Nawaaz Ahmed’s Radiant Fugitives, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, is the story of a family and a country grappling with changing identity. The novel centers on Seema, a Muslim Indian lesbian woman living in San Francisco during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and first year in office. The personal and the political converge in this vast, inventive narrative, told from the perspective of Seema’s son at the moment of his birth.
Born in Tamil Nadu, India, Nawaaz Ahmed worked as a computer scientist before becoming a writer. He holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is the recipient of residencies from Macdowell, VCCA, Yaddo, and Djerassi. He is also a former Kundiman and Lambda Literary Fellow. Additionally longlisted for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, and The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, Radiant Fugitives has been named as one of the best books of 2021 by BookList and BookRiot, and recommended on The Millions Most Anticipated Book Preview, the August Indie Next List, Strand Bookstore’s “30 to Watch,” Refinery29‘s “Best Summer Books,” Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, TIME Magazine, ELLE Magazine, and more.
“Radiant Fugitives suggests that public life is like the air we breathe: utterly necessary to survival, but different from—and larger than—any individual self,” says Lily Meyer of The Atlantic. In Ahmed’s book, individuals and their desires, dreams, and frustrations expand beyond themselves, extending to the nation’s treatment of issues of sexuality, religion, and race. As Katherine Read of San Francisco Examiner says, “Radiant Fugitives will inspire readers to seek empathy, withhold judgment, accept our flawed humanity and marvel at the miracle of being alive.”
In the novel’s first pages, as Ishraaq, Seema’s son, enters the world, he muses: “What cosmic irony that I, who am birthed at my mother’s darkest hour, am to be named for the day’s rosiest light.” In Ahmed’s novel, light and dark coexist, as do death and life, and as characters struggle against the ways in which the world has named and labeled them, so too do they claim their power to name themselves.
Meghana Mysore: The novel is narrated by Ishraaq, Seema’s son, at the moment of his birth. As he narrates, he often refers to his Grandmother, and at times the novel feels like a letter to her. He says, “Oh, Grandmother, you’re not asleep yet. The voices from the kitchen are no lullaby. Your daughters are fighting, and you blame yourself. There must have been something you could have done, before the rifts widened to such chasms. It’s your elder daughter you’re agonizing over, it’s my not-yet-born self. Who’s there to care for us?” (23). Could you discuss your choice to tell the story from his point-of-view at this moment, and also the significance of this intergenerational address?
Nawaaz Ahmed: I started the novel from an opening line that came to me along with a scene of two sisters quarreling while their mother listened from the adjacent room, a version of the scene you have quoted from. In my initial drafts there was no narrator, and in trying to puzzle out whose voice the opening line belonged to, I conceived the idea of the novel being narrated by Seema’s newborn baby. I wanted someone who wouldn’t pre-judge my characters and their conflicts, something I was having trouble with in my initial drafts, given my own conflicting relationship to my religion as a gay Muslim. A new-born baby curious about and open to all aspects of the world he’s entering seemed miraculously right, and that voice allowed me to write a complete draft. I found the baby naturally addressing his grandmother in the section you quote from, which I didn’t question at that time, merely reveling in the interesting variety of tone it brought to the novel. But in the subsequent drafts I had to wrestle with the choices I had made. By that time, the 2008 election of President Obama had also found its way into the novel, and it became clear to me that the divisions in the family were connected to the larger divisions in the country. The new-born narrator had to grapple with the fledgling hope of unity and progress that President Obama’s win had given birth to. Ishraaq’s address to his grandmother became a song of consolation, of beauty and hope still possible despite the devastation we seem to be in the midst of.
MM: Names have great significance to the characters in this novel. Seema bemoans her own name: “Seema has never forgiven her parents for her name, which means face, expression, or likeness in Urdu. Not beautiful face or sweet expression or likeness to a flower, but those plain and ugly words, vague and ambiguous, as though her parents had been unsure what she’d turn out to be. The meaning in Hindi is worse—limit, boundary, frontier—restrictive and containing” (35). The name of her son, Ishraaq, means “light of the rising sun” or radiance. Could you speak a bit more to how you went about choosing the names of your characters, and the significance of names in the novel more broadly?
NA: In my initial drafts I had named my characters intuitively, picking names I liked for the way they sounded, many from my extended family. It was only when I had to name my newborn narrator that I pretty much did the exercise Seema and other expecting parents do when they want to pick a name for their babies—making a list, looking up possible associations and meanings, saying them out aloud. ‘Ishraaq’ immediately felt right to me, for its uniqueness, for the sense of wonder his name evoked with its long marveling end-syllable, for the image of dawn and the hope it conjured up. I became interested in the meanings of the other names I had picked, and was surprised by their relevance to their characters’ arcs. I then became more intentional in choosing names: I liked how I could gesture towards archetypes with the right name, or point out ironies and contradictions. I also liked the idea that names can become stand-ins for calcified perceptions of ourselves or others, resulting in frozen identities, and how limiting that can be. Initially, Seema’s 11-year-old nephew was named Adnan, which meant “settler,” referring to someone who had settled in the Arabian Peninsula. I agonized over his name for months, until I hit upon Arshad, which started with the same alphabet, and had the same number of syllables, and means ‘rightly-guided,’ which seemed more appropriate for a kid burning with religious fervor.
MM: We learn that Seema and Tahera did not learn Urdu when they were young, and the Urdu they do know is “colloquial and mongrel.” Towards the novel’s end, when Seema is injured, Nafeesa can only express her grief and shock in Urdu. ‘““Son, son,” you sob in Urdu, because for what you have to say, and even for what you can’t find the words to say, it’s the only language that moves your tongue at this moment” (345). I’m wondering about the intersection here of native language and grief, and if you could talk about your process of writing this scene where Nafeesa loses some of the English language.
NA: Like Seema and Tahera, I did not learn Urdu formally when I was young. Growing up in South India, I went to an English-medium “Convent school” where it was frowned upon to speak any language other than English on the premises, and I prided myself in sticking to that rule. At home, I spent much of my free time reading books in English (mostly from Britain), and my proficiency in spoken Urdu remained poor. English is the only language I can read and write in now, but after coming to the US where many praised books manifest a very particular aesthetics of understatement and neutrality, I was led to question my proficiency in English as well. Even though I did not learn Urdu formally, I think my English is very much informed by its rhythms and cadences and sensibility. In the novel, Seema and her father translate dialogues from an Urdu movie to English only to discover that the resulting lines sound florid and melodramatic until they are able to infuse them with what I can only call an Indian Muslim subjectivity. I sometimes wonder if I will ever be able to rid my English of that subjectivity, and whether I should even want to, though I fear that holding on to it may continue to mark me as foreign. I envied Nafeesa her access to a native language that more readily allowed expression of her grief.
MM: Currents of poetry run throughout the novel. In particular, Tahera, who can sometimes be a bit closed off to her family, often feels the utmost emotion when she is reading Keats. The Quran, to some characters, feels like a kind of poetry. For instance, when Arshad reads the Quran, “the stars and galaxies burn instantly brighter, as if the universe has come to life. And emblazoned across its skies are Allah’s verses” (51). What about Keats felt resonant to you when you were constructing these characters and their relationships to poetry? Why did it feel important to have these characters linked to poetry, through the Quran or in other ways?
NA: I have always looked at poetry both as a mystical form of communication and a way of communicating mysteries. There is something in its concision, its elisions, its compression, in the white space between lines and stanzas, that allows for both the existence of mysteries and for their explication. Much as religious texts do, like the Quran does. In a novel that seeks to explore the implications of religious faith, I felt that the power of poetry would provide a secular counterpoint. Growing up in India, the British Romantic poets were staple in Anglo-Indian curriculum, a relic of our colonial history, and it was an easy decision to use them in the novel, given the emphasis of romanticism on the individual and the transitory. In one section of the novel, the narrator’s grandfather calls poets prophets, holding up Wordsworth as an exemplar, a speaker of truths, however elusive and fugitive. Finding Wordsworth too measured, I settled on Keats for his passionate commitment to the primacy of the moment, and for other resonances within the novel, particularly his notion of “negative capability,” the ability to accept “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Both Tahera and her son Arshad exhibit that ability.
MM: In this novel, you show the powerful ways that the political seeps into the personal, the ways in which the two are so intertwined. Bill and Seema’s relationship is one that feels entrenched in the politics and culture of the external world. When Bill and Seema are together, Obama is in office and the two of them are confronted by rallies and demonstrations, one of which is on the three-year anniversary of the day same-sex marriages had first been performed in San Francisco and later voided by the California Supreme court. Seema’s identity as a queer woman is not always supported by Bill, though he loves her. For instance, casual homophobia slips into his language, as in when he says, angrily, in response to Seema telling him she is pregnant, “This is what you planned, you and Divya? First you screw me, then you screw me over, so you and Divya can play mommies together?…Fucking lesbians” (102). How did you think about interweaving the political and the personal for these characters, specifically issues of sexuality and race? And could you speak to the complexity of these moments between characters who share a bond and yet perhaps do not entirely see each other?
NA: I knew from the very start that I would be writing a political novel—I felt there was no way I could talk about being queer or brown or Muslim in the US without also referencing the political environment my characters found themselves in. There was so much happening that would impact my characters: post 9/11, Islamophobia was on the rise, with the imposition of Sharia law being held up as a looming threat; states were rushing to add same-sex marriage bans to their constitutions; and the coalition Obama had cobbled together was feared as poised to overturn white control of power in the country. I was initially interested in exploring how these trends affected my characters, but soon also how they chose to respond to them politically. Seema begins as a queer activist but later becomes a political activist as well, getting involved in the Dean and Obama presidential campaigns. This gave me space to delve into political machinations that I felt were rarely addressed in fiction.
I had to be careful though to not slip into didacticism, of pushing a particular political ideology, which would not be interesting anyway. Thankfully, even on the same end of an ideological spectrum, there is enough to explore: we come to our political convictions through such individual and personal journeys, our motivations are never simple and seldom clear even to ourselves, and there is much friction between individual desires and fears and broader political goals. This gets even more complicated when there are characters of differing race and sexuality in a relationship, wanting different things from each other and from the politics. Seema becomes a political activist from a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness when the worldwide protests against the Iraq war fail to stop it, and Bill joins her because he’s attracted to her. Both Seema and Bill become early supporters of Obama, but Seema becomes disillusioned when Obama doesn’t come out in support of same-sex marriage, fearing it may cost him the election. Bill feels threatened by Seema’s re-engagement with queer politics, fearing it signals a movement away from him. I leaned into those moments where the personal and the political came into conflict.
MM: At one point in the novel, Seema’s doctor father tells her she has a “disorder.” In the wake of this comment, Seema more acutely experiences her body, the feelings of being inside of it as a pregnant woman: “What she understands is her body isn’t hers anymore. She doesn’t control it, it controls her. What she understands is that, overwhelmed by her disorder, her father has chosen to hide his paternal self behind his clinical self. In his voice she senses doctorly frustration masking fatherly disappointment” (216). In writing about Seema’s body, and the specifics of it as she undergoes pregnancy, what were you thinking about conveying in a world where brown bodies are so often categorized, labeled, and interpreted by the white gaze?
NA: I think I was more interested when writing about Seema in thinking about the normative gaze rather than the white gaze. In the scene with her father, Seema is mostly struck by the word “disorder” he uses to describe her intense irregular periods. Her body is not behaving “normally” and she has little control over it, and she senses her doctor father’s disapproval. This is a foreshadowing of what she’ll later feel when she becomes aware of her sexuality, her attraction towards her friend Reshmi. The message she internalizes is about the shame of deviating from the norm, a shame she will struggle with constantly even as she rebels against the expectations of her family and society. Her pregnancy, on the other hand, despite all the changes it brings within her, is a chance to return to normalcy, a shot at having a “normal” life again, the kind of life her sister enjoys, with partner and children. Having spent her life on the outside so far, she finally wants in.
MM: Beginnings and endings feel like a motif in the novel. I was intrigued by the narrative style of the coda section, and how we glimpse into the heads of various characters at the moment of the call about Seema. There is a feeling of simultaneity, of hope, in this ending. The narration even expands out to passengers in the airport, to observers of the family, people not directly linked to the central characters. In some ways, it feels like every little section is its own end and its own beginning. In the last pages of the novel, we hear from Ishraaq at the moment of his birth, and he sees that “these radiant fugitives are created by us.” At the end of the novel, I understood that each of us has the power to create something. I’m wondering if you could speak a bit about the coda and its narrative style, and how it perhaps pertains to ideas of beginnings and endings?
NA: It is hard to speak about the sections in the coda without giving away the ending, but I’ll try! I wanted an opening up in the final moments of the book, to invite the whole world in. Up to this point the baby narrator has been dealing with the specifics of his family’s history. In the coda sections he attempts to synthesize what he has learnt and to generalize from that. One realization is that he could have delved as deeply into even the minor players in the story he is narrating and unearthed similar complexities: hence the expansion to other points of view. We are all in it together, equally complex and equally desirous and equally flawed, and we all participate in the creation of the rainbow we call human life. I’m glad you saw that!
Beginnings and endings are definitely a major concern in the book, which starts with a newborn baby having to make sense of his mother’s death while giving birth to him. One question that comes up in the book is whether our endings are foretold in our beginnings. This is not so much a question about predestination as it is about the difficulty of escaping the forces that have shaped our histories from the very beginning. We do, of course, have examples of people who have overcome the circumstances of their beginnings, and we want to believe it possible. But are they the exceptions or are they the rule? We hope for all our sakes for the latter to be true. I wanted to end the sections in the coda at the pause between endings and subsequent beginnings — that’s the place of hope, the possibility that we can remake ourselves and not be constricted by everything that has gone before.
Meghana Mysore, from Portland, Oregon, is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Hollins University, where she is a teaching fellow and graduate assistant. The recipient of fellowships and support from the Tin House Winter Workshop, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and The Rona Jaffe Foundation, Meghana is also the second-place winner in prose in the 2021 Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Annual Contest and the runner-up for the 2021 Melanie Hook Rice Award in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Yale Review, Boston Review, Roxane Gay’s The Audacity, The Rumpus, Indiana Review, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. You can find her at www.meghanamysore.com or on Twitter @MysoreMeghana.
Nawaaz Ahmed was born in Tamil Nadu, India. Before turning to writing, he was a computer scientist, researching search algorithms for Yahoo. He is a Kundiman and Lambda Literary Fellow, and the recipient of residencies at MacDowell, Yaddo, Djerassi, and VCCA. His debut novel ‘Radiant Fugitives’ is a finalist for the 2022 Pen/Faulkner Award and the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, and was longlisted for The Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and the Aspen Literary Prize. He currently lives in Brooklyn