HM Naqvi speaks about his journey as a fiction writer
HM Naqvi’s debut novel Home Boy (2009), which won him the inaugural DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2011, is a post 9/11 immigrant’s tale in the US. Naqvi is widely acclaimed for his exuberant language with its own rhythm and energy. His new book, The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack (2019), is a novel about the deteriorating sociopolitical conditions of modern Karachi; it has also been praised by critics for its narrative style. Naqvi is a slam poet, too. During his stay in the US, he ran a poetry slam, a kind of postmodern mushaira. This interview was conducted via email.
What are you reading at the moment?
I don’t read when I write and I write all the time but since completing Abdullah the Cossack, I returned to a couple of volumes on history – the Babarnama, in particular, the edition translated by Wheeler Thackston and Runciman’s magisterial History of the Crusades – as well as three literary memoirs: Jim Harrison’s Off to the Side, Tom Grimes Mentor, and Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. (Yes, the latter year can be thought as a literary memoir also). The novelist’s life is a lonely one. But among these memoirs, one feels one’s among friends.
Is this going to be your first visit to Bangladesh? How do you feel about attending the DLF this year?
This is indeed my first trip to Bangladesh and it’s always exciting to travel to a place one has never traveled to before. But Bangladesh is not entirely unfamiliar territory: since my father spent time growing up in Dhaka and Chandragona, I have heard stories as a child about Laxmi Bazaar, St. Gregory High School, about roving elephants in the lush hills above the Karnaphuli River.
Are you working on any book now?
I’ve embarked on my third project in my head. When I return to Karachi from the DLF, I will sit down and get to work.
How did you become a novelist from a slam poet? Tell us briefly about the journey.
I’ve been scrawling on paper since as far back as I can remember: I doodled before producing doggerel and short stories – the imperative to put pen to paper is innate. After graduating from college, however, I found the hard way that writing does not pay. I figured I’d make some money then write books. I worked in the financial services industry for a decade but never made much money. I took a break circa 2003 to write. That break became the rest of my life.
You have taken nearly 10 years to write your second novel The Selected Works of Abdullah the Cossack. Is this because of your research for the novel?
It’s undoubtedly been a decade between books but it took me a couple of years to find my feet after Home Boy. During this time, I would find myself wandering the streets of Karachi, discovering swathes of the city that were not extant even a decade ago – Karachi keeps changing, growing, mutating. I found Abdullah the Cossack during my peregrinations. Then it took year for further research – I drew on oral archives, old newspapers, some colonial records. The writing itself actually took five years (and finding a publisher another year or so). I’m slow – I wish I were faster.
What is your second novel about?
That’s a complicated question. After all, every reader brings his or her own sensibilities to the table – the book is open to interpretation. But since you ask, I suppose I can sketch the first scene for you. Our hero, Abdullah the Cossack, a scion of a prominent business family that has long gone bust, is ridden by hemorrhoids, diabetes, and great panic: when he wakes on his seventieth birthday, he considers launching himself off his balcony because he feels he has lived a fallow life. But what saves him is the mysterious eyes he feels watching him from the street. But though he’s old, misshapen – he weighs in at 124 kg – he shares the same anxieties we all experience at one point or another: how do you live a meaningful life?