Debut author Nemat Sadat’s The Carpet Weaver has been making waves and gathering rave reviews across the board.
What the author himself terms as a gay Künstlerroman romantic drama set in a traditional Muslim country, his first novel is a poignant story that aims to “develop empathy for LGBTQIA people by showing what it means to be a gay person and forced to live a fake life — shrouded by hypocrisy and secrets — in a politically charged, repressive society."
In an email interview, the US-based author who is the first Afghanistan native to come out as openly gay, chats with Indulge about how his personal experiences shaped his narrative, literature as a force for change and what he is working on next.
How has your personal experience of coming out as a gay Afghan-born immigrant residing in the US influenced the narrative?
It has humbled me and given me the urgency to understand why it was important for the world to receive this novel. When I first started writing this novel 11 years ago, I was driven to give voice to Kanishka and have him play out a teenage romantic affair that I wish I could have had when I was teen but feel cheated now that I didn’t. I was too preoccupied trying to pretend to be straight and conceal my true sexuality.
But after I came out, I realised that this novel was not just about me or Kanishka. This novel would be the vessel for the aspirations for all the LGBTQIA in the Muslim world and throughout the East who are closeted because they fear for their life or imprisonment or other types of persecution.
When I came out I received curses and death threats from complete strangers and dealt with being disowned by friends and relatives—I got for my pioneering coming out, being the first person from Afghanistan to come out gay and campaign for LGBTQIA rights.
I was extremely frustrated that no literature properly depicted the queer Muslim experience. If I did find something it was mired in doom-and-gloom or disparaged LGBTQ people by mixing up issues of homosexuality with pederasty.
The idealist in me saw the dearth of LGBTQ content as an opportunity for me to enter the fore and write a story that would appeal to gay people of colour. In due time, I realised that writing ground-breaking fiction was a sure-fire way to change the world.
I was compelled to write a revolutionary novel that would normalise homosexuality in the Afghan community and perceive me, a gay Afghan refugee, as desirable by mainstream society in the US.
Secretly, the romantic in me felt that writing a moving novel and becoming famous as a world-renowned author would attract a soulmate into my life.
While writing about the politically charged atmosphere in 1970s Afghanistan, what kind of research did you undertake to make the narrative seem authentic? How much of a role did oral narratives play?
I didn’t have to do much research about the politically charged atmosphere since the Cold War played out on our kitchen table. While growing up in the Afghan diaspora community of Southern California, I heard stories about Old World Kabul that just seeped into my mind.
I also experienced an intellectual awakening after the September 11th 2001 terrorist attack after my adopted land went to war with my homeland and I started reading a lot of books that got me familiarized about Afghanistan’s domestic and regional political history.
But I wanted to make sure that I put some of the historical events into the scenes to give the reader a thorough understanding about a tumultuous time in Afghanistan history. I wanted to provide a more accurate and vivid account about contemporary Afghanistan.
I’ve read too many books that give second-hand information. The Carpet Weaver takes you right into the centre of the action and the reader participates in the political drama that unfolds.
What I did do a lot of research for was for carpet and weaving proverbs, refugee camps, the geography of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, and immersing myself deep into Rumi’s poetry.
How would you say Kanishka's journey in the book differs from a white gay character's coming of age such as the one shown in Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name?
I personally had to set down Call Me By Your Name when I tried reading it a few years ago.
I suppose I was triggered reading about this near-perfect, passionate romance since this is something that I missed out on since I spent my own childhood and years of adulthood struggling to come to grips with my overarching identities.
And, I resented Elio because I could not relate to how he confidently and sensually seduced Oliver. I think I was secretly jealous or upset because it has been so difficult for me to be seductive with men in a romantic setting. And I compared Elio and Oliver with Kanishka and Maihan.
Kanishka’s struggle is the more common journey for the vast majority LGBTQIA people around the world; particularly for ethnic/racial minority LGBTQ in western countries and with virtually all members of the community who reside in one of the 70 or so countries where homosexuality is still criminalized.
That is why I have been insistent in saying that The Carpet Weaver is The Kite Runner meets Brokeback Mountain.
For The Carpet Weaver, it would have been completely unrealistic to narrate a “just between the two of us” love affair, absence the social stigma of being gay in a traditional Afghan and Muslim society and then having to endure the hardships of war, enslavement, and exile.
The hero’s journey that Kanishka goes through is the longest mile as he has to experience internal, interpersonal, and societal level conflict and overcome all the “nets” that hold him back to finally discover his freedom.
In this way, The Carpet Weaver is the coming-of-age of Afghanistan and for LGBTQ people in Muslim communities. Kanishka’s narrative is a coming-of-age story and a clash of cultures, and not just romance with Maihan.
For those who love romance, they can still get a dose of that. But first-loves tend to be messy, particularly for gay teens in a repressive society you’d expect it to be fraught with awkwardness, despair, horror, and shame. Anything else would not ring true.
Call Me By your Name leans more on the gay romantic drama than the coming-of-age aspect in Elio’s sexual awakening. Kanishka has a sexual awakening. But Kanishka also has an artistic, intellectual, and spiritual awakening that complicates his identity and his place in the world.
Having said that, I thought Kanishka and Maihan’s romance was just a touch coy, fault of my own sensibility rather than the writing, and I wanted more Call Me by Your Name than Kite Runner.
Do you feel that South Asian literature is particularly lacking when it comes to representation of the LGBTQIA+ community and their stories?
I guess it’s all about perspective and what standards you’re measuring against. If you’re comparing it to North America and Western Europe then, of course, there is a dearth of literature in South Asian representing LGBTQIA+ people.
But if your comparing to others regions within the continent—Central Asia, The Middle East, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Northern Asia — then, of course, South Asia has led the way in publishing the earliest writing on queer issues in the Eastern world. Books depicting same-sex love and desire have a long history on the Indian Subcontinent.
In the contemporary era, in the last few decades, there’s been a steady stream of books coming out of the region with depictions of LGBTQIA+ people. But a lot of the depiction of LGBTQIA people in South Asian literature have played minor roles or the books haven’t gone mainstream.
A rare exception is the Funny Boy by Shyam Selvudurai, which is one of the Bildungsroman books that influenced my writing of The Carpet Weaver. Selvdudarai’s book may be set primarily in Sri Lanka but his narrator is also a gay protagonist and the story is set amidst the backdrop of civil war.
There is still a lot of room to grow. In the next decade, as India emerges as the world’s most populous country and more Indians come out of the closet and openly identify with their gender identity and/or sexual orientation, it’s inevitable that the region will have the largest LGBTQIA+ community in the world. I’m confident we’ll see a rise in more novels coming out of South Asia with LGBTQIA+ representation. This makes it an exciting time for LGBTQIA+ fiction writers.
The hollowness of the American Dream is made apparent in the novel. Was that a major concern that you wished to bring up through the narrative?
Absolutely. Since the creation of the United States, virtually all immigrant literature subscribes to the Horatio Alger myth of the self-styled success of rising up from poverty to fortune.
This has been reinforced by the idea of American exceptionalism which has held that democracy and the freedoms enjoyed in the US shine like a beacon of light while the rest of the world is perceived as unfree and trapped in religious and cultural hostility, and this is the reason why immigrants continue to come, like the Pilgrims of the past, to this “city on a hill” in the New World.
Americans would say Kanishka embodies the essence of the American Dream. That he left a country where his future was in jeopardy and came to the USA where his future was given back to him.
That in the US, he can not only make money but has the possibility of reinventing himself. But such reasoning completely misses the point as to the main reason why Kanishka was denied this opportunity in his homeland.
Such logic perpetuates white supremacy by justifying militarism and a permanent war footing. Americans turn a blind eye to how destructive US interventionism has been in destabilizing these countries.
In Afghanistan, the US spearheaded the rise of the first jihadi state in the contemporary era when the mujahideen ousted the last communist regime in Kabul and erected an Islamic state in 1990.
Kanishka’s immigrant experience subverts the ‘American Dream’ into something much more interesting: that is to say, the tale of a middle-class Kabuli Afghan going to the US to seek liberation and love but actually finds himself languishing and lost even in his promised land.
I realised I needed to create a cavalier fictional character who would cut through the hyperbole, empty platitudes, and rhetorical cudgel. What makes Kanishka so compelling as a narrator is that he doesn’t harbour any allegiance to any power structure.
The aperture that Kanishka’s muses about himself and his relationship to the world around him is through the unique lens of his artistic expression as a carpet weaver and as a gay man. Kanishka’s epic account of what happened to him in the chaos that engulfs Afghanistan represents a beacon of brightness through the cracks of a stonewall of hostility.
Do you feel that, particularly for countries that continue to criminalise homosexuality, literature can open up a safe space for discussion?
There is no greater force in changing the world than the power of good storytelling. So of course, literature is a great way to open up the conversation about homosexuality in places where it is still taboo and where most if not all LGBTQ people languish in obscurity.
The question really is though, how much tolerance there is in these homophobic countries for narrators like Kanishka who transgress society’s rules and upturn the status quo.
Given India’s eclectic literary culture and status as the country in the world that reads more per capita, there is an open embrace for The Carpet Weaver in Indian society. My agent Kanishka Gupta says, “India is the natural home of your novel.” He’s always said this.
Given India’s rich cultural footprint, I truly feel India is the gateway to broader discussions about LGBTQIA fiction in the rest of Asia and the Muslim world.
The world is split on LBGTQ rights and I firmly believe that The Carpet Weaver will be the catalyst to tip the scales in favour of a gay-friendly planet.
In other words, what Brokeback Mountain did by breaking fresh ground as the first gay romance to crossover into the mainstream and transform American culture and the West with overall acceptance of marriage equality, I expect The Carpet Weaver is well-positioned to be at the heart of the conversation about LGBTQIA rights.
Kanishka is more than just a hero in the story or a pioneer in his troubled nation. I see him as a voice and The Carpet Weaver as a vessel for the aspirations of the hundreds of millions of criminalized LGBTQIA people who live in one of the 69 or so countries in Asia and around the world where they are still criminalized and struggling for their liberation.
So it is my hope that The Carpet Weaver will become the defining book of our generation to spearhead the petition to legalize homosexuality everywhere where LGBTQIA people still have no right to exist.
From the initial failed attempt at declaring his love for his friend in front of his parents to the conversation between Kanishka and his mother form some of the most touching episodes in the novel. How was the process of articulating such difficult emotions so subtly?
Writing with conviction and letting Kanishka’s voice grow raw, unfiltered, and visceral. That’s why this novel feels more like a memoir. Kanishka doesn’t hold anything back. I didn’t feel like I had to mask Kanishka’s expression with embellishments of language
What are you working on next?
I have three more books in the pipeline — all of which deal with LGBTQIA characters and themes. I have already started work on a second novel, which is a cross-genre literary novel that will appeal to readers of dystopian speculative fiction.
I’ve also written a rough draft for a memoir titled Sacred Cow of the Netherworld: A Memoir of a Gay Afghan Refugee.
After launching my debut in India, I’ve been deluged with heartfelt messages from readers of The Carpet Weaver who say I’ve inspired them. Most of such people are members of the LGBTQIA community. But even heterosexuals say they are inspired by Kanishka Nurzada’s story.
INR 599, Penguin Random House.