The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 09-JAN 10

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DEC 09-JAN 10 Issue

In Conversation with H. M. Naqvi

H.M. Naqvi, Home Boy (Shaye Areheart Books, 2009)

“We’d become Japs, Jews, Niggers.  We weren’t before.  We fancied ourselves boulevardiers, raconteurs, renaissance men, AC, Jimbo, and me.  We were mostly self-invented and self-made and certain we had our fingers on the pulse of the great global dialectic.”  So begins H. M. Naqvi’s novel Home Boy (Shaye Areheart, 2009), which, along with Torsten Krol’s Callisto (Harper), another insider-outsider’s look at post-9/11 America, is one of the funniest books of the year.  Chuck (Shehzad) is a recent immigrant from Pakistan, while AC and Jimbo are longer settled.  Immersed in the New York social scene (“I was already part of the inner life of the city.  That’s how things happened here.  You had epiphanies and that led to other epiphanies”), Chuck and his friends get caught up in the indiscriminate post-9/11 dragnet, which led many innocents straight to Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center.  Vanished in a blink is Chuck’s Wall Street career (“Back then, bad things happened on good days”).  The awakening is harsh:  “I understood that just like three black men were gangbangers, and three Jews a conspiracy, three Muslims had become a sleeper cell.  And later, much later, the pendulum would swing back, and everybody would celebrate progress, the storied tradition of accommodation, on TV talk shows and posters in middle schools.  There would be ceremonies, public apologies, cardboard displays.”  Home Boy uniquely captures the long interim, before the recognition.  Naqvi, a graduate of the writing program at Boston University, currently divides his time between New York and Karachi.  I recently spoke with him about the genesis and style of Home Boy, and how it fits into the evolving 9/11 novel.

Anis Shivani (Rail):  The voice in the novel is exceptionally energetic, recalling Nabokov.  Was this strong voice always with you?  Does it compensate for the loss of American freedom since 9/11?

H. M. Naqvi:  Since the novel was born at a slam venue as slam poetry, Home Boy is suffused with the vim and cadence of the spoken word.  There is also a conscious attempt to fuse lowbrow and highbrow discourse, employ text and lyric, and summon hip hop and Yiddish, Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi, to create a voice that feels native to New York City. Home Boy can be thought of as dark comedy, comedy set in the shadow of a tragedy.  And comedy has unique resonance; it’s powerful stuff. 

Rail:  Your novel creates certain archetypes of Pakistanis.  Khan Sahib (Jimbo’s father), the three main protagonists—Shehzad (Chuck), Jamshed Khan (Jimbo), and Ali Chaudhry (AC)—Mini Auntie, and to a lesser extent Amo (Jimbo’s sister), appear with unprecedented clarity.  There is also the archetype of the Pakistani mother—Shehzad’s mother—done better than I’ve seen before.  How did you sharpen these characters?

Naqvi:  That’s very nice to hear.  One of the ambitions of Home Boy is to depict the Pakistani diaspora, from foreman to pediatrician, banker to cabbie, especially because immigrant fiction, recent immigrant fiction in particular, seems sequestered to a certain class, a certain variety of character and experience.  Moreover, I wanted to feature other sociocultural experiences within the American purview—the upper-middle-class African-American, the secular Jew, the working-class Arab, the Jersey City Pathan, as well as constituents of East Coast aristocracy—because without them, the attempt to locate the novel in the tradition of immigrant fiction—a tradition that stretches back more than a century to the likes of Henry Roth, and in some ways, Willa Cather—is incomplete, if not entirely false.

You have asked me to explain the genesis of said characters, but when I write, I never know what’s going to happen.  I have no plan, no outline.  Consequently, the characters simply evolved—from caricatures to multidimensional personae—as I wrote.  At some juncture, I found that the characters needed to complement each other.  So the three young men featured in Home Boy are not only varied temperamentally—not unlike the Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow—but legally and ethnically as well.

Rail:  Home Boy presents an extraordinary picture of male bonding in the postmodern West.  Was this difficult to do in the past because the literary models of immigrant characters interfered with a fresh conception? 

Naqvi:  When I have been asked by the curious—"What’s the book about?"—I have sometimes averred that Home Boy can be thought of as a meditation on male relationships.  Not many writers seem interested in male relationships, platonic male relationships—Eggers and Chabon being exceptions.  I am interested in how men—friends, brothers, brothers-in-law—behave with each other, relationships defined by testosterone as well as tenderness.

I must hasten to add that although Home Boy is populated by a number of men, the female characters—Ma, Mini Auntie, Amo, The Duck—are integral to the structure of the novel.  In fact, the novel hinges thematically on the protagonists’ relationships with these four women. I am not so sure about your suggestion about the limitations of the genre.  Literary models are antecedents.  They are changeable.  You start with something; you end up with something else. 

Rail:  The Pakistani immigrant stands out.  Where does the enormous energy come from?

Naqvi:  Although I am no sociologist, anthropologist, historian, I think that Pakistanis are rugged individualists.  That may explain our proclivity for driving cabs, versus, say, laundering clothes or working bodegas.

Rail:  Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist was already out when you were writing the book in the summer of 2007.  Hamid’s book is a prelude, though, to the job you have gone on to finish…

Naqvi:  In the four years I worked on the novel, I read little because it usually interfered with my work.  I should also mention that when I started Home Boy, there wasn’t a body of 9/11 literary fiction.  Foer and McEwan had not published their respective responses, Kalfus had not put out the excellent Disorder Peculiar to the Country, and O’Neill’s impressive Netherland was, at that juncture, probably inchoate.

I must add that I believe great tragedies—whether the American Civil War or the French Revolution, WWI, WWII, Hiroshima, Nagasaki—stir responses in us and these responses contribute to discourse.  9/11 will continue to generate fiction just as WWII does and Home Boy will contribute to this collective endeavor.

Rail:  One kind of post-9/11 novel, dominant before The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Netherland, absorbed the national narrative into the preexistent family drama common to the American novel.  9/11 became yet another plot device for a family to be disrupted before regaining equilibrium.  Must one be an outsider to understand the transformation America is going through?

Naqvi:  Although that is a very interesting, very thoughtful observation, I don’t necessarily agree that one has to be an outsider to appreciate transformations.  Some literal and figurative distance can help, but O’Neill and Kalfus are quite successful in employing family malaise as a metaphor for the tragedy.  I, in contrast, employ the bildungsroman.

Rail:  The most important book early in the decade, arguably, was Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.  That was one vision for the future, which never came about due to the sharp turn in events.  Your novel seems to pick up from it, yet seems to be saying that it is a dream lost forever.

Naqvi:  Home Boy is not a treatise.  It’s a meditation; it presents certain possibilities. Consequently, I am uneasy with characterizing the thematic trajectory of Home Boy as a “vision of the future.”  You can, however, make a case for more socially engaged fiction—I think AC, one of the protagonists of Home Boy, does—but there are many novelists, fine novelists, Nabokov included, who have been supremely unconcerned about such projects.  Different novelists have different ambition, different visions.  A good, simple story can be more powerful than a story meant to be powerful.  Novels that have appealed to me most have struck a balance between the two often competing dynamics in fiction.

Rail:  The immigrant’s sense of ownership of New York is gone.  Many have physically left.  For those who remain, life is perpetually insecure.

Naqvi:  A sense of insecurity does pervade immigrant life in recent years in a way it didn’t before.  Certain myths have been forced against certain realities.  But myths are myths, and the myths associated with immigrant narratives need to be reexamined.

Even in the darkest days of recent history, I believed the pendulum would swing back at some juncture.  I still have faith, faith in human nature.  It is, perhaps, a doctrine of necessity.  I also believe that the anxieties stirred by 9/11 are human.

Rail:  What is life like for you in Karachi?  Do you write better there or here?  You represent a generation that is at ease living and creating in both places.  It used to be rare twenty years ago. 

Naqvi:  I love Karachi and love New York City and find both cities similar.  You can get a beer at one in the morning, something to eat at two.  You have to negotiate thick traffic, manifold commitments.  Life is fast, life is hectic.

I don’t write particularly well in hectic environments.  While I worked on Home Boy I was ensconced in Cambridge, MA.  (Once in a while I would take the ten-dollar Fung Wah bus down to Canal Street to conduct research.)   I need to inhabit my novel, my world for the duration of the thing.  I can’t get stuck in traffic.  I have to sit, smoke, pace, sit again, write.

And although straddling cities, continents, can seem somewhat uncommon until recent times, our predecessors—whether Mulk Raj Anand and Tagore or Nehru and Jinnah—were also at ease in different milieus and contexts.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 09-JAN 10

All Issues