Lahori rhapsody: Nadia Akbar on Freddie Mercury as a metaphor, and new Pakistani voices
With modern-day Lahore as its backdrop, and told from the perspective of two twenty somethings, Nadia Akbar’s debut novel, Goodbye Freddie Mercury, makes for a charming weekend read.
Traversing the upper echelons of society in a politically charged setting at the dawn of fresh elections, the pacy narrative is peppered with social critique.
The Colombia-based writer chats with Indulge about using the late rockstar of Queen as a metaphor, and on joining the ranks of young voices writing on and about Pakistan from a different lens.
Did you draw on people you knew or had come across at some stage in your life for characters like Nida, Ali and Bugsy? What all research went into making the narrative seem authentic?
This is a bittersweet slice of Pakistani life that I know. Obviously, the politics in the novel are self-evident. I have always had my eyes and ears open. It’s a lifetime of research. That always makes it easier to imagine characters that breathe with a great deal of verisimilitude.
How was it writing about Lahore? Did the place act as a source of inspiration for you?
Lahore is a character in itself. The Old City, Liberty Market, driving in the heat, the beggers, the weeping trees along the Canal—it inspires an individual uniqueness in a place that’s more conservative and more beautiful than you can bear. There is no ancient city like it. It has its share of tragedies and its comedies; it’s one of the most beguiling cities in the world.
What was your thought process behind choosing Freddie Mercury? Does he act as a sort of a metaphor throughout the text?
Absolutely. Freddie Mercury is the soul of the book. I chose Freddie because he had no human limits. He's the desi rocket ship that blasts all of us. He's both tragic and transcendent and represents the possibility that we can be anything. Being a young person is reckless, it’s tragic, but it’s also beautiful and alive.
There are a lot of young voices coming into literature that trace their origin to Pakistan and write about their country through a fresh prism. Do you feel that this was a long time coming?
Yes—and it’s about damn time. Pakistan is a culturally rich, exciting, unique place, and India and all of South Asia are too. We need to write from our own distinctive perspectives, our own distinctive voices. I want to read about us and be surprised as well. Our lives are not our grandfathers’ lives, when I write and speak I don’t sound like Kipling.
Did you ever feel that you had an unsaid responsibility somehow belonging to the South Asian community and being a woman to give your female characters an intellectual and emotional depth that takes them away from stereotypical portrayals?
I’m flying the flag for desi women 24/7. I’m a South Asian female and I’m super proud of it. I think stereotypes are boring and primitive. A lot of paths for women are laid out for us-- you have to act a certain way, be a certain way, behave a certain way--and I think that’s all rubbish. Life’s meant to be a journey of awakening. The famous mythologist Joseph Campbell writes—“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned to have the life that’s waiting for us.” I write women as they are, as they could be—oceans, goddesses, oracles, demons.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a debut novelist? Any piece of advice you would like to impart on those attempting to come into the literary space as authors?
The challenges still remain. Writing is not a battle, it’s a war, and I’m still in the thick of it, up to my neck in mud and barbed wire. But that’s the fun of it. Writing is hard work and publishing is super hard work, so my advice to other writers would be that if you’re truly motivated start digging a foxhole and settle in. There’s a need for strong new voices. As Toni Morrison says—“If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
Are there some authors you look to for inspiration or whom you continue to admire? Have any shaped your own writing style?
So many—Margaret Atwood, Hunter S. Thompson, Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Rohinton Mistry, Haruki Murakami. The list is endless. I think that the inspiration has come in two forms—One, in the beauty of their written worlds, and Two, for simply having had the courage to battle it out as a writer, say what they had to say, to be true to that authentic voice.
What are you working on next? Is there any genre or form that you would like to experiment with next?
Yes. Right now I am organising a feminist graphic novel — I already have the stories and I'm talking to some desi artists. I’m looking for a collaboration that is truly bold and innovative. I also have two other novels that I'm working out in my mind. So yes, there are definite projects lined up that I'm excited about. You’ll have to wait and read.
Penguin Random House India, `599.