(Counterpoint Press, 2021)
In Radiant Fugitives, a multi-layered, multi-generational Sapphic novel, first-time author Nawaaz Ahmed writes the way an impressionist paints. He ensures the scenes unfold before the reader’s eyes. The 384-page novel is a bold, sweeping book featuring broad themes such as politics, sexuality, mixed-race marriage, and a dysfunctional family. Ahmed’s prose is imaginative and poetic, bringing readers into a week in the life of the Hussein women, comprised of sisters Seema and Tahera and mother, Nafeesa. The novel is narrated by Seema’s baby, Ishraaq, at the moment of his birth, and, at times, the story is told by an in-utero Ishraaq.
Seema is an Oxford-educated lesbian and political activist. Tahera is a Texas-based obstetrician and mother of two. Their terminally ill mother has orchestrated the reunion to prepare for Ishraaq’s birth and to ameliorate any previous grievances. The three women have not seen each other in 15 years, but a reunion is the dying mother’s wish because, at 40, Seema’s pregnancy is high risk. The patriarch shunned Seema when she came out as a lesbian, so he is hunkered down back home in Chennai, India.
Ahmed displays the difference between the sisters’ physical attributes through Arshad, Tahera’s son:
His mother is in a hijab, his aunt isn’t; there are dark circles around his mother’s eyes, while his aunt’s face has makeup and lipstick. His mother is like a moth, his aunt like a sparrow, sharply etched.
Throughout the week, the sisters argue, cry, reminisce about their childhood in India, and discuss Seema’s estranged husband, Bill, a Black lawyer and the only man she has slept with. And they discuss Ishraaq’s future: “I’d like you [Tahera] to bring up Ishraaq if something were to happen to me.” It is these events and finalizing plans for Ishraaq that propels the plot.
Because Seema had to make a life for herself, the author portrays the uniqueness of Seema’s friends and lovers. First there is Chloe, Seema’s first lover from Oxford “whose smile can burn through Seema, whose whisper can make Seema tremble at her knees.” Then there is Leigh, “half-Chinese, half-Irish.” Seema adores her “youthful nonchalance, her tousled hair, her spindly-muscled frame, the way her pale shoulder blades jut from her back like the hidden stubs of wings.” Her most loyal friend is Fiaz, a gay man who is there to support Seema when she needs stability most.
Ahmed, a former Yahoo computer scientist, displays his love and sharp eye for San Francisco and its landmarks. He orients the reader with the Castro District before drifting down Lombard Street, through Union Square, for a visit past the Coit Tower, and finally over the Golden Gate Bridge. The following passage highlights the author’s love of the city:
San Francisco, lit by a thousand lamps, including a giant one in the sky, lies twinkling before your eyes: the sky a deep peacock blue, the moon saffron, the bay glistening with silver reflections.
Seema’s political and activist work included marching in the San Francisco Pride parade, riding through London in a bus as part of The Lesbian Avengers, marching in support of anti-racism, and in protest of the Iraqi war. Politically, she worked for Howard Dean’s 2004 DNC nomination and she campaigned for Kamala Harris’s attorney general bid when President Obama was in office.
Although Seema is a lapsed Muslim, her sister’s family still adheres to the Quran’s edicts, and Ahmed presents Imam Zia’s sermon in Texas:
How magnificent the universe is, my brothers and sisters. So vast that no human being can take full measure of its vastness, so beautiful that no human eye can perceive its every beauty, so mysterious that no human mind can comprehend all its mysteries.
These sections provide readers with an insider’s view of Muslim culture. The sections about anti-Muslim groups vandalizing Tahera’s mosque and her children’s school show just how ignorant and hateful people can be.
Amhed’s keen ear for poetry is first presented in a flashback through Tahera. When she is nine, she hears her father recite Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper.” He “[fills] the study with its lush hills and shimmering valleys.” Then, Ahmed’s prose beat to the rhythm of Keats’s sonnet “Why Did I Laugh Tonight?” as Tahera reflects back on her childhood after an argument with her father:
Heart! Thou and I are here sad and alone;
Say, wherefore did I laugh? O mortal pain!
O Darkness! Darkness! […]
Verse, Fame, and Beauty are intense indeed,
But Death intenser — Death is Life’s high meed.
Ahmed accomplishes a rare feat, writing about three generations of the Hussein family. He does not stray from complicated topics such as sexuality and the pain of a shunned daughter. His mastery of poetry elucidates many passages, and his respect for the Quran helps readers understand Muslim culture. The narrative technique—told from a newborn baby and spoken from a fetus’s point-of-view—is unique and evokes emotion, bringing the reader into the unforgettable lives of the Hussein women. Let us hope Ahmed is working on his next book because he is a rare talent, and the memorable ending of Radiant Fugitives is proof of his gift.