August 22, 2013 was an important day in Afghan history, and also in Nemat Sadat’s life. Sadat was the first person from Afghanistan to come out, through a post shared on Facebook. There has been no looking back for Sadat ever since – despite the numerous death threats he has received for being Muslim and proudly gay, despite being disowned by his father, he continues to make his voice heard as he campaigns for LGBTQ rights amongst Muslim communities worldwide.
Sadat’s debut novel, The Carpet Weaver, was published in India in June 2019 after being rejected by some 450 agents before India’s top literary agent Kanishka Gupta took him on. Sadat spoke to Scroll.in about his journey with writing and publishing his novel, its contribution to the canon of queer literature, and what he will write next. Excerpts from the interview:
How did you start writing? Do you describe yourself as a writer? Where did The Carpet Weaver come from? I think you mentioned in a tweet that it took you 11 years to write.
Absolutely. I think I have this I have this activist/artist in me, so I think one feeds on the other. Now, as interesting as that is, sometimes being an activist doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the best novelist, because when you’re writing fiction, you cannot push an agenda. Your mission is to entertain the reader. That’s the first and foremost thing.
If in the process of entertaining them, they become enlightened or educated about something, that’s a secondary step because that is basically not your objective. What happens for the reader if they feel you’re peddling dogma is that it’d be patronising. So for me, it was very challenging, but that’s where I came from, and I figured, how am I going to use my creativity to just entertain readers? So I would say that was kinda where I came from.
Now I take ownership and just call myself a novelist, because I now see myself, this novel coming into the world like “wow I did it” and so now I have certain books that I want to write and I’m already thinking. I wanted to write a memoir as my next book, but now, on this trip to India, I actually came to the realisation that no, I need to focus on my next novel, because seeing such great reception to this novel, I think that I should focus on the next one.
How important is the coming-of-age technique to this story?
It is a coming-of-age story, the classic Bildungsroman, but within that genre, the subgenre Kunstlerroman, a coming of age novel of an artist as a carpet weaver. There’s also the queer literature theme. It’s also a romance, a love story. And it’s also a clash of cultures, as his identity is so much in flux, and I think what happened during that time is that Afghanistan goes through turmoil, it coincides with the rapid globalisation that’s about to take off in the world.
You may see the different ideologies and the major regional global powers, etc, and you see Kanishka in his family, in his community, in his nation, being a pawn of sorts of all of this, even in exile, and what it means for him, in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and the United States.
Yeah it did take me 11 years, I guess everyone who has read portions of the workshop, or people who’ve read it in the US, agents and editors who didn’t make an offer but said that this is an incredibly ambitious book for a debut novelist, know that. They’ve never seen a debut novelist work with such original scope and setting, usually this kind of a novel is something an established author would work on as their third or their fourth book, you know what I mean?
They asked, “Why are you torturing yourself?”, and I just feel like no, every project should be treated differently, and it’s not like I’m going to, even if this book takes off and becomes a breakout as a novel and a blockbuster, I’m still gonna treat the next one with the same kinda care or diligence as this one, and I think having this is not just another LGBT or queer novel, it’s not just about a sexual awakening, it’s also about an artistic awakening, an intellectual awakening, a political awakening.
Also, coming-of-age novels are most likely to become a classic and remain in print for a very long time, because it’s the kind of book that you could teach in school and colleges. It is also the type of book that could stay in space forever, so I think it was important for me to do this because I wanted this to become a classic, really be part of the canon and maybe, someday, have people talk about Kanishka and Maihan like they talk about Romeo and Juliet, and make them characters that can embody readers’ own lives in future.
How did you get started with the idea of writing The Carpet Weaver?
This is, I guess, the activist part of me. I was observing the 2008 elections and the day that Barack Obama got the nomination for the Democratic Party, seeing a biracial black man in one of the major parties, that gave me this inspiration, you know what, if he can do this, and everything was set, the stage was set for him to win and become President, then I can surely write this novel. It was bottled up inside me for so many years, and I felt like I needed to do that.
So the very next day, I said, you know what, I’m gonna tune out politics, I was actually doing a Masters degree in Journalism and I was living in Boston, and I was like, you know what, lemme go and look up a course about fiction writing or novel writing. And to get the course, we had to submit 50 pages to our instructor. He had to approve you, and I didn’t take the prerequisite, the basic fiction course and so I decided that I was just going to write out of my heart, and I remember going to Starbucks and I just started writing whatever was coming to me. It was just scenes.
And so the book came, it was about Kanishka, Maihaan, and Faiz, the three young boys, the three musketeers. Growing up, I didn’t have many close male friends. I had female friends and female relatives. What would it be like as a gay boy growing up and having friends who would give you that unconditional love regardless, because even if Faaiz is not gay, he betrayed him and that was just because of jealousy, and he felt left out not because he hated his friend, for Kanishka that was his scene, that was his wish.
I wrote scenes, some of them didn’t make it into the novel. I wrote those scenes and it was very cathartic. I had scenes that were happy, scenes that were very emotionally charged, that would remind me of my own childhood and I’d start crying, I just kept writing, free writing, and then in less than a month I wrote 45000 words, and I submitted it to the instructor, like whatever I had.
Summer school was starting in a couple of weeks so I submitted like 25000 words to the instructor, he accepted me in the course. That summer I just started workshopping my work. And, yeah, and then, 11 years – now there were times, different gaps during that period where I just shelved my novel and didn’t work on it at all. But just because I didn’t write it doesn’t mean I wasn’t thinking about it. I was just developing scenes in my head. Somehow things were still evolving, I was still talking about my novel. People were like wow that novel you were talking about, you finally got a book deal for it.
Has writing The Carpet Weaver helped you deal with your struggles in a better way?
Of course! This is a perennial question, because I’ve been in writing workshops where some people are amateurs in a sense, because they haven’t developed their craft yet or because their story is not developed. But they go into it because they’re writing as therapy. They’re there to counsel themselves.
That’s not what you should do in your writing, because you want to become a writer and you want to be read. Whether that reading is being traditionally published or self-published or whatever medium you use to share, that’s all up to you, but I think you should really focus on becoming the best writer that you can be. So for me, that was the important part – to get this story out and make a change in people. Make people empathize with people like me, make people empathise for people who are marginalised, who are victims of cruelty and do something to help liberate them.
In the process I did have this personal cathartic experience. It helped me find meaning in my own past, where I am and where I’m going to go. Some people are like, “Well why’d you write your first book as a novel? Why not focus on your memoir because your personal life is equally interesting?”
But when I first wrote the story 11 years ago, major things that would be part of my memoir like coming out, campaigning for LGBT rights, being the first in my community, that didn’t even happen yet. I was still buried in the closet so I still hadn’t come of age. How can you write a coming of age story when you’re still going through the process? I felt that going into the novel helped me during this stage to build my foundation, build my own education and build my own development – emotional, moral and psychological development. This book helped me with that journey.
This was like a radical escapist fantasy, and now to deal with my reality was so much turmoil. In dealing with escape, you’re dealing with very traumatic issues, but this was easier to handle than reality, because this is still make-believe at the end of the day.
How personal is Kanishka to you as the protagonist of the story?
Kanishka’s core values are 100% aligned with mine. If I were to go through that same process, I would probably make the exact same decisions he made at the time he made them. I mean, if you put me through the wringer, I would probably do the very same thing he does at the very end. I think nothing different and that’s interesting, because this is my alter ego.
People ask if this was autobiographical and I say, no, I was not a carpet weaver, I didn’t live in an internment camp in Pakistan and I left Afghanistan when I was eight months old. So, no, this is not my story. My soul and spirit, I guess, appears on the pages here and there, and certain scenes may have been inspired by my life. However, this identity of marginalised gay Afghan refugee and exile is definitely me!
How did it feel to put a story that’s so close to your heart into a book and see it published?
You saw in the video how I was feeling! I didn’t think that this day would ever come! I mean, I knew it would come out with so many people focusing on it, but there were many times when I just want to give up, you know. But I just kept hearing the dejected voices, not just of my characters, but also of the hundreds of millions of LGBTQ people around the world who basically are criminalised and struggling for liberation, and I think they don’t have a voice in the world, they can’t ever come out in their own country.
So I felt like I had to carry the weight of the entire LGBTQ community on my back. I guess I was raised in a family with values of noblesse oblige, that you cannot just come here and just go through life, you have to really do something, leave something behind to make the world easier for other people, and I think that’s why I kept going, really.
What do you have to say about the importance of having so much other than just sexuality in the novel?
There are many books and many theatrical performs, like Angels America, many movies that were made, but that was all contained within the LGBT community – it was LGBT people writing about mostly LGBT people in their community, and heterosexual people cannot relate to these! Now, of course, some people will ask about why we need to cater to heterosexual people.
You need to, because we live in a society where we’re all interacting with each other, and I feel like if you want to make that change, this book potentially could be a start because the other things in this novel is doing exactly that. The relationship that Kanishka has with Maihaan is just not limited to their sexuality, but they also have relationships with other characters and that’s just as big as their relationship.
I am forty now, and as a gay person, this period is defining because after this is midlife crisis! During these 40 years I have seen Muslims who have been both scapegoats and pawns in this political system of what’s going on, especially during the Cold War when the US used Muslims to prop up radical Islam to fight against the Soviet Union, which I kind of show in this book. At the same time, there are the refugees and LGBT people and I have embodied all of those backgrounds.
I don’t identify as Muslim anymore, I’m an ex-Muslim, but still I see both the communities under siege by white supremacy and white nationalism. But at the same time, within the Muslim community, there is an incredible amount of bigotry and prejudice and discrimination and intolerance towards LGBTQ people, so it’s kind of like this weird dynamic where they are both the victim and victimiser and I’m sure that’s the same way here in India, and the same way everywhere.
Then even in a country like Iran, the Muslim community is where the people are both victim of the government, and at the same time, the LGBT people are victims of the government and the community, and this is why I feel like I’ve been so politicised with my identity group. While some people read about the Cold War, I lived it in my own household.
My father was part of the religious elite – he was Sunni Syed and Muslim, and then he joined the Communist Party of Afghanistan, he was a Parchami. My Dad and four of my uncles joined the Communist Party, the Parchami faction. My mom kidnapped me and my siblings – because of the Cold War, she didn’t want us to live in the Afghanistan of communism and war. My father, who was ambassador of Afghanistan to West Germany, went back to Afghanistan, and my mom took took us from Germany to the United States. All these are things I have lived and have been affected by, so I felt like I was privy to it.
Nobody I’ve ever talked to in my life has had this kind of an intimate close encounter with the Cold War. They may have been a victim of our suffering front, but then they can’t explain the political thing about it and I guess living in a household where you’re more cognizant and more aware of these things which are topics of discussion over dinner and stuff helped! It gives the book a lot more background, which is important.
How difficult was it to get this published?
As a gay man of colour, it’s incredibly difficult to get published in the US and UK. A lot of people said there’s no market for this book and it’s very sad, many gay white men, both agents and publishers, just couldn’t connect with the writing and I can see why. A lot of gay white men who are educated and wealthy and come from privileged backgrounds are not considered a minority in the US – they’re considered part of the majority, where they go to the same old boys’ clubs and mingle with power, so they would obviously have no idea about this.
Getting published is about what is literary merit and what is profitable,u but there’s also an agenda where some people don’t want me to be a voice and a vessel, or even inspire other LGBTQ people of color. For example, some of the responses were, oh “this is a good story, but you know what, I really wanted something very simple, like Call Me by your Name”, which is, well, just a sexual awakening and that’s not this story, so you don’t get it. Another response is, “It’s too complex for Americans to understand, I just want you to simplify this, or just streamline it so it is not so convoluted.”
Well, I’ve never had an Indian person say that! I had multiple offers but Kanishka Gupta, my agent, and his team said this book was going to be big and so far, there’s been a warm reception, everybody loves it. So I just don’t understand how this can be a book that has been considered to be high quality here, is not even worthy of publication by any publisher or any agent representing me in the US.
The time The Carpet Weaver was launched in India is just right! I think that a coming-of-age story coincides with the coming of age of a nation or community, right, with the overturning of Section 377.
It’s been a year and a bit…
Yeah, and basically two weeks before the ruling, this book was acquired and the press release went out like right after, so this is this is the first LGBT novel coming into the South Asian market after the verdict, you know. So yes, it’s a perfect time!