Fayeza Hasanat is a Bangladeshi-American writer, instructor in the University of Central Florida English department, and mother of two children. A Fulbright recipient, she completed her MA and PhD in English from the University of Florida. Hasanat is the translator of Rupjalal (1876), the first known creative piece by a Bengali Muslim woman from colonial India. Her debut short story collection, The Bird Catcher and Other Stories, offers eight narratives that explore subjects of feminism, despair, resilience, love, loss, betrayal, and forgiveness. Literary Mama blog editor Rudri Bhatt Patel corresponded via email with Hasanat about her latest work, writing, culture, and gender issues.
Rudri Bhatt Patel: What was your process when writing The Bird Catcher and Other Stories? Did you always intend to publish a collection of short stories?
Fayeza Hasanat: It's really difficult to define a writing process, or any process, for that matter. Process happens in two ways: one is when you, like an organized person, know what you are going to do and what your expected outcome is, and you prepare yourself accordingly; the other method happens in the form of reminiscing and reevaluating a past work or a lived moment. In this case, after finishing a journey, you look back in an attempt to remember or reconfigure how you got there. My writing process is of the second kind. I just wrote and let the process take care of itself. I wanted to write myself—or women from my side of the world—an identity. And now that I look back, I see that the process I followed was actually issue-oriented. I took an issue and explored it—through a gendered lens—because that's how life is seen, no?
The stories that I compiled in this collection were written in the span of ten years. I have published a few dozen stories worldwide but didn't include all of them in The Bird Catcher. I wrote the first and the last story of the collection in 2017. In fact, the first story of the collection is the last one I wrote, and when I finished that one, I instantly knew that I was ready to publish a book. So, I guess, the process was integral with a conscious woman's desire to formulate a space for the marginalized subject. I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless and visibility to the academically unseen women of Bangladesh. I love writing short stories and always wanted to publish a collection of stories before publishing a full-length fiction. The publication of The Bird Catcher is itself a part of my identity-building process—as a Bangladeshi-American woman writer.
RBP: On the opening page, you write "For my father. Because of him I never learned how to be a perfected woman." How did this sentiment play a part in your collection?
FH: Gender is indeed a social construct; women and nonbinary people are its ultimate scapegoat. All our lives, we have to run against a shadow larger than ours, a shadow of perfection against which we are expected to measure ourselves, in order to be perfect as a woman or a daughter or a mother or a partner or a wife or a coworker. I mean, you name an identity that is not challenged by a myth of perfection. That myth is actually "man-made" and quite restricting. It's like putting a bird in a cage and then hanging that cage outside in your patio so that the bird can watch the beautiful sky of freedom above and beyond. My father did not stick me with a shadow, and because he didn't do so, I was able to create my own shadows, and I learned the meaning of the word freedom of mind on my own terms. The stories in the collection play with that same sentiment—one's desire for individual freedom and its multifaceted aspects.
RBP: How did you arrive at the ordering of the collection? Why the title, The Bird Catcher and Other Stories?
FH: The eight stories are thematically arranged. Some of the themes I write about include a diasporic woman's awakening, discrimination based on women's skin color—a prominent problem in South Asia—and the human desire to bond and assimilate with the other despite all differences. "The Hyacinth Boy" is about gender discrimination in a South Asian context; "Mother Immigrant" looks at elderly people of the Bangladeshi community and their desperate struggle to set roots in an alien land; "Darkling, I Listen" is about the abuse of a woman's body as a tool of reproduction, while "Make me Your Sitar" takes a look at motherhood, hysteria, and oppression imposed on a woman in a restricted society; the last story, "The Bird Catcher," takes a sudden leap by destroying all preconceived notions about society, myth, fairy tale, history, or philosophy. It's a story that is meant to challenge your mindset no matter who you are. As I've already said, in this world of ours, we are always running against a shadow of perfection, desperately trying to measure ourselves against it: we are the birds, and we are our catchers; the shadow that we race against is our cage. Hence, the title: The Bird Catcher and Other Stories.
RBP: In your first short story, "The Anomalous Wife," you seem to pay tribute to Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Was this intentional? What did you hope the story would convey about patriarchy and its role in women's choices?
FH: The first story is an homage to Kate Chopin in the sense that it is a story of a diasporic awakening. It also pays tribute to Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote a short story, "A Wife's Letter," in 1914, which was of course influenced by Ibsen's A Doll's House, which was published in 1879. Tagore's is a phenomenal, feminist piece. In the story, the female protagonist writes a letter to her husband before leaving his house. I mean, think about it: a male writer, writing about a woman writing to her husband. Isn't it twice removed from the "woman's womanhood"—her womanness? That story had been bugging me for years. So one day I thought, I should rewrite Tagore's "A Wife's Letter" through a woman's pen. But how would a modern-day Bengali woman from the Indian subcontinent write such a letter before leaving her husband? How would she express herself? How would she leave? And what would she leave? The house? The world? And more importantly, who would understand her cry for help in a society that is trained to listen and define every emotion in terms of a disease and prescribe a process to cure every anomaly? That woman has to be labeled as mentally unstable, no? So I put my protagonist in an institution where she writes a series of letters to her husband. The story alludes to Kate Chopin, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Tagore, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, among others. We have reached the millennial age, and our society still does not know how to respond to the awakened soul of a woman.
RBP: Your collection focuses on the role of the Bangladeshi woman and the central themes of pain, resilience, loneliness, despair, and hope. How do you think short stories provide a balm to those women who experience these emotions in their everyday lives?
FH: Well, short stories are short, and they are direct, and they also stay focused on the main point. And because they come in a collection, they curate various aspects of life—pain, resilience, loneliness, despair, and hope—in one book. Sometimes they work as mirrors and sometimes as personal breathing zones. Another thing that short stories do is offer multiple perspectives, tones, narrative techniques, and plotlines. Short stories are like narrative poems: they leave us with lingering thoughts—about our past or present—and implore us to take a look within. And that's the balm—the therapeutic power of a good story.
RBP: Chitra Ganesh's artwork is featured throughout the book. How did you collaborate with her?
FH: The credit goes to Elizabeth Earley, my publisher. She sent me a few portfolios by different artists to choose from. But Chitra's artwork instantly clicked with me. Her images synchronized so well with my theme and my writing style that it felt only natural to select her work.
RBP: How do you balance the rigors of academia, motherhood, and work on your personal writing?
FH: Who says I do balance? Does or can a woman ever balance life's chores? She just trains herself to outshine all rusty challenges of life and outrun all that tries to pull her away or slow her down in her journey.
RBP: What is on your bookshelf?
FH: I am surrounded by bookshelves, and I don't know exactly which bookshelf to choose now! The one right in front of me is displaying philosophy, postcolonial and diaspora theory, among others. Levinas, Heidegger, Kant, Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, Spivak, Foucault, Freud, Derrida, Gramsci, Audre Lorde, Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Hélène Cixous . . . Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë, Jane Austen, Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys, Plath, Virginia Woolf, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rushdie, Sam Selvon, Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, Buchi Emecheta, Kafka, Joyce, Wilde, Isabel Allende, Ben Okri, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gloria Anzaldúa, Nawal El Saadawi, Murakami, Tayeb Salih . . . I think I should stop now.
Being an English professor has taken a toll on my habit of reading for pleasure, you know. I don't remember when I last read a novel just for the fun of it. Oh, and by the way, my recent obsession is feminist philosophy. I have piled up books on both Eastern and Western feminist philosophy, which I will devour soon.
RBP: What one piece of advice would you offer mother writers?
FH: My one piece of advice for all the mother writers is this: nurture your writing habit as if it's the child of your soul.