Interview by Rob Bittner
Here is the first of four interviews and story excerpts as part of our Youth Spotlight project. For details on this series, see our original post.
“The Ostrich Wife” by Annie Bhuiyan is a semi-autobiographical examination of what it means to feel uncomfortable as a teenager, particularly when unwanted attention intersects with feelings of insecurity and self-disgust. Annie’s writing is raw and affecting and will hopefully make readers feel the same discomfort as Annie and her protagonist. Many of us readers are a bit removed from our teen years, but the writing here evokes the tumultuousness we’d often like to forget.
I very much enjoyed working with Annie and reading through her answers to my interview questions. You can really “hear” the wit and humour in her voice, and her honesty in addressing some of the more personal questions made me truly appreciate the person behind the narrative. I hope you all enjoy hearing about Annie and reading an excerpt from her fabulous short story, “The Ostrich Wife.” And now, without further ado, the interview:
Tell me a bit about yourself and how you came to start writing?
Hello, I’m Annie! I officially got into writing through (really, really, really bad) FanFiction stories I wrote in my pre-teens. Growing up, I had heterosexual literature available to me everywhere, whereas getting the good gay stuff required some searching. I’m at a weird spot with my writing now. Even though I’m bi, I know how to perform heterosexuality properly, but I always feel like something’s just not 100% right. I try to tackle some of that in my writing—one of the themes I’ve been playing around with is the non-linear and hyper-romanticized nature of a lot of heterosexual romances in literature.
Where did the idea for this particular piece come from?
I was reading this article on Tumblr about how ostriches are known to try to seduce humans (keep in mind that this is on Tumblr, so there’s a good chance this is a lie. Please do your research! I’m not an ostrich expert). This was happening during the really insecure part of my teenage hood (y’know—the one where everyone thinks they’re ugly and gross because other gross teenagers don’t want to date them). And then I got catcalled one day, which made me feel disgusted. This was the perfect atmosphere for me to start to formulate a story about an insecure character who feels disgusted at the first thing that shows them (unwanted) signs of attraction. I felt so uncomfortable, and I needed a channel to express it—and that became “The Ostrich Wife.”
What have you been working on since this piece?
I’ve been swamped with essay assignments in my classes. Artistically, I’m working on a novel about a landlady that’s loosely based off of Roald Dahl’s short story, “The Landlady.” I’ve also been doing a lot of photography that’s based on 1920s French surrealism. There isn’t a consistent theme going through my work right now, and I’m trying to collect as much info from this chaos to inject into my writing.
Have you ever come across a book that made you rethink how you approach writing?
The book that has had a big influence on my writing is Perfume by Patrick Süskind. Perfume is a surrealist book about a perfume maker in ye-olde-days Paris, and it’s so damn weird! I never thought I had “permission” to write stuff that was completely disconnected from reality. Since reading the book, I’ve been writing in the same absurdist style as Süskind. He’s been a big artistic influence for me.
What motivates you to write?
A lot of frustration. I always feel very diasporic, meaning I’m kind of half-here and half-there, and this is really hard to voice. The best I can do is channel this frustration and discomfort into my writing to create scenarios that would make my audience feel the same way. At the same time, I like to make people laugh. When I’m writing for myself, I come up with things that are completely different than when I’m writing for others. When it’s the latter, I’m motivated to try to communicate how I feel to them, but with some kind of a punchline in the end that will help to alleviate the weird atmosphere.
What is the first book that made you cry?
Probably the House of Night series by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast. Looking back, the series is quite problematic—lots of slut-shaming and tokenizing of minorities. But I was really in love with it during my pre-teens. There were multiple characters I was attached to who were killed off, and I was bawling through all of it. No matter how badly I remember it, I can’t deny that the book taught me to learn to bond with characters.
Excerpt from “The Ostrich Wife” (fiction)
The sun is coming through the window very hot. I wish I thought about the direction of the light before I sat down. I finally put my hand under my armpits. I think about asking my friend whether I smell weird, but she might yell at me.
After about fifteen minutes of riding the bus, we’re finally at the zoo. I haven’t been here in awhile; it was my friend’s idea to bring me here to cheer me up. When she asked me to come, I asked her what I needed cheering up for, and she made a face. “You’ve been… reserved lately.”
“I’m always reserved.”
“Yeah, but… you’ve been really quiet lately.”
“Yes, I guess.”
“And I’m a bit scared, because of what happened last time—”
“Let’s not talk about that.”
“Okay. But you know that I’m here, right?”
“I know life is tough; but you’re not alone in this. I’m always here.”
My friend grabs my arm and starts pulling me through the crowd, and I come back to the present. I don’t really want to go through the crowd because I don’t really like being in public and the sun is really strong. But I don’t want to disappoint my friend.
We go through a lot of crowds. The air is more fresh than in the bus, but I can smell other things. Japanese jasmine perfume. Melted butter on popcorn. Cotton candy. I will faint and fall if my friend lets me go, so I grab her arm. A stranger’s hot shoulder bumps against me. My first reaction is to shudder. Then I wonder if they were a cute boy, and I laugh to myself. Then I shudder again.
My friend pays for the tickets and we go into the zoo. We walk as we talk. She’s keeping her voice low enough so that only I can hear her, which I appreciate. I still hold onto her because I feel lightheaded. My throat is dry. I trip slightly.
“Whoa, are you okay?” my friend asks.
“Yeah, I just feel sick.”
“Let’s get you water.”
We get a bottle of water, but it tastes weird. I don’t tell my friend that, and just pretend like I’m drinking it because I don’t want her to get mad. By the time we go to the hippo cages, I feel even more thirsty. I look at the dirty water in the enclosure, and I wonder if the zoo bottles it up for selling.
I keep holding onto my friend because I feel like I’ll die if I let her go. Slowly, the two of us go to the ostrich cage, where I lean against her.
“Are you drinking your water?”
“The bottle’s still full.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yes, it is.”
The crowd around the cage starts cheering. I look at the cage, and I notice a grey-brown ostrich speeding away from a black ostrich. The latter rushes after its friend with its tail fanned out.
“Let’s go look at that.” I try to pull my friend towards the cage, but she stands still in her spot.
“No,” she says, “not until you drink more water.”
I let go of her and head to a less busy part of the cage. I feel myself swaying. When I get to a railing, I hold on, and I squeeze my eyes shut. I can hear the loud noises around me. There’s another excited cheer from the crowd. I open my eyes, and I see the black ostrich standing in front of me inside the cage.
“Here, drink some.” My friend shoves the water bottle in my face. I stumble back and flail my arms, and I end up knocking the bottle out of her hand.
“Sorry,” I hear myself mumble. There’s another shout from the crowd, and I turn my head back towards the ostrich. It’s looking at me with beady eyes. One blink. Then it brings its tail up and fans out its feathers. The tail shakes. The ostrich struts from side to side, never breaking eye contact with me. My head is spinning and I want to throw up, and I can’t tell if it’s from the heat, or from the fact that an ostrich is trying to seduce me.
Suddenly, I’m on the ground. I feel my friend’s arms really warm around me. My vision is blurry. There’s a group of people around me, staring at me, and I feel like I want to throw up. There’s a lot of noise, but all I can think about is the ostrich. Through all the noise, I feel a smile on my face. I guess, now, if things don’t work out for me as a human, I can always just morph into an ostrich and live with my ostrich husband and be his ostrich wife.
Annie Bhuiyan is a Bangladeshi-born settler living on unceeded Indigenous lands. “The Ostrich Wife” will be her first published short story, and she’s excited to be featured alongside the other fabulous writers of Plenitude. Obsessed with love, she’s currently working on short stories about the absurdities of heteronormative romances.