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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_shamsie

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.

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Perpetual motion

(From the Times Literary Supplement. Link to the complete article is given below.)

What, then, shall that language be? One-half of the committee maintain that it should be the English. The other half strongly recommend the Arabic and Sanscrit. The whole question seems to me to be – which language is the best worth knowing?” So asked Lord Macaulay of the British Parliament on February 2, 1835. He went on, of course, to answer his own question; there was no way that the natives of the subcontinent over which they now ruled could be “educated by means of their mother-tongue”, in which “there are no books on any subject that deserve to be compared to our own”. And even if there had been, it did not matter, for English “was pre-eminent even among languages of the West”. English, it was decided, would be the language that would be taught to the natives. By 1837, English replaced Persian as the language of courtrooms and official business in Muslim India and took with it the cultural ascendancy of the Persian speakers.

This sordid story of tainted beginnings is aptly recounted in Muneeza Shamsie’s Hybrid Tapestries: The development of Pakistani literature in English, which traces the history of an often vexed but always intriguing literary lineage from the nineteenth century until today. It is a tricky tale to tell, not least because the moment of origin is also the moment of im­position and conquest. The development of Pakistani literature is directly linked to those deposed Muslims and their cherished Persian, which adds further flavours of resentment and betrayal to the mixture. The Indian Muslims who had dominated cultural production until then felt the demotion, and hence the inauthenticity and subjugation of adopting a foreign language, more acutely; Hindus less so, perhaps because they were merely exchanging one set of conquerors for another. The bifurcation, with each group turning to a different vernacular language to anchor their evolving identity, would have more than just linguistic consequences: it would result in two separate nation states.

Read more at the TLS page here


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Kamila Shamsie wins Women’s Prize for Fiction for ‘story of our times’

(From The Guardian. Link to the complete article given below.)
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which reworks Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone to tell the story of a British Muslim family’s connection to Islamic State, has won the Women’s prize for fiction, acclaimed by judges as “the story of our times”.

The British Pakistani author’s seventh novel riffs on the ancient Greek play in which Antigone is forbidden to bury her brother Polynices after he is declared a traitor. The novel follows three orphaned siblings, elder sister Isma and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, the latter of whom has left London to work for the media arm of Isis. When Eamonn, son of the British Muslim home secretary, enters their lives, Aneeka hopes to use him to save her missing brother.

Announcing Home Fire as winner of the £30,000 award, chair of judges Sarah Sands said the panel “chose the book which we felt spoke for our times … Home Fire is about identity, conflicting loyalties, love and politics. And it sustains mastery of its themes and its form. It is a remarkable book which we passionately recommend.”

Shamsie, who grew up in Karachi and now lives in London, beat a shortlist that included US author Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, for which she won the National Book Award, and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s debut, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock.

To read more, go to this link.


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The best fiction of 2017

One of the joys of the novel is its endless capacity for reinvention, and 2017 saw fiction writers trying out fresh approaches and new forms. The Man Booker winner was a debut novel from an author with 20 years of short stories under his belt: George Saunders’s magisterial Lincoln in the Bardo(Bloomsbury), in which the death and afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s young son is told through snippets of civil war memoir and a cacophony of squabbling ghosts, was a fantastically inventive exploration of loss, mourning and the power of empathy. There was an injection of the fantastic, too, in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Hamish Hamilton), which added the device of magical portals opening up across the globe to its spare, devastating portrait of victims of war, creating a singular parable about modernity, migration and the individual’s place in the world.

…. Jennifer Egan followed up her zippy Pulitzer winner A Visit from the Goon Squadwith a more conventional novel of American dreams, Manhattan Beach (Corsair); while Arundhati Roy’s second novel appeared a mere two decades after her first: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) was a sprawling, kaleidoscopic fable about love and resistance in modern India. …

Of the many classical reboots, the most interesting was Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury Circus), which contrasts the role of the modern state with timeless bonds of love and loyalty by replaying the Antigone myth through the story of two sisters and their jihadi brother. Hogarth Press’s project to novelise Shakespeare continued, with master stylist Edward St Aubyn recasting King Learas the downfall of a media mogul in Dunbar. Debut novelist Preti Taneja set her fierce, freewheeling version, We That Are Young (Galley Beggar), in contemporary India, with fascinating results.

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Regional winners of the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize announced

Commonwealth Writers is delighted to announce the regional winners for this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize. The five outstanding stories were successful in a year of fierce competition when the Prize received a record 6,000 entries from across the Commonwealth.

“It speaks to the high quality of the shortlisted stories that the judges’ decisions were rarely straightforward – and it speaks to the high quality of the winners that none of the judges left the conversation unsatisfied by the choices we ended up with. These are engaging and moving stories that honour and understand the potential of the short story form to burrow in on intimate stories and also to give you vast canvases painted with precise strokes. They also reveal the extent to which human concerns cross borders while the ways in which those concerns are played out are always individual and specific.” Kamila Shamsie, Chair, 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Commonwealth Writers has partnered again with Granta magazine to give regional winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize the opportunity to be published by Granta online.

The stories will be published on www.granta.com every Tuesday from 30 May until 27 June, in order from East to West across the Commonwealth:

‘The Death of Margaret Roe’, Nat Newman – 30 May

‘Drawing Lessons’, Anushka Jasraj – 6 June

‘Who is Like God’, Akwaeke Emezi – 13 June

‘The Naming of Moths’, Tracy Fells – 20 June

‘The Sweet Sop’, Ingrid Persaud – 27 June

The overall winner will be announced in Singapore on Friday 30 June. Read more

Source: Commonwealth Writers


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The Karachi Literature Festival heads to London to celebrate Pakistan’s 70th birthday

The famous literature festival will take place at Southbank Centre on 20th May in celebration of Pakistan’s 70th birthday, states KLF’s website.

Mohammed Hanif will kickstart the event with unique insights into Pakistan’s history, hopes, and dilemmas. The extensive list of speakers includes designer Maheen Khan, writers Kamila Shamsie and H M Naqvi, PPP member Sherry Rehman, actor Nimra Bucha, among others.

Khumariyaan, Saif Samejo, lead vocalist and founder of the band The Sketches and Lahooti Melo will be performing at the festival.

This is the first time the KLF will be taking place outside of Pakistan. Read more

Source: DAWN


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Why an increasing amount of South Asian writers are getting picked up by publishers

Gone are the days when readers would look up to international authors who had earlier set a benchmark for sophisticated literature. With Indians picking up more and more desi literature in English off the shelves, the sale of South Asian books has shot up over the decade.

South Asian writers, apart from harking their original, authentic and rooted voice, call for a diverse set of readers who not only relate to the regional synergies, but also crave for elegant storytelling. This is one of the reasons South Asian writing has increasingly become more popular among readers as well as publishers.

Bookshops across India and publishing companies report that readership for South Asian literature is constantly on the rise, making it one of the most popular genres at the moment, the sixth largest in the world and second for the English language. Read more

Source: Times of India


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DSC prize for South Asian literature shortlist sets stars against debut novelists

Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is one of five finalists, alongside two fiction debuts, in contention for $50,000 award: The Guardian

From the story of a bomb blast in the heart of Karachi to a portrait of postwar Sri Lanka, the shortlist for the DSC prize for South Asian literature pits acclaimed authors including Kamila Shamsie and Jhumpa Lahiri against two debut novelists.

The $50,000 (£32,000) award is given to a writer of any nationality writing about South Asia and its people, with five writers on the shortlist this year.

Shamsie and Lahiri are joined on the 2015 DSC shortlist by Romesh Gunesekera, who was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1994 for Reef, and for debuts from first-time novelists Bilal Tanweer and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Continue reading


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Kamila Shamsie: Truths etched in stone

Kamila Shamsie’s novel showcases a remarkable knowledge of history, geography and the ability to transport readers into a different zone: Tehelka

AGodineverystoneAs one starts reading Kamila Shamsie’s A God In Every Stone one is struck by the writer’s vision: reclaiming and restoring Peshawar’s place in the history of the sub-continent. Peshawar — once most likely known as Caspatyrus or ‘where journeys begin and end’, or even ‘the Heart of the World’ — is located just inside the Khyber Pass through which the Greeks, Persian, Chinese explorers, travellers, and invaders entered India. Continue reading


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Review: A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie’s new novel animates history with textures of fruit, blood and stone: Open

kamila-shamsieBritish-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie is worried she may have invented a swimming pool. “Was there a swimming pool at the Peshawar Club in 1915?” her mother had wondered while reading her new novel. “It seems rather early.” The novel is so confident in its conversation with history, this seems an odd point to stick on. But it bothers her “that I put a swimming pool where there might not really have been [one].”

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