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Profile: Kamila Shamsie

Updated April 06, 2014

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Kamila Shamsie.–Photo by Salman Raza
Kamila Shamsie.–Photo by Salman Raza

‘The more you write, the more you make things harder for yourself’ — Kamila Shamsie

IN the months leading up to the introduction of a new book, Kamila Shamsie says she takes time off to read and work at her non-fiction writing commitments. This is also when she is constantly in demand and obliged to make time to explain her literary ingenuity.

The interest in Shamsie’s work lies in the way she tells her stories. Talking to Shamsie on her fiction is learning about her ability to delve into characters and events. She creates her own way of seeing the world through language that is often near-perfectly crafted. This time it was (slightly) difficult only because when we met at a popular Karachi café, I was wishing the endless loud chattering and annoying flies away. Shamsie, enjoying her spaghetti, was hardly in a flap about anything, leaning in, talking about the characters she invents, about why discovering Peshawar and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan became so important to her new novel; and her weekend at the Lahore Literary Festival, marvelling at those packed festival parties and well-dressed socialites, many without an inkling of literary interest.

  Kamila Shamsie. -Photo by Emaan Rana / White Star
Kamila Shamsie. -Photo by Emaan Rana / White Star

Tall, intense and hardly one to have any patience for needless talk, Shamsie seriously attaches importance to her career and discipline as a writer — if you’ve hung out with her, and she’s made you laugh with her wicked sense of humour, then you would know that she enjoys a wild moment of fun and games.

Shamsie’s sixth novel, A God in Every Stone, was launched in February in Karachi where she spoke about her fascination with Scylax from The Histories of Herodotus and the Persian wars and her learning about the archaeological and the socio-political history that she brings so perfectly to her fiction. She draws characters of integrity taking inspiration from Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s ‘red shirts’. But the Peshawar connection, if romantic and dignified, is also harsh and unforgiving. Historical fiction can be seen as somewhere half-way between fiction and non-fiction and if characters born out of history have a sense of being real — they have had to have been at some point in the past — there is greater feeling for them and greater need perhaps to make them sound more reputable because they are invented, based on what was. Shamsie said that in exploring the Khudai Khidmatgars she paid close attention to the history of this non-violent freedom struggle led by the Pakhtuns against the British Empire.

Her fiction is about loss and extreme forbearance where love and betrayal are forgiven, but where truth remains at the core of the lives of her characters. In 1914, a young Englishwoman, Vivian Rose Spencer, is sent off by her father with his long-time Turkish friend, Tahsin Bey, on an archaeological mission to Constantinople, where she discovers the temple of Zeus and falls for Tahsin. Shamsie describes Viv’s effect: “What’s interesting with her is what it was to be an Englishwoman in the time of Empire. As someone who is English she accepts the idea of the ‘civilising mission,’ based on notions of racial inequality, and essentially believes in Empire.” What I find intriguing is how much Viv makes you feel (I am frustrated with her inner restraint) and her unnatural patience and obsession with the history that she teaches the young boy Najeeb in Peshawar which is strange at the time for an Englishwoman in her 20s. “As a woman she is troubled by gender inequality and wants more for herself than the patriarchal surroundings that she was brought up in wants her to have. So there’s a conflict there in terms of her accepting one form of inequality and increasingly pushing back against another, and that conflict made her a fairly complicated character to write,” Shamsie explains.

As a novelist, surprises are not Shamsie’s strong suit. Rather, this novel is impressive in its historical imagery and complex portraits of determination and honour. There’s Viv and then there’s young Najeeb, the carpet-seller’s daughter Diwa, and Qayyum Gul, Najeeb’s elder brother, who has served in the British Indian Army. Gul returns home after losing an eye at Ypres just when Vivian is following the trail of her Turkish beloved, waiting for him in Peshawar. Viv and Qayyum meet on a train to Peshawar, unaware that a connection is about to be forged that will reunite them 15 years later. Delving into the past can be unsafe, but Shamsie points out that “where there is history you can find out, and then you use that and wind your fiction around it. I’m interested in what fiction can do to illuminate our understanding of history.” It was when I read a Granta short-story written by Shamsie a few years ago, set in 1915 — Qayyum Gul and his friend Kalam Khan are injured in the war and sent to Brighton — that I felt this overwhelming urge to dig for what happens to Qayyum. I ask Shamsie about how her characters’ lives are redrawn and reframed: “Writing Qayyum was more straightforward, which I can’t fully explain, because he is in the inverse position. He’s completely accepting of patriarchy but resists the idea of Empire. I suppose the world I know contains many more Qayyums then Vivs in their differing attitude to power structures around gender and nation, which made it easier to imagine him.”

Last year, Shamsie was chosen by Granta as one of the Best of Young British Writers of 2013, although at the time she was in the process of becoming a British citizen. A must-read is her recent candid Guardian column on applying for British citizenship, how her heart stuttered each time British immigration laws changed, never making her feel safe. And when it finally happened at the citizenship ceremony at Camden she didn’t feel like it was that big a deal with tea and sandwiches afterwards. The prime motivation for wanting to stay in Britain was to work as a novelist without merely visitation rights, she writes, having dutifully put in her time as an author and working with an agent and publisher in the same country.

Who wouldn’t agree with that? But then, many of Shamsie’s admired Pakistani contemporaries are happy (and successful) writing at home. It’s a good thing, this Pakistani writers’ club, with their abilities now globalised — but a male-club, Shamsie reminds laughingly. But that doesn’t mean we should breathe easily. The boom in Pakistani writing and western interest in the novel is vastly exaggerated, she says. According to her, India is the country that has made the difference, with its expanding publishing industry. “As early as 2003, publishers in India were telling me that booksellers were particularly interested in Pakistani writing. The reason why Pakistani Anglophone fiction has benefitted so much is a mixture of the strengthening of the Indian publishing infrastructure and its proximity to and interest in Pakistani writers. At the second Jaipur Literature Festival in 2008, I was on a Pakistan-only panel with Moni Mohsin and Shahbano Bilgrami. Amir Khan was in the audience, it was packed. The following year, the director of the Jaipur festival, William Dalrymple, wrote a review of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders called ‘Moonlight’s Children’ that said Pakistani writers are in a boom period and all the hype in the US and UK about Pakistani writing came after that.”

Shamsie doesn’t enjoy being terribly open about the characters in her novel or even her own life — she prefers the reader decipher the connections, as she calls them, between her protagonists. She is done with the process of explaining once the writing is over. “I am interested in politics, history and human relations. Family relationships you are in because of blood but friendships are really interesting or a connection. One of my favourite scenes in this novel is when Viv and Qayyum meet each other, realise they have met before [during a train journey] and know they love someone in common. People who start with a position of difference and stand from a position of disconnect.”

Shamsie was born in 1973 in Karachi and had always wanted to be a writer. She was placed uniquely from the start in a world of books with her mother, Muneeza, a writer and critic herself, encouraging her daughter to read contemporary fiction and her aunt and grandmother both novelists. Muneeza and her daughter shared a writing space with desks facing one another at their Karachi home before Shamsie left for London. Shamsie’s first and third novels, In the City by the Sea and Kartography, were both shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys prize. Salt and Saffron, her second novel, won her a mention on the Orange list of “21 writers for the 21st century.” But she asserts that a writer’s life for her wasn’t simply writing without holding down other teaching jobs in America that paid the bills. “People always say ‘oh you’re so lucky, you’re a writer’ but it is work and not luck that produces novels. Of course, there’s often an element of luck in most things. I was lucky that, at 21, I met an agent who saw a short story I had written and said turn it into a novel. But that’s where luck stops. You have to turn a four-page story into a novel and it has to be good enough for the agent to take on, and a publisher to buy.”

Originally, the first chapters of A God in Every Stone were to be based on Najeeb and Diwa but that didn’t go according to plan. It was going to be just Najeeb as the central character, but then she got interested in Qayyum. Initially, the novel began with six short sections of 30 pages each, and she had written four and was halfway through the fifth when she realised it wasn’t working. “I was far more interested in the 1915 and 1930 sections than anything which came after, so I deleted what followed and turned those two short sections into the whole novel.”

Shamsie didn’t visit Peshawar until the first draft but had to go because at that point she had lived so much in her head that she wanted to walk through Peshawar Museum and experience the architecture of the old city. This wasn’t like writing about Karachi. Was it possible to write about a city you hadn’t visited or lived in when you talked of its history? “This novel drove me insane almost all the way. The more you write, the more you make things harder for yourself. My previous writing about Karachi was comparatively easy — though I wouldn’t have said so at the time — but writing about Brighton and Peshawar was difficult in a way writing about Karachi isn’t because I had to learn how to imagine these places. The two pages in this novel that flowed the most easily were set at the Mohatta Palace [in Karachi].”

As a writer, she must realise the need for versatility and progression. “Structure was my main problem in this novel. I wanted it to be compressed, with less flabbiness than with earlier work. I wanted less dialogue. With the Karachi novels there’s a lot of conversation moving the plot forward and I wanted to find different ways of creating plot and conflict and momentum,” she explains. “The process of paring down dialogue started in the Nagasaki section of Burnt Shadows and I wanted to push it further.”

Shamsie’s dedication is hardly unparalleled but she knows how to turn her art and passion into a career that started very early on, and that is taking her towards the top of her game. She remains the silent, intimidating novelist you sort of think twice about before asking questions that might get you a stare or a witty deflected answer.