Róisín knows a thing or two about survival. In the 10 or so years that I’ve known her, I have seen the themes of survival and attaining a good life come up over and over again in our conversations and in her work as a writer and artist. Her book of poetry, “How to Cure a Ghost,” and newsletter of the same name are centered on exploring identity and what healing looks like as a queer, Muslim femme navigating sexual and emotional trauma. “Like A Bird,” which was released in September, tells a story about a young woman navigating the aftermath of a traumatic sexual assault and finding community in the process. (Róisín began writing the book when she was just 12 years old.)
It seemed natural, then, to open this weekly interview series, “Getting Through…,” with Róisín, as we all think deeply about what survival means for us in 2020.
This year has been chaotic and bleak: More than 268,000 people in the United States have lost their lives to a pandemic that has forced many of us into self-imposed isolation. We’ve witnessed via our phones, TVs and computer screens natural disasters, toxic political figures, the unjust killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black people and so much more devastation.
How do we get through this together and as individuals?
In the coming weeks, “Getting Through…” will explore the ways in which people from all backgrounds and walks of life — artists, scientists, entertainers, healers, activists, entrepreneurs and “everyday” folks — are processing, connecting and taking care of themselves and others during these wild times. Hopefully, these conversations will serve as a record and a guide for anyone who reads them.
Below, Róisín discusses why she writes to heal, the difficulties of self-care and how she’s getting through the last few weeks of 2020 and beyond.
Let’s start with probably the most loaded question of 2020, which is “how are you?”
[Laughs] Oh, my God. I am, in this current moment, good. I’m talking to you. I’m happy to be doing this. I’m grateful to be doing this. I’m grateful that anybody wants to hear anything I have to say, and I know you know that. I often forget how vulnerable I am. I’m so disparaging to myself because I wish I was stronger, but like, I am not a caricature. I’m a person. Sitting with that is really difficult in a time where we are being asked — and forced, really — to question, “Who are we? What do we stand by in this difficult time?” We’re having to completely shift our paradigms with how we view the world and how we view ourselves.
So much has been coming up during this time about [my] child self, trauma and abuse and grief — then also, at the same time, the sublime reality of being alive. I live for relationship, for connection, but I feel my reality is that I am always going to be deeply lonely though. That’s what I’m always fighting with. So I think I’ve been wrestling with loneliness.
During this time of COVID-19, we’re all thinking a lot about, as you’re saying, our place in the collective, thinking about cultivating community in spite of distance. How are you finding ways to connect with people?
I think a lot of us are finally thinking more expansively about our humanity. And to me, sending and receiving voice notes — as much as I hate technology — is such a beautiful way that we can communicate. It is such an intimate, epistolary thing, but done through the voice. I am not capable of being a hundred all the time. I just can’t. I like isolation too much, and I like being alone too much. So it’s such a great way to maneuver time. When I’m ready, I will listen to the voice notes you send me and then I will get back in an equally thoughtful way. There’s something more intentional about it as well. It doesn’t lack intimacy, so it’s like, it’s this perfect thing that you can offer somebody, you know?
Where were you mentally, emotionally and physically when COVID started popping off?
I was in love. I was really excited to see my then-boo. And I think I felt incredibly equipped for the year to come.
You’ve written a book of poetry, a novel and now a newsletter that all ultimately explore what it means to heal as a person. How has writing helped you process this year?
I’m absolutely aided [in healing] 100% of the time by the fact that I can write. That has absolutely, time and time again, proven to be the case. I think this year, having a book that I’ve been working on for 18 years come out and to have to sit with that while I’m in it, during a pandemic, it’s forced me to think about time. The synchronicity of time, the mirroring of time, the lapses in time. We’re thinking about the ways in which our childhoods have affected us as adults. We’re thinking about patterns. And I think there’s something really deeply profound about tracking that through my work.
I think a lot about Saidiya Hartman’s writing about archival silence — she’s talking about slavery in particular, but it can be applicable to so much. There is so much archival silence in my cultural lineage. So much that I don’t understand that I’m almost computing in real time. And then I’m having to put it into writing and into work. And that synthesization is, I think, the only way that I have survived this year. Being able to both hold the information that I’m getting and not fall apart, which is the natural inclination. Like, “I can’t do this. This is too much. I don’t like this.” The amount of uncomfortability that I have had to be in, sustained, to just have it work through me, move through me, so I can process and then write about it. I think that’s the only, only way that we can survive this time.
What, if anything, has been the hardest thing you’ve had to survive this year?
Heartbreak. Immense, undulating heartbreak.
What’s been something really good that has happened this year?
There are so many good things. I mean, my book came out and I, against all odds, have been working on liking myself and really genuinely enjoying my own company and enjoying my work. Having more pride in how I feel about myself and not falling into these old ways of thinking where I am the victim. I don’t blame myself for wanting to feel like my life is shit. But this year, perhaps more than ever before, and despite everything that happened to me this year, I feel so energized by myself and by my own resilience. I have a desire to tell the truth. To do the work, to be curious enough, to keep digging, to not feel like it’s OK, or to accept whatever comes. If there’s a plateau, there’s a plateau. If there’s ups and downs, there’s ups and downs. But just accepting that I am on this very interesting path and really trying to find moments of enjoyment has been good.
You’re working on a book of poetry called “Survival Takes a Wild Imagination.” I love that title and I think it speaks so much to this current moment, because I think a lot of people have been thinking about imagination and imagining new worlds as the current one is burning. Can you tell me what you imagine and what you wish to see in these last few weeks of 2020 and beyond?
I think survivors are the best dream makers because everything has been stripped of us and we continue to believe in something. That’s incredible. And so, I see so much. I see us having to reckon with ourselves as humanity on a large scale, in ways that I don’t think people can fully imagine. And we need to believe collectively that it’s possible. And that’s why this year, I became an abolitionist because I believe in freedom for all, but I believe in the possibility of freedom for all. Like truthfully. And I understand that it’s complex and utopic, but like, that’s what makes abolition so incredible. The hope that it instills. Of course we want to fight for that. There is no other way. I’m so ready for that work. I know a lot of us are. So that gives me a lot of tenderness for the journey to come. I know we have to evolve as a species, and I think that’s going to have to happen. And that means exciting things are going to happen. And that means futures are going to be built that we could only dream of in a Marvel movie, you know. [Laughs] And we should, we have to give up a lot. We owe it to ourselves to do that.
What does self-care look like to you, particularly during this time?
I really am quite bad at self-care, which my therapist reminds me of all the time. These days, the way that I have been caring for myself is validating myself and validating my own story and my own truth and knowing and believing in myself, steadfastly, no matter what small voice pokes through the holes. I’m very elegantly telling myself don’t listen to that dumbass voice. [Laughs] Fuck that shadow self.
What’s your advice to anyone who’s struggling in this moment?
I don’t think that we can ever give advice like that which is applicable to everyone. But for those who are ready to look at their shadow selves, I would say, “Look, you know, don’t let it dictate you. Don’t let it overwhelm you or overcome you, but hear what it’s trying to tell you. I have a very good friend Alex, who is a therapist, and he is also someone I do ayahuasca with. And he works in demon therapy, which is just listening to these ugly, shameful, demonic voices that we all have. Demon therapy is like, “What is that voice telling you? What would it say?” There’s a difference between listening to your shadow voice being shitty to you and then actually having a conversation with it and being like, “What are you trying to tell me?” and engaging with it as a being, almost. Rather than [thinking] it’s something that is overpowering you, what is it trying to signal at you?
What would happen if you were to be nice to that demon? Maybe that demon is just wanting some attention. It’s feeling insecure, and that’s rooted maybe in your child self where you feel scared and you’re not sure and you’re uncomfortable by what’s happening in your life, but you don’t have capacity to say it out loud. Your psychosis has created this thing that’s, like, nine-figured. It’s just so wild how we’re always talking to ourselves and yet have such little deciphering tools that have been robbed through colonization, that have been robbed through the proliferation of white supremacy. Like, these are the things that they did to us. They forced us to forget. And so now, we don’t even know what’s going on. We get called “crazy.” We’re depressed, whatever. All of these things have a Western scientific model and understanding, but I’m so curious about what it means when you stretch it all out and you really look at it — sitting with yourself and not allowing judgment to enter the room. What are you trying to say to yourself? I think that, to me, is the most significant thing that I could tell someone to do right now.
And finally, some levity. This is the fun question. What music, movies or books are getting you through this moment?
OK, don’t laugh. “Ad Astra.” Watch it. It’s exceptional. It deals so much with things that I’ve been thinking about in terms of power. The whole film is sort of a diagnosis of the male condition. Like, why are men the way that they are? And it’s so underrated. The cinematography is just unbelievable. You get close to Neptune and you feel like, “Yeah, that’s Neptune!” [Laughs] I don’t know how anybody did that, but like, that’s Neptune. And I think talking and thinking more expansively about toxic masculinity is so much about the work I’m doing in terms of thinking about abuse and sexual abuse and the blurred lines between authorship and censorship and the binaries in which we understand power and sex and rape, you know? I just always want to go deeper.
What else? I mean, “I May Destroy You,” “My Brilliant Friend,” “Normal People” are all some of the best TV shows I watched this year. I’ve just been consuming art as I always do — reading a lot and remembering that I really enjoy culture. It’s always been such a salve for me to be able to lose myself and see myself and have understanding of myself and articulation of myself through art. I know you relate. I feel like that’s why we are who we are. Like absolutely, our relationship to the art we have consumed throughout our lives has led us to who we are as people now and the influences that we have, what we’re drawn to, our own methods of wanting to tell stories — all of those things have been informed by that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
More recommendations from Róisín
Books: “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, “Earth Democracy” by Vandana Shiva, “Carceral Capitalism” by Jackie Wang, “Scenes of Subjection” by Saidiya Hartman, “In the Dream House” by Carmen Maria Machado, “Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency” by Olivia Laing, “Priestdaddy” by Patricia Lockwood, “The Transit of Venus” by Shirley Hazzard, “Invasive Species” by Marwa Helal, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire, “Sultana’s Dream” by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, “Golden Gulag” by Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Movies: “Ad Astra,” “Shirley,” “Moonlight,” “Synonyms,” “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Chungking Express,” “Mogul Mowgli”
Music: This playlist made by Róisín, “It’s Always Gonna Be Alright”
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