A woman in a mental institution wants to walk into the ocean. Another is desperate to marry off her daughter, just as her own mother was desperate to marry her off. Several are stuck in loveless marriages. These women—all characters in Fayeza Hasanat’s The Bird Catcher and Other Stories—feel the weight of the patriarchy more than most. Whether in Bangladesh or America—respectively, Hasanat’s birth and adopted country—they are trapped by forces greater than themselves, and Hasanat, a professor of English at the University of Central Florida, paints heartbreaking portraits of their hopeless lives.
The first story, “The Anomalous Wife,” is an homage to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, one of the earliest works of feminist literature. Like Chopin’s protagonist, the main character of the story wants to walk out into the ocean to escape her life as a housewife and mother. While both stories address the desperate ennui many women live with, Hasanat’s narrator has a much less genteel voice than Chopin’s. In fact, she’s downright abrasive at times. As her husband has committed her to a mental institution, she spends much of the story ranting:
Life is a sum of laundry detergent, liquid bleach, and disposable toilet brushes. Life is raising kids. But before everything, life is a couple of legs spread over night’s bed – not like Van Gogh’s starry night, but a dark one. And afterwards, life is a pair of bitten lips and bruised breads and broken wings and a virgin heart. Life is a deaf translator that reads every NO as a YES.
She’s right. No one respects her or even bothers to listen to her. Hasanat seems to be saying that these characters may not be likeable, but they deserve witnesses to their stories.
Other stories in the book have a similar stream-of-consciousness style, providing a close-up look into the mental space of these characters. As in the first story, their characters are rarely, if ever, heard by the people in their own lives. We, the readers, are the only people who hear their voices. But those voices are compelling.
“When Our Fathers Die” follows the thought patterns of a philosophy professor who has just received an email from one of her students, Daniel, saying his father has died. The email sparks a torrent of memory, a mix of recollections of her own father and of the past conversations she had with Daniel. From his cruel and clueless comments on her accent to the details of her father’s funeral, the piece explores how our parents and childhoods slip into every part of our lives, even after both are long past.
I was not there to see the ribbons of wrinkles on my grandfather’s face stand still as he wrapped his firstborn’s body in a white shroud and brushed away armies of red ants that were already crawling in. I was not there when my father’s silhouette merged with the earth … Daniel would observe the mark of time’s end and memory’s beginning. Haunted in his dreams by a snake with three fangs, he would not have to run from reality only to find comfort hidden in the stains of a wooden casket made in Singapore.
Other stories take a more mythic tone. Hasanat uses a sparse style to describe action with limited detail. The characters tend more towards archetypes—the rejected girl, the wise old woman—and they carry out actions without much explanation as to their motives. These stories feel like adaptations of ancient tales, even though they aren’t.
While far less intimate, this style does provide the right context for certain themes that appear and reappear in the stories—in particular, the lack of change over years or even generations. Women bear daughters or look after daughters-in-law whom they put through the same rituals and humiliations they themselves endured.
“Make Me Your Sitar” describes years passing for the main character: “Wars ended and began and then ended again. But Motijan never got to cross that river. By the time all her sons grew up, her husband had passed away and her home on the other side of the river had become part of another country.” While the character is considered a powerful figure in her community, she feels helpless to stop her adult son from marrying and having sex with a 13-year-old girl. She provides only as much protection to the girl as she feels she’s allowed to in her situation—comfort, but not escape.
These individual stories feel like parts of larger sagas. The women who suffer in this particular story become representative of women everywhere who suffer in similar ways. While the details change, the pain stays the same.
The few characters who have a sense of hope for the future have it not because their external circumstances change, but because they’ve found solace within their own minds. The 13-year-old in “Make Me Your Sitar” gives birth while singing the songs she loves, not those dictated by her culture. The professor in “When Our Fathers Die” finds a way to reach across the cultural and age barriers to comfort her student in his pain. Even if we as readers have never experienced this level of pain, finding a way to survive and even be at peace in tragedy is something most of us can relate to.
The tales in The Bird Catcher and Other Stories reflect a great deal about women’s lives in Bangladesh and America from a writer with intimate experience of both. Readers who are fans of the mythic style will particularly appreciate Hasanat’s. The contrast between the two styles—stream-of-consciousness and mythic—reveals how the characters’ internal truths often conflict with external cultural barriers to change. Regardless of your taste, a book of women’s stories from a culture that’s rarely covered in American media is a worthwhile addition to the literary landscape.