Published in Slogan (July 2010)
H.M. Naqvi is a keen observer and a master with words. A graduate from Georgetown and the creative writing programme at Boston University, his novel, Home Boy, is based on the life of Pakistani immigrants in post-9/11 New York. Currently based in Karachi, Husain shares his experiences and thoughts with Ayesha Hoda on creative writing, literature and his first novel.
How was the experience of writing this novel?
While writing Home Boy, I learnt to develop a routine, a rigorous routine that required working for three sessions a day, the last stretching to six in the morning. I learnt to take it day by day. Otherwise the project would not have progressed. I learnt to manage my head, to contend with doubt and contend with failure.
Why the title Home Boy?
Home Boy can be translated into Urdu as ‘langotia yaar’ and this novel is about three home boys. In the west, it has a different resonance. It is slang and since it is an immigrant’s novel, one of the things that immigrants have to contend with is mastering the language and slang. There is confusion on the part of the narrator regarding what home boy means. That confusion defines the story.
Then there is another, much more interesting reason for the name Home Boy, which can only be learnt by reading the last line of the book.
The book has received a wonderful response. How does it feel? Did you expect so much popularity?
The wonderful response was, well, very pleasing. I had inhabited my head, inhabited my novel for such a long time that it was good to meet others who were privy to what I was privy to: a pressing story populated by animate characters that remain with you after you’ve put the book down.
I didn’t expect popularity. My objective was to complete the book (it took four years) and I was trying to make a living out of writing. I liked to think it was a good story, an important story but I like to think many things.
How was the response different across various audiences?
I think different audiences process the book in different ways. I expected that certain readers would not appreciate the project and am surprised that all audiences – be it Pakistani, Indian or American – have responded very well to the book. It has received very good press. Major papers like The New York Times have given good reviews and local bookstores are having a hard time keeping the book on the shelf; copies are being sold out quickly.
What are the best comments you have received so far?
I met Zulfiqar Ghose at Karachi Literature Festival. He is one of the first few Pakistani writers in the English language. I was delighted by his appreciation as he is a literary predecessor.
At the Jaipur Literary Festival, Urdu writer Shamsur Rehman Farooqi told me that he had picked up a copy of my book and really liked it. This again was very unexpected and flattering because his work and aesthetic sensibilities are very different from mine.
You have been teaching creative writing at Boston University and writing stories. Tell us something about the art of storytelling and what it means to you.
We all tell stories. We tell stories everyday. When we talk to others, for instance – friends, family, acquaintances – at the end of the day somebody inevitably asks: What did you do today? We tell stories about ourselves, some truthful, some false, because our identities are contingent on this mode. Writing a story, however, is a qualitatively different exercise. There is form; there are technicalities. Something needs to happen to somebody.
In teaching creative writing, I have made my students cognizant of the form, of certain technicalities. I have taught them how to read differently. I have taught them how to critique. I have taught them how to edit themselves. But there are things that can’t be taught, things that one has to feel viscerally. There are things that you can only have developed in the womb.
What are your views on South Asian literature in general and the works of Pakistani writers in particular?
South Asian literature has become a vast genre, spanning decades, if not a century and continents. South Asian writing now emanates from Canada, Australia, even Norway. There are some great writers; there are mediocre ones.
The explosion of Pakistani literature in English is an exciting development. Although writers like Mumtaz Shah Nawaz, Zulifkar Ghose, Adam Zameenzad, Bapsi Sidhwa, and the peerless Sara Suleri have been at it for decades, there is frenetic momentum now. And though many have achieved prominence, many remain under the radar. There’s Azhar Abidi, Imad Rehman. And the great Urdu writer Abdullah Hussain recently published an excellent novel entitled Émigré Journeys.
In a way, implicitly or explicitly, we are all in conversation with each other.
Any comments on fiction based on 9/11?
I think every great historic event leads to a body of literature, like World War I and II, Partition and the Holocaust. 9/11 is one such tragedy which will continue to produce a body of work. Home Boy is not the first or the last work on this but it is a unique perspective on the events that transpired after 9/11.