“The Shifting Half-Truths We Manage to Glean”: A Conversation with Nawaaz Ahmed




NAWAAZ AHMED’S NOVEL Radiant Fugitives reflects on the complex and ever-shifting world of a queer Muslim immigrant in post-9/11 America. The story chronicles the saga of an Indian Muslim family — Naeemullah, Nafeesa, and their two daughters, Seema and Tahera. The family has been torn apart by Naeemullah’s cruel banishment of Seema after she came out as lesbian. Recently divorced and almost nine months pregnant, Seema is immersed in her work in progressive American electoral politics, following her early years as a vocal gay rights advocate.

After years of estrangement, Seema’s dying mother Nafeesa and her sister Tahera arrive in San Francisco to help Seema through the birth of her son. While coming to terms with the complexities of Seema’s life and sexual identity, they struggle to reconnect and reconcile. Years of pent-up resentment and misunderstanding explode against the backdrop of America’s rising wave of Islamophobia. Eschewing stereotypes and easy answers, the novel asks what it means to be Muslim and queer in post-9/11 America. 

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KAVITA DAS: Radiant Fugitives opens with Seema’s son, Ishraaq, narrating his dramatic birth. And the novel continues to be narrated by Ishraaq throughout. It seems like a radical decision to have a novel narrated by a newborn child, yet at the same time this child and his arrival is a huge part of this story. Can you talk about how you came to make this bold narrative decision?

NAWAAZ AHMED: Based on a scene I’d woken up with, I first wrote what I called a zero draft — rough, just to get the story down, 90 pages long — that ended with the pregnant sister, Seema, being rushed to the ER for the delivery. But when I set about trying to develop it into a novel during my MFA the following year, I found myself stuck. I’ve never been interested in writing strictly realist narratives — the other stories I’d been working on at that time all had some magical or unconventional element to them. I also wanted to include the perspectives of all three women in the novel, and I wasn’t sure how the voice of the draft could speak for all of them. That would require omniscience, and I didn’t want a godlike omniscience, making judgmental pronouncements about the three women, whom I still barely knew.

I was going running one day, halfway through my MFA, pondering these issues, when it suddenly struck me that perhaps the opening line belonged to Seema’s baby, who at the moment of his birth in the ER, but before he takes his first breath, is given the power to narrate the story. It seemed to solve all my concerns. By making this choice, I wasn’t bound by preexisting narrative conventions, and I was free to experiment with what a novel could be. And I could use the baby as a guide to discover who these women were, seeing them through the baby’s accepting eyes.

I began a new draft the next day with the baby narrator, and the novel began to flow. It would still take me many years to get it right. I wanted the baby to develop through the course of narrating the novel. 

This novel weaves deeply personal themes like faith and sexual identity together with broader issues like politics, exploring the points at which they intersect, such as LGBTQ rights. Did you have an explicit goal for this novel to echo the notion “the personal is political,” or was that something that happened organically as you wrote it?

It was definitely one of my goals to explore what it means to be Muslim and queer in post-9/11 America. The America I had moved to for my PhD in computer science, with such optimism in the mid-1990s, had suddenly darkened — the dot-com bubble had burst, the Twin Towers had fallen, and America had embarked on a nebulous War on Terror that seemed to cast all Muslims as suspects. At the same time, I was coming to terms with myself as a newly out gay man, unsure what space Islam held for me. Through the two sisters, I could explore both these aspects, as well as the ways they conflicted. 

The politics seeped in as I began work on the novel in 2010. President Obama’s electoral win had fanned a culture war. There were protests around the country against the “Ground Zero” mosque, and acts of anti-Muslim violence were on the rise again. The battle for marriage equality was also heating up, with many states racing to include same-sex marriage bans in their constitutions. It felt natural that the two sisters, Seema and Tahera, would be impacted by these trends. But I had to find a way to deal with the politics dramatically, and that took several drafts.

Naeemullah, Nafeesa, and their adult daughters, Seema and Tahera, embody the depths of family love. Nafeesa defies her husband, ignores her precarious health and her own misgivings about Seema’s sexual identity, and crosses the oceans to be with her for the birth of her son. But the family is also afflicted with rifts and secrets, from Naeemullah’s staunch banishment of Seema to Tahera’s persistent resentment toward her sister for being the cause of the family’s dissolution. Can you talk about how your thoughts about family dynamics across generations and cultures helped you shape these characters and their interactions?

Growing up in India, surrounded by large extended families, I’ve seen my share of intense family dramas. There can be deep love, but it is seldom unconditional: there are also many implicit and explicit expectations and obligations whose breach can cause deep rifts. Families are also ideal breeding grounds for rivalries and resentments, perhaps as a result of the forced intimacy and constant comparison.

In the novel, Seema’s coming out would bring shame on the family, which a patriarch like Naeemullah cannot accept. Nafeesa, being his dependent, defers to her husband until she’s faced with her mortality. Tahera rebels against her father in the ways she can, but rejects her sister too, for forcing the choice on her. While the specifics may be unique to Indian families of a particular generation, I think similar stresses operate in many other cultures.

One key theme of the book is the role the Islamic faith plays within families and how it serves as a source of solace and direction for some, such as Tahera and her husband Ismail, while also being viewed as a constraint by others, especially Seema. Also, America sometimes professes to be more tolerant of religious freedom than it is, as we witnessed with the rise of Islamophobia post-9/11. Can you talk about the impact of religion and specifically Islam on intergenerational family dynamics and how this is reflected in the book?

I did not intend my novel to be representative of how Islam is practiced in any particular community. What I wanted to explore is the question of what a religion like Islam continues to offer its adherents, especially immigrants to America. Tahera eschews her secular upbringing, seeking solace in Islam for the comfort it gives her, the structure it brings to her life. Her husband Ismail finds a sense of community at his local mosque when he arrives as a new immigrant to the country. Their son Arshad seeks a sense of identity, their daughter Amina seeks a sense of belonging. Even Seema, despite her disdain for the constraints she associates with Islam, longs for the certainty and purpose that she believes her sister’s family possesses as a result of its faith.

Relatedly, aspects of the Islamic faith, as well as Urdu words, appear frequently throughout the novel since they are parts of this family’s life. The terms appear with little or no explanation. What went into your decision to tell this cross-cultural story in this way? Did you worry at all about readers’ ability to navigate these details, especially if these terminologies and customs are unfamiliar to them?

I felt no compulsion to explain customs and terminologies, trusting the context to convey the gist. I didn’t think it important that every reader gets every detail, even if that were somehow possible. One of the themes in the novel is that we cannot know and understand everything, and we may have to be satisfied with the shifting half-truths we manage to glean. The world is far too complex to allow for full understanding of our own lives, let alone the lives of others. I think the humility that comes from admitting to not understanding everything is an important quality to cultivate, especially in the divided world we currently inhabit.

Seema, who is banished by her father after she comes out to him in India, ends up fighting for gay rights and marriage equality in the US, which was achieved in 2015. In 2018, Section 377, an Indian law banning gay sexual relations, was struck down, which was seen as a major step forward for gays rights in that country. What do you think is the impact of these laws not just on individuals but their families? Do they have the power to create a greater acceptance and heal long-standing rifts like the one between Naeemullah and Seema?

In the novel, Naeemullah banishes Seema when she refuses to remain in the closet. The closet — for individuals and their families — is a place of private shame, enabled and enforced by silence and secrecy. Apart from overturning oppressive discriminatory laws in their respective countries, both these court decisions were accompanied by powerful public arguments for the rights and equality and dignity of LGBTQ people. I cannot but believe that, by countering the silence, the decisions have had and will continue to have an enormous impact on societal acceptance. Individual acceptance will hopefully follow, though complicated by factors like religion and tradition.

Radiant Fugitives seems to reimagine the great American novel by fusing famous speeches from American electoral politics, scriptures from the Qur’an, and beloved lines from Keats’s poems, thus demonstrating how expansive and multicultural the form can be. Can you tell us how you thought about these wide-ranging intercultural themes and elements? As an author from India who lives in the US and studied writing here, do you view Radiant Fugitives as an American novel, an international novel, or do you think these labels are increasingly irrelevant?

While working on the novel, I was very aware of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie refers to as the “danger of the single story,” the straitjacketing, flattened perspective of a community or a culture when a single story takes over. I knew I did not wish to contribute to a single story about Indian Muslim immigrants in America. I also did not wish to contribute to a single story about the ways immigrants and minorities in America can tell stories, and about what they are allowed to use in their storytelling. I wanted to claim a broad canvas for myself, and gave myself permission to borrow from and fuse all the disparate voices that seemed relevant to the story I wanted to tell.

I hoped to write a novel in which the America I’m living in is also a key character, a novel that could also be understood outside America, especially by my family back in India. I see it as a deeply personal novel.

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Kavita Das’s first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar(Harper Collins India), a biography of the Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer, was published in June 2019. Kavita is at work on her next book, Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues (forthcoming from Beacon Press in fall 2022). She lives in New York with her husband, toddler, and hound. Find her on Twitter: @kavitamix.

 

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