March Issue 2010
Interview: H.M. Naqvi
“If you write a good story, your audience is anybody who likes a good story”
– H.M. Naqvi
H.M. Naqvi’s debut novel, Home Boy, was published to critical acclaim and an extensive book tour of the East Coast of the United States last fall. Naqvi earned a double major in literature and economics at Georgetown University and worked in finance before enrolling in the creative writing programme at Boston University. He has since taught creative writing at the university. Naqvi says he’s been writing since the age of six and has shared his short stories with friends, but this is the first time he’s shared the writing with a wider audience.
Q: Your publishers arranged extensive launch events in the US. What kind of audience did you have?
A: Book tours are now a kind of vestige of a different time, so it was unusual that we were able to have such an elaborate one. Certain events were populated exclusively with Pakistanis and Indians and some events with Caucasians. It depended on the venue.
Q: Was it difficult to sign on with a publisher?
A: I had written half a novel by 2007 and was sort of destitute and so we decided to return to Karachi. And the day we were moving out of our apartment, I called up my agent and said I need you to sell this book, and he said, ‘You know, I’ve got manuscripts that have been lying here for nine months, for a year, and I’ve got manuscripts that I’ve not been able to sell.’ I’d been working on this book since 2003. It had already been a long haul and I was prepared for more.
But he sent it out on a Friday in November and we got our first call on the following Tuesday. And for the next two weeks we got calls almost every other day. So there were several publishers interested in just half the novel; it was, you know, fortuitous.
Q: Just the fact that the agent had access to publishers, obviously he saw something in your work.
A: I didn’t get the agent through some formal process. I went drinking one night in Washington DC, and happened to become friendly with an old, dapper fellow sitting at the bar, and we sort of chatted about literature all night. I found out he was a writer and after four, five drinks he said, ‘You know, listen, if you ever write something, send it my way.’
So I was very excited that a published writer would take a look at anything I wrote. I wrote 20 pages of the beginning of Home Boy and sent it to him, so that I could ascertain what he thought about it, and he said, ‘I want to show this to my agent.’ I didn’t even ask.
Q: Had you already published short stories?
A: Never. But I’ve been writing since I was six. I’ve written many, many short stories over the years that I would sometimes distribute among my friends, sometimes wouldn’t. I never really thought that I would be able to put together an anthology, forget a novel. Yeh novel aisay hee, ghaltee say ho gaya.
Q: You studied literature or finance?
A: At Georgetown, I was a literature major and then had to concede to my parents’ aspirations for me to do something thos (substantial), so I had a double major in economics.
Q: How many years did you work in finance?
A: Eight, or nine maybe.
Q: Your banking career was in Pakistan?
A: I worked at the World Bank, on Wall Street, then after my marriage I moved to Karachi to work at Citibank. When Aliya, my wife, left to pursue her PhD, I followed, but I was on a dependent visa so I couldn’t work. I was there and I had nothing to do, the market was bad and so I was encouraged to attend English classes at Aliya’s college. I would sit in the back of the class, pretend to be a student and it got me reading again and thinking again and writing again. So, that was a wonderful year. What I worked on that year I sent out to creative writing programmes and I got in at Boston University. It’s a very well recognised programme and they footed the bill. I was there from 2004 to 2006 and then they asked me to teach afterwards.
Q: Did you grow up here, in Pakistan?
A: I grew up in Islamabad. I did my elementary school in Islamabad and in New York and then high school between Islamabad and Washington DC.
Q: Was your father a diplomat?
Q: Moving around gives you a different kind of exposure, but the sense of security gets a bit shaken up.
A: And you leave a comfortable milieu every three years, it can be very disorienting.
Q: So then you always liked to read.
Q: You made a statement about the book, that it is a comedy. Now it’s equally a tragedy, I should think.
A: Yeah, it’s a tragic comedy
Q: But were you there when 9/11 happened?
A: I … have been … wary of committing to where I was on the day …
Q: That’s fine.
A: Because it complicates the reader’s perception of the protagonist’s experience in the book.
Q: But some of what happens, is that based on real life stories?
A: Yeah, it draws on my experiences, but it’s not a memoir. There are similarities between me and Chuck, the protagonist … but it’s, you know, it’s imagined … it’s created. And what is not imagined, is not created, is a function of research. For instance, the hero starts driving a cab and for that, I spent a lot of time with cab drivers in New York, so I ate where they ate, slept where they slept, did shifts with them … so I could absorb their lives.
Q: Who would you say … influence is a very direct sort of word … but who were your favourite authors?
A: They keep changing. When I was a teenager I enjoyed Nabokov a lot. I subsequently read the Russians and afterwards, postcolonial literature; Coetzee and Naipaul and Conrad. After that I read a lot of contemporary American literature so I really liked Delillo’s Underworld, Updike, some of Philip Roth.
This novel is grounded in the tradition of very contemporary American fiction, Chabon and Eggers and Wallace and Moody … so my interests have changed and will continue to change.
Q: Among South Asian authors, specially the contemporary ones, who do you enjoy reading?
A: I think one of the best writers of our generation is an unknown Indian writer living in America named Akhil Sharma, who wrote a book called An Obedient Father six or seven years ago. I haven’t read much very contemporary South Asian fiction. I think Sara Suleri is peerless. She is one of the most serious writers we’ve produced and one of the master stylists of our age.
I also enjoyed Abdullah Husain’s first novel in English. It was published in 2004, but he’s not contemporary in that sense. Just like any other body of fiction, contemporary American fiction, or post-World War II British fiction, South Asian fiction can be uneven. There are novels that I think are horrible and some that I think are wonderful, but it’s uneven like any other body of work.
Q: Do you write poetry?
A: I haven’t written poetry in 15 years.
Q: Really? But before that …
A: Since age 20 I don’t think I’ve written.
Q: The book cover says something about your being a slam poet.
A: I mean there was a time in the States where I was involved in this phenomenon known as poetry slams.
Q: I was wondering what those were.
A: Poetry slams are a kind of postmodern mushaira. You’ve got poets reading in public … they’re pitted against each other in a competition and the audience decides which poet proceeds to the next round. So it’s a peculiar exercise in many ways.
Q: My own feeling is that you treat language like a poet.
A: Right, right … Uss may woh hai.
Q: You’re using the ear a lot of the time.
A: Yes, yes. Some of the cadences of Home Boy are informed by the poetry slam milieu, but going back, as a child, growing up in a literary family, one has been weaned on Ghalib and Faiz, Mir and Iqbal so that milieu also informs the way I write. Two different, dramatically different, poetic traditions do inform my prose.
Q: You refer to various traditions but you have also said that you wanted to create a new tradition.
A: A new tradition in that South Asian literature has relied on certain conceits, tropes, narratives that are very familiar to us. Just like Chekhov who wrote in turn-of the-century Russia, we should be able to create narratives that have universal resonance. I find there are certain South Asian writers who have not transcended their immediate milieu. What I mean by when I say try to create a new tradition, is that try to write in a way that has a sort of human resonance.
Q: The other thing I find different is that you’re not afraid to use the words that you know. Because people these days tend to sort of simplify.
A: Maybe it’s a function of popular culture that we try to adhere to a common denominator. I think that a piece of serious literary fiction should aspire to seriousness and at the same time have resonance for most people. Shakespeare was performed for the rabble in Shakespearean and Elizabethan England. And yet it continues to hold sway in academia and so that sort of breadth is something that one should aspire to.
Q: Somebody asked what audience are you writing for, but I don’t think you’re writing for any particular audience in terms of East or West …
A: I began this story like I begin each story because I’ve got an itch, and I’ve been born with an itch so when I think about things and I think about a song or a conversation or a human interaction I tend to think of it in some sort of narrative form. Also I write to allay my anxieties. When I start something I’m writing exclusively for myself and you can do that, I think, more with a short story.
With a novel, somewhere down the line I became conscious of the fact that I’d written 70, 80, a hundred pages and … I then had to think about the possible public dimension of this work. Having said that, I think that if you write a good story, your audience is everybody, anybody who likes a good story. This is a sort of a footnote in the process for me. I think most authors also like to say this, that we don’t think about an audience, and so it’s also a pose that authors strike. I don’t know how much truth there is in it.
Q: You like living here? Or are you looking to go back to the West?
A: I think I’ll spend the remainder of my life between here and there. If I want to continue to teach creative writing — which I was doing at Boston University — in a meaningful way, I’ll probably have to return. I would like to spend six months there, because I much rather prefer to live in Karachi.
I love Karachi. I’m writing about it and this is the source of my inspiration. Being home for me means eating what I like to eat and participating in my family.
Life in the States is very lonely, in many ways. You are completely on your own. If you’re your sick, for instance, you’re lucky if someone will bring you a bowl of soup. The States has many freedoms but with those freedoms comes a sort of a darker dimension to life abroad, to the immigrant life that people gloss over.
Q: People also create a sort of community within a community there …
A: But you have to forge those communities.
Q: You have to forge them and you have to live by their rules.
A: When you arrive in the States, you start from scratch, aap kisi say dosti karain, dosti na ho, kisi aur say dosti karain and you kind of string together this community around you. If that works it’s great but these human relationships are very malleable, you don’t know if these communities that you create so meticulously, with so much effort, if they will survive, or endure.
Here you’ve got a place and you’re known for what you do, you have a history, and even if you don’t have a large family you’ve got people who will somehow or the other come to your help if need be. There you rely on the state and on institutions and there’s a comfort and security in that but relying on the state is very different from relying on your family.
Q: I guess intellectually there are certain opportunities.
A: Yes, yes.
Q: Money, of course.
A: Mostly economic refugees, yeah. Also, there’s a wonderful freedom so … you dress how you like. If you’re a woman, you’re not answerable in ways that you are here to the dictates of society. If you’re a man, you’ve got the freedom to follow your heart in many ways. So there are many freedoms that the West offers but with that they’re scuttled with a kind of loneliness, a kind of solitude.
Q: There’s an alienation.
Q: People of your generation can be equally comfortable here or there.
A: Not just my generation. My grandfather just up and left the place where he grew up and he was familiar. He lived in the village of Khujwa in Bihar. And so for him to up and leave this milieu and come to Karachi … we know the States so we can talk intelligently about it, he didn’t know anything about Karachi. Aur aap kay paas aik dhela nahi tha …
Q: Your working on the next project?
A: I started working on my next project last fall and I’m not sure what it will evolve into, whether it’ll be a collection of short stories or a novel, but it will be dramatically different from Home Boy and it will be set here. There are so many stories that this city offers and contemporary Pakistan offers that it’s very exciting to work on them.
I am very lazy about all of this … this entire industry and apparatus I’m very, sort of, ambivalent about. But I will now make an effort to have some stories published. I’ve been writing since I was about six and writing seriously, you know, in my late teenage, my 20s — and so, stories of that time I need to polish and redo.
Q: On another note, what’s your feeling about creative writing programmes? You were already a writer when you went for the programme.
A: Philosophically I too contend with teaching creative writing, something I don’t think can be taught. So I had to figure out what my role was as a teacher, and I think I could teach several things. I could teach students the discipline to write, I could teach them how to edit, how to think critically about a story. So when I taught them Chekhov’s Valadia, it’s about a young man who develops affections for an older lady. And the older lady doesn’t reciprocate. That’s a sort of cursory synopsis of the story but to make my students read the story, to understand where and how the story begins, what the movement is, when there’s a complication and how this complication is resolved, so to read in a very different way. But, not necessarily teach them how to write that, but how to read that, so they absorb the methodology. And, you know, methodology perhaps isn’t the right word because it sounds very scientific, literature is …
Q: Technique …
A: Yes. But this is the way Chekhov does it, this is the way Capote does it, this is the way Narayan does it, and that is how you get a sense of how things are constructed, how stories are constructed.
Read Tehmina Ahmed’s review of Home Boy.