Kamila Shamsie is Bringing Pakistani History to a Global Audience
John Freeman Catches Up with the Booker Nominated Author in London
For most of her life—whether she has wished it or not—Kamila Shamsie has held a front-row seat to the political ironies of migration. Take her official welcome to Britain. Just weeks before the Karachi-born novelist was sworn in as a British citizen in 2013, then home secretary Theresa May dispatched a fleet of vans across London emblazoned with slogans that told illegal immigrants to “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST.” Officials also performed spot-checks of immigrants at tube stops and in public places, engaging in what some human rights groups claimed to be racial profiling.
Shamsie was not alone in her alarm at the time. Even Nigel Farage, the beer-hoisting former leader of UKIP and later spearhead of the Brexit campaign, argued the tone was “nasty, unpleasant. Big Brother.”
Shamsie knew then that the uncertainty she faced then was lesser than most. She grew up middle class and with family ties to Britain that stretch back a century. Still, as she watched one visa category after another vanish, she knew immigration was a shifting front.
Sitting on the couch in her London apartment last month, a stone’s throw from Lords Cricket Grounds and Abbey Road Studios, with her U.K. passport tucked safely in a drawer, she explains how her new novel started with the idea of passports. “I followed closely the citizenship laws as they were changing over the years because they pertained very directly to me,” Shamsie says. “Even though I have a British passport, it’s contingent. It can be taken away. Because there is this thing that Theresa May, as home secretary used to say and now as Prime minister, that citizenship is a privilege not a right. Which is nonsense.”
Shamsie is tall and striking and speaks with a former debater’s athletic precision. In another life, she would have made a superb politician, like her great-grandmother, a provincial assemblywoman and member of the All-India League. Or at the very least, the kind of television host whose bemused side-smile and rapid fire questioning breaks the earnest young hearts of men and women alike. But since she was nine-years-old Shamsie has only wanted to write novels—and in the past 20 years, teaching aside, she has done just that.
Since 1998 she has published six books notable for the depth of their engagement with history and the sweep of their storytelling, from In The City by the Sea, (1998) a child’s-eye tale of Karachi in the Zia-al-Haq years, to A God in Every Stone, (2013) a robust historical epic which conjures the shared past of India and Britain in the era of the Raj as the lead-up to war in Afghanistan. Shamsie has earned the love of her two countries for doing this; in Pakistan she has been given the Tagmha-e-Imtiaz, the fourth highest honor that country gives a civilian. Shortly before she was given her passport, Shamsie was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists. And just last week, she was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Home Fire is the first novel Shamsie has written since earning that new passport, and it would appear her adopted country approves of her engagement. Out in the U.S. on August 15th, it is an explosive tale of a so-called homegrown terrorist in Britain who is lured into ISIS. Although a narrative ripped from the headlines, the book draws its structure from a very old story: Antigone. Like Sophocles’ 4th century B.C. play, Shamsie’s novel rotates around the conflicting loyalties of home and Home. In Shamsie’s version, three children of a former jihadi with ties to Pakistan make their way in the world. Isma has become a successful academic on a visa in the United States, Aneeka studies to be a lawyer in England, and Paravaiz drifts, at a loss where the sisters are not since he must, as Shamsie says, “learn what it means to be a man.” Gradually, he is lured into the arms of a present day jihadi recruiting Britons to fight in Raqaa, Syria.
In the course of her writing, Shamsie weighed the rewards and perils of using a classic text as a prism for contemporary problems: “My Antigone couldn’t be the same Antigone as Sophocles. I had to find a story for, a shape for her, a language for her, a character for her, within this contemporary world. The idea that there’s something about human beings that transcends the historical moment they’re in or isn’t hugely shaped by it, I don’t buy it. And I suppose that’s why in my books the characters are always coming up against historical moments.”
Whereas Shamsie’s previous novels were deliberate and luxuriantly paced, Home Fire has the swift and awful momentum of tragedy. It also writes its way directly into the present tense with vivid sections about the use of surveillance on civilian populations and the recruitment strategies of Isis. Shamsie did a lot of research for the book and found that amid the propaganda that Isis sent out into the world, “actually the violence was a very small percent, something like 5% of total propaganda involved images of violence. Most of it was about community. Brotherhood. Being in a place without racial discrimination. And there was a lot about a sort of welfare state . . . here are the blood donation centers and here are the nice zoos and the lovely parks.”
“The idea that there’s something about human beings that transcends the historical moment they’re in or isn’t hugely shaped by it, I don’t buy it.”
For two decades Shamsie’s novels have zigzagged back and forth through Pakistani history, not speaking on behalf of the country—Pakistan is too fractured for any one person to do this—but reflecting its moments of crisis in the lives of characters who live and breathe. A friend once pointed this project out to Shamsie, and she was surprised to see two decades of output had a coherence. “The first book is Zia-ul-Haq in the 80s, the second book is 1947’s aftermath, the third book is Karachi in the 90s and the time of turmoil plus the creation of Bangladesh. The fourth book is post-9/11 Pakistan plus the influence of the Zia years, and the fifth book has Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 80s.”
Shamsie claims she didn’t set out to do this, but explains it was hard to avoid: “These are the significant historical moments of my young nation,” she tells me. “You know, my parents have both lived longer than Pakistan’s been alive. They were very young around the partition, but they have memory of it. My mother was three, my father was ten. Every moment of history of the nation, I can ask them about.”
Among her generation of Pakistani novelists—which features a huge and much-written about collection of talent writing in English, from fellow Man Booker finalist Mohsin Hamid to the Chekhovian Daniyal Muenueddin to satirist Mohammed Hanif and magical realist Nadeem Aslam—Shamsie is the often the sole woman referenced in articles about the surge of talent.
In fact, the list of women writers from Pakistan goes deep, including novelists Uzma Aslam Khan and Moni Mohsin, among many others. And Shamsie herself comes from three previous generations of female writers. Her great-grand-mother—the future politician—first traveled her husband and young child from India to England in 1924 and later wrote a memoir of the journey in Urdu. Several of her daughters were activists and writers, including Shamsie’s grandmother Jahanara, who much later would write her own recollection of pre-partition India, a place of monsoon and mango parties and also of great inequality. Great aunts and uncles were writers too.
Most notably, though is Shamsie’s mother—Muneeza Shamsie—the nation’s leading authority on Anglo-Pakistani writing. Although educated in England and raised in relative privilege, Muneeza never finished college. She merely had a typewriter, bought for her by Shamsie’s father. For years she worked as a feature writer at Dawn and other newspapers, then a book reviewer, anthologist, and short story writer. Back when Shamsie was a child, Muneeza used to deliver her pieces to the newspaper by hand, asking her young daughter to read the copy back to her as they sped through Karachi’s streets. “If Kamila was in the car with me I would ask her to read the piece through for typos,” Muneeza remembers, “sometimes she was quite cheeky and would say ‘I don’t think this is the right word’ . . . to which I would say darkly ‘Hm. That is the word I want to use all the same.’”
Shamsie grew up with her extended family nearby. Her grandmother lived up the street from them, and her strongest language was Urdu. “She spoke to [the children] of times of yore,” Muneeza remembers, while Shamsie’s grandfather father been educated in England like Muneeza. “Unlike me, he also learnt and loved Classical Greek. Kamila says he taught her what an onomatopoeia was when she was three.”
The world of this warm and sequestered childhood is visible in Shamsie’s 1998 debut novel, In The City by the Sea, which chronicles what happens when an 11-year-old boy named Hasan’s beloved political uncle is kidnapped by Zia-al-Haq, drawing a large and educated Karachi clan together in a house in a state of terror. Meanwhile, Hasan tries on the various plots of his favorite books, trying to find one in which he can rescue the uncle who has mysteriously vanished.
Spend time with Shamsie and, in the gentlest way possible, it quickly becomes clear that she is a fabulously well-educated woman. Shamsie and her older sister Saman were sent to Pakistan’s oldest private school, Karachi Grammar School, the institution whose graduates included future Prime Minister Benazir and political leader Murtaza Bhutto—both of whom would be later murdered—as well as the former prime minister of Indonesia and a prominent party leader from New Zealand. “The school was its own special kingdom,” says Humera Afridi, a writer in New York who was a classmate of the Shamsie sisters in the 1980s. “We belonged to it, my mother studied, there too. This was our world. Our friends were from this world. I personally didn’t know much of Karachi outside this elite world and the club we belonged to (Sind club).”
And yet the world outside did penetrate Shamsie’s life—in the form of books. Shamsie grew up inhaling Enid Blyton and other English writers, and then read through her mother’s remarkable library: novels by Muneezie’s contemporaries like Kazuo Ishiguro, Anita Desai, and Salman Rushdie. She recalls vividly hearing about the banning of Rushdie’s novel, Satantic Verses for its perceived offenses against Islam in 1988. As Shamsie wrote in Offence: the Muslim Case, a book length essay on how offense within Islam is often an intra-Muslim affair, not simply about the collision between East and West, she says she could tell even at 16 something different was happening in Britain about Satantic Verses than it was in Pakistan or say, Turkey.
Eventually, Shamsie applied for and received a scholarship to tiny Hamilton College in snowy upstate New York. Her sister had proceeded her to the states, landing at Allegheny College in equally snow eastern Pennsylvania. It was the end of the 1980s and both were unblemished by the notion of American exceptionalism. “What I did believe was that American abroad and America at home were different, and that was naive.”
“What’s the point of banging on about the American dream if the worst thing you can say about a presidential candidate is that he’s a Muslim?”
That naiveté didn’t last long. “Part of it had to do with seeing America close up and part with America’s changing history. The first part [started] with becoming aware of the fault lines of race in America once I got there. Months after I got to America, Rodney King [was beaten]. Then at grad school, I had John Edgar Wideman as an advisor, who of course was very eloquent on America and race.”
“The second part is connected to the war on terror and anti-Muslim rhetoric. What’s the point of banging on about the American dream if the worst thing you can say about a presidential candidate is that he’s a Muslim?”
At Hamilton, Shamsie began to realize that amid Americans she was both different and interesting in a way she wasn’t at home in Karachi. “People were like, ‘You’re such a great storyteller,’ and I thought, what on earth are they talking about? Have they never met a Pakistani before?” In Pakistan storytelling is such an important part of the fabric of society—“people outdo each other in telling stories” Shamsie says—that she doesn’t believe she stands out: ”I just think I’m a girl from Karachi.” As part of her degree in creative writing, Shamsie channeled her newfound role and some homesickness onto the page and began writing what became In the City By The Sea.
She completed a first draft not long before she graduated and gave it to her mother as a birthday present. “I thought it was rather good,” Muneeza Shamsie remembers, “but I had some problems with the denouement. All I said was a single sentence to this effect. In the next draft, to my astonishment, she had shaped the entire novel and chucked out huge chunks of rather good writing, because it was extraneous to the whole. And I thought any writer who has the discipline to do that, is well on her way . . . and doesn’t need any help from me.”
The book was published in 1998 by Granta Books, not long after Shamsie’s graduation from the graduate writing program at University of Massachusetts Amherst, and it earned her a short-list on the John Llelwyn Rhys Prize. A little over a year later, another Pakistani debuted on that same Granta list named Mohsin Hamid, with his book Moth Smoke. Like Shamsie, Hamid had grown up a child of highly educated parents, and had split his time amid America and Pakistan with increasing unease with belonging to either place entirely. “We’ve grown up as writers together” Hamid says by email from Lahore. “I’ve always been impressed by the breadth of her imagination. Her commitment to investigating history is one of her many strengths.”
Nadeem Aslam read Shamsie’s novel around the same time and had a similar reaction. “I remember vividly the sense of excitement when I finished her first novel. That sense has grown with each one of her books. No one should doubt her commitment to truth, her commitment to using fiction as a way to tell that truth.”
For Shamsie, telling the truth has required her to keep moving. It wasn’t until recently that she began earning enough as a novelist to even contemplate not teaching for a living. For a decade and a half, her life has held a familiar pattern: Go to America to teach, go home to Karachi to write, recoup in England with friends and write more.
It was in this way Shamsie published another two novels before she turned 30—Salt and Safron (2000), a story of star-crossed lovers set against the backdrop of the creation of Bangladesh, and Kartography (2002), the tale of two friends torn apart by the emergency of partition. It quickly emerged that Shamsie was writing not toward the West but rather through English toward her nation—but to the world too. The fact that she was moving back and forth between England and Pakistan in this period heightened the public nature of that form of indirect address.
The novelist Aminatta Forma, who grew up in Scotland and Sierra Leone and worked for two decades at the BBC before moving to America, recognizes a compatriot in Shamsie. “The writer from a developing country comes with a different brief from a writer from a Western country. They’re looked to as a guide to the nation’s moral sense in a way which might once have been the case in, say, Britain or America, but isn’t so anymore. To me, Kamila doesn’t just fit that role, she embraces it, as a writer and a public intellectual. She is fully engaged in the world as she finds it, and I think in several decades time that while her visible legacy will be her writing, her less visible but nevertheless tangible legacy will be the way in which she has influenced a Pakistan’s (and Britain’s) social and political conscience.”
“People were like, ‘You’re such a great storyteller,’ and I thought, What on earth are they talking about? Have they never met a Pakistani before?”
Shamsie’s manners are too well-polished to ever claim this role, let alone speak of it publicly. The love her books have earned, however, hints at how she speaks to a need. In Karachi, Shamsie’s friend, the former radio DJ and anthologist Mahvesh Murad, says it is difficult to move with her in public space without being stopped. “I can’t take her anywhere without someone coming up and saying, ‘You’re Kamila Shamsie aren’t you?’” In Pakistan, the critic Faiza Sultan Khan explains to me, Shamsie’s novels are used in the writing module for anyone wanting an MA in literature.
Shamsie performs a similar public role in London—and not just through her books, which since Burnt Shadows (2009), a grand historical narrative that cuts from the explosion of the bomb in Hiroshima to the war on terror, have increasingly turned toward epics that spanned several continents. Very often on BBC television and radio, if a commentator must be called in to have a discussion about Pakistan, Muslims in Britain or in literature, cricket, post 7/7 life, or virtually anything that needs a commentator for South Asia, Shamsie will be on air.
Though she wears this representative status lightly, she takes what is asked of her seriously—in the sense that she doesn’t glibly perform what is asked, but often uses her moment of visibility to break or complicate dominant narratives about Pakistan or immigrants or nationality. Her friend, the novelist Jeanette Winterson, argues this is a crucial role in England today, and one she presents in her books. “Her work makes a bridge between Asian and Western cultures,” Winterson writes by email. “I understand more, I think about things differently, and most important, at least to me, is that she makes me feel her situations. It’s an emotional experience in the best sense; not sentimental, but a matter for the heart.”
It is true that while you could map Shamsie’s books against Pakistani history, one could equally look at them as a series of ongoing love stories. Back in her living room, light fading, I joke with Shamsie that she has once again written a book about star-crossed lovers, as she did with Salt and Safron and A God in Every Stone (2013). She quickly wings back that this might simply be how I see it because I am romantic. Still, Home Fire might be the only novel about citizenship and xenophobia which contains intimate scenes of prayer and erotic love within pages of each other.
Writing of such subjects in Pakistan requires a certain delicacy. It is not just Shamsie’s training in debate that makes her diction so crisp and obedient; friends of hers have been murdered for speaking their mind too vociferously. Living with state surveillance is, for almost every Pakistani intellectual, a way of life. “It is the sign of the end of an empire, not the beginning of a new one,” Shamsie corrects me when I posit that perhaps this reality of eavesdropping is the beginning of a new kind of empire of surveillance.
Still, as always, Shamsie plays down the risks to herself. “I live away most of the time,” she says. “So for me to be sitting in London writing novels and say I’m putting myself at risk, I’d want to slap myself.”