HM Naqvi’s debut novel explores the lives of young Pakistanis in a paranoid post-9/11 America. He tells Naresh Fernandes that it all started with a cocktail napkin
Months after the World Trade Centre had crumbled, many New Yorkers confessed that they continued to sense the towers looming on the skyline like ‘ghost limbs’, referring to the phenomenon by which people who have had an arm or a leg amputated feel that their missing appendage is still attached to their body. The events of 9/11 aren’t described in detail in HM Naqvi’s Home Boy, an erudite novel about three young Pakistani hipsters in New York. But the phantom attacks hang over the pages of his novel like the thin layer of dust that settled all across Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the tragedy, suffusing the novel with a throbbing anxiety that fuels the narrative.
For Naqvi, who returned to Karachi after studying and working in the US for four years, the disquiet wasn’t mere imaginary. ‘I began Home Boy one night in the Bowery in New York circa ’03, sitting at the bar, scrawling on the back of a cocktail napkin,’ he tells Time Out. ‘My brother had been visited by the authorities. I had recently lost a friend. It was an unsettling time. We all had to contend with a changed world, changed realities, with history.’
Home Boy chronicles the adventures of Jimbo, an American-born Pashtun DJ with a conservative father in New Jersey and a WASP girlfriend on West Broadway. The novel is narrated by Chuck, who moved to the US to go to college. Though its central characters are Pakistani, the novel marches far beyond the confines (and concerns) of New York’s South Asian neighbourhoods. ‘Home Boy is a novel set in America, contending with contemporary American history, so I made a conscious effort to ground the narrative in American literary traditions and steer the narrative through day-to-day American life and Americana,’ says Naqvi.
‘The novel, for instance, is populated with characters that include an African-American sommelier, a Caucasian woman (known as The Duck) hailing from East Coast aristocracy, a Congolese taxicab driver, a Moroccan newspaper seller. And, of course, there are a bunch of animated Pakistanis.’
Naqvi’s deft portrayal of how the lives of his protagonists are transformed by the events of 9/11 is an elegant exposition of US paranoia after the attacks. Some also feel it establishes conclusively that Pakistan’s younger novelists are much more driven by the political realities of their homeland than their Indian counterparts. Home Boy shares the concerns of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes. But Naqvi cautions that the work of his compatriots – and their Indian colleagues – shouldn’t be typecast so easily. ‘The story becomes complicated if one considers recent political Indian novels such as The Inheritance of Loss and The White Tiger and apolitical Pakistani novels such as I Dream of Microwaves and Passarola Rising,’ he says. ‘The matter is not simple or straightforward, and though I don’t have a neat theory about it, I do enjoy engaged, engaging novels.’
Among the works on his favourites list, Naqvi mentions two post-9/11 novels that he has recently read: Joseph O’Neill’s desolate Netherland and Ken Kalfus’s satirical Disorder Peculiar to the Country. ‘Both are excellent,’ says Naqvi. ‘Every tragedy, whether WWI, WWII, Partition or the Holocaust, inspires a body of literature. Writers here, there, and everywhere will continue to work on developing a narrative that complements the discourse of reportage.’ Home Boy is published by HarperCollins.