Monday, November 15, 2010
Home Boy + 1: An Interview with H.M. Naqvi
Cover of Home Boy, HarperCollins India edition, 2010, cover painting by Faiza Butt
Below, author photo by David Williams
In his excellent blog Work Product, Matt Wilkens ballparks the number of English language long form prose fiction volumes published globally, every year, at about 100,000. Not all these works aspire to the condition of literature, of course, but among those that do, Home Boy, by H.M. Naqvi, published last year, has famously pulled ahead of a great many of the rest. Consider that the author was top-seeded. A Lannan Fellow, a recipient of the Phelam Prize, a creative writing teacher at Boston University, an erstwhile banker and a slam poet, Naqvi was less likely to be overlooked than most first novelists. Home Boy, a distinctively American novel by a "card-carrying" Pakistani, has been taken to heart by readers around the world, with translations into Italian, German and, soon, Portuguese, following launches in New York, Karachi and Jaipur. Last month, Home Boy was short-listed for the prestigious and lucrative DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
In the year since Home Boy was published, I have corresponded with Naqvi, who once wrote for this blog. We have had a long conversation about what is uniquely American about Home Boy; close readers will find it as American as Moby Dick, and much shorter. We talked about the fast-growing South Asian literary festival scene, and about the shifts in artistic intention the first year out has impelled. As well as writing fiction, Naqvi is a correspondent for the superb Global Post, with articles covering a Pakistan it's almost impossible to draw a bead on reading other English language newspapers. What are the tales of the dazzling year, for H.M. Naqvi? And what's next?
Left to right: Covers of the South Asian, German, Italian and American editions of Home Boy
ELATIA HARRIS: Over the year we've been talking, I've read Home Boy three times. For pleasure, and to be a worthier interlocutor. I'll say it again -- you make the eve of 9/11 in New York sound almost edenic. And the three main characters seem very young. Of course, they are young -- but they seem it. The voice of Chuck, the narrator, was beautifully done.
H.M.NAQVI: Chuck is an everyman, like me, like you. He is bright and sensitive, curious and interested in making sense of himself and the world around him. The voice is characterized by his context, by Americana. Consequently Whitman and Salinger and McInerney are invoked, as is Springsteen and Erik B. and Rakim. There is hip-hop and Yiddish and Spanish and Punjabi in the texture of the prose.
EH: Actors say you can play older and smarter more easily than younger and less guarded. Is that a technical issue for novelists as well?
HMN: Actors are a different species. As a writer, I can tell you that there was a technical imperative to assume the persona of an innocent: I wanted to employ the bildungsroman as a trope that informed 9/11.
EH: Chuck and his friends, too, wise up -- to this reader's horror. A year ago, there was ceaseless speculation -- who, in real life, might you have been writing about? I believe our editor at 3QD, Abbas Raza, was mentioned.
EH: But not by you.
HMN: No, but everybody who knows Abbas would accede that he is worthy of a literary Doppleganger.
EH: Mm. You remarked in your talk at the Barker Center for the Humanities at Harvard that every first novel was bound to be a roman a clef. Well, if so... I found something Proust wrote in a letter to friends who felt exposed when A la recherche first came out. "I had the misfortune," he observed," to begin a book with ' I ' -- and already people believed that, instead of trying to discover general laws, I was analyzing myself in the individual and hateful sense of this verb."
HMN: Although I thoroughly enjoy Proust’s rhetorical Kabuki, I am not sure I would agree with his claim.
At the Barker Center for the Humanities, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
Photo on right, HMN with Prof. Sugata Bose. Photos by Faraz Ali
EH: Back to the bildungsroman, then. I'm not done with that idea. The way I read Home Boy, it was clear the classical bildungsroman, the tale of self-development and integration into the regnant culture, was not happening. Not to Chuck.
HMN: I like to think that Home Boy resists easy taxonomy: it is American but Pakistani, South Asian and but not South Asian, an immigrant novel that turns the trope on its head, a 9/11 novel in which 9/11 doesn’t take place. In this way it also defies the conceits of the bildungsroman. One can make the case that our intrepid hero is unable to achieve self actualization - or to employ a potentially pertinent term - a variety of “jihad.” This, I think, is indeed unusual. I must then agree with you.
EH: Chuck's main men, AC and Jimbo, experience types of assimilation no immigrant would assent to. Long ago I read Ibn Tufail, and later came to see the bildungsroman may have had origins outside the West. Might Home Boy reflect the deep reach of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan into western literature? Starting with Robinson Crusoe? To read Home Boy as a riff -- intended or not -- on managing essential life tasks and big thoughts if you land up on a desert island, was funny-ha-ha.
HMN: I am not really familiar with the phenomenon of the Eastern bildungsroman and as far as I know, it’s not a particularly prominent trope in Urdu literature. The first Urdu novel, Umrao Jaan Ada, is a fictional memoir of a courtesan (analogous, in ways, to Richardson’s Pamela, but, I must add, much superior). I suppose it can be thought of as a coming-of-age story.
I am, however, familiar with the Babarnama, a seminal tract, which, I believe, is mentioned in passing in Home Boy. It’s fantastic, the first modern memoir, and I suppose, another coming-of-age story. It begins something like this: “In Fergana, in the year 1494, when I was twelve, I became king…”
EH: I don't know that work. I remember the allusion, though. Were you taking a leaf?
HMN: I suppose you could read Home Boy like the Babarnama. I would like to read a dissertation on it. After all, the protagonists believe that they are kings, Kings of New York. Alhough our intrepid heroes would have only preferred to have contended with mere hormonal vicissitudes, they have to contend with the momentum of history.
EH: I will never get over Chuck using a mango as he does. I don't want to go into it much because one must read it where it occurs in the novel for it to have all its power. But Chuck...does something with a mango. For all my reading, it remains the definitive image of a South Asian far from home comforting himself in order to get a night’s sleep. Beyond gorgeous.
HMN: The mango has become one of those familiar literary conceits in South Asian fiction, literary or otherwise, signaling esoteric, exotica: Caucasians might chomp on bananas but faraway, in the mysterious East, we feast on that fruit known as the mango. Oh, the mango! Mercifully Mohammed Hanif exploded it. I only wanted to mention it in passing, and about two thirds of the way through Home Boy, I realized I had not deployed it. Consequently, I stuck it in…
EH: No, don’t tell! Readers will have to earn it. And I didn't realize it was obligatory! Also, the way Chuck got his name -- which I won't quote, either. It speaks to his attachment to the Motherland, his longing, the extreme youth that underlies his wayfaring. Astonishing. The prose contains poetry, and sometimes poetry leaps out of the container. While I know it's the same person doing it, toggling between poetry and prose -- has it its psychic costs? And rewards?
HMN: That’s a wonderful question, Elatia. I’m not quite sure how to go about answering it: the psychic costs and rewards of toggling between poetry and prose! Oh my. I suppose I can, I should try. The business of writing is tough, exacting. I write slowly, deliberately; each sentence has shape, texture, a certain resonance. I I can’t move ahead until the last sentence works. I am a perfectionist. I'm a lazy bastard. But I am an aesthete. Duchamps’ urinal (or Fountain), for instance, is not as interesting to me as Sadeqain’s Bathers.
Left to right: Sadeqain's Bathers and the Fountain of Marcel Duchamps
EH: You have remarked in several interviews, and to me, that you never know what's coming up next when you write. So Home Boy can almost sound like an experimental novel that way. Yet to read it is to know you are inside an experience that has been most carefully orchestrated. Could you say that Dionysus writes and Apollo rewrites?
HMN: The first few pages might might be characterized as a Dionysian riff but the rest is work, tough work. I somke a pack, drink soda water. I pace, listen to music. I do pushups. I go back. I go back every day.
EH: I was having a great old time comparing Chuck's integration into society with that of Hanif Kureishi's protagonist of two decades ago in The Buddha of Suburbia. There are some rites of passage -- squaring off with a rich girl, for one -- that no one gets to miss, I guess. Oh, the difference 20 years, 9/11 and two very different writers and cities make. But I am astonished no one asks you about this. Is "Early Hanif" a lifetime ago?
HMN: As far as I know, nobody has explicitly drawn the comparison. It is an interesting one. Trust you to bring it up. Kureishi was of the first generation of South Asian writers who commanded an audience in the “West.” Actually, although he is a somewhat of a rock star in Britain, he’s not particularly well known in the States. I read the Buddha when I was twelve or thirteen. I remember it being very funny.
EH: Well, Home Boy is very funny. To be so sad a story. Do you think the comparison with The Buddha of Suburbia holds water?
HMN: I am certain the narrator of Buddha contended with issues similar to Chuck’s or his pals and partners in crime. Yet Kureishi’s story is a function of a different milieu than mine. In the States, for instance, one can be Chinese American, Italian American, Irish American, Greek American, Jewish American and so on. In the U.K., immigrants become British. Or don’t. It’s either or. Just like Naipaul doesn’t care to be Trinidadian, Kureishi doesn’t care to be considered Pakistani. He is a Briton. Earlier this year at Jaipur, he grimaced during a session when the moderator asked him about immigrant fiction. He said something like, “I’m quite offended. I’ve only immigrated from Bromley to Shepherd’s Bush.” It was very funny.
EH: You, on the other hand...
HMN: On the other hand, Home Boy is written by a card-carrying Pakistani writing about America.
EH: Well, you did it. People have written about your resembling Nabokov that way, conjuring that pitch-perfect American voice. You've told me you're a re-reader...
HMN: I have an inclination to reread certain novels. I have, for instance, I have read Ulysses and Lolita twice, Waiting for the Barbarians thrice, A Bend in the River five times, The Heart of the Matter maybe six. I like to think that each work reveals something different with each reading. Different works also have different resonances at different junctures. In the decade that separated my readings of Ulysses, for instance, my empathy shifted from young Stephen to bumbling Bloom. If I had read it only once, the novel would have remained something else. I need to reread.
EH: Does that habit kick into your writing life, as well?
HMN: This peculiar pathology informs my writing process. When I write, I want to tell a story, a good story, a story that transcends its immediate context and milieu; and I want to create multidimensional characters, characters that you might imagine grabbing a drink with, perhaps dinner. At the same time, I also want to create a figurative infrastructure that complements the narrative. In Home Boy, I draw upon several almost archetypal American tropes, spanning genres, the century. There is, for instance, The Wizard of Oz and The Great Gatsby in it, and as I mentioned earlier, Whitman, Springsteen and Erik B. and Rakim. Much is stuffed into the the 273 pages. It requires rereading.
EH: I wonder what Eric B. and Rakim would make of the talk at Georgetown University you just gave -- on coming of age, hip hop and Islam. It's been a big year. I would love to know about being on the other side of it. Not to suggest that you or any writer can ever be on the inside looking out.
HMN: It has been a rollicking year. Home Boy dropped last fall. The American tour was frenetic, spanning six cities up and down the East Coast, from the Asia Society to the Brooklyn Book Festival to the august Barker Center at Harvard. In October, the New York Times review was published, which is always a boon for a book. Then the South Asian tour commenced, taking me to Delhi and Jaipur, Karachi, Islamabad and Dubai, which has became an integral part of the Subcontinent.
EH: Help me visualize a literary festival in Jaipur. It seems almost too romantic.
HMN: Jaipur was misty, picturesque, and a twenty-four party. I came across characters that include William Dalrymple, who is a force of nature, and the incisive Amitava Kumar; I met a Nobel Prize winner, a couple of Bollywood actors. There was also a large Pakistani contingent. At the closing night party, I was accosted by a plain-clothes intelligence official who mistook me for Mohammed Hanif for some reason and told me Pakistan and India would be united. Inshallah, I responded. The book was very well received on either side of the border.
EH: It hit the bestseller list.
HMN: It did. The Karachi Literary Festival was also, unexpectedly, a blast. There were readings in English and Urdu, which brought hordes of disparate readers, writers, and traditions together under one roof. The highlight of the event for me was taking the wonderful, venerable Zulfikar Ghose out for a drink, a Scotch, one evening. I told him he is my literary forefather. In turn, he spoke with me about life, love, literature. There wasn’t anything left to talk about by dusk.
Karachi Festival and Home Boy launch, photos by Shahi
EH: You've been translated into Italian and German, with Portuguese to come. You've been to Iowa, the Montsalvat of American fiction...
HMN: In the summer, the German and Italian editions were launched and I received a call informing me I had been selected for some renowned residency. “They fly you down,” I was told, “put you up, and you get a paycheck at the end of the month.” Consequently, I was ensconced in Iowa City, Iowa for a month and a half, a mostly charming urban oasis amid the windswept cornfields. Strangely, Iowa City is the mecca of creative writing in the US, perhaps in the world. Home Boy will appear on the syllabus of several classes. Moreover, I managed to make meaningful progress on my second project there. After a frenetic year, it was good to sit and write again, good for the soul. I was in London for a week-long jaunt to attend the DSC South Asian Literary Festival and to collaborate with the feted painter, Faiza Butt. I returned to Iowa, before returning home to Karachi by Eid.
EH: And now you're in DC. And! You've been short-listed for the DSC prize. That's big. Lots and lots of writing hours guaranteed for the winner. What a condition it is, being a "card-carrying Pakistani" who writes -- for now -- in English. You mentioned in your talk at Harvard a Pakistani writer who, late in life, wrote his first novel in Urdu. If that transition were artistically interesting to you, would it take another four decades for you to make it?
HMN: I'm not a polyglot. I’ll be happy if I am able to master just one language in this lifetime. Of course, things might change. Like Abdullah Hussein, I might feel differently at eighty. Then again, I might be dead at eighty.
EH: Oh, don’t be dead then! I want to ask about your journalism. It's appearing regularly in the Global Post. It's fantastic to read, and I wonder how big a part it plays in your writing life. You've come out as an admirer of Graham Greene. I can't help thinking that, reading your Global Post articles, you could be doing as Greene did in writing The Power and the Glory about the same time that he wrote the non-fiction book, Another Mexico -- two different takes on the same era and material. Does long form journalism attract you?
HMN: Thank you, Elatia. After the publication of Home Boy, I thought I would bang out some short stories, a slim collection set in and around Karachi, but it didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself being pulled in another direction: I began writing about the city and environs. I wrote, for instance, a piece of the phenomenon of inner-city home schooling in a Waziri neighborhood. In Waziristan, the troubled scrim of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, women don’t leave their houses. In Karachi, however, they run schools.
I also wrote a piece entitled “The Goddess of Taliban Country” about a trip I made into Baluchistan in search for the local incarnation of Kali. I was invited by the Karachi Off Roaders, an intrepid fraternity of self-styled adventurers who make regular forays into the hinterland.
EH: A Pakistan we don't read about much...
HMN: There is much about Pakistan that escapes discourse. Consequently, it is imperative that we make sense of it in a more meaningful, rigorous way. Otherwise, Pakistan is reduced to the headlines and reducing a country of 180 million, the sixth largest in the world, to a sentence or two, is dangerous.
I have written several pieces since that have not been published and will continue to do so. The project complements my novel nicely.
EH: The collaboration with Faiza Butt -- what an amazing painter. You are well-matched. It's so unusual an author would have an impact on the choice of cover art, though. In your talk in London, did the two of you tell the audience much about working together on this?
HMN: Faiza and I have been involved in a unique collaborative act, an exercise that can be characterized as a hermeneutic experiment. Although we work in different though not necessarily mutually exclusive disciplines and mediums – I am a novelist, she’s a painter – she has interpreted my work and I have interpreted hers. The process began last year when she read my novel then interpreted it on canvas.
Detail, cover painting for Home Boy HarperCollins India edition, by Faiza Butt
The spectacular piece graces the cover of the South Asian edition of Home Boy which evokes the frenetic energy of the novel. There is also violence in it, exuberance, humor and this fascinating, compelling pop sensibility at work informed by traditions that might include Warhol and Lollywood and the graphic novel. An essay of mine making sense of her oeuvre appears in the catalog for her fabulous show on at the Grosvenor Gallery this month. I hope to continue working with her in this way.
EH: As far as the next work, you've told me, tantalizingly, "not immigrant lit." In the year that Home Boy has come out, has your sense of audience grown keener?
HMN: Who the hell wants to keep reading about the immigrant experience? There are other, grander matters that inform us. As for your query, the imperative to write is mostly personal. I am excited about what I am working on, a big, bad, bawdy epic that contends with the universe and its vastness.
EH: I was reading Eckermann's notes on a luncheon with Goethe... "My dear fellow," Goethe said to Eckermann. "...My work simply cannot be popular. Anyone who thinks it can be -- and who tries to win popularity for it -- is making a mistake. I haven't written for people in general -- for people en masse. I've written for individuals -- people who are looking for something that engages with their individuality (with what makes them not part of the crowd, with what makes them lonely) and whose minds tend in roughly the same direction as mine."
HMN: I enjoyed that.
EH: Of course, Goethe was a big popular hit. When he was exactly your age, he had to leave Germany hidden in a hay wagon to get some peace. When he arrived in Rome, he registered at the parish of Santa Maria del Popolo under an assumed name -- again, to get some peace. Maybe you know the feeling. I've enjoyed keeping up with you this year.
HMN: It's been uncanny. The interview that spanned months, a year -- years. Thank you for keeping apace.
EH: Yes. You've been most forbearing. Perhaps I'm a bit like Eckermann sounding out Goethe, over years and years of time. Or Boswell following a very young Johnson. Why not just keep on?
Buy Home Boy at Amazon.com, at BarnesandNoble.com, in India at NBCIndia.com, or at http://www.flipkart.com, in Pakistan at Libertybooks.com, in Italian translation at Feltrinelli, in German translation, starting November 18, 2010, at Amazon.de, and as an iPhone app.
Author Web site of H. M. Naqvi
Selected Global Post articles by HMN
Selected Press Coverage of Home Boy and HMN
There is an archive of book reviews, author interviews and news stories on the author's site. See this page for tabs linking to a CNN video, the New York Times, The Dawn, the Huffington Post, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, The Hindu, The Brooklyn Rail, Time Out Delhi, Counterpunch, The Millions, among other periodicals.
Additional coverage includes these articles.
About Faiza Butt and HMN at Grosvenor House in London
To read more about Faiza Butt
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