The definition of fugitive is twofold: As a noun it means one who is fleeing, and as an adjective, something fleeting. This duality is at the core of “Radiant Fugitives,” the debut novel of Nawaaz Ahmed — a computer scientist-turned-Lambda Literary Fellow (among many other accolades) — to be released Aug. 3 by Counterpoint Press.
Spanning decades, but grounded within the frame of a single week in Obama-era San Francisco, three women in a Muslim Indian family reunite, possibly for the last time, under a specter of life and death: The mother, Nafeesa Hussein, is dying, and has not seen either of her estranged daughters, Seema and Tahera, in years. Their disparate lives and time apart have grated on their family ties, but the impending birth of Seema’s baby coupled with tragedy, both foretold and unexpected, could be what brings them together again.
Ahmed wrote the book over 10 years, catalyzed by a dream of three women grasping at reconciliation during a political era of “Hope” slogans that weren’t able to deliver all their promises. The story, told in three parts with a prelude and a coda, is staggered into narrative vignettes that are not quite chapters and narrated by Ishraaq, Seema’s yet-unborn son. He is both new to the world and privy to it, as he pieces together how this family fell apart, but with no clear solution as to how they can reunite.
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As fog swirls around them, these women, and the relationships to others they have forged for themselves, ricochet against the larger social and political systems at play in a city that often refuses to acknowledge its failures. In other words, the story couldn’t have been set anywhere else.
“I had been thinking of other places, but I felt like this one just leaped out of all the other options,” says Ahmed, who lived in San Francisco for nearly a decade. “It’s actually the longest I’ve lived in any city, from my childhood with me moving to various places for my schooling. And so San Francisco was the place that called home.”
The bulk of the book takes readers across the Bay Area against backdrops of the elections of Barack Obama as U.S. president and Kamala Harris as the city’s district attorney, yet sullied by the passing of California’s Prop. 8, which banned same-sex marriage, and the continuation of the U.S.’s War on Terror. Seema, the novel’s protagonist, was the “prodigal daughter” of her upper middle-class Muslim Indian family in Chennai, India, a gifted orator and performer who realizes as a teenager that she is gay.
Revealing this to her father leads to her immediate excommunication from the family, beginning the family’s shift to the United States, as years later, younger sister Tahera will migrate to establish her career and family in Texas, though for vastly different reasons.
Seema’s pregnancy is the result of a parting encounter with her ex-husband Bill, an Oakland native and son of a Black Panther, who never knew his father. Politics and campaigns are what bring them together, but as this past year and this past presidency has shown, they can tear people apart swiftly, irreversibly. Like with Seema, Obama’s hesitancy on Prop. 8 and protecting LGBTQIA+ rights weighed heavily on Ahmed. The decade-plus of progress since then cannot be forgotten, especially after a year where so many were left behind.
“I was trying to think of the novel as something bigger than our story about Obama’s election,” he says. “The summer of 2008, we had this huge, momentous change that was promised. And we all got caught up in it. At the same time, I couldn’t vote; I was not a citizen. And I remember wanting for Obama, but I also wanted to know [about] one of the campaigns that was going on at the same time, [‘No on Prop 8’]. That particular night Obama wins, ‘No on Prop. 8’ actually fails. This story of these two sisters is the story of this country as well. How do we learn to live with these divisions?”
On the cusp of existence, Ishraaq’s grasp of the world is informed by the philosophies of two schools of thought, the Quran and the poetry of John Keats, both embodied by his aunt, Tahera. As her perspective of events unfolds, her love of both Romantic poetry and her faith are coping mechanisms for the inadequacies she feels within her family, even in Seema’s absence, and both help her build an identity independent of them. And without knowing it, she lends these philosophies to her nephew.
“Here are these forces that tried to impose their will on us, and here’s what we use in order to try to make sense of them,” Ahmed says. “I was very interested in these various texts that we draw from, whether they’re speeches or poetry or parts of the Quran, even songs, or small phrases that suddenly seem to make sense to us in the fabric of our lives. And those are what I felt we use in order to counter these other forces. And it was necessary for me to try to leave both of them together.”
Despite revealing Seema’s fate at the novel’s opening, more than 360 pages can’t prepare the reader for a complicated ending, in which no one emerges as fully culpable or wholly innocent. While the week of Ishraaq’s birth is barbed with miscommunications, resentment and emotional wounds reopened between mother, daughters and sisters, love is palpable throughout. There are no forces of evil to reveal and blame, no tidy condemnation of any one character’s actions. There are simply the circumstances we must confront, withstand, live through until it’s our time, and those we choose to do it with.
“I do have that scene a little bit in the future where Ishraaq thinks of his cousins, where they create this rainbow out of a hose,” Ahmed says. “And I want to leave the readers with that, that there is this beautiful thing that the next generation can create. And whether we get to do it or not, maybe depends a lot on what the current generation does. How do we allow them to be their best selves?”