By Siddhi Jain
New Delhi, Oct 29 (IANSlife) Nemat Sadat, US-based Afghan-American activist and journalist, whose well-received debut novel ‘The Carpet Weaver’ explores homosexual love in the war-torn Afghanistan of 1970s, says his literary muse was his own rejection at the hand of most friends and family after coming out of the closet.
In a chat with IANSlife, Sadat dives deep into the socio-political climate of his book’s setting, the beginnings of his book, and his literary plans.
‘The Carpet Weaver’ is your debut novel, it took almost a decade to come out in flesh after you conceptualised it. How and why did you decide to go ahead with it?
Sadat: Barack Hussein Obama was the trigger for me to start the book. It was June 3, 2008. I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts degree in Journalism at Harvard University Extension School. News broke out that Obama had secured the primary democratic nomination, edging out Hillary Clinton from the presidential election race.
I was so energised and figured if a biracial black man can come this close to become the Commander-In-Chief of the US and the leader of the free world, then I too could write a novel. The very next morning my life changed forever, I walked to a Starbucks inside of the Galleria Mall, sat down, and began writing the novel that was bottled up deep inside me. Eleven years later, the fiction project I started would get published in book form as ‘The Carpet Weaver’.
‘The Carpet Weaver’ is an incredibly ambitious novel, especially for a debutant. I had to orchestrate a symphony of words to capture the beauty of life amidst all the ugliness that my protagonist goes through. Kanishka’s journey is seeped in identity crisis, religious conflicts, and so many horrifying aspects of the human world. It was challenging to have Kanishka confront so many pressing issues and still convey moments of serendipity in an authentic manner that organically fit into the story. This required many dozens of drafts and countless rewrites.
The book illustrates what it is like to be gay in an Afghan community, and the picture it paints is not pretty, with homosexual men being labeled and shunned as ‘kuni’ and experiencing mental and physical violence, and the fear of being ostracised. How much of it stems from your personal experience?
Sadat: The Carpet Weaver’ is an #OwnVoices book, meaning Kanishka represents a marginalised group that I, as the author, belong to. We both identify as gay, refugee, Afghan, and ex-Muslims. Our core values are aligned and had I embarked on Kanishka’s quest I’d probably end up making the same decisions he made. But the similarities really end there. Unlike Kanishka, I did not grow up in Afghanistan or live in Pakistan. I was neither a weaver nor a prisoner in an internment camp.
That being said, of course, my own life journey, being rejected by most of my family and relatives after coming out inspired my literary muse. I was drawn to writing fiction first and foremost as a radical escapist fantasy from the repression I had faced. I languished both in the closet and the shadows and felt that I needed an outlet for my suffering. Writing seemed like a sure way to satisfy an emotional void in my heart and liberate myself from the mental shackles forged by both homophobia and homesickness.
At times, the story also questions the rigidity of religion in societal acceptance of homosexuality. Was it hard to write about?
Sadat: Writing about the social acceptance of homosexuality was the easy part. I felt it was true to Kanishka’s character to be a gay man who questions the authority of his inherited faith especially when the adherents of his own religion—regardless if they are Shia or Sunni—do not tolerate someone like him who don’t conform the patriarchal structure. What I worried about was how my book would be received and if devout people, particularly Muslims would react negatively to my book especially in light of the heightened religious conflict in India over the past few year.
Thankfully, I’ve received nothing but love bombs. I had a hijabi Muslim woman request a signed copy after she and her husband recognised me and bought a copy of ‘The Carpet Weaver’ at the Chennai Book Fair and another hijabi Muslim woman and her daughter took a selfie with me after they bought my novel at the Kolkata Literary Meet. I’ve been met with the same kind of adoration and affection by Indians of all religious groups and this truly shows to me the power in India’s diversity rests in the pluralism that exists in the country’s literary scene and publishing world.
In brown cultures, conversations around personal identity, whether it’s about political beliefs radically different from the norm, or sexuality – whether it’s about men loving men, or a girl being open about her sexual desires (as in the case of Lamba) – can be difficult. Your thoughts.
Sadat: I’m unapologetic about advocating for women’s empowerment and balancing power and rights are evenly distributed along gender lines. I believe in universal human rights and get appalled when I hear advocates of women’s equality champion it in white majority countries but then speak in terms of cultural relativism when it comes to brown or black majority countries. To me this is regressive and a soft form of bigotry in itself.
Then of course you have the extra cloak of patriarchy that exists in collectivistic brown-majority countries where an individual is told—either directly or in unspoken words—to inhibit themselves and sacrifice who they are and their aspirations, beliefs, and desires for the sake of their community. This creates limitations and unmet needs and exacerbates a person’s identity conflict.
It’s why I chose to create Lamba. The common stereotype about an Afghan woman is that she is a victim of domestic violence and totally subservient to men. I wanted to create female characters in my book to show the side of Afghan girls and women that is more complex are closer to the reality of Afghanistan’s golden age of the 1970s when the book starts. Lamba, like Rustam, represent the sexual loopholes of Afghanistan that exists especially in the chaotic underground where debauchery takes place. Lamba publicly conforms to mainstream Afghan culture but she holds her ground and exercises her free will by discovering her sexuality and exploring the virtues of sensual pleasure.
Please share a bit about your multi-city book tour and how Covid cut it short.
Sadat: I arrived to India on my sixth trip to India since the release of ‘The Carpet Weaver’ on January 3rd of this year. I planned to spend the entire year embarking on a 55-city book tour and traveled to bookstores, book fairs, litfests, and university campuses in Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Ranchi, Kochi, Bangalore, and Mumbai when I had to cut my trip exactly two months later on March 3rd and had to flee the country with the rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
While I was Kochi promoting my book at the Krithi book fair, I met and pitched my book to Shahshi Tharoor who took a copy of my book with him and tweeted about it to his 8 million followers on his Twitter. Later that evening he pasted two photos of us together and wrote, “Had a serendipitous meeting at Krithi with gay Afghan author Nemat Sadat, whose first novel ‘The Carpet Weaver’ is making waves and has propelled him on a 55-city tour through India. Great to see young Afghans finding a new literary voice.”
About your upcoming literary plans.
Sadat: I have five more novels in the pipeline for now. I started writing my second novel from the confines of my mother’s home in San Diego after the global economy shutdown and many people around the world went into lockdown. It was my way of trying to stay sane by limiting my intake of news. The working title to this project is ‘Keeping Up With The Hepburns’, which is set in the present-day America of President Donald Trump. My hero, a young gay vegan Afghan has a spiritual awakening after he meets his twin flame. There’s also an Indian and European plot twist.
Once it is safe to travel and socialise again, I hope to return to India to continue promoting ‘The Carpet Weaver’ and launch my second novel. I’m only published in India. But I hope to land a US and UK book deal and translation rights in multiple languages) and film rights for both ‘The Carpet Weaver’ and ‘Keeping Up With The Hepburns’ in 2021. I have my eyes in sight for a worldwide book tour to 250 cities in 50 countries in 2022, with at least several dozen cities across India.
(Siddhi Jain can be contacted at [email protected])