In his 2009 book Home Boy, HM Naqvi unravelled the way 9/11 changed the lives of three immigrant men from Pakistan. Based out of New York, the characters suddenly find themselves witnessing a changed America, one that they did not partake in creating but fell prey, nevertheless, owing to their identity. The book won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and earned rave reviews. He followed this with The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack (2019) detailing the life of a singular man.
Naqvi, a slam poet and writer based out of Karachi, is one of the speakers at the ongoing digital version of Jaipur Literature Festival. He spoke with indianexpress.com about his own negotiations, the role identity plays in his writing, and what he seeks to achieve through his work.
Your novel Home Boy chronicles the way the lives of three immigrant Pakistani men change post 9/11 in New York. A lot of time has passed since then. Given that you are based out of Karachi who frequents different parts of the world, how heightened is this sense of negotiation in the real world?
If I ever find myself in Papua New Guinea, Columbia, the Democratic Republic of Congo for extended periods, places I have yearned to visit for years, I imagine I would set a novel each in Port Moresby, Carthagena or Kisangan like Naipaul, perhaps, or Greene, Le Carré. Although it’s not likely – travelling requires funds and I’m usually running on empty – writing is the way I make sense of the world that I inhabit. There is no doubt that each place has its own particular, peculiar dynamics. But I like to think human concerns are universal. I like to think that fiction illuminates these concerns.
Although Home Boy won the DSC Prize, some reviews pointed out that the characters were designed with the intention of dismantling misconceptions about Pakistan and Islam. As a writer, are you constantly aware of your story being (mis)taken for a statement?
We are all configured differently: a literary critic, sociologist, high-school student, or GP probably employ a different lens than you or me. We all also grow, change, evolve so reading a text when you’re 16 then rereading it when you’re 60 is a different experience. Who am I to say how somebody reads my work?
In a piece on Lit Hub detailing your reading in Covid year, you concluded with a striking pair of lines: “Every time I have picked up something…I have been reminded how fiction, good fiction, transports you.” Being privy to the transportive quality of fiction, is this what you want to achieve through your works as well?
Fiction is uncanny, indeed singular: no other medium puts you in somebody else’s head. Watching a film or binging on TV is a fleeting experience. But you live with a book for days, weeks, sometimes for months. I hope to transport readers into the heads of my characters.
Do you think being based out of Pakistan and having the experience you have, has expanded your lens as a writer, given you more stories to tell? And, is it possible to write a piece of fiction divorced from your reality?
Sometimes, I suspect I lack imagination: I don’t think I can write fantasy or horror or sci-fi. I live to write and write what I live in some way or the other. The rest I research and research diligently. A good amount of research went into reifying Home Boy – I only spent a couple of years in New York – and a good amount also went into The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack even though Karachi is my hometown. I could conceivably gather all the research that never made it into The Selected Works into another volume but life’s short – I need to work on my next project.
Is asserting your identity or the people you are writing about ever an active intention in your work?
I am a human, a man, a son. I am a Pakistani, a reader (and, of course, a writer). It so happens so are my characters. Of course, Old Abdullah the Cossack fancies himself a chef and phenomenologist to boot. But though he’s over seventy, over 300 pounds, I don’t think he is any different from anybody else – he yearns for meaning, yearns for some love.
What are you working on now?
I cannot, for legal reasons, disclose my next project at this juncture. I have, however, been working on it diligently through the Covid era – I have a couple of decades of experience with self-isolation. I like to think it’s rollicking. But then I would be partial to it.