Some debut novels have humble origins: they take shape from small ideas and modest intentions. Not for Nawaaz Ahmed’s first book, Radiant Fugitives. Right from the outset the Indian-born writer was thinking big.
“I remember telling a friend around the time I was beginning work on the novel that I wanted to write a book which moved with the power of poetry and which encompassed the universe,” Ahmed tells The National. “I was interested in the ways we construct our lives and the choices we make, and what we cling to for succour and support. I also knew that I wanted to write a book about faith and relationships, and how they intersected in contemporary America.”
Hugely ambitious yet supremely accomplished, Radiant Fugitives grapples with politics, race and religion, while charting the progress of three generations of a Muslim Indian family. From its startling opening line to its stunning conclusion, the book is a stimulating and often affecting read, and heralds the arrival of a prodigious new talent.
Seema Hussein has the strongest presence in the novel. She has welcomed her sister Tahera and her mother Nafeesa back into her life in her last weeks of pregnancy. After her father cut her off and cast her out, Seema left India for the West. There, she immersed herself in activist politics, married a black lawyer and eventually settled in San Francisco.
Tahera is a doctor and a deeply devout Muslim who now lives in Texas with her family. Terminally ill Nafeesa still lives in Chennai with her overbearing husband. Keen to support Seema and her baby, and determined to see her daughters together one last time, Nafeesa forges a family reunion in California. But can the women overcome their differences and heal old wounds?
Like the Hussein sisters, Ahmed also relocated to America from South India. He grew up in “multiple households, in multiple towns and cities” in Tamil Nadu.
“The small town my parents had moved to in pursuing their careers didn’t have good English-medium schools, so I spent the school year in other places living with the families of aunts who’d generously accepted charge of me and my siblings. It was from my cousins in Trichy that I picked up my love for reading. They had a large collection of books, mostly British, from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie, and were ardent readers themselves.”
Ahmed found that in India in the 1980s there were no easy paths or role models to follow for a career in writing. He saw his aptitude for maths and science as “a ticket out” to the US where he hoped more doors might open. He moved there in 1994 and, at Cornell University in New York, pursued graduate studies in computer science, a subject he believed allowed for personal creativity. After completing his PhD, he got a job in research and development at Yahoo.
It was a whole 10 years later when Ahmed changed direction and turned his attention to literary creativity. He embarked on his novel in 2010 while studying for a master of fine arts at the University of Michigan. It grew out of a novella that came from a scene he had woken up with.
“The scene involved the three women in the novel,” he explains. “Two sisters sipping tea, one of them nine months pregnant, their dying mother pretending to sleep in the adjacent room, the air crackling with tension. Many drafts followed over the next decade as I explored who these women were and what accounted for the divisions that had sprung up between them.”
Those divisions appear all the more acute when Seema moves away from her family, adheres to her own agenda and interacts with famous figures. “I wanted to see my characters on stage in “real” America to challenge the sparse representation of South Asians in American media,” says Ahmed.
“We seem invisible, and this does take a heavy psychological toll and forestalls possibility. I put Seema on stage with Barack Obama, and had her consult for a rising star with South Asian antecedents – even in 2010 there was hope that Kamala Harris would follow Obama’s footsteps.”
In contrast, Tahera mingles with less well-known Americans and prioritises religion over politics. “She and her family are not just devout practicing Muslims but are also keenly interested in learning about and gaining a deeper understanding of their faith,” Ahmed says. “Tahera’s husband attends lectures on the Quran, her son studies Quranic recitation. It seemed appropriate that the words of the Quran would be sources they draw strength and clarity from, and I wove relevant quotations from the Quran into the sections in their perspectives.
“In the events depicted, Tahera is reacting to the strain of being away from home, in the midst of estranged family members who view her adherence to her faith as excessive, and even look down upon it. At the same time her Muslim community in Texas is under attack. I have great sympathy for Tahera’s struggles, and hope readers will be able to see her strengths and not only her failings.”
Ahmed’s vividly drawn characters and their thoughts and deeds come to us by way of a remarkable narrative voice – that of Seema’s newborn (and at times unborn) son Ishraaq. Ahmed gives Ishraaq a lot to observe and comment on. Unsurprisingly, it took him a while to settle upon this mode of storytelling.
“I was searching for a narrator who would allow me to write the book I wanted to write,” he says. “The narrator had to be omniscient to enter the consciousness of all the characters, but should be able to hold all of them in affection and treat them all non-judgmentally. I also needed a voice that would be equally comfortable with the poetry of John Keats and verses from the Quran and the speeches of Obama. The voice would, over the course of the novel, fuse these and other influences to emerge poetic and prophetic.
“It occurred to me suddenly one day that a newborn baby, its voice not yet fully formed, was the answer. It did feel like a huge risk, but the novel which had stalled until then began to flow.”
At one point in the book, Nafeesa muses on her daughters’ adopted homeland. “Living in America is like living in an in-law’s house,” she says. “One cannot survive by segregating oneself, by giving others reason to treat one as an outsider.” Ahmed, who currently lives in Brooklyn, says he didn’t experience difficulties adapting to American life.
“The places I’ve lived in the US have been vibrant college towns and cities known for their diversity. So it wasn’t too hard to find the communities that would welcome me, and I didn’t feel the need to learn new rituals to try and fit in.
“I do miss aspects of living in India,” he admits. “To step out on the street and see multitudes like me, to experience the energy from the confluence of so many different cultures, to smell and taste the incredible variety of foods I’d grown up with, to be able to visit family members on a whim. Some days, living in the US does feel like a self-imposed exile.”
Fortunately, that exile has helped Ahmed create a bold and richly rewarding debut novel.