Few authors can write a story that spans only a few pages yet carries the human soul as affectingly as Hananah Zaheer. In her new chapbook, Lovebirds, Zaheer presents 12 vivid flash stories about relationships, faith, violence, loss, and desire. Lovebirds features repeating images that fold back on themselves, reinforce each other, and move inexorably forward in each new exploration of a life-world. Zaheer’s gaze is astute and empathetic, focusing particular attention on women’s relationship with power and violence. Before she gets too close to any one narrative, Zaheer flits away to another—each is a glint of closeness to a shadowy present with an inconclusive, dreamlike departure.
Zaheer is especially attuned to what’s at stake for her female characters. They must hold onto their sense of self against the lack of value they have to the men around them and reckon with a faith that further binds them in a state of suppression.
The book’s title story follows a mother named Soraya as she reflects on the shape of her life while holding a blue bird, one of many she bought to replace the one gifted to her by her husband. The story happens in a single sentence, a flood of memory that shifts from interior to exterior, and from sadness to anger:
“Every time she stood in front of a classroom of eager girls, she could be reminded never to forgive her husband and to restrain the chirrups of the silly girls’ hearts by telling them everything dies at its most beautiful and it was best to believe only the words that slice the heart.”
Soraya believes that beauty does not live on in this world—rather, women can only depend on words mangling their hearts. Her cynicism stems from being trapped in a cycle of loss: her husband marries another woman in secret, which she tolerates in order to keep her family together and because women have less power than men to end marriages in Pakistan.
“Lovebirds”—like many other stories in the collection—portrays a husband’s cruel and unfaithful behavior taking its toll. Soraya’s husband, who is not present in the story but pushes to the surface of her mind as she reflects on her unhappiness, typifies how Pakistani men can make their wives feel mentally, physically, and spiritually confined within their marriages (Zaheer herself was born in Pakistan and immigrated to the US at 17). Yet Zaheer shows compassion for her male characters without redeeming them. There are no great epiphanies or apologies to be found in Lovebirds. The characters are as they are, flawed. As Zaheer once said in an interview, one’s flaws cannot be separated from the larger structures at work in the world:
“An individual’s experience of education, of healthcare, of immigration even, of moving about their daily life, is based very firmly on their place in various systems, the prevailing economic and social structures being the two with the greatest impact.”
Zaheer’s characters are the fabric they’re cut from: a society that allows a woman’s freedom to be determined by the attitudes of her husband and where things at their most beautiful fail. Soraya ultimately crushes the bird with her hands until it dies. In this final moment, she accepts and gives in to the cruelty of the world, hurting a creature less powerful than her.
“Willow Tree Fever” centers on a woman who has a sensual relationship with a tree. The neighborhood park is one of the only places she is allowed to travel on her own, according to her husband’s rules. In the park, she hides behind the curtain of the willow tree and, sometimes, pulls up her shirt to rub her bare skin against its roots.
Her husband (impersonally called “Husband” throughout the story) believes the tree is poisoning her and the other women in the neighborhood, worrying there are Jinns at work in the tree that are “stealing [her] thoughts… deforming [her] mind, making women think [they] don’t need [their] men to live.”
In Islamic mythology, Jinns are shape-shifting creatures that cause bad luck, bring disease, and have the power to possess anything from animals to stones. When the men in the neighborhood become aware that their wives have a spiritual connection with the willow tree—granting them autonomy outside the men’s sexless and obedient image of their wives—they use the symbol of Jinn to rationalize suppression of their wives’ “rebelliousness.”
Throughout Lovebirds, Zaheer’s male characters consistently distrust nature, prohibiting women from living naturally, including sitting in the park or even bending during prayer at the mosque. Zaheer asks, in what world can control be understood as love? If love is not the basis of marriage, then where can it exist for Pakistani women, if they are not allowed freedom?
The men split the tree in half. It bleeds sap on them, encasing their bodies and crystallizing around their fears and anger. Is this the Jinn in the tree, emerging, seeking to possess? Or, is this the soul of the tree, acting on the side of the women, a force of nature protecting and freeing them? Either way, the tree helps the women, subjugating their husbands’ orders to “stay inside,” making the men helpless.
What if, Zaheer wonders in “God in the Chicken Coop,” God is everywhere, God is the world, and God is in everything alive—even a backyard chicken? It is one of the only stories where there isn’t tension between the female protagonist and a male character—instead, the narrator is alive and contemplative as she looks for God:
“What God was doing in the chicken coop behind our house, I never knew… I saw [God] in the sparkle of clouds moving above the mosque down the street, in the stillness of the treetops, new with budding flowers. Somewhere in the midst of the fluttering, the noise, the chickens, I think, saw [God] too. They calmed … and looked up at the sky and were still.”
The character observes the chickens confined to a pen, and peering through the wires, these animals satisfy her desire to see God. God is there, outside of the mosque, above and around it, all over. This particular story reads as a meditation, a soft moment where spirituality is not as rigid as the other stories suggest, but something soft and innate. In the final image, the chickens themselves are praying.
Women throughout Lovebirds have fraught relationships with faith and, often, bleak images of the world. But in “Willow Tree Fever” and “God in the Chicken Coop,” Zaheer’s female characters find nature offers solace in a world of oppressive structures. They are attuned to the natural world, watching as unrestrained, autonomous life breathes around them.
Zaheer’s powerful, short narratives examine our ability to inflict pain on another while asking questions about love and freedom. These stories are emotionally taxing, despite their brevity. She creates hardened characters, but with tenderness and, sometimes, a certain playfulness. But Zaheer does not sentimentalize her premises—the story is there, and then gone. She sketches her characters in faint lines cast in dim lighting that cause you to wonder whether it is your own reflection you’re witnessing. These difficult effusions of life are inescapable, delicate, and winnowing wings beating inside all of us.
EMMA DALEY lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. She recently completed a poetry thesis at Bard College and, since, has studied at the Fine Arts Work Center, the Center for the Book Arts, and with writers Emily R. Hunt and Sheila Heti. Her fiction and poetry have been published by Bard Papers and Small Orange. She enjoys all things marine-related and is working toward a Master in Library and Information Science.