In literary fiction, is the politics of P-capital always in play?
By Nawaaz Ahmed
Anyone attempting to understand 21st century America through their literary fiction might believe that neither religion nor politics play a significant role in shaping the lives of its people. Politics with a lowercase p is often at work, but with a capital P almost never; and religion, one might say, is largely the prerogative of Marilynne Robinson. It was clear that the Trump years would place a new set of demands on the novel, although readers won’t immediately recognize Nawaaz Ahmed’s debut, “Radiant Fugitives” – about an American Indian who volunteered to Kamala Harris Attorney General’s 2010 campaign – as responding to those demands.
The story begins in a hospital room in San Francisco, where a newborn baby, Ishraaq, recounts the death of his mother, Seema, in childbirth. Seema’s ex-husband, Bill, paces outside with his mother, Nafeesa; while his sister, Tahera, runs towards them in the corridors of the hospital. From there, the novel reverts to Ishraaq’s conception and explains the arrival of Nafeesa and Tahera in California a few days before the birth. We learn that Seema has been estranged from her Indian family for years, since she turned out to be a lesbian in Chennai. Knowing that neither Bill nor her new lover Leigh can be the support she needs with a baby, a pregnant Seema turns to Nafeesa, who has little time to live and above all wants to make things right between her two daughters. . The differences between the sisters have only grown since Tahera, who now lives in Texas, sought refuge in an austere form of Islam.
Ishraaq’s narration, sometimes addressed to Nafeesa, is mostly a distraction. There are few things that set his voice apart from any omniscient third-person narrative, and you quickly learn not to pay much attention, for example, as he primarily refers to Seema by name and sometimes as “ma mother”. For a while, this seems like a fairly conventional story of a family facing old divisions and even older loves, its most daring act in making us deeply religious Muslim character.
That is, until the novel goes even further back, in 2003, when Seema meets Bill during a protest against the war in Iraq. Ishraaq’s tone grows more forceful, but his intimacy wears off as he follows Seema through a series of political campaigns that culminate in his disillusionment with Obama. Ahmed can’t quite relate this disillusion to his father’s abandonment of Seema, and it’s a relief when the novel comes down to the only trio of women.