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Whitman-meets-Puff Daddy

Whitman-meets-Puff Daddy
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First Published: Fri, Feb 19 2010. 08 18 PM IST

City limit: Naqvi (left) writes about how 9/11 affected the Pakistani diaspora in New York, but the event itself is absent from the book. Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP
City limit: Naqvi (left) writes about how 9/11 affected the Pakistani diaspora in New York, but the event itself is absent from the book. Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP
Updated: Fri, Feb 19 2010. 08 18 PM IST
Author Q&A | H M Naqvi
Whoever told us not to judge a book by its cover clearly did not see Husain Naqvi’s Home Boy . The sleeve is a grainy matte print of a painting of the characters by Pakistani painter Faiza Butt, with a smooth glossy border in rich black. This mélange of textures seeps between the covers and tells a coming-of-age tale of a Pakistani boy in post-9/11 New York in a style that is highbrow literature and lowbrow art, Walt Whitman-meets-Puff Daddy.
Home Boy is the story of three young Pakistani men: Chuck, who came to New York to study literature and ended up becoming a banker; DJ Jimbo, a gentle, moon-faced man-mountain; and AC, a “charming rogue and an intellectual dandy”. They are worthy of their double hyphenated adjectives as only New Yorkers can be. The events of 9/11 hide between paragraphs but effectively drive the plot forward.
City limit: Naqvi (left) writes about how 9/11 affected the Pakistani diaspora in New York, but the event itself is absent from the book. Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP
When we met, Naqvi had run out of Davidoff cigarettes and switched to Gold Flake. Between puffs, amid the din of a south Delhi shopping mall in the throes of a discount shopping Friday, he told us how Home Boy came to be. Edited excerpts:
You moved from Karachi to New York and worked in a financial institution. How much of Chuck, your protagonist, is based on you?
Home Boy is not a memoir, it is fiction. Chuck, the narrator, draws on my experiences but he is a construction. I guess he is some sort of an incarnation of me; he is my literary doppelgänger. First novels inevitably draw from the author’s life. So Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man, Salinger’s (The) Catcher in the Rye, Michael Chabon’s (The) Mysteries of Pittsburgh are all very close to the author’s lives. And you have this imperative to exorcise yourself especially in the first novel. And there are some novelists who remain with this imperative through the course of their oeuvre and some that manage to move away from it.
Where were you when 9/11 happened?
I am wary of answering that question. Geographically, I was close by. In the novel, 9/11, the event, actually never takes place. I want to inhabit the figurative space between the paragraphs where I don’t want to commit to my proximity to the event. It unnecessarily colours the perception and I want the reader to think of it only as a background, not in the foreground.
How long was the process of writing the book?
I began in 2003. If I remember correctly, I was sitting in a bar in the Bowery (New York). I’d had a few drinks that evening and I think I scrawled a few lines on a cocktail napkin. It was verse, not prose. I used to, in an earlier incarnation, be a slam poet. This novel began as a poem. Later, in a more sober moment, when I transcribed the sentiments to the page, I felt that a poem could not treat my anxieties faithfully. So I kept writing and I think I must have written 10 or 15 pages by the end of 2003. Then I earnestly began in 2004. So it altogether spans about four years. It was a very tough time. I had no money. And so that led me to apply to schools in the hope of receiving money. I got money from the Boston University. I spent a year or two there. Then they asked me to teach, and all this while, the novel was in process. And then in 2007, when I had written about half of it, I found that I could budget only another month. So I called my agent and told him, “Listen man, you need to sell my novel.” And he said, “Great, so you have finished it.”
Home Boy:HarperCollins,216 pages, Rs399
He tried to explain that these things tend to take time and there are lots of publishers who won’t even take a look at a half-finished manuscript of a first-time writer. And so I left for Karachi because there at least I would have a roof over my head—although I didn’t have any money for cigarettes. But by November 2007, we managed to sell it and there were four publishers who were interested and I got enough money so I can write for the next few years without having to worry about things.
Your voice in ‘Home Boy’ is starkly different from most diaspora novels.
I don’t typically write like this. I had to think about the subject matter. Home Boy is a very American novel although it’s written by a green-passport- holding Pakistani. And so I had to think about creating a voice that does the subject matter justice. I could summon neither Shakespeare nor Ghalib. So I had to summon Walt Whitman and Bruce Springsteen and The Wizard of Oz. I wanted it to be very American even in its sub-textual level. On the surface, I wanted the style to fuse Urdu and Yiddish, hip hop and street vernacular, as well as the high literary register.
What are you writing now?
I am working on a story set in Karachi that will feature a family interacting with each other, set against the political unrest of Karachi in the early 1980s and late 1990s. I moved to the city because I was poor, I am staying because I love Karachi. The only city I was able to complete a novel in is Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is, in comparison, dramatically quiet. So when I am done with my research, I may have to pack up my bags and move to a hole in the world to write.
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First Published: Fri, Feb 19 2010. 08 18 PM IST