by Nawaaz Ahmed
Anyone trying to understand 21st century America through literary fiction may believe that neither religion nor politics play a major role in shaping the lives of its inhabitants. With a lowercase p, politics is often at work, but with a capital P almost never; and religion largely belongs to Marilynne Robinson. It was clear that the Trump years would demand a new set of demands for the novel, but readers won’t be immediately familiar with “Radiant Fugitives,” Nawaaz Ahmed’s first feature film about an Indian-American woman who volunteered for Kamala Harris’ attorney general’s campaign in 2010. these demands.
The story begins in the San Francisco hospital room, where a newborn baby, Ishraaq’s mother, Seema, tells about her death in childbirth. Seema’s ex-husband, Bill, is walking outside with his mother, Nafeesa; as his sister Tahera runs towards them through the hospital corridors. From there, the novel returns to Ishraaq’s understanding and describes the arrival of Nafeesa and Tahera in California days before birth. We learn that Seema has been separated from her Indian family for years, ever since she came out to them as a lesbian in Chennai. Knowing that neither Bill nor her new lover, Leigh, can be the support she needs for a baby, pregnant Seema turns to Nafeesa, who has little time to live and wants above all to fix things between her two daughters. The sisters’ differences have only widened since Tahera, now living in Texas, sought refuge in a simple form of Islam.
Ishraaq’s narration, sometimes addressing Nafeesa, is often distracting. There’s little to distinguish her voice from any third-person omniscient narrative, and you quickly learn not to pay too much attention, for example, as she refers to Seema primarily by name and sometimes as “mother”. For a while this seems like a fairly traditional story of a family confronting old disagreements and even older loves, its most daring act to give us a deeply devout Muslim character.
That is until the novel goes even further back in 2003, when Seema met Bill at an Iraq war protest. Ishraaq’s tone becomes more energetic, but his sincerity dwindles as he follows Seema through a series of political campaigns that have resulted in disillusionment with Obama. Ahmed fails to attribute his disappointment to Seema’s abandonment by his father, and it’s a relief when the novel turns to a female-only trio.