Nadia Akbar’s debut novel is a startling look at contemporary upper-class Lahore society. Here, the author — who is now based in Manizales, Colombia — talks to Eos about music, the old boys’ club of Pakistani writers and not playing by the rules
You worked at a local radio station out of Lahore. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I worked at CityFM89 for about five years. I had two shows; one was Lunch @89 twice a week, which was a mixed show of pop, rock, dance, etc. And then I had a really popular late night show from 10pm to midnight on Friday nights called Pre-party which was mostly dance, house and hip-hop, which are really my preferred genres of music. It was great fun working with an awesome group of radio jockeys, all from different backgrounds and with unique personalities. The youth of Pakistan is super cool and people should know that. They’re funny, original and creative and they spit fire.
The title of your book has a strong connection to music. So do your characters. Did the time spent at the station influence that?
My characters are connected to music for sure, Bugsy [a radio jockey] especially. Music is a platform for social connection and it reveals us for who we really are. Music sparked the idea for the novel. I was thinking about the idea of a girl in a small town in Pakistan writing a fan letter to Freddie Mercury and connecting to this superstar, despite the vast distance between their worlds.
When did you decide to switch careers and become an author?
Later than I would have liked, but that’s how it is for women in Pakistan. Our parents want us to do things that are ‘practical’, or sometimes, nothing at all.
When did you start working on Goodbye Freddie Mercury?
I started really writing it about five years ago. It’s a process. For me I really cared about every line, every section. The choices I made were aesthetically deliberate. The novel is meant to shake you up a bit. I don’t want the reader to get too comfortable. It’s not the Pakistani experience.
What was your motivation in telling this particular story? Did it come out as what you had in mind?
You have an idea, but when you start writing it has its own trajectory. If you’re really open to the truth of it, you have an idea, but the muse takes over. I think sometimes that the youth tell the true story of a place —it’s hopes and fears. Sometimes hope wins. Sometimes it loses. This book was a unique slice of Lahore’s experience that needed to be shared.
Are you influenced by any local authors?
I’m influenced by Bapsi Sidhwa. She is a unique and powerful Pakistani writer who didn’t pull any punches and transcended the masculine politics of Pakistan. It’s not easy to be a female writer in Pakistan. I’ve even had a notable Pakistani male author discourage me. It’s an old boys’ club. But I’m kicking down the door and I don’t care if I’m invited.
Is Bugsy inspired by someone you knew at the station?
Bugsy is his own boy.
Why Freddie Mercury? I suspect the answer is in Mercury’s South Asian roots, but is there a personal connection as well?
I love him! He’s the most transcendent of all desis. As Bugsy says, “He’s beyond class, race, culture or creed.” He’s the perfect metaphor for what we all could be. But it’s a perilous journey.
A 21-year-old at a café told me she relates to your book because you write the way her generation talks. I agree; the writing is very ‘verbal’, but also far more direct and explicit than that of most other Pakistani fiction writers. Did you have any concerns? Have your parents read the book?
It is 100 percent authentic and unprecedented. I want the world to know this vernacular. Nobody that I know of has written a book this frank and I think it’s because they’re afraid of what people will say or think — which is no way to do art. There are great Pakistani writers out there, but someone has to break down these particular walls. It takes a woman’s courage. I think we’re hugely underestimated. I gave everyone I’m close to a fair warning and, to their credit, they’ve all been wonderful. They understand how art should be done. We don’t sound like Rudyard Kipling. We’re proud Pakistanis and we have our own authentic culture — swear words and all.
Rafina, which came out recently, talks a lot about sex and gendered sexual dynamics as well as class conflict, which your book touches upon as well. In an interview, Rafina’s author Shandana Minhas said, “We don’t talk about sex. Even when we’re having it.” Yet, you do. A lot.
I think in a lot of ways I seek verisimilitude in my writing. I like to think there are a lot of important themes in the book. I think Shandana has a great line.
I loved the book, but felt the end was a bit rushed. And I still don’t have closure with how the characters ended up.
There is no closure — that’s the point. It’s meant to be abrupt. It’s post-modern. I want it to be unsettling, with questions. Like life... like life in Pakistan.
In the morning when the election is won we all feel a sense of euphoria, but in a week there’s flooding, there’s dengue, load shedding, the same old cronies pulling the strings behind the scenes. Goodbye Freddie Mercury is meant to feel like Pakistan; the abruptness and disillusion is part of that. But still, there is always hope.
Now that Mian Tariq (a character seemingly modelled after Imran Khan) has won the election and is shaking things up, is there a Goodbye Freddie Mercury part 2 with Bugsy and co. in Naya Pakistan?
I don’t know. Let’s see.
From your website I got the impression that you wrote the manuscript before getting an agent. Some writers state they’ve been approached to write a book, yet you took the initiative yourself.
I wrote this novel because I wanted to, not to fit an industry niche. I would have written it no matter what. It’s wonderful that it’s been published and it’s even more wonderful that people are connecting with it, but I like the freedom to write what I want.
What’s next in store for you?
I’m beginning work on a new book and trying to put together a graphic novel simultaneously. Also, there is a lot of interest regarding the Goodbye Freddie Mercury screenplay that I’ve adapted.
You’re not based in Lahore anymore. Will your other novels also be based in Pakistan?
Lahore is my home and always will be, no matter where I live. I don’t know if my next novel will be set in Lahore, but I can’t imagine being away from it for too long.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 19th, 2018