I create that parallel between facing our own wounds and facing societal wounds and how you have to do them in tandem with one another. And I think growing up where there wasn’t any awareness, or even speaking of the past violence that permeated every kind of element of society, made it harder to be performative. I wanted to be the person who was saying, “This is wrong. Why aren’t we talking about this? Why are we pretending?” I think a lot of my life’s purpose is to be that person with my voice, and also to bring us to places of solutions.
You have a line about white supremacy and the Hindu caste system, suggesting a relationship between those two. What does that mean?
I think any supremacy is supremacy. That’s all I’m trying to say. There’s a parallel between anyone who believes that they’re superior to somebody else. Right? And I think that always needs to be challenged and questioned. Why does anybody believe that they’re better than somebody else?
I watched two young men grow up in my small rural town in Oregon. I didn’t know them well, but I kept an eye on them over the years. And now one of them is dead and the other is being held in jail for shooting him. This is an area where we have white supremacists, but it wasn’t that. I don’t think it was really the guns or drugs either. It’s a despair among young people.
Any thoughts on that?
I have a lot of thoughts on that. I think that despair is also what I’m contending within the book. When we think of white supremacy, it’s very easy to brush it off because clearly all white people are not privileged. There are plenty of white people who do not have access to anything. So there are so many variations within this concept and construct of white supremacy. For example, I wonder if the overuse of drugs and the ways in which pharmaceutical companies leech off of young, poor white people across America has a lot to do with not facing the sins of the past. I don’t mean sins in a religious way. I mean, energetically.
I saw this with my mom. She’s one of the smartest people alive, and yet she is taken and consumed by something unknown to me and even to her. But is that the pain, is that the trauma, is that the epigenetics that she doesn’t have words for? Potentially it is. And I think it’s important to see that if I had been born in her generation, I could have been my mom. And when I look at young people across the board who are lost, who are violent, who are scared, I think it is a product of being in a society that is willingly turning away. A society that is willingly asserting the fact that money and corporate interest is far more compelling and important to the American government and to this country than the livelihood of the people who live here. That is very clear in the medical and wellness worlds.
But I think it is abnormal for us to not care. It is actually anti-human.
For example, the ways in which we’ve accepted homelessness. I live in Los Angeles and the homelessness is so exhausting because it permeates every part of the city. And yet homelessness is juxtaposed against extreme wealth. And to me, these things need to be faced. We need to understand why we have abandoned and denied so many people of the basic care that any human being deserves. Why is it that people who have so much are willing to give so little? And why are people willing to get so little? These are questions that need to be asked. What is at the root of white supremacy that denies fairness and respect of not only black and brown and indigenous folks, but also other white people.
You use the term de-growth. What does that mean?
I think de-growth is first about contending with yourself in this time of Amazon: When anything is accessible at all times, how can we get better at asking what we really need? I think these times of excess have made us believe that anything we want we should have. De-growth is really about acknowledging yourself and your consumption, and then societally understanding why we consume at this rate. Also, who pays—what is the actual cost of our consumption on the planet and on the labor of those who have to work to meet our needs. So, it’s also about the elite and asking, why do we have billionaires? And what is this money really for? How can we start asking more of the people who have put us in this place? Especially with regards to climate change … how can we stop denying culpability and responsibility and accountability, which are three things that are deeply needed in this time of ecocide—in the time of the inevitable collapse of this planet.
In writing about different ways of thinking, you mention the Oracle of Delphi. One archeological discovery is that there were faults in the rock at Delphi where ethylene gas seeped up. When someone asked a question, the oracle answered in a riddle because she was likely stoned out of her mind. Is that wisdom?
I know the theory that the Pythia were consuming the gas and getting high. But to me—as somebody who has a very sacred relationship to marijuana—I think it’s actually really cool to think about the ways humans in general augment their reality. You can’t say ancient Vedic scholars weren’t smoking weed. They definitely were.
Or look at ayahuasca. To indigenous folks she is a living entity, a deity. And she is to me as well. I absolutely can’t explain how she reaches out and speaks to me, but that is something that I feel, and that is the truth of my experience. When we try and rationalize these things, of course they don’t make any sense. But I don’t think the human mind is rational. So we sometimes have to take away the ways we normally compute and understand knowledge. Knowledge is immense and knowledge is expansive and knowledge also overlaps and is contradictory.
I think we should avoid streamlining knowledge, for example saying one narrative of history is the most important one. I would say, as a non-American, that most Americans have a very hagiographic relationship to the United States of America. But is the dominant American narrative based on truth? One-thousand-percent no! It’s based on falsity. But it’s still important and resonant. Nation-states are fraudulent, but we still believe in them.
The future I’m writing for is a dynamic, borderless world that accepts and appreciates difference and that acknowledges pain in every way, shape, or form. If I met you outside of this context, I would never say my life was harder than yours. I don’t think that gets us anywhere. I think you have to be able to tell your story, and I have to be able to tell my story. And within that, there is a shared understanding and reciprocity as humans. What’s unfortunate is all of these narratives wanting to be the dominant narrative. We have to understand that there are so many interconnecting and oppositional narratives that are important for us to accept so we can be a community. We have to face each other in order to hold each other.
What does being queer mean to you?
Queer in a lot of ways is like limitlessness. In sexuality it is a belief in all—a belief in fluidity. I think of myself as a very fluid person, both in gender and sexual desire. Being raised as a girl, my sexuality was formed for me: This is who you desire, and this is what you like. And, of course, that doesn’t work. You have to find what works for you. In that way, I think my generation is really lucky. We’re facing a different kind of reality where that sense of openness and fluidity is possible for a lot of people.
On the other hand, young people are genuinely not sure if there’s going to be a planet in 20 years, so our realities are different. If we’re not living for children that we are not going to have, then our lives are open and free. We’re not even sure there is a road ahead, and that in itself creates a different kind of opening. I think that’s where I’m at right now with myself. I just feel incredibly open to the world.