Capturing human emotion

May 22, 2022

Hannah Zaheer threads together a series of compelling narratives

Capturing human emotion


here’s an acute beauty to the way Hananah Zaheer captures the human condition. Whether it is at its purest, or at its breaking point, she manages to intricately thread together a series of compressed narratives that are compelling and impactful. Lovebirds is a chapbook comprising 12 short stories that are packed with powerful language, appealing imagery and a sense of discomfort that makes you want to process, understand and reflect on the grim realities of life after reading.

Out of the 12 stories, one particularly stood out for me: Willow Tree Fever. I have always loved willows; the way they create a home underneath them, large, expansive and endless; the way their roots create memories and passages of time. The thing that appealed to me was how the willow played the protagonist in this story. The plight of women in a world dictated by patriarchy is hard to capture in soft light and yet Zaheer manages to make the opening of the story just that – peaceful, possible and palpable. As we learn more about this woman’s connection with the willow, it becomes clear that it is highlighting something greater. There is a certain yearning in the story – a yearning for a world without shackles. Many of the sentences completely dazzled me; and I had to stop, take a breath and read them again. I am sharing a few of those here:

‘“Don’t let your imagination ruin something you love,” I said. The willow arched and fell, branches reaching across the grass. The crown covered the park gate straight across. I tried to swallow the knot in my throat. The men hollered and wiped their brows; the day had been heavy. They were warriors, weary and filled with elation. They kneeled against the stump and turned their chests to the sun.’

A Record of Her Months is still imprinted on me. The words, ‘I like things that die’ carved a hole in my chest that I haven’t yet been able to fill up again. Stories about the expansive pain and grief that comes with motherhood and womanhood always draw me to them. The way Zaheer encapsulates grief through flash fiction is both mystifying and heartbreaking. Each of the stories lends to the darkness. Delving into the fragility of life, Zaheer shows us the raw, the vitriolic, the painstaking journey so many of us can relate to through her short stories. More than just being a beautifully written chapbook, it is a reflection of the Pakistani community. It reveals what humans are willing to do in unusual circumstances. The revelation is what has stuck with me.

There need not be a climax or some form of a tied conclusion, the beauty of it is that we are taken into one whole moment, enveloped in the sounds, imagery, details and dialogue until we believe that we too, live within it. 

To Fix a Broken Thing is densely packed with beautiful language. The story itself speaks about what it means to be a woman, regardless of age. The image of the father telling his daughter not to bend over in case someone might assume something is relatable and resonated with me. A few of my favourite sentences from this story follow:

“I nod. I like studying biology and knowing that disorder is necessary for friction, that friction is necessary for heat, and that heat breaks bonds. I like knowing how cells split, how that constant, quiet, violence gives life to the simplest of things: the universe, flowers, me. It comforts me, knowing that even God needs to break one thing to make another.”

One More Winter left me broken. Nostalgia and longing are so easy to grasp through fiction as they are always a part of us. Zaheer captures a grating nostalgia, an aching pain and a sense of loss over a past life that cripples the characters. “Pain is a difficult thing to cure. It’s important that they keep believing” – the story once again highlights the extremes humans will go through and the ways in which it projects those urges are beautiful. There’s a certain vagueness to the short story that leaves a lot open to interpretation. That interpretation is where it takes you – lost, broken and empty.

When I was teaching short stories to O-level students, I would always tell them that a character is expansive within a short story. It spans the entire length and drives the narrative. A short story does not comply with the regular rules of prose – it is moving, free form and experimental. And I see that within Zaheer’s work. Characters take the lead as we delve into the way each protagonist acts and reacts over a singular moment of time. Whether it is a husband ravaged by anger or a mother taken by grief, each of the characters takes us through a series of emotions. There need not be a climax, even any form of a tied conclusion; the beauty of it is that we are taken into one whole moment, enveloped in the sounds, imagery, details and dialogue until we believe that we too, live within it.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based poet and educator. Her novella, Special, was published in 2012. Her work focuses on mental health, intersectionality and social justice. She tweets @maheenhumayun and shares bite-sized writing on Instagram @girloncobblestones

Capturing human emotion