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.