In his recently released novel, PORTRAIT OF SEBASTIAN KHAN, writer Aatif Rashid creates a uniquely beautiful, compelling and contemporary Muslim-American coming-of-age story. An excerpt plus a Q&A between the author and AFLW Fiction Editor Pete Hsu about character development, themes exploring ongoing gender and racial-political issues and a new kind of POC narrative.
PORTRAIT OF SEBASTIAN KHAN
It’s from this pose that he first sees her—Fatima Ahmed, as he’ll later learn her name to be—seated on the IKEA Solsta and staring at him. She’s as separate from the party as he is, quiet amidst the laughter, a tableau of stillness against the general swirl of bodies, sitting rigid and in place while the students around her sway drunkenly side to side or throw their heads back to down shots. In the way she looks at him, eyes wide, a faint flush in her cheeks visible even in this light, he knows she’s intrigued by him.
He reaches the sofa and sits, leaving a few inches of space between them.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi,” she says.
Sebastian sees she has no drink in her hand.
“Not drinking tonight?” he asks.
“I don’t drink.”
Sebastian is briefly awed. Temperance is not a very popular ideal on a college campus and meeting a practitioner is often more unlikely than meeting a 9/11 truther or someone who voted McCain. She does in some ways resemble those women who founded temperance societies in late-nineteenth-century America, with strong, arched, and bushy eyebrows, a broad forehead, hair tied back in a loose ponytail, small glasses that sharpen her already sharp gaze, a blouse buttoned all the way up to the top, and a long, flowing skirt that falls past her knees, a garment which in the age of miniskirts seems as archaic as the ideals of courtly love and traditional marriage.
“Are you allergic?” he asks.
She looks confused.
“Are you allergic?” Sebastian repeats. “To alcohol?”
“Why do you think I’m allergic to alcohol?”
“Because you don’t drink.”
Her eyes narrow. “I’m Muslim.”
Sebastian’s eyes widen, with surprise and interest. It’s obvious now that he knows. Her skin color is like his mother’s was, and she looks like a grown-up version of the Pakistani girls he remembers from the Islamic classes at the mosque he used to go to as a child. Sebastian, of course, has long since abandoned Islam. His mother was the religious parent, holding onto the Pakistani half of her heritage in a way Sebastian’s father never did and insisting Sebastian go to Islamic school on Sundays. But when she died, when Sebastian was twelve, he started going less and less, and eventually not at all. Religion seemed an insufficient answer to life’s tragedies. Instead, Sebastian turned to art, an interest his mother had often encouraged in him. At the library one day, soon after her death, he found a book on the Pre-Raphaelites and, flipping it open with a longing for his mother clutching at his chest, he discovered a print of Rossetti’s Proserpina. He was drawn at first to the way she reminded him of his mother, the slender fingers, the black hair, the faraway look in her eyes, but after a moment, he began to focus on the colors abstracted from any meaning, the fiery orange of the peach, the deep red of the lips, the velvet and oceanic blue of the dress. They were like nothing he’d ever seen in suburban California, windows to another reality, a refuge from the melancholy of his new, mother- less world. After that, Sebastian lost himself in the art of the nineteenth century, in Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian images of slender women standing in vivid landscapes, with wild hair and sadness in their eyes. In the abundance of color and sensuality, Sebastian found something almost spiritual, an alternative to the dreary present, a glorious past where emotional pain didn’t exist. Those paintings filled a void that Islam, with its rejection of visual depiction, never could. And so Sebastian passed his adolescence in a state of blissful impiety, skipping mosque class to go to museum exhibitions and reading Walter Pater instead of the Quran (Sebastian’s father, who never particularly liked Islam, or any religion for that matter, wasn’t at all bothered by his son’s spiritual decline and fall). Yet still, despite his apostasy, whenever Sebastian passes by the Muslim Student Association table on Sproul Plaza and sees the group of them praying at the top of the steps of the Martin Luther King Building and placing their foreheads on the felt prayer mats rolled out across the ground, he feels a surprising swell of emotion listening to their collective “Allahu-Akbar” echo down the promenade. In those moments he thinks of his mother, who taught him some Arabic words as a child and whispered them to him as he went to sleep, comforting, lilting phrases that she said would blanket him and always keep him safe. Now, with this Fatima who declares herself Muslim and doesn’t drink and has his mother’s skin tone, and even looks a little like Rossetti’s Proserpina, with her sharp nose and fierce expression, Sebastian is overwhelmed with a strange feeling, something he’s never felt for any of the many women he’s casually courted (women who have almost entirely been white), something beyond simple lust, a longing for his mother and a culture he’d long ago rejected.
“I’m Muslim too,” Sebastian says.
Fatima’s eyes flicker down to his drink.
“I slip up sometimes,” he adds. “But honestly, I don’t drink that much.”
Before Fatima can confirm the truth of what is, in truth, a complete lie (one of many Sebastian will inflict on poor Fatima), Viola appears in front of the Solsta, holding a whiskey bottle by the neck and clutching a handful of shot glasses in her other hand.
“Sebastian!” she says. “Drink up! You told me we’d finish this bottle last night and there’s still half left!”
Before Sebastian can explain himself to Fatima, Viola thrusts him an overflowing shot of whiskey. A few droplets slosh onto Sebastian’s coat, joining an earlier whiskey stain higher up on the lapel. Sebastian attempts a sheepish smile in Fatima’s direction, but Viola interrupts him for a toast.
“To Sebastian Khan! Binge-drinker extraordinaire!”
“I don’t drink that much—”
“He once blacked out from wine!” Viola says to Fatima. “From wine! It was boxed wine, but still…”
Fatima stands and brushes out the creases in her skirt.
“I should find my friend,” she says.
Excerpted from the novel with permission of the author.
Portrait of a Writer: Q&A between Aatif Rashid & AFLW Fiction Editor Pete Hsu
Pete Hsu: Portrait of Sebastian Khan is very much about beauty. The protagonist and the prose itself are both beautiful and obsessed with beauty. The novel is a piece of art that is at the same time a commentary on the “fundamental unreality” of art. So, let’s talk about beauty: beauty in general and especially beauty in art.
Aatif Rashid: Well for a long time, beauty was basically the only metric I used to judge paintings. Just like my protagonist Sebastian Khan, I’d completely imbibed that John Keats idea that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and so my favorite paintings were those of the Pre-Raphaelites—“images of slender women standing in vivid landscapes, with wild hair and sadness in their eyes,” as I put it in the novel. But as I grew older, I learned to question Keats’ mantra, and I understood that the Pre-Raphaelite women are beautiful largely because they’re so stylized and unreal, and that their beauty actually has nothing to do with truth—and that, on a more basic level, all art is fundamentally unreal. Sebastian undergoes a similar development; early on, he’s drawn largely to the exterior beauty of women, hair and skin and eyes and sensory details, but eventually he learns to decouple beauty and truth, and more broadly decouple art and reality.
PH: In one of your Kenyon Review articles, you discuss the idea that “all fiction is inherently political” in an analysis of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. Although Portrait of Sebastian Khan> doesn’t have that type of direct political message, I’d argue that the political dimension is still being rigorously engaged. What would you say about the politics in the novel?
AR: On one level, there’s the gender politics, specifically the way Sebastian objectifies women. I know the novel has a really strong male gaze, especially in the early chapters, and so it was important to me that this attitude is ultimately critiqued—and so, without giving too much away, the process through which Sebastian learns to see women as human beings rather than simply art objects is my way of engaging with this kind of politics. Through his character arc, I wanted to highlight the flawed way certain men look at and think about women, but also highlight the capacity of these men to change for the better.
Secondly, there’s the racial politics—Sebastian is half-Pakistani, raised Muslim, but in the novel emphatically non-practicing, and there’s a tension between his decision to date Muslim-American Fatima Ahmed and his attraction to mostly white or white-looking women. Originally, the racial elements had been less pronounced, and the novel had been more of a post-racial Obama-era story, with a protagonist who simply happened to be (partially) a person of color—but in the editing process, my publisher/editor Leland Cheuk encouraged me to bring out the racial politics, especially given how the new post-Trump landscape had shattered our society’s post-racial myth. So toward the end of the novel, Sebastian becomes more conscious of his own racial difference and especially the way others around him view him and how they try and pathologize his attraction to white women.
PH: Sebastian Khan is, to me, a decidedly unlikable protagonist. I can imagine this choice also as a political move. Though it’s changing, there is still a kind of noble-person-of-color trope, where a scrappy POC protagonist overcomes some structural evil with honor. Sebastian is not that protagonist. What do you think about the role of likability in a literary protagonist, both in general and especially for characters of color?
AR: With Portrait I was very much interested in writing a different kind of POC narrative. I’d started the earliest draft of this in 2011, and that’s when anti-heroes like Don Draper were at their cultural peak, and I wanted to do something similar with a character of color. I think likability in general is overrated—I understand that connecting with a character on that level can be comforting, but I always found unlikeable protagonists so much more interesting, and I felt that POC characters in particular were never allowed to be too unlikeable. There seemed to be this moral mold they all had to fit into. And so with Sebastian Khan, I was interested in a character who audiences will dislike, and at times even hate, but who they still find compelling in that Don Draper way, and who in the end they can, if not fully sympathize with, at least understand. I think it’s important to allow characters of color to be complex in this way, because then we separate them from the burden of serving as representatives of their racial group and allow them simply to be human beings—fallible, complicated, and therefore more real.
PH: In another KR article, you talk about naming characters and how you’ve taken a couple of different tacks to this: the naturalistic approach of taking names from the kids you grew up with, and a more stylized approach that borrows from the Classics. Tell us about the names in the novel, starting with Sebastian Khan and Fatima Ahmed and on down the line.
AR: I’m so glad someone’s asked me about names! It’s something I’ve always wanted to talk about. With Portrait I was really seeking this balance where each name is symbolically appropriate but also felt realistic enough for millennials in 2011. Sebastian itself isn’t necessarily a specific allusion, but I wanted a name that conveyed decadence and hedonism, and it just felt right. Fatima’s name was a little more difficult, and I changed it a lot, but ultimately I settled on Fatima Ahmed because of how it contrasted with Sebastian Khan—the latter is only vaguely non-white, Khan being an easy enough Pakistani name to pronounce, which fits Sebastian’s desire to try and not think about his race, whereas Fatima Ahmed is very obviously a non-English name, which suited the thematic role she plays in the novel.
The other names are mostly drawn from Shakespeare (Viola from Twelfth Night, Imogen from Cymbeline, Rosalind, Juliet, Helena, etc.—though with only very light thematic resemblances between them and their Shakespearean counterparts), or else allude to other books (Sebastina’s roommate Harry “Hari” Kumar, for example, is a reference to Harry Kumar from The Jewel in the Crown, a character who likewise struggles with his identity), or else are meant to be thoroughly ironic (fat and buffoonish Nate Hale, who’s nothing at all like the famous American spy). For me, the artificiality of the names was a way to emphasize the constructedness of the novel in a postmodern kind of way and goes back to the “fundamental unreality” of art.
PH: Portrait of Sebastian Khan is described as “part satire of college life circa 2011.” I found this compelling, as I see 2011 as a collision of late capitalist wrecking balls: economic collapse, tangible environmental disaster, and hyper-competitive human capital development. As a person who’s written a work that is, at least in part, about this generation, what about 2011 is the novel bringing to light, engaging with, satirizing?
AR: What a great summary of 2011! On the one hand, I chose the year simply because that’s when I myself graduated from college—but looking back while writing, it definitely was a year fraught with all kinds of political and economic change. A lot of the major political events are happening in the background of the novel, such as the continuing recession, which subtly informs Sebastian’s fear of the real world and how he approaches his relationship with Fatima. But the biggest element of satire is of course the Model United Nations subplots: in that club, you have these characters who are ostensibly interested in global politics, but in reality all they really care about are the parties and the drinking and the “chance to be someone else for a weekend.” And so whenever current events do come up, it’s always in an apolitical way— the Arab Spring becomes the punchline for a joke, and Sebastian portrays Libya in a Model UN committee (and even admires Gaddafi’s theatrical affect) not that long before the US intervention there. And this all in a way contacts to a larger satire of many (though of course not all) college students of that time—on the one hand, I owe a lot to my college education, especially when it comes to my intellectual development, but on the other hand college also felt like a weird playground, where we would pretend to be adults while spending our parents’ money, living in this bubble of unreality and being pretty oblivious to the political realities around us.
PH: Trader Joe’s and Ikea are prominent supporting characters in the novel. I laughed a lot at these references because I’ve got some 25-year-old Ikea stuff in my house that’s still holding its own. So, I gotta ask, are you living that life in real life? And if so, what’re you recommending from TJ’s and Ikea?
AR: I do have the exact IKEA sofa that comes up several times in the novel—the boxy blue Solsta that folds out into a bed. It felt like everyone I knew had that same sofa, so I decided to make its recurrence a joke/motif in the novel. As for Trader Joe’s, I definitely still shop there all the time, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of their cheeses (which have definitely made many appearances in my fiction). I think ultimately I included these references to help ground the novel in a recognizable reality as a contrast to the dreamy and unreal way Sebastian so often sees the world, to remind the reader that there is in fact a real world beyond college, no matter how much some of these characters try and pretend there isn’t.
PH: What are you reading right now, and what’s the best thing you’ve read in the last year?
AR: I’m currently reading Milkman. I know reactions have been polarized and it’s gotten some negative reviews, but I really like it. It’s got this slightly odd and hypnotic rhythm to its sentences—and if you read my work, you know I love my long, rhythmic sentences. And the best thing I read last year was definitely Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai—I’d heard so much about it over the years, and when I finally sat down to read it, I blew through its 500-plus pages in just a few days. It’s a really hard novel to describe, but it manages to fuse so many different things together, old movies, classical music, dead languages, etc., into a really moving story. I think because my own novel is such a fusion of different ideas—Model UN, art history, Muslim identity, etc—I really appreciate novels that can bring so many different elements together into a coherent narrative.
PH: And finally, what are you working on now?
AR: I have a collection of short stories about Islamic history that I recently finished and am querying/pitching, and I’m working on two novels, one that’s a much more serious and political novel about Muslim identity in the twenty first century, and another that’s more like Portrait of Sebastian Khan, a retelling of a P.G. Wodehouse novel but set in contemporary Los Angeles, dealing with social class, race, neoliberalism, etc. in a comic way.
Aatif Rashid is the author of the novel, Portrait of Sebastian Khan, released in March 2019 from 7.13 Books. His short stories have been published in The Massachusetts Review, Metaphorosis and Arcturus Magazine, and his nonfiction work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books and online on Medium. He currently writes regularly for The Kenyon Review blog about fiction and literature, and tweets at @aatif_rashid.