Family, culture, politics and heartbreak in the modern West

Nawaaz Ahmed’s debut novel ponders endings from beginnings.

 

In Radiant Fugitives, his richly textured debut novel, Nawaaz Ahmed chronicles the complications of family relationships, revealing how the impacts of culture and politics ripple through time and across the generations.

The story unfolds in San Francisco during the George W. Bush era, when the administration’s policies brought tensions between Iraq and the U.S. to the breaking point. On the domestic front, racism and anti-LGBTQ sentiment are running high throughout the American West. In Laramie, Wyoming, a hate crime brutally ended the life of Matthew Shepard in 1998, while in California, in 2008, the state flip-flopped on Proposition 8 — the notorious “freedom to marry” bill — which halted new same-sex marriages in the state and set a national precedent. Seema, an immigrant woman of East Indian descent, finds her place among lesbian activists, even as her sexual identity, race and culture put her directly at odds with the status quo.

We witness what follows primarily through the omniscient eyes of Ishraaq, Seema’s unborn child. Born in India but exiled to California after coming out as a lesbian, Seema finds a new life in San Francisco, working on Kamala Harris’ campaign for California attorney general in the tumultuous days at the start of Obama’s presidency. Ahmed’s commitment to his reality-based world initially distracts the reader from getting to know the characters, but that slightly disconnected feeling is resolved as the story unfolds.

Fugitives traces Seema’s final days — foreshadowed by her unborn son but as yet unknown to Seema and her family, who are dealing with their own accumulated struggles. The narrative travels back and forth across time and presents multiple points of view, including those of both Seema and Bill, Ishraaq’s father. The perspectives of the other characters — Seema’s sister, mother and estranged father — converge as they strive to support Seema during her unexpected pregnancy.

The ground Ahmed covers is complex, both politically and in the backstories of the myriad characters. The narrative isn’t hard to follow, but it’s easy to get bogged down in the details — lost in the history of Seema and her ex-husband, Bill, for example, when a tighter focus would have told us more about the couple’s relationship. Do we need to know everything about every character? Still, Ahmed pays meticulous attention to the politics of the era, providing an unflinching reminder of how far we have yet to go culturally.

The ground Ahmed covers is complex, both politically and in the backstories of the myriad characters. 

Photo courtesy of Nawaaz Ahmed

It’s easy to find echoes of Ahmed’s novel in our post-Trump world and its massive cultural upheavals. Consider immigration, beginning with the former president’s “Muslim ban.” Western readers will find relevance in the continuing turmoil along the U.S.-Mexico border, with its wall and detention centers and children separated from their families. Finally, there is the federal government’s ongoing failure to respond to the needs of rural, low-income, and Black and Brown communities — especially Indigenous people. All are painful reminders of the political challenges evoked in Radiant Fugitives.

Ahmed, who was born in Tamil Nadu, India, and holds an MFA from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, seamlessly navigates the multiple perspectives as the novel moves toward a final resolution. All the relationships, including the characters’ interactions with the world they live in, are complex, and Ishraaq’s in utero observations are startlingly keen. Will these conflicts ever be resolved? Ishraaq wonders: “Are our endings foretold in our beginnings?” Ahmed’s choice to lean on the neutral voice of Ishraaq, using that immature voice of reason to examine a family conflict that spans generations, is smart. The author helps us understand the complexity of cultural relationships in a way we can all relate to, no matter what kind of family we come from.

Ultimately, Fugitives is a family story, but it’s not just one family’s story. It is the story of the human family and how our roots are shaped by the complications of our world. Ahmed shows that, despite our surface differences, there are more similarities connecting us than we realize. Through the author’s deft touch, readers will realize just how important family members, even those yet unborn, are to maintaining a culture’s rich history. Ahmed draws this conclusion gently, without judgment, and with an ease that bears witness to how beautiful complex storytelling can be. The climax is an emotional roller-coaster, a dizzying reminder that we should all take note of the people important to us and resolve petty issues before they fester — before we run out of time.   

Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices 2019). Her second book, Aura, is a hybrid memoir forthcoming from Future Tense Books in spring of 2022. She is the founder and owner of Alchemy Author Services & Writing Workshop and teaches writing at Lighthouse Writers

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