‘I wanted to write a novel that would be a stark departure from the generic portrayals of Afghanistan’, says Nemat Sadat, the author of The Carpet Weaver, a coming of age queer love story of an adolescent artist from Afghanistan set in its golden age.
The book, only available in South Asia currently has been garnering attention for its view of Afgan society. Nemat sits down with Gaysi to discuss his debut book, queer narratives from Afghanistan and how literature has a role to transform how politics of the marginalised continue to be viewed.
Q. Why did you choose to write a story about an adolescent boy in your first book, especially a young boy who is a carpet weaver? What were the themes you were looking to explore beyond queer narratives?
This book is first and foremost a coming-of-age story. It is also a book about romantic love, gay love, and an example of queer literature.
I felt the urge to explore the transition from boyhood to manhood and shed light into the hidden lives of a gay Muslim male and the indignities they endure in silence being forced to live a fake life—shrouded by hypocrisy and secrets—in a politically charged and repressive society.
I also wanted to write a coming-of-age novel. Books within the Bildungsroman genre of literary fiction have always been my favorite and these are the books that can become popular classic and go on to shape society. The Carpet Weaver is a gay Bildungsroman romantic drama. Since Kanishka is an artist, I felt the book is more specifically accurate to call a Künstlerroman, which is a subgenre of the Bildungsroman, and in German it means “artist novel.”
I also wanted to shed light on the exploitation of carpet weavers—particularly the millions of children—who labor in this profession in the “Rug Belt”—a world I coined and mentioned in the novel—and refers to the stretch of land from Morocco to Tibet.
Carpet weaving represents Afghanistan’s working class and a vibrant tradition. The Carpet Weaver is also a great metaphor that weaves the diversity, history, cultural heritage and immense problems of Afghanistan into a colorful and rich tapestry. I wanted to write a novel that would be a stark departure from the generic portrayals of Afghanistan. To do this, I needed to write with a depth of feeling, grandeur of setting, and broadness of scope that would shatter all the preconceived notions and alter perceptions. In my lifetime Afghanistan has been branded as the “graveyard of empires” and “the leftover country in god’s creation of the world in six days.”
I felt I could still show the good, the bad, and the ugly. But also capture the ‘paradise lost’ of Afghanistan’s golden age of the 1970s prior to the war that started and continues to this day.
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 queer 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.
Q. Most Asian countries still have a long way to go in terms of rights for the non conforming/queer. What was the response you received to your book from populations in your home country (and possibly other Asian people)?
Well, the book is only available in South Asia—that is India plus its six surrounding neighbors. I don’t have a book deal yet in any territory outside the region. But of course, people find ways to get a hold of them. A 17-year old Afghan male who aspires to be a journalist asked a friend in India to buy the book and send it to him in Kabul. His parents were mad that he was reading The Carpet Weaver. He tried to convince his parents about the merits about my book and how much it will help show a different side of Afghanistan. This young man also boasted about me saying how learned I have attained six advanced degrees from credible universities. His parents replied, “What different does it make when he’s known as Nemat the kuni. He’ll never be more than that.” Mind you this young man’s parents represent the educated elite of Kabul. Imagine what the rest of Afghanistan has to say about my novel.
Q. What role do you feel literary fiction plays in affecting real social policy towards the marginalized in a society?
Socially engaged novelists who have written powerful novels elicited for the plight of their lead characters have made society better by making us more human through the sharing of their work. I definitely think that socially engaged novelists such as Toni Morrison and her depiction the about the legacy of slavery and racial prejudice in the United States have cast light on the injustices endured by black Americans. Charles Dickens exposed the evils of child labor and struggles of his characters serves as a petition for progressive reforms in the workplace and regulation of child labor.
The Carpet Weaver is the first major mainstream novel to depict the gay, Muslim, émigré experience and the first two explore the exploitation of child rug makers. The Carpet Weaver is an #OwnVoices book, meaning Kanishka represents a marginalized group that I, as the author, belong to. We both identify as gay, Afghan, ex-Muslim, and refugee.
The world is split on LBGTQ rights and I firmly believe that The Carpet Weaver will be the catalyst to tip the scales in favor of a gay-friendly planet. In other words, what Brokeback Mountain did by breaking fresh ground as the first gay romance to crossover into the mainstream and transform American culture and the West with overall acceptance of marriage equality, I expect The Carpet Weaver is well-positioned to be art the heart of the conversation about LGBTQIA rights.
Kanishka is more than just a hero in the story or a pioneer in his troubled nation. I see him 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 68 or so countries in Asia and around the world where they are still criminalized and struggling for their liberation. So it is my hope that The Carpet Weaver will become the defining book of our generation to spearhead the petition to legalize homosexuality everywhere where LGBTQIA people still have no right to exist.
Q. Hypothetically, if you had to tell us what story you’d like to say next- whose story would it be?
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. After launching my debut in India, I’ve been deluged with heartfelt messages from readers of The Carpet Weaver who have been begging me for a sequel.
Unfortunately, that won’t happen. The Carpet Weaver is a stand-alone epic novel and trying to capitalize on a sequel will pervert the original and risk it’s chance of being a popular classic. What I can promise my fans is that all my books will have LGBTQIA characters in leadings roles.
You can buy a copy of The Carpet Weaver in any major online or offline bookstore.