“My mother’s name is Seema. Which means face, something of her I will never see, or frontier, something I must leave behind.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Nawaaz Ahmed’s debut novel Radiant Fugitives (Counterpoint Press, 2021).  I’d read a blurb months before publication in a failed attempt to get an advanced copy, but it was a small blurb.  I knew the novel was sapphic and dealt with an estranged Indian family living in the US, but I didn’t realize the timeline politically or the role that religion would play.  What Ahmed has given us is a hard take on America, and it’s a take we should all pay attention to. 

Radiant Fugitives is narrated by Ishraaq as he is being born.  His mother, Seema, is dying.  They say when you die, your life passes before your eyes.  In this instance, Seema’s life passes before her son’s. Through the memories passed by blood, he tells her story.  His knowledge isn’t just limited to the present and his mother’s past; Ishraaq is an omniscient narrator, and the reader gets bits and pieces of his grandmother, Nafeesa, his aunt, Tahera, his father, Bill, and even his young cousins.  I’m not entirely sold on the fetal omniscient narrator, but I recognize that the novel would not have had the same heartbeat without it.

Growing up in India, Seema is her father’s favorite.  She is a romantic and readily adopts his love of English literature.  While studying at Oxford, she comes out.  Word gets back to her father in India, and he exiles her from the family.  Her very name is forbidden in the house.  Her younger sister, Tahera, doesn’t quite understand why Seema was exiled and feels abandoned.  To ground herself, Tahera clings to her religion, becoming a furiously devout Muslim; her prayers and jilbab providing a layer of protection against the world.  English poetry, especially Keats, and passages from the Quran appear frequently throughout the work, highlighting the four corners of the world that has defined the sisters.

The novel primarily takes place in the week leading up to Ishraaq’s birth.  Nafeesa’s death clock is ticking louder and louder as her body fails her.  She wants to not only see her grandson, but to try and mend the relationships with her daughters as well as between her daughters before she dies.  Begrudgingly, Tahera joins her mother at Seema’s to await the birth.

As the three women work through a tortured history in an attempt to reconnect, the past weaves in and out of the plot.  Of particular interest is the relationship between Seema and her ex-husband, Bill.

Seema meets Bill through her involvement in politics. From the Howard Dean campaign to the so-called “war on terrorism” to Prop 8 to Obama to Kamala Harris’s attorney general campaign, Seema’s memories are such a part of American political history.  It makes for a fascinating read, especially considering Seema is a lesbian from a Muslim Indian family and Bill is an attorney raised by his grandparents whose father, a member of the Black Panthers, had died in jail.

Bill’s reaction to Seema’s pregnancy, as well as the divorce and her return to dating women, is presented in brief, angry spurts. His emotions are not simple, and Ahmed does a respectable job of capturing that while still ensuring the heart of the novel remains with Seema, Tahera, and Nafeesa.  Similarly, the treatment of Tahera’s family and the attack on the Muslim center and her son’s response to that attack are presented quickly, but they are weighty moments in the work.

Radiant Fugitives is extremely well-written and captivating.  I hear a lot of folks say they don’t read diverse books because they can’t “relate” to the characters, and I’ve never understood that.  I’m not a lesbian who has been exiled from my Muslim Indian family, but I can certainly relate to Seema and her story of love and loss, and faith and identity.  Even more importantly, I can learn from Seema, Tahera and Nafeesa. 

Books make better people.

Read this book.

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