Once a host and a producer at Pakistan’s first radio station in English, Nadia Akbar has written her first novel in tribute partly to what Western music has meant to Pakistani youth. Set over the course of one summer, Akbar’s Goodbye Freddie Mercury follows the lives of Lahore’s most elite young people, including Omer, the son of the Pakistani Prime Minister’s right-hand man, and Bugsy, the immensely popular host of Pakistan’s top radio show in English.
When a middle-class college student named Nida accidentally lands up at one of their parties, both young men are immediately drawn to her, albeit for different reasons. She is ushered into a world whose inhabitants demand that every experience surpasses the last. In the background, Pakistan’s general elections are around the corner, and Bugsy finds himself in the crossfire between opponents when he inadvertently performs a political favour.
Akbar has written an engrossing novel which allows the reader to move through the worlds of music, politics, drugs, and parties in Lahore in the space of a few hundred pages. Goodbye Freddie Mercury is an incisive look at how wealth flourishes in an under-developed county and the lengths people will go to to maintain their power.
Akbar spoke to Scroll.in about what rock ’n’ roll means in South Asia, the lifetime of research that goes into writing a scene, the allure of a new political leader for disenchanted youth, the books that take guts to write, and why parties are at the heart of Goodbye Freddie Mercury. Excerpts from the interview:
Was it challenging to write a novel in the alternating voices of two characters (Nina and Bugsy)? How as a writer do you deal with the parts of the story that are outside the view of these two characters?
I think more than challenging it was compelling and lit a creative fuse. It’s rare that one gets to spend time in someone else’s consciousness, let alone get to roam in the mind of two young reckless Lahoris. That’s my favourite aspect of writing – getting to realise a character, getting to know them, spending time with them, imagining their life, and existing in their worlds.
Bugsy’s and Nida’s views are limited, everything that happens around them goes through their narrow perspectives. So, if they can’t see it, hear it, or feel it, it doesn’t happen in Goodbye Freddie Mercury. I had to find a way to insert the rest of the world into their first-person present-tense perspectives by having information presented through the radio or television or other character dialogue. It was really interesting to figure out ways to present the world to Bugsy and Nida so they could make it real for us.
There’s so much music embedded in the novel. What drove these particular song or band choices?
Much of the music in the novel was picked because I love it and I wanted to represent particular artists that inspire the desi scene. Rock ’n’ roll is a big part of youth culture worldwide. It’s important in Pakistan and South Asia, it shapes many of us, defines us. Years of great radio jockeys had hard rock and metal fans all over Pakistan head-banging to Whitesnake, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Megadeath, and, obviously, Queen. And the list goes on. I wanted to represent the proper desi rock scene that we all love.
Lahore parties are at the heart of this novel – they are a place where politics and wealth can be closely observed. These scenes are incredibly vivid. Can you tell us a little about how you went about writing these detailed scenes that cover everything from atmosphere and music to dialogue and clothes?
A lifetime of research went into those scenes. Lahore is a party place. Whether the public wants to recognise the private is another matter, but this world without limits exists. In creating this verisimilitude, it was important to merge the past with my imagination. The great writers have always listened, observed, and shared their stories when they felt them to be authentic.
“Pakistani parties are the perfect platform for personal and historical reinvention…And no one ever calls you out on your bullshit.” Why might reinvention be so important to the (mostly) young people who attend these parties?
There are limited options artistically and creatively for Pakistani youth. It’s tough to actually do the things that young people are free to do in other less conservative countries – like being a writer. This novel, for example, is not the type of novel that we’re supposed to write. Likewise, it’s super difficult to play rock music, to make films, to be an RJ, to be a writer, to be an artist. There are so many barriers – economic, cultural, social, and familial. It’s often easier to imagine it, live it out in a virtual way. It’s almost wishful thinking. By dreaming it and claiming it, it becomes true, if only for a moment.
It’s interesting how Bugsy continually returns to the observation that Nida isn’t like other desi girls. It made me wonder if that is meant to be a dig at men who try to compliment women by telling them they’re not like the rest.
I think in Bugsy’s world, Nida really is unlike the rest. Bugsy’s orbit, his social circle, is quite specific – the available girls are rich and spoiled, entitled and difficult. Aliya’s (a rich girl Bugsy is previously interested in) awareness is a foil to Nida’s innocence. Bugsy’s view of Nida is definitely coloured by his misogynist infatuation with her. Bugsy means no harm, but my depiction of men in the novel, Bugsy and all, certainly comes with all the barbs and blades that are there.
There’s so much optimism tied to a political leader like Mian Tariq who promises transparency and the end of corruption. Do you have any theories on why people continue to place their faith in new candidates and believe they will be better than the ones before even though past patterns suggest otherwise?
Blind faith in politics and politicians, despite past experience and heartache, is a mystery to me. I explore it in the book, and we experience Faisal’s optimism in Mian Tariq’s belief in a better future. It’s both tragic and yet redeeming. I think young people are optimistic because they want to believe in a better future, because they want to believe that the next politician is going to make the difference, because they need to believe in something better simply to survive. There’s something super rock ’n’ roll about the optimism of youth, and I hope it never fades.
The cover of Goodbye Freddie Mercury carries this stunning illustration by Samya Arif. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of and motivation behind choosing that image?
I had the wonderful opportunity to view Samya Arif’s great work throughout the design process and was excited to have her artwork on the cover. She is a unique Pakistani artist and I think that she absolutely captured the visual soul of the book. It feels so magically desi and rock ’n’ roll. I also love the Freddie Mercury yellow. It purposely matches the colour of his jacket on the 1986 Magic tour.
Were there books that influenced the style or content of your novel?
I am continuously inspired by people that have taken chances. I admire the guts it took to write A Clockwork Orange, for example. I love Anthony Burgess – his free use of a new language, the lack of a glossary. I was equally inspired by Hunter S Thompson and his vivid and blurred stream of consciousness. Jack Kerouac and his unapologetic youthful intensity. While I feel that my style and voice in this novel are uniquely my own, in terms of content I am inspired by authors who have the courage to write what is and what could be – Margaret Atwood, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rohinton Mistry – the ones who are unafraid to speak the truths of their worlds.
What are some of your favourite Pakistani books?
Bapsi Sidwa is a hero. Ice Candy Man is an important novel in that it fully and authentically addresses the history of partition in a manner that captures our shared loss and our shared humanity. I am also inspired by the strength of her female narrator and the unflinching realism that took deep courage to write. She also sets the highest standard of craft for all of us. I think that as desi writers we can achieve that in English. There are no boundaries or limitations.
I was intrigued by your author photo, which partially hides your face with a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. Is there a story behind that?
Vile Bodies parallels our worlds in a strange way. I feel linked to Waugh in both subject and background in some ways – social class, his chosen literary subjects, social critique. Perhaps the style of the novel is also remotely connected. I love the idea of voices being shared in threads, the balance of truth and reality tipping and regaining balance. That is partly why I chose first person voices. I also love the irony of the photo. Are we vile or are we beautiful?