» Book Review
Nuanced Performances of Perfected Women
The Bird Catcher and Other Stories, by Fayeza Hasanat
Jaded Ibis Press, 2018
163 pages, paper, $17.99
A suicidal wife longs to return to the sea. A young woman is presented to potential husbands. A Professor of Literature grapples with a language not her own. These are the women we meet in the opening pages of Fayeza Hasanat’s debut work of fiction, her short story collection, The Bird Catcher and Other Stories. Hasanat weaves a distinctly Bangladeshi-American perspective through each of her stories. Themes of Bangladeshi diaspora, systemic patriarchy, and the struggle to communicate through a language not one’s own provide the backdrop for a collection that feels intensely personal yet touches on the experiences of so many women from different backgrounds.
The author’s dedication to her father, acknowledging she never learned to be a “perfected woman,” quickly prepares the reader for stories of failed performances of structured femininity by women who fall short of society’s expectation. There are performances throughout The Bird Catcher, characters who fall short of the expectations of their families and husbands, their students, and society. Lyrical and complex language frame each of these stories, all of which are marked by struggle and many by deep sadness. Hasanat employs the occasional use of all caps or boldface type or a spare multiple exclamation points, techniques not often used in modern literature. And while this type of visual emphasis can distract from the pace of a piece, the style serves to strengthen the idea that the English language, perhaps, lacks the specificity and emotion the Bangladeshi characters seek in their self-expression.
In the collection’s first story, “The Anomalous Wife,” a Bangladeshi woman living in Florida, happy by her husband’s account, is determined to end her life by returning to the sea. Hasanat presents her story in three chapters detailing the woman’s experience as she enters a treatment facility for an attempted suicide. The final chapter, “The Letters,” is composed of the woman’s journal entries for the two weeks she is undergoing treatment. Through hyper-close interiority, Hasanat reveals the woman’s increasingly sardonic view of those outside her own experience: “Thirty years. I have lived in this country for thirty years, and still haven’t found a way to drill into these people’s head the concept of my existence as someone not-Indian-now, but once was.”
It’s through this closeness that the reader quickly feels the depth of emotion churning in each character. In “Bride of the Vanishing Sun,” Aandhi, born unexpectedly on the eve of a great storm, is considered less-than desirable because of her dark complexion. Hasanat explores the prevalence of colorism in her culture, and the patriarchal system that enforces it, following Aandhi as each attempt at marriage fails until a bribe is required to secure a suitable husband. Yet Hasanat’s rich and graceful language presents Aandhi’s complexion is as beauty through her mother’s eyes:
“Don’t look away!” Sufia wanted to scream. “Her eyes are darek and deep; her lips curve the prettiest of smiles; unruly ringlets hang over her smooth forehead… Ooo, look, look, look at my beautiful girl as she bends her head slightly like a fawn and offers herself for this sacrifice.”
In addition to addressing skin-color as a failure of womanhood in her culture, Hasanat also addresses infertility in “Darkling, I Listen,” and what constitutes gender normative performance in “The Hyacinth Boy.” In “When Our Fathers Die,” becomes a lens through which a Bangladeshi-American professor and her ethnocentric American student find a common connection through the loss of their fathers.
He laughed every time I struggled on a word that didn’t want to come out of my forked tongue: one part third world, one part hyphenated American. My words were Rapunzel’s exotic hair, frantically guarded by the mother not my own. Accidents were bound to happen if I did let that hair down.
In her sensitivity to such cultural issues, we see Hasanat’s research interests inform her fiction. As a professor of English Literature at the University of Central Florida, Fayeza Hasanat’s research focuses on, among others, Gender Studies, Postcolonial Theory, and South Asian Diaspora. She crafts her stories with both great care for her heritage and enormous respect for the characters and situations she portrays.
The Bird Catcher is published through Jaded Ibis Press, whose mission statement positions the press as “a feminist press committed to publishing socially engaged literature with an emphasis on the voices of people of color, people with disabilities, and other historically silenced and culturally marginalized voices.” The publisher has a keen interest in merging of various forms of art and media into works that expand in meaning and in audience, and the artwork in The Bird Catcher is one example of the ideal marriage between a text and the visual art presented within. Artist Chitra Ganesh’s illustrations appear on the book’s cover, as well as throughout the book. Surreal and stylized, Ganesh’s images reflect each story’s sentiment, and add a dark sense of beauty to the work.
Hasanat’s collection of beautifully rendered stories is not one to read through quickly. Each story requires—and rightfully deserves—a careful, close reading to absorb the richness of language and the nuanced characters in all of their complexity and beauty.