Nuanced Performances of Perfected Women

The Bird Catcher and Other Stories, by Fayeza Hasanat

Jaded Ibis Press, 2018

163 pages, paper, $17.99


Cover of Fayeza Hasanat's The Bird Catcher and Other Stories.


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.


Mournful Meditation

Letters to My Father by Bänoo Zan

Piquant Press, 2017

Paperback, $18.50


Cover of Banoo Zan's Letters to My Father


A mournful meditation, Bänoo Zan’s Letters to My Father is a collection of forty-one poems, each charged with the turmoil that’s birthed in the meeting of grief and memory. If taken in one long gulp, its power will sear through you. A few sips of Bänoo Zan’s poetry will disperse deep into your soul, relieve your aches, and balm your losses. Its collective experience is disarming.


Zan dedicates her second poetry collection to her father, Parviz Ghanbaralizadeh, who passed away in 2012 in Iran, while she was striving to build a new life in Canada. When news reached Zan, she chose not to visit the funeral or memorial services held in her father’s honor. Removed from the scenes of bereavement taking place in her hometown, Zan turned her pen to a flowing, emotional outpouring of verses that expressed what was left unsaid and explored their complex relationship.


The painful reality that strikes out possibilities to reconcile or reconnect with the one who has passed on is central to this collection. The persona’s anguish makes her wish for death and doom, in hopes that it’ll bring her the reconnection she desires, a reconnection that wouldn’t be possible in life:


If you ever loved me

wish me a death so final

it would rescue the heart

from separation

If you are still somewhere

waiting for me—

prophesy my doom


There’s an evocative quality to Zan’s uncluttered and orderly writing style. Stripped down to their ultimate simplicity, the poems aren’t titled, just numbered, focused on the central vision of the poems. The emotions and situations that she probes are accessible to the reader, though laced with deeper complexities, as in poem number 41:


The river

mourns the ocean

every time


proves shallow


The brief and bare sentences tie up with clear and distinctive imagery to offer a profound view of some of the most disquieting situations in life.


There’s an intimacy that seeps into the imaginings of Zan’s poetry, creating a soulful and transcendent narrative. With grief as a catalyst, Zan explores the posthumous reconciliation of a father and daughter, and couples it with a spiritually charged, introspective layer.


Throughout the collection, the persona tries to connect life with death, both functioning as depictions of herself and her father. She traverses the realities of what death represents, linking everything back to herself. Her father’s death becomes a mirror that reflects the turmoil within her. The collection’s opening poem evokes a sense of longing that sets the tone:


I want you back

from the red of brown

to the blue of green

back from the phallus of death

to the womb of life

from unknown harmony

to known horrors


The poem circles back to the verse, “Leave me with you / as death with life,” an idea that the persona often reconstructs to portray an attachment that exists beyond death. She tries to search for her own emotional equilibrium in her father’s absence and recognizes in herself the reverberations of the bond they shared while he was alive. She tends to look for a rendering of herself in what existed of him. In poem 11, she writes:


You were

a ghazal

meeting qasidas


your blood-land

I am your epitaph


She sees herself as a final remnant of his beloved existence. In the consecutive poem, the persona confesses her regret, “I wish I had / shared you / with me.”


With its emotional depth comes a universal appeal; at a core level, people form connections and experience loss similarly. We’re all made up of stories, and in Zan’s poetry the essence of the story is in moments of being and existing. These moments are powerful enough to resonate with the reader, regardless what their personal worldview may be.


One thing that adds to the universal appeal and strength of Zan’s poetry is her alignment of Islamic and Arabian traditions and prophetic stories with the symbolism in western myths. In her poetry she invokes Narcissus, Agamemnon, and Ophelia with the same ease with which she imagines herself as her father’s prayer rug. In poem 30, Zan writes:


If I were your prayer rug

I would water

your desert hands

with golab


Religious and cultural notions become instrumental in her attempts to understand death.


Bänoo Zan’s previous poetry collection, Songs of Exile, was the first to be published in English (Guernica, 2016). Songs of Exile touched upon themes that erupt from becoming an immigrant and also addressed socio-political issues related to gender, ethnicity, and colonization. In comparison, Letters To My Father is a deeply personal poetry collection, one that must have required bravery on Zan’s part to share with the world. Zan’s poetry is a reminder that the discord caused by shifting ideologies does not have to license the irreparable rupture of our blood bonds. In this, Letters To My Father becomes a persona’s cathartic attempt to reconcile with another in death, through poetry infused with life.