by Natalia Hero
Metatron Press, 2018
Climate change denialists exist among us, and this is true of the social climate as well. Current #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have been championed by women (and men) in direct confrontation towards sexual assault denialists themselves. Much is to be said, of course, of the rallying political cry—so much so that national publications spurn out daily content dedicated to this discourse. While much of this content is intended to be in dialogue, the political realities of unjust, jarring legal hearings and corrupt political representation reveal very little conversation, but instead, a deafening wall on the other side. It is in this damning silence that I hear the buzz of a hummingbird.
It is my fervent belief that fiction heals. This belief manifests in Hum, Natalia Hero’s debut novella. Readers immediately encounter its narrator in the direct aftermath of an act of sexual assault. The narrative then quickly ripples in vibrancy and action, as the heaviness of this opening fluidly transitions into a disorderly birthing sequence. The narrator immediately gives birth to—or, better yet—expels, a hummingbird. The pace of this novella begins with a bang, and is then followed by a dizzying one two, step. It is a painful dance, but immensely artistically satisfying, with little to no explosion. Something terrible has happened and readers wonder if anyone has survived the wreckage.
The rest of the book then unravels with this very investigation in mind. Who and what is left in the aftermath of sexual assault? The answer is trauma, which is inherently speechless. As a result, Hero marks this observation in the form of this bird, an unspeaking companion character to our narrator. The hummingbird follows the narrator in every move she makes after the incident. No, the incident follows the narrator everywhere she moves. But the incident is not tangible, of course—a missing limb with all of her body parts intact. And so, Hero brilliantly manifests this intangibility in the form of a very real and disruptive animal.
The bird is so real, in fact, that her friends and family see it too. Upon her regular visits, even the bartenders at a dive bar learn to welcome the bird into its dim lit basement room. Her roomate helps nurse it, confirming that despite its disruption, the narrator is very maternal with that which she created. This duality is far less confusing to readers than to the narrator herself.
We deny and suffocate our trauma, even when underpinned with a kind of tenderness, a softness for something as small and chaotically paced as a hummingbird—tender, because it belongs to us and only us. This observation is masterfully explored in a climactic sex scene between the narrator and what readers will identify as her trauma. A body that knows pleasure, but is shocked to experience it as pain. How to love that which destroys, how to make love to that which destroyed you. How to touch again, how to feel, how to account for the buzz of the bird in the literal face of a new love. How to explain something you have yet to give a name. “You don’t say you need Help unless you know what Help you need,” the narrator remarks.
Her roommate signs her up to some sort of group therapy session dedicated to gathering other bird mothers. The hope is that, together, they can cope with this new and initially unwanted presence in their lives. The metaphor is delicate, but sharp. It cannot be denied: this is a room, this is a world, of sexual assault survivors.
Fiction heals because Hero has crafted a balm. One that, with the right kind of attention, could end up on bedside tables in all the homes of our current cultural climate. Its prose leaves no room for denialists—the book is a very real animal we can hold in our hands. One that demands to be fed, sheltered, preserved, or set free. No, it is not an easy read, emotional triggers abound—but it isn’t difficult either. Hero litters the narrative with everything the narrator can know. She can know pain, but she can also know that “pain is weakness leaving the body.”
Review by Sruti Islam