Nawaaz Ahmed’s characters in "Radiant Fugitives" grapple with identity amidst slow political progress and fallout from their personal choices
What motivates us? What power do we have over the trajectory of our lives? How can people be so close and so far away from each other at the same time?
These questions and many others linger as the story of a divided family and the people in their orbit unfolds in Radiant Fugitives. This first novel by Nawaaz Ahmed, a graduate of the University of Michigan’s MFA program, is told by Ishraaq, who is the newborn baby of Seema, a mother estranged from her family for the choices she’s made. Ishraaq serves as a keen, omniscient observer who understands each person’s perspective and how we are all driven by love or fear or both. This unique position of the narrator shows the reader how each person contributes to events and the emotions surrounding them.
Seema takes on many roles in her life, starting as her father’s star performer in poetry recitations and changing as she falls from his graces. She goes on to come out as a lesbian, work as a political activist, and then marry a man she meets at a protest. Amidst her experiences, the broader climate of political progress with Obama’s presidential election, Kamala Harris’ rise, and expressions of islamophobia emphasize identity politics. The whole time, she struggles to find her place and find acceptance, as Ishraaq narrates:
What if you didn’t—couldn’t—believe in change? Change as something that took you someplace new, and lasting, not something that brought you back to where you’ve already been: three continents, six cities, multiple homes, myriad loves, the ceaseless struggle, but still the same inescapable tragedy of her self: still seeking approval, still seeking some way to make her father proud of her again.
Seema finds ways to cope. Still, her struggle to get what she’s looking for—to not be alone and to be loved—in some ways prevents her from achieving those things because "her resilience has come at the expense of keeping everyone at bay. She recalls her family, her friends, her lovers, her homes, the many she’s left behind or escaped from, so easily, so cavalierly, over the years. Only to foolishly grasp at the next whoever or whatever offers passing succor.” She tries, and the goal still slips away.
Yet her mother Nafeesa and her sister Tahera, though both upset by Seema’s choices that they don’t fully understand, come to her side as the birth nears. Ishraaq conveys his grandmother Nafeesa’s viewpoint in the second person, noting:
You know as well as, if not more than, anyone else the effect of the constraints on one’s lives, real or assumed, imposed from the outside or by the self. For hadn’t you let yourself be ruled by your husband’s dictums all these years and paid the price for adhering to them, and for breaking them? The price in both cases was crippling.
Generations of the same family are caught in this cycle, and each of them sees only part of the picture. The reader gets to see how the characters are caught up in who they are. Ishraaq reflects:
Call it fate, call it destiny. Call it qismat, call it the will of Allah. Call it following the laws of nature, call it acting in accordance with our natures. Say it’s been decided by evolution; say it’s in our genes, in the secretions from our glands, in the pathways in our brains. Say we’re the products of our environments, our upbringings, our histories.
Aren’t our lives circumscribed, in any case, by powers over which we have little control?
The question becomes whether characters can overcome this.
Ahmed now lives in Brooklyn. I interviewed him about his time in Ann Arbor and writing this novel.
Q: Tell us about your time in Ann Arbor.
A: I came to Ann Arbor for my MFA in creative writing, so my time there essentially revolved around the program—reading, writing, workshopping, attending lectures, socializing with fellow students. But Ann Arbor is very beautiful, and some of my favorite memories involve the outdoors (when it’s not freezing outside!): running along the many trails, biking to Dexter for donuts and apple cider, taking rowing lessons on Argo pond in the summer.
Q: You previously were a computer scientist. How did you decide to switch to being an author?
A: I’ve always wanted to write, and during my time working for Yahoo I belonged to a writing group where we would meet regularly to share work. But I was finding it hard to finish anything, and I feared that I would forever remain a dilettante. At the same time, I was becoming disillusioned with the software industry—in the early 2000s there was much talk about changing the world for the better, but what really seemed to be taking over was increased monetization via selling advertisements. I decided to go part-time for a year around that time to see if I would really write and finish something if I had the time. I did finish two stories that got me accepted at some competitive writing conferences, and that seemed like a sign. The two stories got me into my MFA as well.
Q: Are there ways that your background in computer science contributes to your writing?
A: Not directly, no. But a novel is similar in some ways to a large piece of software developed from scratch over a long period, and the experience of having done that a few times already definitely helped me stay on track with the first draft of the novel.
Q: Your acknowledgments section describes how you began your novel more than 10 years ago in the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. What was starting Radiant Fugitives like?
A: The first year of the program, I was mulling different ideas for a novel. In fact, I used a travel grant from my program to visit Hong Kong during the winter break of my first year, because I was thinking of a novel set there. But the 10 days I spent in Hong Kong convinced me I didn’t know enough to begin, and so I revived an idea that until then I’d considered as perhaps only a novella, that I’d started a few years earlier. I had an opening line and a scene with three women, two Muslim sisters and their mother, who’d gathered together in San Francisco, where I’d been living then. I knew one of the sisters was pregnant, the other was devoutly religious, and that the mother was dying. I knew that it ended with the delivery of the baby. My initial attempts to shape a novel out of it went nowhere. I wanted to include the perspectives of all three women in the novel, but I wasn’t sure how the voice of the opening line could speak for all of them.
Q: The perspective of the omniscient narrator as an unborn baby is fascinating to me. This unique viewpoint offers insights into the family members’ beliefs, fears, and dreams. How did you give voice to this narrator and character?
A: I was running around Argo Pond one afternoon just before the start of the second year when it suddenly struck me that the opening line, which I was attached to because it felt poetic and prophetic, belonged to the newborn baby. The decision felt right for many reasons. I’ve never really been interested in writing strictly realist narratives, and perhaps that was one of the reasons why I’d been stuck. By choosing the baby as a narrator I could experiment with the form of the novel and not be limited by conventional ways of storytelling. Because he was a baby, he would be curious about everything, wanting to know how the world works, and more accepting than judgmental, eager to learn about the characters and the history that birthed him. He would also be interested in how America came to be what it is. As the novel progressed, the baby would take in everything he learned and could grow into the poet and prophet that the opening indicated. But the process of figuring out all this was slow, over several drafts. In one of the final drafts, the opening line moved to the end of the novel, and I felt the novel was done.
Q: The characters face persecution and self-doubt for who they are, whether it’s their beliefs or identities. More broadly, some political progress is made in the novel, which follows Obama’s rise. Yet politics leave much to be desired, too. Do you think the characters make progress in their own ways?
A: I’d assumed when I started the book that I couldn’t expect my characters to change in the week the novel is set. The novel was supposed to explore how their pasts and the events happening in the present govern how they act and react. The characters have to deal in a week with what they have been putting off for a lifetime. So they do end up changing, coming to realizations which have eluded them for years, and which I think counts as progress. It was also important to me to think of progress in other ways: I was hoping that readers would be challenged with perspectives that are not their own and will have to grapple with that. The flaws the characters and the country exhibit are all human flaws, flaws that cannot be easily ascribed to one community or the other, and I hoped readers would be forced to confront their own prejudices. Surely that is the way towards progress?
Q: The way poetry informs and has a big place in the characters’ lives was so heartening. One passage reads, “If life is a picture, then poetry is the faint flickering light that illuminates it, [Seema’s father] says. If life is a lamp, then the stirring overlapping shadows it casts all around us are poems. We cannot apprehend one without the other.” How did you make the connection between poetry and the plot of your novel and then weave them together?
A: I knew from the very beginning that I wanted poetry to play a part in this novel, just as I wanted the Quran in it as well. Many religious texts, which are our earliest attempts to answer questions about why we’re here and how we should be living, are poetic both in form and content, and some of the grandest works of poetry—like Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost—deal with matters of faith. I felt that romantic subjectivism, as practiced by the British Romantic Poets, would offer an interesting counterpoint, a different way of seeing the world, seeking subjective “truths” by looking into the self. It didn’t require much to weave the two of them into the novel. Growing up, we had a teacher who’d come every morning to instruct us in reading the Quran in Arabic, and poems by Wordsworth and Keats were integral parts of the syllabus in the Anglo-Indian school I went to, a legacy of the British colonial rule of India.
Q: What are you reading and recommending these days?
A: To be honest, I haven’t been able to read much during the pandemic, especially while working to get my novel ready for publication, and later, promoting it. I feel like I have so much catching up to do, and with so many wonderful books out I don’t know where to start. Some books that I’ve really enjoyed: Rajiv Mohabir’s hybrid memoir Antiman, about growing up as a gay Guyanese Indian immigrant, and Bishakh Som’s Apsara Engine, a wonderful and surreal graphic short story collection.
Q: This was your debut novel. What’s next for you?
A: I’m trying to figure that out! Whatever’s next will hopefully be very different from Radiant Fugitives. There’s something about technology and the current moment that seems intriguing to me, and I’m thinking I’ll explore that.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.