Learning to Listen: A Conversation with Natalia Hero


Natalia Hero is a Montreal-based writer and translator. Her debut novella Hum, published by Metatron Press in 2018, follows the story of a young woman whose experience of sexual assault manifests itself in the form of a hummingbird. A constant and often unwelcome presence in her life, the bird acts as a reminder of the abuse, but also a companion to the protagonist as she embarks on her journey toward healing.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Hum’s narrative offers an intimate glimpse into the experience of a survivor of sexual assault, a perspective that is not often considered in the portrayal of sexual assault in mainstream media. Hero handles the topic of trauma with grace, holding it up to the light and examining it from all angles. Through her book, she considers the ways in which sexual assault shapes the victim and how it produces an aftershock that touches everything and everyone around them.

Hero and I discussed the ways in which trauma plays out in the public eye, her intentions in putting Hum out into the world, and how the retelling of our own stories can contribute to the healing of others.


The Rumpus: It takes a lot of bravery to put out work that is clearly so close to your heart. Are there other women, other writers, who inspired you and contributed to your ability to put this book out into the world?

Natalia Hero: #MeToo as we know it hadn’t happened yet when I wrote the book, but a few high profile sexual assault cases were already coming up in the media, for example the Jian Ghomeshi case here in Canada. Seeing the bravery of women writing about their own experiences definitely had an impact on me. I have so much admiration for the people who publicly detail these horrible, painful experiences, effectively reliving their trauma as they expose the deepest parts of themselves, knowing full well how the public will likely react, how their every moves will be picked apart to discredit their truth—irrelevant details invoked to chip away at this imagined ideal of a “perfect” victim, one who is deserving of being believed. They’re doing the important work to make survivors feel safer coming forward with their stories. But I also feel like my book came from a place of frustration with the way these stories were playing out in the media. That was what led to my desire to paint a realistic, intimate psychological portrait of a rape victim, from a deeply empathetic perspective.

Rumpus: This is clearly a deeply personal narrative, and yet one that is all too relatable. What has the response been like from readers? Do you feel it has been received in the way you intended?

Hero: It feels amazing to hear from readers who’ve said it has helped them heal. As much as it came from a personal place, I don’t actually feel like I wrote it expressly for other survivors; I wrote it in response to what I was seeing both in my own life and in the culture more broadly: gaslighting, silencing, a complete lack of empathy and a refusal to believe people who have not only been victimized but have fought through their trauma to get their story out there, knowing full well how it would inevitably be received. I feel like I wrote it more for people who haven’t experienced sexual violence, who are reading these stories and maybe wondering how so many could be coming out at once, who genuinely aren’t aware of how prevalent this is. I guess I feel like it was so emotionally painful for me to write that I assumed it would be triggering for a survivor to read. But people have reached out saying it meant a lot to them, that they felt seen and validated and less alone, and I’m really happy it’s had that effect.

Rumpus: From the beginning of the book, it seems the protagonist takes ownership of what happens to her. You write that the protagonist feels, “something buzzing inside me. Something angry.” And yet we never see this anger. She seems almost apologetic when she leaves the scene of the trauma. Where does that anger go, and what takes its place?

Hero: I think in the immediate aftermath of the rape she just isn’t there yet—I think of it sort of like the stages of grief. She’s still at the initial step of making sense of what happened. Instead, it’s the bird that shoulders it for her, and we see it swarming her, almost trying to provoke it in her.

And when she meets the character Alexis, she’s confronted with what that anger looks like—here’s an individual who’s experienced similar trauma and is just burning with rage, whereas there’s a numbness to the narrator’s way of emotionally processing. And she’s drawn to Alexis, I think, because she’s almost envious of their ability to feel so strongly, or to focus on one feeling, whereas she’s drowning in a sea of them without the ability to cling to one to stay afloat, or isolate and identify them in order to tackle them. And so both the bird’s persistent poking at the wound and Alexis abandoning her culminate in the one display of anger in the book, the one outburst, where she takes it out on the bird—and she’s immediately filled with such remorse that she turns it onto herself with a suicide attempt. So ultimately her instinct is to direct any anger she feels at herself. Victim-blaming culture is internalized.

Rumpus: The way you wrote about the men’s reaction to the assault really struck me. What do you think is the responsibility of men in the wake of the #MeToo movement? How can they better support the women in their lives?

Hero: The simple answer is, listen rather than dismiss, validate rather than gaslight, make them feel safe enough to talk about it rather than meet them with the same old scrutiny that forces so many into silence. Interrogate the personal bias that gives them the defensive instinct to make excuses for the perpetrator.

Rumpus: The hummingbird feels like a perfect analogy for the almost tangible guilt and shame often felt by survivors. Still, it is not something that seems immediately obvious as a reference to sexual assault. Can you explain the inspiration behind the image of the birds?

Hero: The immediate metaphor I thought of was a kind of background noise, like a ringing in your ear that never stops. Something tolerable for small periods of time but that becomes unbearable as those moments accumulate. I imagined trying to go about your life with a fly buzzing around you constantly, perpetually trying to shoo it away as you try to accomplish your daily tasks. Even when we bury trauma or try to mitigate its effects, it never goes away. But I see beauty in all that is human, even the deepest emotional pain. I don’t just see strength in someone living with trauma; I see grace. I see birds as graceful, and hummingbirds just made sense to me because of the idea of constantly being in motion, the way a trauma survivor ultimately has no choice but to move forward in life.

Rumpus: Throughout the book, the relationship between the protagonist and her bird evolves. Can you speak more to the evolution of this relationship and how it corresponds to an individual’s relationship with their trauma?

Hero: I think there is this inherent contradiction that a survivor is confronted with when it comes to dealing with trauma: in order to move past it, you have to fully accept it as a part of you. You have to welcome it, face it head on, in order to move forward. The book chronicles the relationship between her and her trauma, but she’s also very concerned with her identity. She feels a certain disdain for the other survivors she encounters, because she’s afraid that identifying with them erases her individuality and allows her trauma to define who she is. She struggles to accept that what happened to her has changed her, because she fears that the “victim” label will replace all other aspects of her identity. She doesn’t want to become a faceless statistic.

Rumpus: You write, “You don’t say you need Help unless you know what Help you need.” How can someone support a person in this situation and be an ally?

Hero: It’s important to be patient and let go of any preconceptions about how a survivor is “supposed” to act. You see this a lot in the media, when a victim’s behavior will come under intense public scrutiny in ways that don’t reflect the reality of trauma at all. They’re supposed to file a police report immediately, that’s one thing we hear a lot. Why didn’t you go to the police? People ask this without thinking of how these cases are managed, how many rape kits go untested, how many cases get thrown out. They don’t think of the reasons why someone may not want to put themselves through an emotionally exhausting and triggering process that has a strong chance of not yielding any results or leading to any kind of justice. So I think the answer is primarily to make people feel safe coming forward, making them aware of the options available to them and offering to help navigate those options, but being patient and letting people cope and process in their own time. I think the roommate character in the book does a pretty good job of this, actually. She’s not absolutely perfect, obviously, because no one is, and there are moments when she gets frustrated and borders on judgmental, when she presumes there’s an easy answer and doesn’t see why the narrator isn’t making certain choices. But in general, there’s a good model of a support system there.

Rumpus: Speaking of making people feel safe, you write about the protagonist hating men but also something bigger than just men. Can you speak to this kind of hatred? Does this help or hinder the conversation around trauma and recovery?

Hero: Well, for one thing I don’t think we should be trying to police the emotions of survivors as they process trauma. The burden shouldn’t be on a survivor of sexual assault to bring compelling arguments to a broader conversation about rape culture—which is what she’s ultimately struggling to express that she hates, and even she knows that it isn’t enough to pin it on “men,” which is why she interrogates that emotional instinct. She knows it’s reductive and she knows that it’s a defense mechanism rooted in trauma.

I didn’t write this book for people to read it and go, “Hmm, that really makes me think.” I want them to come away from it saying, “I feel for this person.” I want them to have no choice. I leave no breathing room for the reader of this book to question this character’s experience or gaslight her. You’re as trapped inside her trauma as she is. Because the well-being of a person isn’t an abstract cultural phenomenon. This is a human issue. And we are still, as a culture, so detached from the reality of trauma, and what it does to a person.

Rumpus: Absolutely. And you write about trauma, but yet the narrative has a very hopeful outlook. You write about the protagonist’s bird joining with other birds, of survivors banding together. Can you speak to the importance of sharing narratives and conversations around trauma?

Hero: My own personal experience of disclosing my trauma to people has nearly always been met with another story. The person almost always has a story to tell in return, whether it happened to them personally, or it almost happened, or it happened to someone they’re close to… Emma Healey has an essay titled “Stories Like Passwords“ that discusses this idea, that when you share this kind of story you make other people more comfortable to share their own. You make yourself very vulnerable when you do that, and I have so much admiration for the brave people who discuss their experiences publicly. I wrote a work of fiction—that’s nothing compared to coming forward with your real life story under your own name. But telling these stories is slowly making it safer for people to come forward, which I think makes us safer in general. And it’s making people feel less isolated and alone.

Rumpus: How do you feel about the overall effects of the #MeToo movement?

Hero: I think it’s been one very small step toward justice, but if we’re being realistic, I don’t think we should overstate its impact. Predictably, we already have so many people saying it went “too far,” or that it failed… Weinstein will probably get off, so many abusers’ careers are going to go on unscathed, Kavanaugh got confirmed… I’d like to think we’re getting there, but I think it will be slow. One thing I hope is for some of the hypocrisy within the movement to be remembered, so that we can learn from it. The high-profile people who defended their friends rather than listening to victims—the Lena Dunhams and the Margaret Atwoods who talk a big game about feminism and the importance of the movement but then publicly attack and try to discredit accusers instead of considering that someone they know may not be who they think. I don’t say this because I want anyone “canceled” or anything, but I think we need to draw a lesson about allyship from this, about our automatic presumption of innocence when it comes to the people we admire. Change can’t come from denial.

Rumpus: At one point in the book, you write, “…none of this can save me from what’s already happened. But I think I might appreciate the intent. I think I might feel something that looks a bit like hope. Like comfort. But I try my best not to feel it. To keep moving.” What is the danger of feeling hope, of feeling comfort, or anything at all?

Hero: Unfortunately, the more we see these cases play out in the media, the more we see the system consistently fail victims. And the way the stories are framed and discussed can be really discouraging as well. I’ve heard people I know denounce cancel culture and I’ve had to point out how rare it is for the perpetrators to ever suffer any actual consequences in these bigger cases. Apart from Cosby, I can’t even think of one. And look how long that took, and how many women had to suffer. When people say someone “got #MeToo’d” they’re framing it like facing accountability is more serious than actually experiencing assault. We need to remember that #MeToo isn’t something that happens to abusers; it happens to victims.

And so this is one story that centers one survivor as she attempts to do just that—survive. The hope, her motivation, isn’t to seek justice or achieve any big cultural shift. It’s just to go on living in a world that has no sympathy for her pain, to move forward while carrying that burden.

Rumpus: At the end of the book, the protagonist is working as a cam girl, putting on shows with her bird. Can you explain the significance of this ending, and what it means for the relationship between the protagonist and her past trauma?

Hero: It was important to me that this character find a way to experience sex in a positive way. Her attempts at intimacy throughout the book seem to only add to her pain. And in the end she finds that intimacy with herself, so there’s a kind of independence there that I wanted to emphasize. I didn’t want her to be “saved” by some great partner who can finally lift her out of her despair. There’s something empowering about reclaiming the space of your body when you’ve experienced sexual trauma.

Rumpus: Where do you think the conversation surrounding assault and trauma needs to go from here? What do you envision in terms of collective healing, and how do you think this moment in history will work to shape the future?

Hero: I hope we learn to listen. We’ll likely have to hear a lot more painful stories in order to get to a place where victims feel safe and abusers don’t, but I hope this moment makes us more receptive to people coming forward, and that we learn to treat them with dignity as they do so. And we have to keep emphasizing consent. When men say #MeToo has gone too far, what they’re really saying is that they see consent as a threat to their power. They try to make consent seem like this elusive vague blurry thing that’s really tricky to understand, and we have to push back and say that it isn’t, that it’s essential.


Photograph of Natalia Hero by Éva-Maude TC. Book cover design by Louise Reimer.

Anya Leibovitch is a writer, editor, and translator based in Montreal. Her work has been featured in PeachMag and InWords Magazine’s anthology, Dis(s)ent. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories. Find her on Twitter at @a_rlei. More from this author →