How many ways can a heart break? Hananah Zaheer aims to find out in her debut short story collection Lovebirds, which explores the complications of “love” and the hardship and chaos that comes with the raw emotion. In the collection, Zaheer’s female characters’ responses act as catalysts for radical change and Zaheer manages to wring the complexity from loneliness, depression, and heartbreak into all twelve pieces of flash fiction.
Zaheer is a writer, professor, and photographer who also works as a fiction editor for the The Los Angeles Review. Much of her work covers Pakistan, the complexities of womanhood, and the functions of relationships in the 21st century, all of which are major themes in Lovebirds. Relatedly, when discussing relationships in Lovebirds with Fatima Arif in an interview on Mashable, Zaheer remarks that “I am especially intrigued by the idea of how these interactions impact women’s relationships with power and violence, and what the cost of existing is, given these interactions.” As we visit with the characters in the book, this merger of power and violence and Zaheer’s personal beliefs becomes more and more delightfully painful.
The title piece “Lovebirds” is perhaps the best example of this merger, which is not an easy feat considering how each of Zaheer’s fictions grip us and drag us to their bitter ends. The majority of this title fiction is just one sentence leading up to a shocking twist and followed by a few short sentences, which further underscore its lyricism: “It is Tuesday, no Wednesday. Perhaps even Thursday.” Zaheer manages to evoke this tense conclusion with the unrelenting syntax of the sentence, giving us a promised scene we might wish was never recounted; yet despite the deceivingly simple language of the conclusion, Zaheer makes use of details along the way that shine and catch our attention:
[H]er father was gone, too, and then her marriage when the letter from her husband’s new wife arrived which, even now, is pressed into her old teaching copy of Sense and Sensibility on the bookshelf beside her, and which she had kept after all the deaths so that 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.
It’s in “Lovebirds” that we can see the complexity of Zaheer’s character, Soraya, as she, even after all these years, nurtures a hatred for her husband. Zaheer’s goal to explore how power dynamics in the human experience are thoroughly traversed by women is in full view here, specifically how Soraya experiences and creates violence in her life.
Another story, “Things I Say to My Son While He Sleeps,” while short, is still incredibly moving in its depiction of a mother talking over her son as he sleeps. She is warning him of what waits for him outside of his window with the boys “whose beards are nearing manhood.” The stream of consciousness style employed here sends chills down our spines with lines like, “I know they see a useless woman, a crumbling moral life, no man to protect me” and “He was not spreading immorality, son, he was keeping you alive.” All while he dreams, the mother tells her son about the ways that he will begin to see the lives and experiences of his family as amoral and what he should do when that time comes. This is an unnerving and accomplished dialog between characters.
Zaheer’s chapbook Lovebirds is a beautiful, painful, and enlightening collection of stories about love, loneliness, and the chaos of feeling. Reading these flash fiction pieces will not only make you question your understanding of the experience of being a mother, wife, and daughter, but also your understanding of what violence and chaos really is. This chapbook deserves to be discussed alongside books such as Sandra Cisneros’ Puro Amor, and Zaheer’s light, ornate style jumps off the page and grabs us by the throat. Lovebirds evokes emotion and conversation, just as any good literature should. I personally hope this is only the beginning of what Zaheer can do with the form and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Lovebirds, by Hananah Zaheer. Durham, North Carolina: Bull City Press, October 2021. 52 pages. $12.00, paper.
Jordan Terry is a current English graduate student at Winthrop University.