Writing Matters: In conversation with Kamila Shamsie
By Sucharita Dutta-Asane
Kamila Shamsie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2018), for her novel Home Fire – also long listed for the Booker Prize in 2017 – an extraordinary book that serves as a reminder of the times in which we live. Her other books include In the City by the Sea (shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), Salt and Saffron that won her a place on Orange’s ‘21 Writers for the 21st Century’, Kartography, Broken Verses, Burnt Shadows (shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction), and A God in Every Stone. She was one of the five judges for the Golden Man Booker winner and is one of the three judges for The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, 2018.
Kamila, welcome to Kitaab! Congratulations on winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Sucharita: Antigone sets up a conflict that ruptures a family and raises complex ethical questions related to the personal and the state, family and identity. When you decided to write Home Fire, what was the immediate trigger to turn to Greek Tragedy and to this particular text?
Kamila: Sometimes the best ideas come from other people. In this case, it was Jatinder Verma, the artistic director of Tara Arts in London who suggested to me that Antigone could work very well in a contemporary setting. That made me go back to the text, and as soon as I started reading it I saw how directly it spoke to our contemporary times.
Sucharita: Home Fire is a political story firmly rooted in the age of global terror and what it does to individuals and families. It is also about the difficulty of moral certitude in an age of deepening schisms, most evident in Karamat Lone, making him perhaps the most conflicted character in the book, dealing with much more, it seems, than Eamonn or Aneeka – a complex, modern adaptation of Creon’s character in Antigone. The moral burden is terrifying and rests squarely on his shoulders. What led to this positioning of the book’s moral complexity?
Kamila: I’m always interested in the ways in which different readers respond to the characters in the novel. Some see Karamat as shouldering a moral burden; others see him as acting out of political expediency with no interest in the moral questions. I prefer not to interpret the characters and get in the way of readers’ freedom to do so. So all I’ll say is that Karamat and Isma are the two characters who really inhabit the world of adulthood with all its messy complications and contradictions.
Sucharita: At the time of writing the book, the idea of a Tory from a Muslim immigrant, working class family as the country’s Home Secretary would have seemed unbelievable. In fact, you thought it to be ‘ridiculous’. Eventually, when Sajid Javid became Britain’s Home Secretary, how did the writer in you respond? What does prescience mean to a writer?
Kamila: I would love to claim prescience, but the truth is, my first instinct was, as you say, that the idea of such a Home Secretary would be ridiculous, but then I thought a little harder about it and considered the fact that Britain had three prominent up-and-coming politicians from Muslim backgrounds: Sajid Javid, Sadiq Khan and Sayeeda Warsi. One or two is an aberration; three suggests that something has shifted in the political culture. That’s why I was able to create Karamat Lone – because I started to see that actually a Home Secretary from a Muslim background was possible. But it also seemed to me that Muslimness would be something he or she would have to find a way to negotiate around, possibly by creating distance from it. So what I’ll say about prescience is that actually it’s just paying attention to the currents around us and guessing what’ll happen if you move things forward just one step.
Sucharita: In adapting Sophocles’s play to the modern world and its context of terrorism and deep fears and insecurities, what kind of research did you need to write the book? How difficult or easy was this compared to, let’s say research for books like Burnt Shadows and A God in Every Stone that cover vast swathes of time and place?
Kamila: A lot of it was much easier, insofar as I was writing about the world in which I’ve been living. I already knew the fears and insecurities and the way they play out. And I knew what life in 2014/2015 (when the novel is set) is like. Rather than having to work out from pictures and writing and art and other archival material about what Nagasaki was like in 1945 or Peshawar in 1930, as with the other books, I could simply travel a few miles from where I live to the neighbourhoods where the characters in the novel grew up, or recall my student days in Massachusetts for the first section of the novel. Where it got complicated, of course, was in researching life in Raqqa under Daesh, and the recruitment methods used to get people there. The complication wasn’t to do with finding the material – it was to do with worrying about the surveillance state. There’s a phrase in the novel – ‘Googling While Muslim’; I had a greater worry about GWM with this novel. And also, there are a great many ugly violent images out there related to Daesh that I simply didn’t want in my head. So I had to research carefully.
Sucharita: As an extension of this question, how much does research drive the story or is it the other way round? Has research come in the way of your story telling at any time, when you might have had to distance yourself from it in order to get back to the core of the narrative?
Kamila: It’s a difficult question to answer because the research and writing are so entwined. You discover a new piece of information and it opens up new avenues of possibility. Though that was less the case with this novel than earlier ones, because I set out with a sense of what the plot would be before I get round to the research. Usually I start writing and researching (simultaneously) with only vague ideas of where I’m going, so the research leads to new plot ideas.
Research has never come in the way of storytelling as such, but there have been times that I’ve become so interested in a bit of research that I end up spending a lot of time finding out more about it, only for it to play the tiniest role in the novel. But I never think of anything as wasted research. Things that are interesting are always worth the time you spend on them.
Sucharita: Fiction, as we know, opens itself up to readers in ways that the writer cannot imagine at the time of writing the book, or even later. Could you share any such experience/s that you might have had – having readers respond to strands and traces and tones that you did not think of in your own stories?
Kamila: Quite soon after the book came out, a writer I know – a thoughtful woman, very engaged in the world around her – said she had thought she knew the country she was living in, and Home Fire made her realise she didn’t. I hadn’t stopped until then to think that so much of the experience – or experiences – of being Muslim in Britain in the 21st century stays under the radar for those on the outside.
Sucharita: Home Fire, Burnt Shadows, A God in Every Stone, Kartography… the titles evoke searing images that anticipate the story’s emotional core. How do you choose the titles for your books?
Kamila: With great difficulty and at the last minute! And often with help. Burnt Shadows came from someone sitting around a dinner table at a literary festival when my editor was discussing my novel and saying we still didn’t have a title for it. Home Fire was helped along by a friend who said that it was a pity that the title The Fire Next Time had already been used because that would have worked well for it – that got me thinking about having a title with ‘Fire’ in it. I think Kartography is the only title that was clear and present right from the start – a book about maps and Karachi and a boy named Karim. What else could it have been called?
Sucharita: Writing fiction involves a delicate balance of inspiration and craft, the spontaneous and the deliberate. Writers are often asked to describe the process of their writing but it is a difficult question to answer because often there might not be a process to describe. How do you approach your writing?
Kamila: An idea comes along. I let it sit a while and see if it has staying power. This goes on for a while (sometimes, a year or so). If it does have staying power it starts to develop in my head until it comes to the point when I can no longer bear not-writing. Then I start writing. Often with very little except a few images and ideas – it’s the writing itself that tends to engender more ideas. (As you say, it’s a tough thing to actually describe).
Sucharita: As one of the judges on The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, could you tell us something about the themes and narratives that young writers are engaging with? Are they engaging with contemporary global issues including refugee crises, migration, terrorism, the dissolution of a kind of life one lived until now, or are the concerns completely different, unexpected?
Kamila: There’s a lot of anxiety, and violence – but largely those aren’t tied into the kind of bigger picture themes you bring up, but tend to be at a more personal, familial level. (There are exceptions to this).
Sucharita: Given certain archetypes that help books – writing the white male protagonist, for example; ‘giving’ voice to the subaltern, or what Marlon James famously described as ‘pandering to the white woman’ – how would you describe your experience of getting your first book published?
Kamila: That does feel like a long time ago in a galaxy far away. I was at university in America, getting an MFA in fiction. At no point did anyone have a conversation with me about what the market wanted. This was the mid-90’s. ‘The market’ didn’t have a particular interest in writers from Pakistan, as far as anyone knew. So I wrote the novel I was interested in writing, and sent it to a wonderful agent in London who I had met at a conference for student writers – she edited the hell out of it, and then sold it for a small amount to Granta Books. There wasn’t the same pressure then for the first novel to be a big deal or else no one would publish your second. In fact my then agent, Alexandra Pringle (who is now my editor) said at the time, this novel won’t be a huge hit but you’re a writer to build up over the course of a career, and eventually we’ll get there. It feels like a great luxury now to work with someone willing to take the long term view on a writer, rather than need instant results.
Sucharita: In 2015 you wrote about the gender imbalance in awarding book prizes and recognizing books written by or about women. Has there been any sort of correction in the pattern since then? Has 2018 turned out the way you wanted it to – the year for publishing women?
Kamila: I didn’t actually think any publishing house would take on the year of publishing women – I just wanted to get a conversation started. So I was delighted when And Other Stories said they’d do it. That’s felt very nice. Beyond that, there are many people involved in a larger conversation around gender and publishing; I’m glad to be a part of that conversation. And you do see some changes over time as a result, but not nearly enough
Sucharita: Do you think that independent publishers might be able to bring balance, correct the gender disparity?
Kamila: For balance to really come about we need to dismantle patriarchy. Short of that, every effort is welcome, from all directions.
Sucharita: What literary trends do you notice in Pakistan, both in Urdu and English? Are you excited about any particular kind of writing / writer emerging from the country, a newer vocabulary and style?
Kamila: I’m not really in a position to talk about new writing in Urdu. As far as English is concerned, I suppose the main point of excitement is the different kinds of writing emerging – thrillers, crime, dystopian fiction, etc.
Sucharita: Do you feel that writers in the west are beginning to write about Asian experiences or is it still largely a one-way traffic – of Asian writers writing about their experience in the west?
Kamila: I think it’s mostly one-way, because the migration experience is still so largely moving from East to West rather than in the other direction.
Sucharita: Has the experience of engaging in conflict across regions away from the homeland provoked narratives in the west that look at these issues? Or is it that the experiences are still too fresh for writers to really address them?
Kamila: I don’t know that it has very much to do with ‘too fresh’ – I think the novel in the US and UK has moved largely away from the tradition of political writing. With the US, in particular, it’s quite glaring that a country that is so involved with wars across the world has produced so few novelists that engage with these matters (when they do engage, it’s often writers who are migrants or the children of migrants, whose families come from those other places).
Sucharita: You have talked about Aga Shahid Ali’s influence on your writing; of Midnight’s Children. Who are your other literary influences? How has your family’s legacy of strong women writers influenced your sensitivities and sensibilities as a writer?
Kamila: It’s so hard to know exactly how your family has influenced you – except to say, of course they have. If I had grown up in another family I wouldn’t have been surrounded by books, and people taking writing seriously, and a mother who writes and therefore makes writing seem like a possible way to spend your days.
Literary influences get increasingly hard to talk about. When you’re 15 or 20 you’re much more aware of reading writers who change how you think about language or story – as time moves on, you start to see that influences come from everywhere, and that you’re largely unaware of the way in which that seeps into your brain. The writers you love most are not always the writers who influence you.