by Sehba Sarwar
Publisher: Veliz Books
Reviewed by Bronwyn Mauldin
An estranged mother and a daughter with a shared family trauma reunite after many years. Living together in the daughter’s house in Houston, they are still unable to talk to each other about deeper issues after so many years apart. So each begins to tell stories to the daughter’s two young children about their lives back home in Pakistan. Through the telling of their stories, the two women begin to understand each other’s pain and find peace.
Black Wings is about the power of storytelling. Mother and daughter experienced the same tragedy, but each experienced it differently, as we learn through the stories they tell. When tragedy struck, Laila was an adult woman who had made hard choices that gave her a comfortable but unhappy life. Yasmeen was a girl in her teens leading a charmed life where she and her twin Yasir finished each other’s dreams.
This novel is also about how often women’s decisions large and small are made from a defensive posture. Laila gives in to pressure and turns away from the man she loves to marry a man who will save the family business. Yasmeen travels 13,000 miles away to begin a new life in a foreign country in order to avoid her pain. As they walk through a crowded Karachi market, a mother wraps her arms around her daughter, elbows jutting out. When she walked through this market as a young woman, she tells us,
“Some of my older female cousins used to hold open safety pins, ready to stab men who pushed against their bodies.”
Each of them has a story to tell about a childhood adventure when she sneaked out of the house while her parents were distracted. They tell stories about witches, both imagined and real. While Yasmeen goes through the motions of her life in Houston, her heart remains somewhere else. All the stories she and Laila tell are set in Pakistan.
Yet, when Yasmeen returns to Pakistan with her mother and children, she struggles to rejoin a place some part of her never left:
“[I]n Pakistan, there were no straight lines, no packets with directions that explained the process step-by-step. We dropped our shoes off to the cobbler without expecting a receipt. And when the driver went to collect on our behalf, the cobbler sat on the pavement beneath a tree – always the same place – and our shoes were returned, repaired and polished. To participate in the system, we relied on instinct and history. But I had been away for so long that I had forgotten how to let go of directions and answers.”
This is actually the second edition Black Wings. It was first published 15 years ago by Alhamra Books in Pakistan, and the novel’s opening scene at the Houston airport is as timely in the current travel ban era as it would have been in 2004. While this book is not about geopolitics, it is about the power of the stories we tell. It is about how refusing to understand another’s point of view will harden our own pain, and how listening to each other’s stories can help us overcome the barriers we build between us.
Bronwyn Mauldin writes fiction and poetry and is creator of The Democracy Series zine collection. Her newest short story will appear in Gold Man Review in November 2019. More at bronwynmauldin.com.