Nemat Sadat’s recently released debut book, The Carpet Weaver, is astounding in its attempt to explore the identity politics of growing up as a gay boy in Afghanistan. From the very first line of the book, ‘The one thing I know is that Allah never forgives sodomy’, the intolerant attitude towards the LGBTQIA foregrounds itself and the book beautifully triumphs in subverting this intolerance and breaking free. The protagonist Kanishka’s journey of coming of age perhaps resounds universally with the struggle of growing up as a gay boy. Yet, sexuality and identity crisis are not the only aspects of Kanishka’s tumultuous journey as it is also seeped in violence, religious conflicts, war, displacement from home, alienation and loss of family. Amusingly, amidst all this ugliness, Sadat’s book celebrates and captures the beauty of life and the necessity of hope. Perhaps the most important part of the book is the courage it lends to the reader to break free from whatever it is that is holding them back from accepting who the truly are.
Excerpts from our conversation with the author follow:
How did your relationship with writing begin and how has that relationship been so far?
I was drawn to writing fiction first and foremost as a radical escapist fantasy. I languished both in the closet and the shadows and felt that I needed an outlet for my suffering. Writing seemed like a sure way to satisfy an emotional void in my heart and liberate myself from the mental shackles forged by both homophobia and homesickness. Overtime though, I realized that The Carpet Weaver was so much bigger than myself. And my desire to make a name for myself as a novelist.
After I became the first person in the Afghan community to come out to the entire world by posting a message on Facebook in August 2013, a lot of relatives and friends blocked me out of their lives, claiming that I brought them and the entire community of Afghans and Muslims dishonor by revealing my sexuality. I didn’t give up though. I knew in my heart I was doing right. My coming out and relentles campaign for LGBTQIA rights has awakened a gay movement in Afghanistan.
Returning back to writing fiction after I made a name for myself as an activist, I realized what my novel meant for the world. I started seeing Kanishka as something more than just a hero in the story or a pioneer in his troubled nation. I had started to envision Kanishka 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.
During my short stay in New Delhi last week, I met men and women who identified themselves as members of the LGBTQIA community and told me how much they loved and/or felt inspired by The Carpet Weaver. One individual compared her excitement and optimism to reading the novel as enduring as the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling last year on Section 377, which decriminalized gay sex and made members of the LGBTQIA community full citizens. Hearing stuff like this gives me all the more reason to never give up writing. There is no greater joy…except for really good sex.
“I languished both in the closet and the shadows and felt that I needed an outlet for my suffering. Writing seemed like a sure way to satisfy an emotional void in my heart and liberate myself from the mental shackles forged by both homophobia and homesickness.”
Can you tell us about the writers who have influenced you and your work and in what ways?
Well, The Carpet Weaver is a gay Bildungsroman romantic drama. More specifically, it’s a Künstlerroman since Kanishka is by definition an artist. I would say that coming-of-age novels had a huge influence in decision to write literary fiction. Books such as Catcher in The Rye by J.D. Salinger, Funny Boy by Shyam Selvudurai, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Slumdog Millionaire by Vikas Swarup, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini are all titles that are comparable to The Carpet Weaver and more or less influenced the development of my skills as writer.
In addition, to being a coming-of-age story, The Carpet Weaver is also book about the clash of cultures, a love story, and an essential book of gay literature. In terms of culture clash, I would say Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, and The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai are all books that helped me explore Kanishka’s complex identity conflict. Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx is the one single romance (and story for that matter) that compelled me to write The Carpet Weaver. And as far as the classics of gay literature are concerned, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin informed me in how to treat the themes of manhood, masculinity, and social isolation.
Finally, I’ve also been told by a number of early readers of my work that my narrator paints an expansive world and speaks with the moral conviction of a protagonist in an Ayn Rand novel.
What inspired the writing of The Carpet Weaver?
I know exactly when I embarked on the steppingstone to write The Carpet Weaver. I remember the day as if it were just yesterday. Only it was eleven years year ago. It was June 3, 2008 and I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time. News broke out that Barack Obama had secured the primary democratic nomination, edging out Hillary Clinton from the presidential election race. I was so energized by Barack Obama’s win and figured if a biracial black man can come so close to become the Commander-In-Chief of the United States and the leader of the free world, then I too could write a novel.
The very next morning my life changed forever, I walked to a Starbucks inside of the Galleria Mall and sat down and began writing the novel that was bottled up deep inside me. I experienced a revelatory episode of sustained euphoria and miracle. Ideas coaxed my mind, characters grew evermore evocative, and the plot thickened with each throbbing key stroke. Over the span of one month, I composed about 40,000 words of mostly dramatic prose. It was a magical cathartic reflex. With sustained rhythm, I submitted the first fifty page to an Instructor of an advanced novel writing class at Harvard Summer School as a prerequisite to registering for the course. I was admitted despite having taken no prior fiction writing course prior to that. My fellow classmates were marveled at my tenacity and fearlnessness to write so candidly especially in a language was wasn’t my primary native tongue.
I was scarred in that writing workshop since the instructor and all the other students were heterosexual, white, native-born, and hailed from Judeo-Christian heritage and I was the sole brown, gay Afghan refugee from Muslim lineage. The demeaning comments the instructor made about my work in front of the class scarred me so much it slammed the brakes on my writing. I shelved my manuscript until I moved to New York City the following year. But I was still stuck. My breakthrough in writing didn’t come until 2012 when I returned to Afghanistan, after having lived 31 years in exile, and developed a heightened sense of awareness for what Old World Kabul was like. That same year I also gained admission into the master’s degree program in creative writing at the University of Oxford. This was around the time I started to relive the epiphany that prompted my intense storytelling burst. But it still took me another seven years of full commitment to see the day that The Carpet Weaver is published and released into the world.
“Deep inside Kanishka is an avant-garde libertine just wanting to openly display who he truly is but he cannot show this side of himself when he is burdened by the pervasive customs and traditions of Afghaniyat.”
From the very first line of the book, ‘The one thing I know is that Allah never forgives sodomy’, the intolerant attitude towards the LGBTQIA foregrounds itself and your work triumphs in subverting it and breaking free. Could you take us behind your writing process of this book?
That very first line in The Carpet Weaver sets the tone and tenor of my novel. It also mirrors the last pivotal scene when Kanishka comes out to his mother. Even though we sense that she must have suspected all along and is either pretending to be clueless or can’t admit that her son is a homosexual. On a broader level, I guess I have an instinctive habit to politicize sex and sexualize politics. So I thought why not give Kanishka this trait too. Deep inside Kanishka is an avant-garde libertine just wanting to openly display who he truly is but he cannot show this side of himself when he is burdened by the pervasive customs and traditions of Afghaniyat.
So that is why I chose a character like Kanishka who feels trapped by the world around him and yearns to break free. It’s also the reason why I write content that functions as a subversive political act. Isn’t that the whole point of being an artist? A true artist, in every sense of the word, that is.
The protagonist, Kanishka’s journey is seeped in violence, identity crisis, religious conflicts, and so many horrifying aspects of the human world yet he seems imbued with hope. How challenging was it to capture this beauty of life amidst all the ugliness?
That’s where the work of a socially engaged writer comes in. It was incredibly challenging to have Kanishka simultaneously confront so many issues and still convey moments of serendipity and have it be received by the reader as authentic. It required full immersion of me as the author into the skin of the narrator and an acute nurturing of each sentence in the book until it felt precise and just right.
You’ve been a successful journalist and this your first fiction novel. How much did your journalistic acumen affect your fiction writing?
My journalism background helped me to frame the narrative, gauge the pace, and cultivate a style and flair for writing with an eye for entertaining readers from beginning to end. Any writing you do for popular culture, in my opinion, is an asset for fiction writing. At the end of the day though, what matters most in becoming a successful novelist is how open you are to letting your mind wander and play and take bold risks. This is the epitome of creativity and what makes fiction any good.
Lastly, what is next for you?
Well, 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. I’m torn as to which book should be released next into the world. Do I want to solidify my career as a novelist first or reinforce my political activism by sharing my coming out journey and rise as a leader in the LGBTQIA community?
Text Nidhi Verma