Writer Nate Rabe loves Pakistan but his latest novel Shah of Chicago is centred on a man who detests the country.
With roots in India, America and Australia, Nate also spent a number of years studying and working in Pakistan and this second novel draws from that experience. But his main inspiration was the life story of a Pakistani he met in Minneapolis, USA.
Shah of Chicago, based in Rawalpindi and Peshawar, tells the story of Jack/Yaqub, a criminal with a complicated relationship with his homeland.
Images had a chat with the writer to learn more about his conception of Shah of Chicago.
Nate Rabe: I was born in India where my parents were educational missionaries. I left at the age of 17 and went to the US for university. After completing a MA in South Asian History i had the opportunity to study Urdu in Lahore through the University of California, and spent 9 months living with a Pakistani family while I studied Urdu. I fell in love with the country and wanted to return as soon as possible. In early 1988 I landed a job with the UN in Islamabad and spent the next several years in Pakistan.
Nate: I studied and worked in Pakistan between 1986 and 1991 so was there to witness some tumultuous events like the death of Gen. Zia and the PM’ship of Benazir. I fear Pakistan is a very different country politically now then it was then.
I have returned several times in the years since then and always enjoy it. I find the music and folk culture of Pakistan to be endlessly rich and one of the world’s great hidden treasures. In my current research on the movie industry of Pakistan i’m discovering some amazing artists and actors as well, which is fascinating.
I really love Pakistan, its food, its people its music and art. It has been and continues to be a source of inspiration for my creative life.
Nate: To a certain degree, yes. I hope my affection for Pakistan comes through especially in some of the characters like Khan Sahib. But I really wanted to tell the story from Jack’s perspective, and so his harsh attitudes to his country are his, not mine.
By the way, Jack is based on a real character. In 1987 after leaving Lahore I was driving a taxi in Minneapolis (USA) before I returned to Pakistan with the UN. One day I picked up a Pakistani who was amazed that I could speak Urdu. He insisted upon telling me his story. He was the son of a wealthy influential family and basically the story of Jack/Yaqub in the book is roughly his story. He hated his father, Pakistan and had become a criminal. But when I asked him why he didn’t return to Pakistan he told me he would rather die than go back.
So when it came time to write the book I decided to pick up the story of his man IF he decided he would return to Pakistan. So I’m trying to portray a man who returns to Pakistan, a country he basically detests, even though he himself is a Pakistani.
Nate: I suppose it's the immigrant experience. Of living in two very different worlds with two (or more) sets of expectations. Which culture’s ideals do you live up to and prioritise? You struggle to fit in in the new place but when you return home you discover you’re a stranger there too. I know from personal experience of growing up in India as a ‘gora’ and then going ‘home’ to the USA for university, I didn’t fit in in either place but identified with both.
"In 1987 after leaving Lahore I was driving a taxi in Minneapolis (USA) when I [happened to] pick up a Pakistani. He was the son of a wealthy influential family and basically the story of Jack/Yaqub in the book is roughly his story. He hated his father, Pakistan and had become a criminal. But when I asked him why he didn’t return to Pakistan he told me he would rather die than go back..." — Nate Rabe
Nate: I’m familiar with Islamabad/Pindi. I lived and worked in those cities for many years. In fact I think Pindi is a wonderful city. Lahore, in my experience, is written about quite a bit and Karachi is a place I’m only just getting to know. Peshawar was chosen because it fit into Jack’s plan…of heroin smuggling.
Nate: Not particularly. All humans have multiple identities. Religious, class, ethnic, language, etc.
For those South Asians living in the diaspora I think you could say that in many cases the intensity of the split personality or multiple identities CAN be quite a challenge. I think we see it, to a certain degree, in the nice young Muslim boys from UK and France who suddenly pop up as ISIS fighters or suicide bombers. Apparently a number of the 911 pilots were known as playboy types before they suddenly became jihadis.
Several of my friends have gone through these sorts of transformations. One foot in the West and the other in Pakistan or Iran or India. They don’t want to give up either. And so there is a certain conflict and irresolution.
Nate: Interesting observation! I look at it as Jack is such a prickly sort of guy that he gets everyone’s back up. He relishes and needs the conflict with others to give himself energy. But to the extent that his emotions are repressed it is largely because of his father’s violence and the hard life of prison. I see Jack/Yaqub as a softie, but someone who acts tough to survive. And to that extent that he has prioritised survival, he has had to squash his emotions. Yes.
Nate: I wanted the story to be about Jack and his lame brained scheme to be the Shah of Chicago, not an introduction to the country and customs of Pakistan. I also wanted to keep the story moving as quickly as possible. I assumed the book’s audience would be familiar with Pakistan and so such descriptive passages would be redundant.
Nate: Kismet is a slippery concept for me. Sometimes I believe it is all laid out for us and there is nothing we can do to influence the course of our life.
At others I become very ‘managerial’ and proactive and think that life can be fit into a business plan or spreadsheet. I prefer the former to the latter, though I don’t believe anymore in some predestined ‘kismet’ or Fate. Each of us creates his or her own kismet.