“All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time,” Barack Obama said in Cairo in 2009. “The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort … to find common ground.” Just pages before the end of his debut novel, Radiant Fugitives, Nawaaz Ahmed turns to this quote, crystallizing what has become, by that point, one of the book’s major themes: the struggle to forge a path through estrangement and open oneself to potential togetherness. (Far from feeling redundant, Obama’s words poignantly steer the novel’s ascent to its blazing and devastating coda.) Set against the backdrop of an America in socio-political unrest, where personal dramas and political ones play out both independently and cheek by jowl, Radiant Fugitives is an expansive family saga enriched by brilliantly wrought characters and a dazzling lyricism.
Seema, estranged from her husband Bill, has decided to raise her unborn son on her own, and to prepare for the child’s arrival, her sister and mother have come to San Francisco. It’s the first time the three have gathered in fifteen years: Seema, once the family’s beloved daughter, was cast out by her father when she came out as lesbian. Now, with the door closed on her radical queer activist past, she has turned her focus to more mainstream political organizing, working for the campaigns of Howard Dean, Obama, and Kamala Harris. She sees her strength in her “ability to raise anchor and sail away, and reestablish herself elsewhere, in more favorable waters” when faced with change.
Her sister Tahera, an OB-GYN living in Texas with her husband and children, is devoutly Muslim—”anchored” by her devotion—and, like their father, she has turned her back on Seema in the years since her coming out. She has made it clear that she is not visiting San Francisco to see Seema, but rather to see their mother, Nafeesa. Aging and ill, Nafeesa is visiting from India, and it’s unspoken but understood that this will be the last time she and her daughters will be together. She is driven by a feeling of responsibility to repair the rift between her daughters and is eager to make amends, but she’s also burdened by her own guilt for not attempting to more deeply understand her daughters sooner. Together again, Seema and Tahera struggle to redefine their relationship. At first, Tahera fights against Seema’s invocations of “their shared history after renouncing all rights to it,” but it is through the poems of Keats—poems they studied and recited as children under their father’s tutelage—that Seema begins to get through to her. Tahera is swept back into the world of the poetry, finding in it windows that crack open to give her an understanding, however small, of her sister’s life.
Ahmed threads in questions of second chances, the ways in which we express love and loyalty, and the elements—memory, family, hope, hurt—that shape each person’s vision of the world.
Meanwhile, in Texas, Tahera’s husband and children experience the fallout from a series of escalating anti-Muslim hate crimes at the local mosque. Tahera struggles to remain protective of her faith in a country that demonstrates more animosity towards it every day. Her eleven-year-old son, Arshad, is already aware that he is coming of age in a hostile, intolerant nation eager to perceive him as a threat. The novel’s middle section—which takes place earlier, spanning the period between the start of the Iraq War and Obama’s election—develops Seema and Bill’s relationship, first as friends who meet at a demonstration, then as lovers who eventually marry. Here, Ahmed further examines the different ways in which the political is entangled with the personal. Bill is startled by Seema’s anger over the Iraq War, while Seema never completely understands Bill’s deep reverence and admiration for Obama, instead hung up on the president-elect’s unwillingness to come out in full support of marriage equality.
Seema’s pregnancy—and her acute knowledge of the world into which she will bring a child—hovers over the narrative like a specter. Ahmed has made the bold and unique decision to frame the novel with Ishraaq, Seema’s unborn son, as its narrator, and the result yields a voice unlike almost any other narrator I’ve encountered. The choice allows Ahmed great flexibility with point of view. Often, unborn Ishraaq acts as a standard third-person narrator, but he also moves occasionally into first person and, when addressing his grandmother, a reverential second person. As a result, the narrative texture moves fluidly between intimacy and distance, external observation and direct address: Ishraaq’s quest to understand the circumstances that have led to his conception and eventual existence adds a spellbinding dimensionality to the narrative.
Throughout the novel, Ahmed digs deep into his characters’ memories to enchantingly blend the past and present, while modulating the intricacies of their relationships with care and mastery. Scenes from Seema and Tahera’s youth in Chennai return, rich with the colors and smells of their early sisterhood. At a local bookstore, the sisters find volumes from a series they eagerly devoured as children and find themselves pulled into the comfort of their shared past: “Soon both daughters are … reading snippets to each other, recalling other favorite passages that they must read immediately, and even—here Nafeesa chokes up, for it has been years since she’s witnessed anything like this—even peeking over each other’s shoulders to read a page. How often she saw her daughters reading this way as children.”
Ahmed writes equally potently of estrangement: Seema’s from her family, Tahera’s caused by being Muslim in an intolerant America, and Nafeesa’s because of her guilt at not being able to bring her daughters together for so many years. As the narrative intercuts between scenes and points of view, Ahmed threads in questions of second chances, the ways in which we express love and loyalty, and the elements—memory, family, hope, hurt—that shape each person’s vision of the world. Ultimately, Radiant Fugitives paints a broad portrait, at turns hopeful and despairing, of a family—and a country—testing its capacity for change.
Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed Counterpoint Press Hardcover, 978-1640094048, 384 pp. August 2021