‘I want this book to literally save people’: Nemat Sadat
Afghan author and US-based activist and journalist, Nemat Sadat has been campaigning for LGBTQ rights not just in Afghanistan but in the Muslim world. His debut book The Carpet Weaver narrates the story of young gay Afghan man who not only struggles to deal with his sexuality but also the persecution that comes with it and the final finding of peace.
While your personal experiences must be the base for writing this book, what made you decide to pen The Carpet Weaver?
I was extremely frustrated that no literature properly depicted the queer Muslim experience. If I did find something, it was mired in doom-and-gloom or disparaged LGBTQ people by mixing up issues of homosexuality with pederasty.
The idealist in me saw the dearth of LGBTQ content as an opportunity to enter the fore and write a story that would appear to gay people of colour. In due time, I realised that writing ground-breaking fiction was a sure-fire way to change the world.
I was compelled to write a revolutionary novel that would normalise homosexuality in the Afghan community and perceive me, a gay Afghan refugee, as desirable by mainstream society in the US. Secretly, the romantic in me felt that writing a moving novel and becoming famous as a world-renowned author would attract a soulmate into my life.
How did the plot and characterisation come about?
I started off the book knowing that Kanishka was the main protagonist, that he was a young gay man born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan and that he would have two childhood friends—Faiz and Maihan—who would fuel the story. I knew I wanted a romance, so I thought why not have Kanishka and Maihan forge a romantic bond. And everything else really built itself around this basic foundational premise. I didn’t have a coherent structure in mind. Early in the writing process, I simply wrote whatever came to mind. And it was from these freewriting exercises that The Carpet Weaver came to be.
I wanted this book to literally save people. Maybe, it would reach someone, somewhere who could relate with Kanishka and he, she too might risk it all to embark on their own journey to live and love freely. For those who are undecided in taking the call to action and cross the threshold into the unknown, The Carpet Weaver is a wake-up call. The message of the book is very clear: don’t waste your life in doubt and living for others because you will never find true happiness.
Was it an emotional journey for you writing this novel?
I was drawn to writing fiction first and foremost as a radical escapist fantasy from the repression I had faced. 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. My coming out gay and starting my campaign for LGBTQ rights occurred about midway into my journey to write The Carpet Weaver. Coming out and lifting the burden of the secret I had been holding for 34 years helped me create the bandwidth to concentrate more on my novel.
You have struggled and are still struggling to be who you are and also stand up for others from your country. Can you recollect incidents that left a mark?
Being wrongly perceived as having an innate biological flaw by your community can give you the strength necessary to overcome your worst fears and to position yourself as a defining leader for your people. Either subconsciously, or through a self-fulfilling prophecy, I was five years old when I felt I was put on this Earth to create a legacy for myself. I was born gay and Muslim in 1979 in Kabul, Afghanistan, and in 1984, my family resettled amongst southern California’s Afghan Diaspora. I was a happy child. Always close to my family and relatives. Though I started feeling inadequate when I encountered opposition for being authentic and true to my nature. For a third-grade assignment, I told the class I wanted to be a talk show host when I grew up. I loved expressing myself, speaking my mind, and telling the truth. This didn’t bode well with my overbearing mother, stern father, conservative brother and many traditional aunts, uncles, and cousins who kept up with Afghan customs and Islamic rituals. The feeling of not being free troubled me. In hindsight, I think these events set the stage for me to be the activist and author I am today. Enduring a state of disharmony, I spent much of my youth reading books and watching Oprah while living in Greater Los Angeles.
In my teens; while living in Irvine, California I was cursed by my father, who repeatedly called me a kuni, a derogatory word equivalent to ‘fag’, because I loved to dance and acted effeminate. At the mosque, I heard sermons preach homosexuality as an illness and sin and justify the death penalty for gays and lesbians. My entire youth was tainted with fear, guilt, intimidation, shame and untold repression stemming from my same-gender attraction and the psychological violence I was subjected to because of my Afghan roots and Muslim faith.
When I reached adulthood; I was pressured by my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and family acquaintances to act manly and marry a woman. I spent years dodging the issue and pursued higher education as a stalling tactic until I found myself on the fringes and realised there was no escape.
What are the things still on your to-do list for your fight?
I will continue the fight for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Afghanistan and around the world. But the nature of how that fight is fought is evolving. Now, that I’ve published The Carpet Weaver, the nature of my activism is changing. The Carpet Weaver is acting as the petition to legalize homosexuality. I see Kanishka as the voice and The Carpet Weaver as the vessel. I have three more books in the pipeline—all of which deal with LGBTQ characters and themes.
Finally, what will the book mean for every reader who picks it up, irrespective of sexuality and gender?
Kanishka Nurzada is as one of the bravest heroes in the canon of literature. He is confronted with identity crisis, religious conflicts, violence, and so many horrifying aspects of the human world and yet he handles himself with grace and hopefulness. He has to overcome so much ugliness to liberate himself. But the impulse Kanishka exercises is the quintessential wish of people across cultures and throughout history—to break free from the yoke of oppression.