Aatif Rashid is a writer living in Los Angeles. He is the author of the novel Portrait of Sebastian Khan, published March 18, 2019 from 7.13 Books. His short stories have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Metamorphosis, and Arcturus Magazine, and his nonfiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books and in Medium. He writes for The Kenyon Review blog about fiction and tweets at @aatif_rashid.
Aatif Rashid’s debut novel Portrait of Sebastian Khan (7.13 Books) is a searing and unrelenting character study of a half-white, Pakistani-American, Berkeley college student struggling to grow up. In Portrait, Rashid attempts to interrogate the intellectual, aesthetic, and sexual pursuits of a Muslim man resisting any attempt to think of himself outside idealized post-racial narratives, giving refreshing, subversive insight into the inner life of a Muslim-American man. In April, at AWP, I got to chat with Aatif Rashid about Portrait; who Sebastian Khan is, and how Rashid happened upon him; the “Berkeley progressive”; racial self-hatred; the pre-Raphaelite artistic movement; using art history as a means to escape contemporary racial categories; campus culture in the late aughts; and more.
Kamil Ahsan: Might as well get the most annoying question out of the way because it’s going to come up somehow anyway: how autobiographical is Portrait of Sebastian Khan? Or, let me ask this differently: is Sebastian Khan a version of yourself that you’re using as a means for self-flagellation, to critique your own privilege and experience?
Aatif Rashid: That’s a good way to put it. So: I went to Berkeley, he went to Berkeley. I didn’t study Art History but I studied History and English, so there’s some similarities on the surface level. I did Model UN too. But personality-wise, Sebastian Khan is sort of my worst qualities exaggerated, or maybe not even my own qualities, but qualities that I once maybe felt I had or feared about myself. For a while I just used to say “Sebastian Khan is totally fictional,” but it’s wrong to say it’s totally fictional, it is based on something. The first draft was actually a lot more autobiographical; I was trying to make him more likeable, more like myself personality-wise. The second time I gained more distance between myself and the character.
KA: Model UN is a scaffold for the entire book, paired with this litany of women Sebastian Khan hooks up with. There’s this sense of artificiality, or the precocious intellect of that experience while being really high-stakes and frantic. What about Model UN felt organic to this story?
AR: I obviously knew about the absurdities of Model UN where, on the one hand, you have people who take it very seriously, they’ll debate really hard and go to conferences. And simultaneously, there’s people who just do it for the partying and traveling. So, if the novel is about this guy who is afraid of graduating, and afraid of the real world, then Model UN is a fake version of the real world. None of it’s real, yet you’re going to pretend for a while like it is, wear nice suits, and have the placards for your country. Then it becomes very comfortable that it’s not real!
KA: Of course, the real world intrudes into the Model UN world a lot—as for instance when Juliet talks about how the recession is actually good for them, along with the motif of the homeless man—but I’m curious about intrusion of the “real world”: what about Sebastian makes him so peculiar?
AR: Sebastian, more than the other characters, wants to separate himself completely from the “real world” and to be fully in this world of his creation. Other characters, to varying degrees, are connected to the real world or are moving towards it. Fatima is very much the character most associated with it, because she’s looking for that post-graduation job! That’s true even with his Model UN friends. Sebastian is the last of them willing to face the real world.
KA: Sebastian has this arrested development man-child sort of affliction, maybe borne out of a sort of affluenza because he’s a privileged kid and his dad pays his bills. I have a strong sense that you see youth not just as a state of being, but as an affliction, no?
AR: Sebastian wants to stay young forever and he doesn’t understand why it would be important to grow up at all. The art he likes is incredibly focused on youth, immortality, and beauty, and that’s associated with the class privilege. I certainly exaggerated my privilege, and I certainly felt class privilege myself. My Muslim identity didn’t make me feel privileged, but my parents are sort of upper-middle class, Bay Area kind of people. In some ways I wasn’t privileged, but importantly in some ways I really was. Sebastian’s definitely the person I was afraid of being and saw other people being—in how he’s totally unconscious and unaware of his class privilege.
KA: So, representative of the Berkeley “progressive” in that sense?
AR: Yes! I had always associated Berkeley with that 60s protest vibe. And the year after I graduated—the summer of 2011 when Occupy happened—it flared up again. But I remember looking at the news reports of the protests and remembering there was never anything like that when I was there! For whatever reason I had just missed this shift in campus culture. Maybe with you being in grad school you’ve seen this social justice stuff emerging, which is great, but it wasn’t just there from 2007 to 2011. Even if it was just emerging, most of the people I knew weren’t involved with it. So, you have these characters who are part of Model UN and ostensibly interested in global dialogue and ‘doing things for the world’ and the irony of it is that they really don’t care. They’re really self-absorbed. So, ostensibly, Berkeley is this progressive university associated with the 60s counterculture movement but it’s now essentially a playground for bourgeois, upper-middle class kids.
KA: From 2007 to 2011—the end of the Bush presidency and the beginning of Obama’s—it took a little bit of time in the Obama presidency for Occupy and income inequality to become a big deal. How active was that choice for you to perhaps hide politics behind your characters and make them both apolitical but pretty aware about politics because they had to talk about it all the time?
AR: It started accidentally. In the initial versions I wrote what I felt was realistic. And it was only later when I looked back did I realize my writing had shifted; my later writing is more explicitly political. The novel I’m working on now—I jokingly call it my “neoliberalism novel”—is set in 2016 and it’s about that. But with Portrait, there was still this debate going on about whether politics even belongs in the novel. Thankfully, we’ve reached this point where it’s understood that it’s always been in the novel. But as I was writing it, I wasn’t super aware of it, and then later I amped it up. Race, for instance, I pushed up later—I wanted to keep it subtle—but my publisher said that the novel felt very post-racial, an Obama-era novel with these characters who weren’t really that conscious of race in their lives, or whose race was never necessarily commented upon. I did ultimately want Sebastian to become conscious about his identity, his brown-ness, at some point. It became a greater part of the novel, about this character who is trying to pass as white, who eventually realizes other people see him as brown, but he’s been really ignorant of it this whole time. Again, that’s an exaggerated version of myself: I never thought I could pass as white, but I remember feeling like “oh, it would be great to be white.” Have you ever had a phase like that, in that way?
KA: I mean, of course it would be great to be white, but I’ve never actually considered that possibility. It’s interesting because right now we’re kind of mimicking a sort of interaction, one that for me is one of the most interesting parts of the novel: Sebastian and Fatima’s relationship, or the interaction between the first- or second-generation immigrant child and the international student who’s coming from your ancestral country. That interaction is so very fraught, right? I feel like most interactions between international students and first- or second-generation immigrants are depicted with the international students being far more conservative, far more tied down to culture, whereas the children of immigrants aren’t at all. In my experience, I almost always feel the complete opposite. When I moved, me and all my friends who had just come from the subcontinent would sort of find it really jarring that the Indian/Pakistani neighborhoods in Chicago felt stuck in these really old fads, and we felt, comparatively, so Westernized! How much of Sebastian and Fatima represents the interaction between these two sets of people?
AR: I’m really interested in the different degrees of assimilation in immigrant communities in the Bay Area. My dad went to college in the Bay Area, and I don’t want to say “American” because that implies something is American and something else is not, but he’s definitely very assimilated. But at the same time, he had an arranged marriage; he went back to Pakistan to marry my mom. Then there were people who were perhaps less assimilated and wanted to hold on to that culture. I don’t want to make a judgment on one or the other, but I think that tension is interesting. Even when I chose Fatima’s name, that was important; I went back and forth on her name a lot. Sebastian Khan came early on—Sebastian has this foppishness and hedonism to it, right? And Khan is maybe one of the easier names for Americans to pronounce—
KA: Well, not really, because it’s kh-aan, because well, kh is a phonemic element in Urdu with no equivalent in English—
AR: Yeah, so even then it’s not—
KA: But it’s fine. Like, we’ll let it go, hah!
AR: Whereas with Fatima, it’s a more difficult name to pronounce for Americans, in all kinds of different ways. So, her name reflects that she won’t pass as white or American, and she’s not trying to.
KA: How do you read that? Is that fine by her, or does she sort of crave American assimilation in a different way? She wants a great job, she’s a go-getter, she wants to work in the US, but she’s not fully willing to let go of ‘her’ culture, right?
AR: Oh, for sure.
KA: It’s funny, I didn’t come here for college, I came for graduate school. And there’s a big difference! A lot of the people I know who came for graduate school were steeped in and taught postcolonial theory as a sort of armor. Fatima—I don’t think it’s vocalized very much—has a significant amount of pride, correct? She’s not willing to debase herself to seem more American. There’s an integrity there that perhaps Sebastian is enamored by?
AR: Yes, I mean their first conversation is about her not drinking, and he drinks a lot!
KA: Which annoys him.
AR: Yeah, but at the same time he’s also intrigued by it. They’re similar in certain ways but they’re also very different. Drinking was always a great example of a way of defining your Muslim identity, in the immigrant community. —that, and not eating pepperoni pizza! And then in college there were some people who were raised as Muslim who did drink and others who didn’t. And funnily enough, the international students from Muslim countries—all of them drank! I remember a conversation with an Egyptian guy where I asked him about that tension, about whether he felt hypocritical for subscribing to a Muslim identity even though he drank, and he said: “Of course not! Everyone in Egypt drinks!” I realized it was an immigrant community’s way of defining their own identity, and for Fatima it’s a way of defining herself to not drink in a hedonistic landscape where everyone does.
KA: But of course, she does relent. Which is interestingly natural to me for somebody who’s just moved, because “back home” it’s not perhaps viewed as hypocrisy as much as an ingrained duality because we’re not surrounded by neighbors of incredibly different cultures so we don’t have to erect as many barriers to “protect” our culture, because our culture is already everywhere, very annoyingly so! OK, so sharp pivot: I want to talk about process more. You weren’t an Art History major, but there’s a lot of pre-Raphaelite paintings, Renaissance paintings, neo-classical art in the novel. One of the exchanges I found the most interesting was one with Imogen where she asks why he’s not interested in Mughal paintings. Let me tell you my take on that, which is that I genuinely believe if someone were to say that to me I would be a little mad. I’d think: “Why? Why must I subscribe to anyone’s idea of what a brown man should be?” But Sebastian feels guilty about it, right?
AR: Yeah, that scene is clearly about how characters see him as a part-Pakistani, part-Muslim and ask, “Why are you so interested in these 19th-century European paintings?” I think it’s interesting that you side with Sebastian in that moment. People have had really different reactions to the “racial” arc in general. Some people see it as Sebastian rightfully realizing that his love of white women is self-hatred whereas others see it as just sad. I’m fine with that dual reaction! Some people perceive the sadness as his comeuppance, and others think that regardless of how one feels about Sebastian, it’s really sad and not deserved.
KA: Definitely sad. One can be both perfectly comfortable in your own culture and interested in European art! —there’s no necessity for mutual exclusivity. But it leads to my next question: how did you research the art for this book, and more specifically how did you track the paintings in chronological time for Sebastian?
AR: I knew Sebastian was not going to like anything after the 20th century. The chronology was not too specific, but there’s a mirrored structure. The prologue starts with the French painting The Thorny Path, the one in Philadelphia with the troubadour, and we come back to it in the epilogue. The first chapter is the Thomas Cole painting The Voyage of Life: Youth, and the last chapter before the epilogue is The Voyage of Life: Manhood. The earlier in time a painting goes the more into his ‘unreal’ space Sebastian is, and it’s really a metaphor for his maturity.
KA: Historically speaking—and correct me if I’m wrong—it feels like the nostalgia Sebastian has for certain time periods sort of feels like he’s going back far enough where his identity would be irrelevant and he could, perhaps fantastically, insert himself into the narrative?
AR: Yeah! A caveat before I say this: I should say that the idea that Islamic art is entirely non-representational and non-visual is wrong—for the most part, yes, it is, but there are exceptions. Anyway, for the most part, the geometric patterns are non-representational and similar to the Abstract Expressionists of the 20th century. For Sebastian, his love of a certain kind of art reflects him abandoning his religion, not representational art per se but art focused on beauty, idealized Romantic art. The pre-Raphaelites were an interesting way of thinking about that because it was this movement where they’re painting in the mid-1800s but they’re looking back to before the Renaissance. It’s a sort of absurd movement; they had their own idealized vision of the past they wish they were a part of. I think Sebastian has the same fantastical relationship with the 19th-century world of his own invention. In that scene we were talking about earlier, Imogen pokes fun at him by saying that he’s not interested in Mughal paintings because there’s no white women in them.
KA: Is that true though?
AR: Good question. Not entirely true actually, hah!
KA: I mean, were there really no British colonialists depicted?
AR: Hah, this is true. There are definitely white women depicted in some Mughal paintings. But still, for Sebastian, the art is this world where race doesn’t exist. For Sebastian, it’s so, and he doesn’t have to think about complicated racial categories. But I didn’t want it to be a value judgment. Sebastian does a lot of bad things, but is one of the bad things that he doesn’t think about his race enough?
KA: Depends, though I love the moral ambiguity. I want to talk about how there’s so much misogyny in the way he perceives women. What really hit me in the novel was the sheer repetitiveness. The first time he gets struck by Madeleine, for instance, and then that same sequence happens with another girl and again and again recursively until I forgot everybody’s names! I’m assuming that was intentional, but how hard was it for you to depict the sex so accurately, almost cringe-inducingly? It was sensual but cringe-worthy enough to feel authentic—
AR: I approached it differently in the earlier chapters, which were more romantic. The repetitiveness of it was intentionally to make it very exhausting. And I didn’t want the reader to root for Sebastian cheating. At first it was definitely more sensual. Rosalind in the theater, for instance—that sex scene was more sensual. By the end I wanted to have it more starkly descriptive and not at all sensual. I didn’t want anyone to be turned on by the sex scenes in this novel, hah! It’s also the satire of it—these college students in Model UN, these nerdy kids with romanticized ideas of sex, and the reality of it is like, sad blowjobs in a bathroom. And at the end, it’s not necessarily sexualized at all. He’s really fully separated himself from the real world in a sense. And that’s contrasted with where tries to sleep with Fatima, which was sort of inspired by a scene in the movie Shame, about a sex addict. Have you seen it?
AR: There’s this amazing scene in there where Michael Fassbender’s character is trying to have sex with the woman he’s supposedly dating. It’s so cringe-worthy for this man trying to be loving and caring, but there’s just no chemistry, and nothing’s working. I wanted there to be that sense with Sebastian and Fatima. It was fun to write, but not fun to think about how the people in my life would react to it!
KA: Yes, but I do love that it doesn’t just rely on a lot of subtext. I want to ask about Sebastian’s relationship with male authority figures. His advisor’s monologue in the beginning, where his advisor essentially eggs him on to be his worst self, is contrasted with a very pivotal scene with his father. To what degree does Sebastian bristle at male authority while also craving it?
AR: With his advisor, I wanted him to be a sort of anti-mentor. He was this figure who gave Sebastian really bad advice, but Sebastian thinks ‘oh I love this advice! I will follow this!’ His father—he’s not a great person either—but he’s definitely giving him advice that is perhaps more sound: that Sebastian shouldn’t weave this fantasy of this romantic French girl he’s cheating on his girlfriend with. Sebastian rejects it, of course, but at the same time he wants to be his father.
KA: But they’ve both suffered the loss of a wife and a mother. One of the saddest scenes in the book, for me, was the cemetery scene. It was just devastating that the absence of a female authority figure had such an awful impact on the son she left behind.
AR: Yes, that absence produced Sebastian!
KA: So, what are you working on now?
AR: I’ve finished a collection of short stories about Islamic history that starts in the seventh century, each leading us to the present. The “neoliberalism” novel is trying to get at Muslim identity in the build-up to Trump’s election. He’s a Muslim-American who kills himself at the beginning of the novel, and his friend basically takes a road trip to retrace the life of his friend to figure out why he killed himself. Both characters are Pakistani-American immigrants. So, the narrator is trying to figure out what happened. We’ll see if this one comes together; I have to put myself in a really dark place for it. I’m just really interested in how such similar people can have vastly different trajectories!
Kamil Ahsan has a doctorate in biology from the University of Chicago and is currently a doctoral student in history at Yale. Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, he is also a journalist, writer, and editor at Barrelhouse. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Nation, LARB, Hobart, The Masters Review, The Millions, Dissent, and A.V. Club, among others. He lives in Chicago.