Nawaaz Ahmed on new book Radiant Fugitives and finding his place as a gay Indian-American Muslim in a polarised world
Nawaaz Ahmed talks about his debut novel, homosexuality, Islamophobia, and how the personal is political and the political, personal.
At its core, Nawaaz Ahmed’s debut novel Radiant Fugitives is the story of two estranged sisters finding their way back to each other. But in detailing their starkly contrasting personal journeys, it delves deep into several themes such as identity, sexuality, acceptance, diaspora, alienation, politics, and religion.
The novel’s protagonist, Seema, is a consultant for Kamala Harris’s attorney general campaign in the Obama-era San Francisco. A lesbian in her forties, she is denounced by her Muslim Indian family when she comes out in her teens. Exiled, she goes on to create a life for herself in the United States, marries a black man, and then divorces him. Now nine months pregnant with a son and no one to depend on, she suddenly finds herself united with her dying mother and fundamentalist younger sister.
Radiant Fugitives is a brave story told with heartening sincerity. It cuts through generations, continents, and ethnicities to build a rich and layered landscape peopled by a set of diverse characters brought together by time, fate, and choices. Ahmed does not hesitate to bring to fore thorny subjects and clashing beliefs and yet he manages to sustain an objective standpoint and humanize every character. Though plot-heavy, the novel is as lyrical, brimming with Keats’s poetry, verses from the Quran, and Obama’s speeches.
The novel is heartbreaking and yet it remains hopeful. That is Ahmed’s biggest win. Here, he discusses how the story came about, the choices he made while writing it, and his journey as a gay Indian-American trying to find his voice and place in a fractured world.
It took you 10 years to write Radiant Fugitives. What challenges did you face while penning down this book?
The first complete draft took me a year and a half. In that draft, I made many intuitive choices about the form of the book, without questioning them: the short sections, the shifting perspectives, the baby narrator directly addressing his grandmother, the inclusion of lines from the Quran, and John Keats’s poetry and Obama’s speeches, etc. This freedom allowed me to finish the first draft, but later I had to make sense of them, to decide how they fitted together, and that took several drafts. In the process, the novel also grew in size and scope, and each subsequent draft seemed to take longer. I had to find the willpower to keep going.
How did the story come about? Did you have the plot in mind when you first started writing or did it evolve through the years?
A few years before I started the novel, I’d woken up with a scene of two sisters sipping tea, one of them nine months pregnant, the other devoutly religious, their dying mother pretending to sleep in the adjacent room. I knew there was tension in the air and deep divisions in the family. I began writing the novel to explore these divisions and whether and how they can be healed. The novel followed from there, a process of discovery. As I continued to write, I found the country (United States) and its divisions intruding into the novel, and I made space for this in the plot as well.
The story feels intimately personal as if you’ve borrowed from lived experiences. How much of it is autobiographical?
It is definitely a personal novel, and informed by my lived experiences, as a gay man trying to build a life for myself and a home in the United States. The book also incorporates real-world events — the fight for same-sex marriages, the Obama election and its aftermath, the Islamophobia unleashed by the War on Terror — that I lived through. But the lives of my characters are their own, created out of the crucible of the world I’d thrust them into, though I did borrow from my childhood memories to give flesh to their past lives in India. I was exploring how we make choices amidst the constraints and the pressures the world imposes on us.
The book is hearteningly inclusive and diverse. It taps into the inner lives and struggles of gays and lesbians, African-Americans, immigrants, and Muslims. Has it been a conscious choice to people your novel with such a motley group?
I did want my novel to be inclusive and diverse, to capture my own experience of living in the United States. At the same time, I feel the characters and communities I’m writing about make sense together, especially given the political moment I’ve set the novel in, and the resonances in the struggles they face. The 2008 election of Barack Obama was celebrated as a turning point in the country, bringing diverse communities together, and I used the moment to explore the commonalities between the communities, and the differences that would have to be overcome to truly allow for a coming together.
Not just the three central women, even their kin are fleshed out with great care. The book is a masterclass in character development…
One of the novels I read quite a few times while writing mine was Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I read a few pages a day before starting my writing session, hoping that something of his mastery with bringing even the minor characters alive would rub off on me. I’m glad you think it did!
Homosexuality is usually presented in the binary, as something absolute, unchangeable. But it can be fluid too, as is with Seema…
I would like to rephrase that as “sexuality can be fluid” with an emphasis on “can be”. Human sexuality is too complex to be captured by a single story. Some find their sexual orientation fluid, while others don’t. I hesitate to generalise from my characters, whether they be LGBT or Muslim. I do worry that they may be read as being representative of their communities. Seema’s journey, which includes her marrying a man, is uniquely hers, as are her motivations and reasons. I wouldn’t want her story to be used as a cudgel against LGBT people who are struggling to get their families to accept their sexuality without the hope or expectation of change.
Despite being mother-daughters, the three Hussein women are starkly different from each other in every way possible. And yet you’ve managed to humanise each one. One of the biggest wins of the book is how despite being peopled by disparate characters, it does not spout value judgments, doesn’t force the reader to take sides…
This was a major concern of mine throughout the writing of the novel: to present the characters and events without judging them myself. This is where writing the novel in a just-born baby’s voice was crucial, I think. New to the world, he narrates without judging, inhabiting each character’s perspective fully, accepting contradictions, allowing multiple conflicting views of the world to co-exist, and empathising with all the characters. I felt this was essential to the project of exploring the divisions in our world.
Is there any character you identify with?
I identify with various aspects of many of my characters, especially with their struggle to find their place in the world, their quest to belong, to resist and protest what they consider unfair or unjust, and their many moral failings that they constantly run up against.
The novel also makes a brilliant case for how the personal is political and the political, personal. What was going in your head when you decided to stage the story of a fractured Indian family in the backdrop of American politics when the country was going through a dramatic turmoil?
When I started working on the novel, President Obama had just begun his first term, his win fanned the culture wars going on in the United States. There were protests around the country against the construction of a mosque and community center in New York City, near the site where the Twin Towers had stood, and acts of anti-Muslim violence were on the rise again with the rising rhetoric that Muslims were taking over the country and wanted to impose Sharia law there. The battle for marriage equality was also heating up, with many states racing to include same-sex marriage bans in their constitutions. The events held real consequences for my own life, and the two sisters in my novel would clearly be impacted as well, and I wanted to explore through them how our lives are shaped and constrained by external forces like politics. At the same time, I wondered what we could learn from the rifts within my characters, and their many failings, and how emotions like anger, envy, resentment, etc., may be operating on a larger scale in the country.
You seem to be a prolific reader, someone who has read both Keats and the Quran with equal fervor. Which authors/writers have been your key literary influences?
To be honest, I’d only read some Keats, the more famous of his poems, before I started this novel. My knowledge of the Quran too was earlier very limited. I did immerse myself in these two bodies of texts while writing the book, as well as Obama’s speeches and memoirs, and Tolstoy’s War And Peace, which gave me permission to include everything I was obsessed about, whether through the narrative or as mini-essays. I believed then, and I think I still do, that each book has to find its own voice, its own set of influences, and Radiant Fugitives is very much a product of fusing together the above sources of inspiration.
You took an MFA before you started writing. Do you think it is important for aspiring novelists to get a degree in writing?
No, I don’t think an MFA is necessary. I felt I needed an MFA to give myself permission to write and to think of myself as a writer, since my background was in engineering and computer science, and I had barely done a couple of courses in literature during all my schooling. What the MFA gave me was two wonderful years of time solely to read and write and to talk about books and writing with other writers. It also gave me friends and mentors to turn to for support. But the long process of writing this book taught me that it is persistence that pays off in the end.
Radiant Fugitives is very visual. Are you open to it being adapted into a film? If yes, which actor would you like to play Seema?
I’ve always thought that the book would be hard to adapt as a film without sacrificing its structure, narrative voice, its interest in texts, and political campaigns. That said, I’d be more than happy for a film or a series based on it to be its own thing. (And I think someone like Tabu would make a fascinating Seema!)
Now that the book is out and receiving great reviews, what next? Have you already started work on the second book?
I would like to work on a book, next, that is the opposite of Radiant Fugitives, something that would hopefully not take ten years to finish. I don’t know what that is yet!
When not reading books or watching films, Sneha Bengani writes about them. She tweets at @benganiwrites