Multitudes & Uncertainties: On Natalia Hero’s ‘Hum’
Hero’s novella deals with the grief, guilt, and trauma of a woman who is raped and gives birth to a hummingbird.
Novella | 104 Pages | Reviewed: Ebook
978–1–988355–15–3 | First Edition | $16.00
Metatron Press | Montreal, Canada | BUY HERE
“I often think, should I kill my bird? Should I put it out of its misery? I feel shame when I think this. My bird doesn’t deserve it. I do.”
I’ve often thought of magical realism as the bridge between genres that makes the world of the imaginary, as well as more difficult topics, feel if not closer, then at least slightly more manageable for its reader. Natalia Hero uses the potency to her advantage in Hum, a novella that tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who is raped and gives birth to a hummingbird. The bird serves as a vehicle through which the protagonist works to make sense of the consequences and to reconcile with herself and with those around her, with a society that had ultimately failed her. Hero creates an alternative hero’s journey, one that is dark because of how palpably real it is, and therefore how painful it is to read and to process afterward. Divided into four parts and written in direct, flowing prose, Hum proves that size can be deceiving both in terms of its length and its synopsis. Hero’s debut captivates its reader with a frantic internal pulse that is unnerving yet reassuring, in which help has many guises and a capital letter.
The protagonist of Hum defies the conventional role and tasks of a protagonist, from the way she acts to the way she is introduced to the reader. Hero gives us a figure who is distinct yet accessible to the reader, creating a depiction of pain that is unique but not definitive. I am reluctant to use the word “universal” in this case, as this is a complex word in which Hero rolls around and explores from numerous angles over the course of her novella. Hum has a sense of nuance, a carefulness and respect for boundaries that invites the reader into the space and talks directly to him, not just through the protagonist but through all the details, characters, and events that go on inside its pages. Hum is a little theater where everyone and everything has an important role, but where the role itself is never completely cemented, as that would cut off the fluidity and possibility for change that characterizes Hero’s novella.
The hummingbird is not simply the central image in Hum, but a multifaceted figure that takes on several reincarnations and acquires various meanings, all of which are made accessible to a reader who is looking for that particular angle. It is easy to think of the bird as a child — this was the first reading I picked up on several pages into Hum. Such an interpretation is certainly fitting in some moments but is by no means all-encompassing. Hero encourages her reader to seek out the moments sprinkled throughout Hum, to pick up on little details and note the bursts of emotion in the protagonist to consider the hummingbird not just as a product, a “child,” but also as a “self.” She reconsiders and broadens the definition of what the consequences of violence look like, giving them an entity only to the extent that form becomes capable of containing multitudes and uncertainties that become apparent in moments like the protagonist’s initial distress over the bird, noting
“[i]t has occupied my space. Maybe its made its nest here in my home. And I’m too weak to fight it, so I just watch it take over.”
It is equally important to shift focus and delve into the murky waters that threaten the protagonist and her hummingbird. Other characters’ words and actions in Hum may not strike you immediately, but that does not mean they are any less significant than the two central figures. In fact, it is the act of backpedaling and quizzically refocusing that emphasizes Hero’s point: that there are fundamental problems in the way we collectively process and respond to the pain of others, whether we’ve witnessed it ourselves or can even imagine such a thing happening. It was horrifying to read the reactions of the protagonist’s male coworkers to her text for help, to consider that someone somewhere probably had or will have a similar reaction to a genuine plea, yet this scene powerfully illustrates the extent to which certain behaviors have become normalized, getting to the point that the protagonist’s reasoning is equally painful to read:
“I think, Help. I need Help. But I don’t say that, because you don’t say that. You don’t say you need Help unless you know what Help you need.”
Hum has an undoing quality to it, unraveling these numerous strands and knots of problems not by solving them, but by pointing them out and asking for a collective effort, to undo them together. Hero raises issues like whether there’s such a thing as “behavior etiquette” when speaking to an individual who has experienced violence, as seen in Fe’s initial frustration with the protagonist, and stresses the fact that the resolution to these issues lies in the journey to them, in the changes in behavior and language that occur along the way, rather than in the destination. It is a matter much bigger and more complex than simply saying “I hate men,” as the protagonist says herself at one point, and it is these complexities and interlinked chainmail of cause and effect on which Hum focuses.
What both impressed and captivated me most was the way Hero made language feel simple and simultaneously complex, decentering the ordinary reading experience by imbuing it with the potential to shake and startle its reader. The allegory of the hummingbird makes an easy and powerful gateway for discussing the rhetoric of a survivor, bringing up issues like victim blaming and silence, questioning whether it is possible to move on and if so to what extent, in which the idea of “bringing the bird with you” assumes a multidimensional meaning. Hero emphasizes the lingering nature of words and actions, but also of emotions in a writing style that builds up in layers until it weighs on its reader in a manner reminiscent of the protagonist’s attempts to navigate out of and away from the damaging events of the past. Hero’s approach makes these complex sensations comprehensible for someone who cannot relate to the events of Hum directly, attempting to navigate language as the protagonist does at one point,
“translat[ing] it into palatable language, us[ing] words that won’t alienate, words that don’t blame, with neutralized action verbs and an absence of emotion […] begin[ning] to believe the person who [spoke] through [her].”
Hum was a deeply moving reading experience for me. Hero captured a sense of frantic fear and an almost desperation that felt personal but also incredibly real, bringing up sensations I’ve buried from years ago that made me want to reach out to the protagonist in any way that I could. In other cases, Hero brought up the topic of impact and identity in a way that we probably don’t immediately think of because of the difference in perspective or, more chillingly, because of a certain level of desensitization that seems to be prominent when it comes to discussing and finding ways of preventing future violence. The scene with the support group, where everyone went around and introduced herself and her bird by name, age, and pronoun, as well as the scene at the end where the protagonist is walking in the garden with her mother and sees a swarm of hummingbirds, were both so powerful that I almost burst out crying and still cannot explain why exactly that is. Hero’s Hum is a novella that naturally finds its place within contemporary society by introducing a distinct voice to the literary scene, giving its reader a protagonist that is easily and almost terrifyingly recognizable. Hero’s stellar debut moves away from the pretense and romanticizing quality typically found in such narratives, which she confronts head-on with her protagonist, phrasing it not as a challenge but as an acknowledgment of the inevitable complications:
“I can see the beauty, but it hurts me to admit it. Because pain is only beautiful when it doesn’t belong to you.”