#DesiReads: Hananah Zaheer reads from her story collection, Lovebirds

(available at Anchor.fm, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Breaker, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Overcast)

Hello and welcome to Episode 45 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we have Hananah Zaheer reading from a new story collection titled Lovebirds.

#DESIREADS WITH HANANAH ZAHEERINTRODUCTION

Hananah Zaheer‘s work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Best Small Fictions 2021, Agni, Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. Her story “Fish Tank” was a notable mention in Best American Short Stories and she won the Lawrence Foundation prize for fiction for “In the Days of Old Things.” She is the founder of the Dubai Literary Salon (a prose-reading series), a senior editor for SAAG Anthology, and a fiction editor for Los Angeles Review. You can find her at www.hananahzaheer.com or @hananahzaheer on Twitter.

Lovebirds is a collection of twelve stories. A grieving mother clutching a dead bird, a jealous lover watching his house burn to the ground, a vision of God in a chicken coop. These stories span the private loneliness of Pakistani bedrooms to the banality of the modern American kitchen. They show love cracking and shattering and exploding. Capturing families on the precipice of unraveling as they reckon with the unspeakable realities of any given Wednesday, Hananah Zaheer surveys the complex fringes of desire, asking What are we willing to lose for one another?

Hananah Zaheer’s Lovebirds is a collection of twelve stories that span the private loneliness of Pakistani bedrooms to the banality of the modern American kitchen. An excerpt read by her in #desireads .@DesiBooks

The transcript of this excerpt is also up on the website.

And now, here’s Hananah Zaheer.

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DESIREADS WITH HANANAH ZAHEER

[Excerpted with permission from Lovebirds by Hananah Zaheer. Copyright © 2021 Hananah Zaheer.]

To Fix a Broken Thing

Father comes home from the Islamic Center on Friday and says too many women showed up.

“Looked like a funeral,” he says and throws his keys on the console by the door. He frowns into the mirror above it. There is a crack in the frame that he has been meaning to fix for days.

Mother goes on knitting whatever pink thing she is making these days. It is May and school is nearly out. Father sits down next to her and stretches his legs.

“It’s vulgar, women coming to pray.” Father doesn’t like vulgar things. “No one did that at mosques back home.”

He unlaces the black combat boots he wears everywhere. It’s been twelve years since he left the Army, eleven since we left Pakistan. 

Maybe we weren’t who we thought we were, Mother likes to say.

Once a soldier always a soldier, Father likes to say, even when he is slicing meat behind the deli counter. He calls it muscle memory; a body remembers who you are even if you don’t.

I don’t want my muscles to remember, Mother always says in return. I want to forget.

She misses guavas off the tree in our front yard, the Azan waking her up, her mother’s grave. Now she stops to study the stitches on the needle under the light of the lamp beside her, then resumes her knitting. I turn the page on my Biology textbook. I am learning about meiosis and how a thing can become so many different, lesser, things.

“All that kneeling,” Father says, “all that bending. It gives a man ideas.”

“The women pray behind the men. If you can’t see something, does it really matter?” I can hear the bitterness; her voice is ripe with it.

Father slowly peels a sock off his yellowed heel. “You can be bothered by a thing even if you can’t see it.” He drops the sock on the floor.

They make it sound like they are talking about religion, but I know what they mean: she, that he has stranded us in America; he, that she needs to stop blaming him for her loneliness.

She looks down at her hands. Despite the housework, they are beautiful: slender skeleton bound by skin. The needles pierce the pink holes over and over and I think I can see inside her, how the flesh moves across her bones, sliding, trapped in a perpetual motion. Above her neck, the jaw is clear, defined, pulsing. On her face, a flash of her old self, her heart in her eyes, pain and all. I wish she would let her fingers be still. Father asks if I am ready for exams.

He believes in education, he says, but I must put God first.

I nod. I like studying Biology and knowing that disorder is necessary for friction, that friction is necessary for heat, 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. Father goes to the bathroom and I hear the shower. We sit in the living room quietly, me on the floor and Mother on the sofa. I wonder what we should talk about.

“I like studying Biology and knowing that disorder is necessary for friction, that friction is necessary for heat, that heat breaks bonds.” Hananah Zaheer reading an excerpt from Lovebirds, a story collection #DesiReads .@DesiBooks

“I am tired.” I twist from side to side. “Want to go for a walk after dinner?”

She doesn’t answer. In the hallway, the lightbulb flickers, then goes out.

“Someone will need to take care of that,” she says and her hands keep moving.

The shower stops. Mother gets up to lay dinner on the table. She fills her time with chores. Everyone looks for things to hold themselves together.

I reach over to where she has left her knitting and slide one of the needles out. The empty loops keep their shape but I know the stitches will unravel at the first touch. Father comes back, towel around his waist.

“What happened to the light?” A drop of water falls from the end of his beard onto my book.

I shrug and slide the needle up my sleeve. He misses the most obvious things.

“What’s for dinner?” he asks. He keeps hoping for something new.

I close my book and go to his room. Every Friday night, Mother makes rice and chicken with cinnamon and cloves, like she did back home; he knows this. His shirt is on the bed. I hold the needle upright, in the middle. It looks like an arrow sticking out of a chest.He is holding the bulb when I return with his clothes.

“Remember,” he says. “If you don’t fix things right away, they might become useless forever.” 

He slides the shirt over his head. He is always saying things like this, but I don’t agree with him anymore. I bend to pick up my books, then remember what he had said about bending, and kneel instead. He looks at me and I try not to look away.

“Do you understand what I tell you?” He says this holding my gaze so steadily that I feel my heart char.

I nod. I don’t say what I’ve learned: that the only way to fix a broken thing is by breaking it over and over until the fractures are so many that the first one becomes just that: the first.

He moves to the dining room and I follow. We sit, Mother and Father and I, and eat. I look at creases in Father’s forehead and Mother’s quick, unsettled fingers and wonder if the room feels as empty to them as it does to me. I hang my hand to my side and let the needle slide to my palm. I press it against my leg till it hurts. I like feeling. I could, I think, thrust it at my chest, my stomach, break through the skin to the chaos: the veins, the cells, the center of everything, to the parts that break and breathe and want. I could stab myself, over and over, until it matters, until I can no longer even moan. I clench my legs.

“Pray before you sleep,” says Father. Mother spoons more rice onto my plate. We pretend we are whole.


Lovebirds

“Tomorrow she will break off another small piece of gold from her wedding bracelets and ask the girl who brings her food to her to go to the market and buy another bird.” Hananah Zaheer reading from Lovebirds #DesiReads .@DesiBooks

None of her children have shown up for her birthday and Soraya sits at the window, watching the empty driveway, upright in the walnut wood chair that her father had ordered from the most expensive retailer in Lahore for her wedding, what was it fifty years ago, and ignores the hard-boiled egg and the orange and the glass of pomegranate juice on the tray in front of her, same tray on which she had carried soup and water to her mother she can’t even remember how long ago, feeling the burn from the heater on her small feet resting on the marble floor, and reaches for the single lovebird in the cage beside her—the silver coop with a blue bird her husband had given her on their twentieth anniversary with that sparkle in his eyes and a happy anniversary, darling even though it was the same year she had lost her mother and happy was the farthest thing from her mind but he had been feeling guilty, turned out, about his new, secret wife, and his affections had become louder and more elaborate until all three of her kids had started saying they wanted a love like their parents’ and wasn’t she so lucky and her heart had fluttered at the sight of the delicate bird feet trembling on the perch and she had believed she was lucky too, but the bird had died that December and soon after her father was gone and then her marriage followed when the letter from her husband’s new wife arrived which, even now, is pressed into an old copy of Sense and Sensibility on the bookshelf behind her, buried between her teaching notes, and which she had kept after all the deaths so every time she stood in front of the classroom of eager girls, the pages reminded her not to forgive her husband and to restrain the silly chirrups of teenage hearts by telling them everything died at its most beautiful, that they must believe only the words that slice the heart (truth was never meant to be kind) and which she glances at now, seeking that little blue edge that sticks out from between the pages as she holds the bird’s neck gently between her knuckles and rubs her thumb against the red patch on its head nearly as soft as the hair on her daughters’ heads when they were little, before they had layered on hair color and rebellion and shaved and cut and changed entirely how they looked in an effort, she feels still, to rid themselves of her, and she had been left with her son who was the only one who had remained loyal—that sweet thing, sitting quietly by her bed day after day after her husband moved out—and who, though he comes to see her less and less, pays for her to live now and had wanted to give her his pocket money then thinking it was the bird dying that had made her cry and cry and wrap her blankets around her as if she was building herself a cocoon, and who is across the city somewhere with a woman he has come to love more; he was meant to sit in the other chair beside her today, looking out the window with her as she told him about all the dreams she had when she was a child, how she had wanted to train the birds to deliver letters when she was young, how she wished her mother had warned her about endings, how she had given up the habit of looking forward and abandoned her yearly walk to the kitchen to hang the Scenes of Northern Pakistan calendar the maid and the cook so seemed to like and could he find a new one for them, and slowly her knuckles squeeze the small neck between them and with her other hand she holds the wings flapping strong and getting stronger—she knows they will be the strongest right before the end—until the claws scratching at her lap start to fail and she tells herself this is just how life goes, Soraya, this is just how it is and stares out the window.  It is Tuesday, no Wednesday.  Perhaps even Thursday.  Tomorrow she will break off another small piece of gold from her wedding bracelets and ask the girl who brings her food to her to go to the market and buy another bird.


Hananah Zaheer’s Lovebirds is a collection of twelve stories that span the private loneliness of Pakistani bedrooms to the banality of the modern American kitchen. An excerpt read by her in #desireads .@DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 45 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiReads segment was with Hananah Zaheer reading from a new story collection titled Lovebirds.

Episode 46 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Email at desibooks@desibooks.co. And please go to the website, desibooks.co, if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. That’s desibooks.co.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

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