I address my anxieties by writing: Pakistani author

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS
Saturday, January 15, 2011

NEW DELHI - Pakistani writer H.M. Naqvi of the acclaimed novel “Home Boy”, a story about the ravaged lives of young Asians in 9/11 New York where he worked, says he addresses his anxieties by writing. For Naqvi, writing is the easiest way to fight the demons in a post-9/11 world.

“I write because I have an itch…I also have to earn a living. In this way, it does not really matter to me that there are incentives for South Asian novelists or novelists elsewhere,” Naqvi, who is based in Karachi, told IANS in an e-mail interview from Karachi.

“I worked in one of the towers that was felled. I lost a friend in the tragedy and the authorities mistakenly hounded my family. The way I address my anxieties is the way most writers address theirs - by writing,” he added.

“Home Boy”, his darkly comic novel published last year, has been shortlisted for the DSC South Asian Literature Prize at the 2011 Jaipur Literary Festival Jan 21-25. The book, described by the New York Times as “a remarkably engaging novel”, is set in the US city and takes into its creative mosaic the pre-terror and post-terror scenarios.

The three Asian protagonists from Pakistan — AC, Jimbo and Chuck — call themselves the “boulevardiers”, “raconteurs” and “renaissance” men, fervently chasing the American dream and looking for their identities at the same time.

Trouble begins when they set out on a journey to the hinterland weeks after 9/11 in search of Sharman, a compatriot who disappears in the dust and tumble of the twin tower collapse. The trio are hemmed in by the anguish of an exploding America and charged emotions. It is time to go home.

The book captures the fragmented existence of the Asian communities and their dilemmas post-9/11, when the bubble of the Asian migrants’ integration into the American mainstream bursts. Asians stand alone as a race under suspicion and vulnerable, Naqvi wrote in his book.

Naqvi’s home turf, Pakistan, too is in ferment with the fundamentalist forces digging in their feet after the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for opposing the blasphemy law. But the writer refuses to comment. “You know, I am a novelist. I tell stories. I am not a psychologist, sociologist or a political scientist. Consequently, I am wary of this variety of exposition. I am not an expert on this issue,” he said.

The writer says he is flattered by the DSAC prize nomination.

“And pleased by the renewal of attention the book has received since. There is no doubt that the prize is a timely development because it is about time we had our own award,” the 37-year-old writer said. “There’s certainly a plethora of fiction published by South Asians,” he added.

“Although I don’t quite recall the genesis of the ‘Home Boy’, I began to work on it eight years ago. I was into a few drinks into the evening, but I do recall it was an anxious time. And I was anxious for many reasons,” Naqvi said.

The writer said in the interview: “One can agree that life in America became unsettled after 9/11. America has changed in a fundamental way. Of course, America like Pakistan and India for that matter is vast and varied.”

“As a Pakistani denizen, I felt uncomfortable being implicitly associated with the perpetrators of the crime. After all, the terrorists were Arab - Saudis, Egyptians and a couple from the Gulf. Why should I have to answer for them?” Naqvi said.

When Naqvi started writing “Home Boy”, there was no “9/11 literature”.

“Since then, of course many have responded to the calamity. Ken Kalfus, for instance, wrote an excellent novel called ‘A Disorder Peculiar to the Country’ and Joseph O’ Neill’s ‘Netherland’ is a tidy masterpiece,” he said.

“But 9/11 literature can be spotty. ‘Home Boy’ is not simply a 9/11 novel. It is a comedy, coming of age story, an immigrant novel, a New York novel as well as a South Asian one,” the writer added.

The writer-poet, who has taught creative writing at Boston University, is working on a new novel.

“I am working on a novel that contends with Pakistan - Karachi, in particular - with history, historiography, metaphysics and sex. It is an exciting project that keeps me up until 6 a.m,” Naqvi said.

“It is dramatically different from the ‘Home Boy’. I stopped writing poetry more than a decade ago. I may return to it at some juncture in the future,” he said.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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