In the wake of her nomination for one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards, Kamila Shamsie spoke to Eos about the inspiration behind her new novel and how the amalgamation of the ancient and the current resulted in a story reflective of our times.
This is your seventh book. It’s also the first book you’ve written since becoming a British citizen. Do you think living in Britain, going through the process of becoming a citizen and finally, having this passport in your hand shaped this novel?
Yes, very much so. There are questions of citizenship and citizenship laws within the novel, things most people in Britain are largely unaware of, but going through the citizenship process made me pay close attention to them. But also, the fact of having lived in London for 10 years makes me want to engage with the stories and politics around me — even though Home Fire is set in a number of places, I very much think of it as my first ‘London novel.’
One of your reviewers has talked about the nuance with which you approach the question of so-called ‘terrorists’ or recruits into organisations such as ISIS. How did you come to an issue that is portrayed in such black and white, you’re-with-us-or-against-us terms?
Well, no writer I know of has any interest in writing about black and white issues. I mean, of course the question of how I feel about Daesh is black and white. But when you read about the number of recruits who are teenagers you have to start wondering about what is being done to ‘groom’ them. Once you go down that avenue of research and look at the very sophisticated, multi-pronged propaganda of Daesh, which appeals to a sense of belonging and nation-building and the absence of racism etc, you start to see that there’s far more to the story than just bloodthirsty boys who go out in order to kill.
What kind of research did the stories of Parvaiz and Farooq involve? Were you able to gain access to first-hand accounts or interviews?
I was very lucky that the writer Gillian Slovo was commissioned to write a play about Daesh recruits — and the British political and police response — around the time I was thinking about the novel. Gillian’s a close friend, and shared a great deal of her research with me. That included the testimony of mothers in Belgium whose children had been recruited. It was an invaluable insight into the ways in which families suffer, and the ways in which they try to understand what has happened. For the rest, I relied on interviews I found online.
Is there an ethics to writing about evil?
There’s an ethics to writing. You’re always making choices about how to represent people and places and moments in history. It’s something that by your seventh novel you hope you’ve internalised sufficiently that you don’t have to sit around consciously thinking about it.
Tell us a little bit about your relationship to London. Obviously, you live there and it’s a fantastic (and terribly expensive) city. But as a writer who herself is a migrant in some way, what has the experience of living in London been like? Is there a particular kind of ‘at home’ you experience there that is different from the ‘at home’ of Karachi?
I’m not a migrant “in some way.” I’m a migrant. I moved here; I live here. It’s a word I still have some trouble attaching to myself because I think of myself as a Karachiite and a Londoner, but it is actually the simple, factual truth.
You know how there’s the family you’re born into and then there are the friends who become your family because you’ve chosen them? Well, that’s how I think of Karachi and London. I was born into one, I chose the other. We love both kinds of family, but not in exactly the same way. Perhaps you take the family you’re born into more personally; you feel more implicated in their actions. So that’s part of it too.
Homelessness, placelessness, itinerancy, no passports, no post offices are all themes that loomed large in the haunting work of your mentor Agha Shahid Ali. Do you think a part of him — things he used to say, stories he may have shared, fears he may have had — is in this book?
I’ve never thought of Shahid as either homeless or placeless. Kashmir was his home; his place was wherever he found himself. He was one of those people so comfortable in their own skin that you could drop him anywhere and he’d be entirely at ease and able to carve out a place for himself. He lives in my work primarily through aesthetics. He was a poet first and above all else — conscious of the sound of every word, always searching for the most effective way to say something. He was also, of course, deeply engaged with the politics of Kashmir, and his marrying of aesthetics and political engagement was something that very early on left its mark on me.
In a conversation we had a few years ago regarding A God in Every Stone, your previous book, we talked about female characters and their increasing complexity as solitary, self-contained figures in your novels. There is something terribly lonely about Aneeka and Isma (and not in a HelloCupid kind of way) in this novel. Vivian from A God in Every Stone also treads her path alone (in the most natural of ways). Hiroko from Burnt Shadows is blessed with sororal companionship after being widowed. All the women in your later novels are a part of something bigger than themselves. Would you be able to say a little bit about what has made you shy away from plots that are largely about relationships, sex, abuse or marriage?
I think we see my work differently. Vivian is certainly alone in the world for much of A God in Every Stone, but much of Hiroko’s story is about her love for two different men — three if you include her son. And her nature is always companionable; even in widowhood (which is only the very last section of her story) she finds a togetherness with one of her oldest friends. Isma is tremendously self-contained in Home Fire, but Aneeka is the absolute opposite; she tries for a time to lock herself away from other people, but she’s not actually any good at it and soon finds someone to whom she can attach herself.
If the question is why I don’t write women who are primarily defined by romantic love and marriage, well, that’s because there are plenty of other kinds of stories around about women that I find interesting. The phrase ‘shy away from’ implies that writing about marriage or abuse would somehow be the natural direction to go in while writing about women and I’m avoiding that. It strikes me as a really regressive way to think about women’s lives. Of course, people still do think that if a woman is writing a novel then romance must be central (I suspect this is actually what you’re asking) — so I’m forever having to hear my novels described as ‘romantic’ even when I think they’re something else entirely.
Karachi. In some of your work, it’s all consuming. In Home Fire, you write about it —brilliantly — as if you don’t know it at all. How did you manage that?
It required a strange kind of inversion in my thinking. I had to conjure up all the familiar sights and sounds and experiences of Karachi, but then imagine how they would look to someone encountering them for the first time. It was, I think, the part of the novel that in some way I enjoyed the most: retreading familiar ground but in an unfamiliar way. One of my friends once joked that my novels are all about ‘finding new routes to get to Karachi’ — in Burnt Shadows I arrive there via Japan and Delhi. In A God in Every Stone there are two pages set there, which required me to have a character fall ill at sea, forcing her to recuperate in Karachi before proceeding to Peshawar. And with Home Fire there’s a whole other set of plot devices set in motion to give me a handful of Karachi pages to write about. I say this all as a joke, but there may be some element of truth in it. Always some reference to cricket and always a bit of Karachi — these seem to be my personal tics as a writer.
I’d also like to know what you think about writers in ‘exile’, so to speak — those who have migrated from their homes either by choice or by necessity. Does the distance mean they slowly lose touch with the pulse of home or naturally adopt different priorities of their new homelands and are therefore writing (usually) for a Western audience more than their earlier readers from their original homes?
I dislike the conflation of exile to mean both exiled and migrant writers. Choosing to move away and retaining the ability to return when you want is a very different matter to being forced out of your home and being unable to go back. My stock answer to the question about writers who move away from home and whether this necessarily causes them to lose touch with home is: James Joyce. There’s little argument that he wrote the greatest novels ever written about Dublin, but he wrote them from Paris. So of course that can be done. But it can also happen that at some point you turn around to face the city you’re living in now and choose to write about that, which is what I’ve done with Home Fire. But having said that, the last two novels I wrote — A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadows — were mostly set in places and time periods I’ve never lived in. So I think the relationship between the place you live in and the place you write about can be configured in all kinds of ways; what matters is the quality of the novel you write. There are writers who’ve written wonderfully about places they live in, writers who’ve written wonderfully about places they’ve left behind and writers who’ve written wonderfully about places they’ve never known. And you can replace ‘wonderfully’ with ‘terribly’ in that previous sentence.
As for the Western audience question — if I could choose to wipe one question from the face of this earth it would be this one. Are there really many writers out there who write with a specific geographic audience in mind? It sounds very tedious to me. I’ve always trusted the form of the novel — it’s a great, generous form that allows multiple angles of approach and rewards both familiarity and unfamiliarity, if done right. It also strikes me as odd that Pakistani writers continue to be asked about the Western audience when it’s the Indian audience that is doing more to sustain a greater number of Pakistani Anglophone writers than any other. Just think of the number of Pakistani writers whose first or only publication has been in India. When it comes to my own novels, I never know which audience is going to respond best to them. A God in Every Stone sold more copies in India than it did anywhere else; Salt and Saffron sold more copies in Italy than anywhere else, and Burnt Shadows was a bestseller in Norway for months. I can’t begin to explain or understand any of this, so I just write the novels that I’m most interested in writing, and to the best of my abilities.
Your adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone was fantastic — it’s a play for our times. Was it always at the forefront for this project or did you think about other classical texts as well? Any thoughts on the Lysistrata or the Bacchae as possible options?
It was always Antigone. I was approached by Jatinder Verma, who runs the Tara Arts theatre company in London, and asked if I would consider adapting Antigone within a contemporary Asian or British Asian context. I love the theatre enough that the idea of adapting a play was appealing. I was also between writing projects at the time. Once I re-read Antigone it was almost immediately clear to me what kind of contemporary story I wanted to tell based on it, and it gradually became clear to me that I was thinking of it as a novel. So I had to both thank and apologise to Jatinder. He was very nice about the whole thing.
Which five books would you like to see Home Fire sit with on a shelf and why?
Hmmm. Antigone, for obvious reasons, but specifically the Anne Carson translation which is so visceral. Colm Toibin’s House of Names — it’s also an adaptation of Greek tragedy, published this year, but one which retells the story without ‘updating’ it as I did, so it’s much closer to the original but also brilliant at giving you new parts of the story or insights into the bits of it that occur ‘off-stage.’ Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days because the relationship between sisters is central to Home Fire and there’s no better evocation of sisterly love than the writing about Ifat in Suleri’s brilliant book. Agha Shahid Ali’s The Veiled Suite because I would always want my work to be on a shelf with Shahid’s work, which is so strong an influence on my writing that I can’t even detect it any more. Gillian Slovo’s play Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State, both because it provided me with so much material for Home Fire and also because there’s a bit in there when a woman is speaking about her daughter who has gone to live in Raqqa and marry a Daesh fighter, and it could be a monologue out of Greek tragedy.