The PEN Ten: An Interview with Nawaaz Ahmed
1. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your book?
That I could write a book! And that I could write this book. Until I started my MFA, almost all my background had been in computer science. I did one poetry workshop while doing my Ph.D. at Cornell, and the other classes not related to computer science were in modern dance. And all through my youth, though I wanted to write books, I mostly dreamed of writing murder mysteries and thrillers.
Perhaps my attempts at choreography—for a brief period in San Francisco—brought me to more literary writing. When thinking of a book during my MFA, I first envisioned a trio of novellas to make up the requisite 300 pages, because I didn’t think I could sustain a single story that long. Just one of those novellas turned into this novel.
2. What is your relationship to place and story? Are there specific places you keep going back to in your writing?
When I began writing, I wanted to set my stories in various parts of the world, wherever there were Indians. Writing was a way of exploring and being in the world, and I imagined novels set in Hong Kong, London, even Norway, perhaps as a way to project excitement and change in my life.
I ended up writing much closer to what I called home—a little wary of the research those other novels would take—setting my first novel in San Francisco, a city I lived the longest in until then. Lately, thinking about my next book, I feel an urge to write about mythical or vague, unspecified lands, perhaps also in reaction to how specifically set my current novel is.
“I wanted the world my characters inhabited to be concrete and identifiable as the world we’re living in. I was interested not only in how the personal is political, but also how politics becomes personalized.”
3. There are familiar current events and relics mentioned throughout your novel—readers hear about Kamala Harris, Barack Obama, and debates over the Affordable Care Act, to name a few. What was it like for you to reference very recent historical events in your work? Was it difficult to divorce your own processing of this recent history from that of your characters, who are living through this recent history without the hindsight we might have?
I wanted the world my characters inhabited to be concrete and identifiable as the world we’re living in. I was interested not only in how the personal is political, but also how politics becomes personalized. I decided to set my novel at a very specific time, in the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections. My characters not only would be subject to whatever was happening in the country at that time, but would also participate in it.
My initial drafts were expansive: There was so much happening, and I wanted to include everything. As time passed, the setting felt more distant, and it was easier to see what the novel needed—how to tease a dramatic arc out of the events, how to make the responses truer to each character.
But passing time raised other quandaries. Was President Obama’s punting on the marriage equality issue still relevant after the Supreme Court’s historic 2015 decision? Were the anti-mosque protests too tame compared to President Trump’s Muslim ban in 2017? I had to accept that I was now writing a historical novel, and all I had to do was represent as accurately as I could what it felt like living in 2010, as a time capsule.
4. What’s something about your writing habits that has changed over time?
My writing habits have not really changed. For the many years I worked on this book, I followed a set schedule that included meditation, reading a few poems, reading a few pages of prose I found inspiring, revising the previous day’s work, and then continuing on to the work for the day, for a set time. I value routines, and this routine allowed me to return to the book even during periods of doubt.
5. Radiant Fugitives is narrated by a distinctive third-person narrator, the unborn child of one of the main characters, who enjoys an omniscience to the novel’s events that another character likely wouldn’t have. What were the challenges of choosing a narrator that the other characters could not yet interact with directly? Were there earlier versions of the book where you approached narration and exposition differently?
The novel began with an opening line and a scene that I first developed into what I hoped would be a novella. It was told from the perspective of one of the characters. When I started developing it as a novel, I found I could not proceed—I wanted the novel to include the perspective of all three main characters, but how was the voice of the opening line to speak for all of them? I needed a form of omniscience, and at the same time, I was wary of a god-like omniscience that would judge my characters. The novel remained stuck for a year until I realized that the voice of the opening line belonged to the newborn baby, more accepting than judgmental.
But I didn’t want a passive narrator, a mere observer. I felt that I needed to give the narrator a quest, and so, I had him interact with the story itself, precisely because the other characters could barely interact with him. Through narrating the story, I wanted the baby to grow. It took me a few drafts to achieve this, figuring out how and when the various influences—John Keats, the Quran, President Obama—found their way into his voice.
“I think the power of words also comes from what we seek through them, how we make them ours, how we use them to represent something we otherwise cannot capture.”
6. One of your main characters, Tahera, has vivid childhood memories in which she’s transported by the poetry of Keats. These haunt her as she grows more devoutly religious in her adulthood, renouncing poetry and relegating her love of literature to her past. Despite this, she still continues to feel a wistful attraction toward poetry. Was there a moment in your own youth where you distinctly remember feeling the power of words for the first time?
In the novel, Tahera’s experience being transported by the poetry of Keats as a child is juxtaposed with her son Arshad’s experience listening to a recitation of the Quran. I think the power of words also comes from what we seek through them, how we make them ours, how we use them to represent something we otherwise cannot capture. When I was a child, a record—“Haunting Melodies of Lata Mangeshkar”—whose grooves I probably wore out listening, transported me that same way. These combinations of lyrics and melody and voice, these turns of phrases I could hang whole swathes of longing onto.
7. What is a moment of frustration that you’ve encountered in the writing process, and how did you overcome it?
I made many choices about the form of the novel quite intuitively while writing the first draft—the short sections; the inclusion of text from poems by Keats, Obama’s speeches, the Quran; the direct address to the narrator’s grandmother; monologues by various characters; etc. I didn’t question these choices in the first draft, simply following where my intuition led.
In the subsequent drafts, I had to wrestle with them, to tame the tangle I’d created. There were many moments when I wasn’t sure that I would ever manage to make a coherent whole of it all. But I persisted, treating the individual elements as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, shaving away an edge here, a protrusion there to make them fit. In the penultimate draft, with another restructuring of the novel, the book finally came together.
8. What’s a piece of art (literary or not) that moves you and mobilizes your work?
I see Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino as a kind of a lodestar. It defies any characterization, it’s a supreme feat of imagination, it’s a meditation that seems to encompass every human feature and failing. And what glorious sentences, what stunning descriptions, what playfulness, what subversion of what language can do, what reinvention of what a book can be! And all within 160 pages!
“Strangely, I’m more optimistic today about the possibility of change than I was when I began the novel, despite the even more precarious position the world seems to be in now. . . . Perhaps I’m heartened by all the voices that one can hear now, both voices of change and the opposition, for I can’t but believe that as long as all voices are heard and echoed strongly and publicly, there is hope. Or perhaps I have simply recognized the need for hope, and maybe that is all that writers can provide.”
9. Your novel very much delves into the converging of many inflection points—one of them is a turning point of sorts for the United States itself. In Radiant Fugitives, your characters are just a short time away from the beginning of the Trump administration and deepening political and social divisions in the country that are still at work today. With that in mind, what do you think is the role of a writer in an era of social unrest? Polarization? Democracy in decline?
When I began working on the novel after the 2008 United States elections, I was also reacting to the reported perception that with President Obama’s win the country was entering a post-racial era, that somehow it had managed to set itself on a path toward change. My first drafts were quite bleak, like the ending of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Perhaps I was being overly pessimistic then, or simply contrarian, but the evidence of the deepening divisions seemed too abundant to ignore. With President Trump’s victory, it felt like what I had feared for America had come true.
But strangely, I’m more optimistic today about the possibility of change than I was when I began the novel, despite the even more precarious position the world seems to be in now. Perhaps I’ve worked through some of my own issues by writing the book. Perhaps I’m heartened by all the voices that one can hear now, both voices of change and the opposition, for I can’t but believe that as long as all voices are heard and echoed strongly and publicly, there is hope. Or perhaps I have simply recognized the need for hope, and maybe that is all that writers can provide.
10. Before you were a writer, you were a computer scientist, researching search algorithms for Yahoo. What was it that encouraged you to pursue writing when you already had a career doing something else? Do you find unlikely intersections between your work in tech and your writing?
I’ve always wanted to write, but while working at Yahoo, I remained a dabbler, starting more pieces than I finished. Working on a search engine in production can be quite intense, especially as part of the small team at Yahoo—you were always worried that something in your code could bring the service down, and as I had written key parts of Yahoo’s search engine, I found the pressure draining. At the same time, I felt like the industry as a whole was narrowing its focus toward increased monetization, and that was disillusioning. I went part-time that year to see if I would really write if I had the time. The two stories I finished that year got me accepted at writing conferences like Bread Loaf and Tin House, and I took that as a sign to quit and get an MFA.
I have not sought any connections to my tech work while working on this novel. Recently, I’ve become intrigued by the astounding progress in automatic text generation that the latest AI systems like GPT-3 have achieved. I don’t know yet what the implications are, but it’s something I want to keep an eye on.
Nawaaz Ahmed was born in Tamil Nadu, India. Before turning to writing, he was a computer scientist, researching search algorithms for Yahoo. He holds an MFA from the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor and is the winner of several Hopwood Awards. He is the recipient of residencies at MacDowell, Yaddo, Djerassi, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He’s also a Kundiman and Lambda Literary Fellow. He currently lives in Brooklyn.