A mother travels from Karachi, Pakistan, to visit her adult daughter living in Houston. Laila has made this difficult journey to the U.S., in the months following 9/11, because her estranged daughter, Yasmeen, is divorcing her American husband and she has yet to meet her two grandchildren. So begins writer Sehba Sarwar’s novel Black Wings.
Yasmeen watches her mother emerge from the airport terminal wearing her traditional sari and speaking Urdu at a time when dark-skinned foreigners entering the United States are treated with suspicion and anger. But Yasmeen has other reasons for her nervous apprehension at the arrival of her mother and Laila, likewise, moves with unease through her daughter’s suburban household. There’s an elephant in the room and we soon learn it’s the ghost of Yasmeen’s beloved twin brother, Yasir, who tragically died at seventeen. Laila’s whereabouts on that fateful night remain shrouded in mystery, but Yasmeen is ready for some answers, and finally, for closure.
Sarwar uses a shifting point of view between the two female protagonists to explore the issues at the center of this fraught mother-daughter relationship. While Laila voices dismay at her daughter and grandchildren’s Americanized ways, Yasmeen resents her mother’s intrusion into their lives, even though she had issued the invitation.
The novel’s strength lies in Sarwar’s use of lush visual language to convey intimate feelings and her skill in merging the day-to-day with political on-goings to drop the reader into a point in history. Laila remembers a time with her husband: “At his insistence, we continue going out at night, reveling in Karachi’s party atmosphere under Ayub Khan, at a time when nightclubs and bars abound. The seventies have not started yet: the genocide in East Pakistan, the banning of alcohol, the closing of clubs, or the military coup and repression under General Zia’s martial law.”
As the reader moves between Laila and Yasmeen’s thoughts, feelings and memories, we are pulled deeper into a well of dark family secrets that unspool in a Pakistan that Sarwar knows and describes well. Sarwar also makes great use of storytelling as a means for both, Yasmeen and Laila, to share narratives of happier times with the children. We understand through a complex backstory that memories are subjective and stories can be rewritten at will.
Sarwar, also a poet and performance artist, has an ability to convey heartfelt emotion through descriptive and strong visual language. The story’s pacing quickens when Yasmeen returns to Karachi with her children to find answers and confront the pain that initially drove her away. In the end, as secrets are revealed and final plot twist unfolds new drama. Black Wings is determinedly a story about mothers and daughters and what happens when a woman’s need to follow her heart into new love may be judged by her family as betrayal.
Black Wings by Sehba Sarwar. 2019. 212 pages. Published by Veliz Books.
Manuela Gomez Rhine is a writer and journalist who lives in Pasadena, California, and Oaxaca, Mexico. She is the award-winning author of the novel The Wild Chihuahuas of Mexico.
This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.