Caught single and living alone in a pandemic, I am grateful to be safe and to be able to determine my daily routine. It also left me a lot of time to reflect on what it means to create love, romantic and platonic, as an independent woman. “Reviewing the literature on love I noticed how few writers, male or female, talk about the impact of patriarchy, the way in which male domination of women and children stands in the way of love,” writes bell hooks. Like Yasmeen, the newly divorced protagonist of Sehba Sarwar’s Black Wings, I spent this extra alone time seeking healing from familial wounds that led me to build a new life in a new city away from the roles and expectations I left behind. How do we reconcile joy and hopes with a familial history filled with loss and betrayal? How do we sate the longing to run away to some magical place that can feel like a home even when the only home we have is here and now? As Yasmeen and her mother, Laila, weave stories recounting their history and the truth behind the death of Yasmeen’s twin brother, I glimpsed new possibilities of healing.
Set just after 9/11, Black Wings alternates between the perspectives of Yasmeen and her mother, Laila. After decades of separation, Laila accepts Yasmeen’s invitation to visit Houston from Pakistan to help Laila adjust to balancing work and childcare as a newly single woman. Just as she fled ghosts of Pakistan when she came to attend college in the United States, Yasmeen retreats into work and a rekindled love affair. Alone with her grandchildren in a violent storm, Laila revives the family gift of storytelling in the tradition of the classical One Thousand and One Nights to calm the children and to build the relationship she never had with them from a distance.
While Laila mesmerizes the children with tales that reveal the mystery of their mother as a young girl and a family they have never met, Sarwar enchants the readers as the tension between the mother and daughter’s understandings of their history is exposed. Their stories, both the present narratives and the woven magical tales of the past, explore the question of love and self-determination within Pakistan, the United States, the childhood years of Laila and Yasmeen, and the post-9/11 reality where anyone from Pakistan is labeled a terrorist threat. As they see their shared experiences, tensions begin to ease.
Like Yasmeen, I struggle to not retreat into the comfort of the now well-worn wounds inherited from my family’s grief and traumas. Yasmeen softens to Laila’s efforts to be closer to her daughter when Yasmeen joins the audience for the nightly stories. Yasmeen eventually accepts Laila’s invitation to show off her own storytelling talent and pick up threads of the narratives Laila started. Is there a world where my estranged sister and I could reweave our shared history into something that would make sense, heal, and reunify our family? While that may not be possible for all, Sarwar reminds us we need not live in silence with our stories, our histories, and our experiences of both joy and pain.
In the second half of the novel, confronting false fears of others of the dangers of traveling to Pakistan, Yasmeen’s healing culminates in a homecoming. The lyricism of Sarwar’s descriptions of the beauty and luxury of life in Karachi and the mountain retreat of Hawagali eases the wanderlust that has gnawed at me as I shelter at home during this pandemic. Moreover, the ability to travel back home with someone to a new place elevates the intimacy we developed with Laila and Yasmeen, giving the reader a glimpse into Pakistani life and culture. It is here that Yasmeen and Laila’s tales weave into one, signifying their renewed relationship.
This book was a gift, a vicarious navigation back home, and claiming of being a woman of complexity, of two places, two lives. When Yasmeen returns to her home town, she falls back into a circle strong female community with her cousins and aunts. In them I am reminded of the community I have found in the women writers of Los Angeles and of the Saturday check-ins that started on zoom to support, and at times comfort, each other in moving forward with writing and submitting through the pandemic. On Saturday, sharing goals in break out rooms, there was Sebha Sarwar in a teal-walled room with a wooden rack filled with glass bangles on the book case behind her. “Those are like the bangles in the Karachi market!” Sarwar lightly brushes her finger over the multi-colored glass bangles and recounts the art of fitting the bangle to each woman, getting as snug a fit as possible, that permits the otherwise taboo touch between men and women. I felt a joy in seeing the bangle, like remembering my own travel adventure, as I pictured again Yasmeen choosing bangles in the market at the urging of her cousin.
It is with the hope that stories like Yasmeen and Laila’s are written, published, and found in the writers of Women Who Submit that meet in this virtual room each week. We need more stories like Sehba Sarwar’s novel Black Wings. We need stories that prioritize women’s perspectives and experiences, that see the world from non-white, non-colonist eyes. We need these stories to counter the biases and oppression upheld by the dominance in literature of the western male gaze and experience. We need these stories so that more women are given the courage to bring their own stories to readers. I needed this story because I needed to remember that even in the most painful memories we can find beauty and love.
Lisa Eve Cheby, a librarian, poet, and daughter of immigrants, holds an MFA from Antioch and an MLIS from SJSU. Her poems and reviews have appeared in various journals and the anthologies including Drawn to Marvel, Coiled Serpent, and Accolades. She was a SAFTA Writer in Residence. Her chapbook, Love Lessons from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Dancing Girl Press) was featured in The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed Series. http://lisacheby.wordpress.com