San Francisco is the perfect setting for this tremendous, tragic novel by Nawaaz Ahmed. “Radiant Fugitives” includes an eclectic mix of people, perspectives and possibilities. In the microcosm of one fractured family and its disturbing dynamics, Ahmed explores the complexities of kin who have divergent values and beliefs, and links those conflicts to broader themes of sexuality, religion and race. His novel captures the emotions that divide us, and delves into how these differences might be overcome.
The year is 2010. Seema Hussein is a 40-year-old Muslim Indian woman working for Kamala Harris’ campaign for attorney general of California. Seema is about to give birth to an unplanned child conceived with her soon to be ex-husband, Bill. The novel’s omniscient narrator is their son, whom Seema plans to name Ishraaq.
It is a surprising choice of narrator, but Ahmed makes it work.
Though the Hussein family has been estranged for 15 years, Seema’s dying mother, Nafeesa, has traveled from Chennai, India, to be with Seema for the birth. Her younger sister Tahera, a doctor and observant Muslim, has also come to support her sister.
In Seema’s apartment in the Mission, they cook, clean and talk about their lives. But conversation is fraught as each woman attempts to avoid the emotional minefields of past grievances and present judgments. Hurt, betrayal and misunderstanding cloud many interactions. Nonetheless, moments arise when the sharp edges of their jealousies and resentments soften, and the tenderness of their love for each other is recovered.
Looming large is the patriarch, Naeemullah Hussein, who did not travel to San Francisco for the birth of his grandchild. Naeemullah had doted on his daughters, especially Seema, who basked in her father’s love. However, after Seema completed her Oxford education, her father sought to arrange her marriage. When she revealed she was a lesbian, he replied, “I’d rather have no daughter than one who makes me hang my head in shame.” Exiled, she moved to the United States, worked as an activist for South Asian queer organizations and eventually settled in San Francisco.
Seema’s banishment from the family initiated a cascade of conflict and emotional isolation. Tahera decided that she, unlike her sister, would adhere to the family’s expectations. She asked her father to arrange a marriage to an observant American Muslim. She relished replacing Seema as the favored child. Yet her father derided her dedication to Islam.
It becomes clear that Naeemullah’s narcissistic approach to love has caused a ripple effect of pain that required his wife and daughters to juggle their allegiances. Ultimately, Nafeesa regrets that she has never attempted to understand the struggles and sorrows of her daughters.
“Radiant Fugitives” also explores the ways that broader political culture affects individual lives. The novel tackles questions of faith, race and identity in our country’s political life. Of particular focus is Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Seema and Bill fell in love and married as they worked tirelessly for Obama’s candidacy. As a Black man, Bill felt intense hope as he vigorously campaigned. Seema, too, was lifted by the poetry of the campaign, but the optimism of that moment faded. Obama’s pragmatism on many issues, including LGBTQ rights, disappointed her.
Using one family’s disputes and misjudgments as his canvas, Ahmed has painted a poignant family tragedy and a meditation on the wellsprings of conflicts. The story is adorned with verses from the Quran and writing from Keats, Wordsworth and Barack Obama.
Obama best captures Ahmed’s theme, “All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort to find common ground.” That message for civic life could be Ahmed’s for family life. “Radiant Fugitives” will inspire readers to seek empathy, withhold judgment, accept our flawed humanity and marvel at the miracle of being alive.
Katherine Read blogs about books at readsreading.blogspot.com.
Written by: Nawaaz Ahmed
Published by: Penguin Random House