"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," says Nate Rabe

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I didn’t fit in either the USA or India but I identified with both: Nate Rabe on his latest novel

Writer Nate Rabe loves Pakistan but his novel Shah of Chicago is about a man who detests it. How'd that happen?
Published Jul 22, 2017 02:31pm


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.

Excerpts follow.

You’ve lived in South Asia for a substantial amount of time. Could you tell us a bit about your place of birth and your life in South Asia particularly Pakistan?

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.

As a thriller, Shah of Chicago is a story about survival. Every character is looking for a means to survive in a country that comes across as being harsh. But at the same time you weave in a tiny bit of history that speaks of a gentler, tolerant past as well. What is your impression of 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.

The cover art of Nate Rabe's Shah of Chicago
The cover art of Nate Rabe's Shah of Chicago

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.

Have you woven in your own experiences and thoughts about Pakistan in how Jack views the country?

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.

Nate with fellow American students of Urdu in Rawalpindi's Hathi Chowk
Nate with fellow American students of Urdu in Rawalpindi's Hathi Chowk

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.

Expectations versus reality is a running theme. Whether in the US or England or Pakistan your characters in their own capacities struggle to fulfill dreams or retain some form of ideal/idealism. What makes them unable to live up to their or others’ expectations?

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

The location of your novel is primarily Islamabad with some scenes written in Peshawar. Why these two cities in particular when some of Pakistan’s popular novels have been based in Lahore or Karachi?

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.

Your protagonist Jack King is a myriad of identities. He is Pakistani by birth but identifies as being black and idolises Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. Do you feel such mixed identities are reflected by Pakistanis in general? Or is it more evident in the diaspora?

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.

Nate in Besham, Swat in 1988
Nate in Besham, Swat in 1988

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.

Most of your characters are male. And they are all working against Jack King. The female ones tend to display more understanding of who he is. Consequently one is left thinking that in the pursuit of survival, any form of emotion is squashed. Would you agree?

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.

There is a distinct lack of description in your book which again is a new way of writing about a region that actually revels in long paragraphs of description regarding the weather, food, families etc. You reveal everything through dialogue and plot. What made you adopt this approach?

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.

Interestingly despite how Jack and Afroz view the world and their thoughts about identity it seems they both come to a stop when you bring in ‘kismet’ being the ultimate reason for everything. How do you view this concept of kismet?

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.