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‘I go wherever the stories take me’

Kamila Shamsie, the British-Pakistani novelist, on literary prizes and why she doesn’t lose sleep over reviews

Image Credit: Zain Mustafa
Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie’s loose contemporary reworking of Antigone, was longlisted for the Man Booker last year
Gulf News

One of the things that make British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s success in the literary world all the more surprising is her lack of interest in charming her readers with exoticism. Her stories, in the seven novels she has published so far, explore themes such as war and love, how people’s lives are shaped by history, and the search of her complex characters to find themselves, and the truth.

Her most recent book, Home Fire, is set against a backdrop that is instantly recognisable: the rising prejudice that Muslims in the west now face. It’s not just a literary thriller about prejudice and the slide into radicalisation, but also an expansive novel about love. Given its timeliness, its elegant prose and its incisive study of duty and family, it’s easy to see why Home Fire was longlisted for 2017 Man Booker Prize.

“Home Fire hadn’t yet been published when the Booker longlist was announced,” says Shamsie, “and I can think of no better way for a book to enter the world than with the words ‘Booker longlisted’ attached to it.”

With a decade as an author behind her, Shamsie is only too aware of the life-altering power of literary prizes. “Recognition matters. Other than the fact that it feels good to have your work acknowledged and praised, there’s a direct connection between how many readers hear of your book and whether or not you’re on prize lists,” she says.

The novel, Shamsie’s seventh, began as a play. In early 2014, the author was approached to write an adaptation of Sophocles’s 5th–century B.C. tragedy Antigone, which like much of the great literature of antiquity, has lent itself to infinite reinterpretations. The play is about a sister who buries her dead brother against the will of the King of Thebes, whose refusal to grant funeral rites angers the gods and sets into motion a catastrophic series of events.

“Antigone is a story of how individuals respond when the laws of the state are unjust. It’s also a story of how families respond when a beloved family member does something unforgivable,” says Shamsie, explaining the reason to align Home Fire with Antigone, and contextualising it within the canon of classic Western literature. “Both these aspects of it appealed to me.”

Home Fire is the story of three orphaned British Muslim siblings, the grown children of a loving mother and an Islamist father, who abandoned his family to fight in Chechnya and Afghanistan and died en route to Guantanamo.

The novel, she says, gave the space to create empathy for those who are doing everything they can to rid themselves of the taint of extremism, and those aren’t. “I’m not interested in the story of good Muslim-bad Muslim. I’m far more interested in the way individual personalities and gender and the law and society all come together to push people in one direction or the other.”

“I worry about all kinds of violence and injustice and stereotype in the world around us. In this novel, I’m looking most closely at the ways in which that relates to being Muslim in Britain,” she adds.

Writing flows through the family’s veins. Shamsie’s mother is a critic and short-story writer, and her aunt and grandmother are both novelists. Shamsie was attracted to writing since she was 11. “I write because I love it,” she says. “But it’s also how I earn a living, so without readers I wouldn’t be able to have it as a way of life.”

Until fairly recently, Shamsie wasn’t recognised as a big ticket name in the wider literary world. But in Pakistan, where she grew up, and in the UK, where she lives, she’s had star status since the beginning of her career. Her first and third novels, In the City by the Sea and Kartography, were both shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys prize. Her second, Salt and Saffron, won her a place on the Orange list of “21 writers for the 21st century”. Her fifth novel Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. In 2015, A God in Every Stone was shortlisted for the 2015 Walter Scott Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction.

Clearly, her books are as much an emotional undertaking as an intellectual one.

“I’m always learning, always trying new things, always failing in some places and succeeding in others. That doesn’t change. But it has got harder to write than it used to be — that’s the result when you keep challenging yourself, I suppose,” she says.

As for reviews, Shamsie says, she prefers a glowing review to a scathing one. “But I’ve never lost sleep over any review. And sometimes it’s the critical reviews that are most helpful in helping you to see or understand something about your own writing.”

She has built her literary career exploring and beautifully balancing identity, loyalty, memory and reinvention. Quite pragmatic, Shamsie says when she starts a novel, the concept might be fluid, but it must be engrossing enough to keep her immersed in writing. “What’s foremost in my mind is whether the story and subject are interesting enough to me that I think I can spend a year or two or three working on them.”

At the moment though, she’s not throwing herself fully into another book. But when she writes, her schedule resembles that of many working people — five days a week, a wake up, a cup of coffee, read the newspaper, and go to desk. “But how long I stay at my desk varies — usually once I’m quite deep into a novel I write faster, and spend longer at my desk whereas beginnings are slower and more painful so I look for excuses to end the writing day.”

“I don’t usually plan my books before I write them — Home Fire was the exception. Since it’s based on a play, I had most of the characters and a lot of the plot line in mind before I started,” she adds.

Those acquainted with Shamsie’s writing will know that her novels are sprawling, tell stories of multiple characters, in multiple settings — Burnt Shadows was set in five countries and Home Fire was set in Massachusetts, London, Raqqa and Karachi.

“I enjoy having multiple characters who see the same events or characters from very different perspectives,” she says. “So much of the conflict in our lives and in the world stems from these different ways of seeing.”

“I also see the histories of different countries as being so interlinked that when I start to tell a story that has political undertones, it just seems natural to cover a lot of geographic ground,” she adds.

In a wider sense, her work has always been closely informed by, and intertwined with, issues and politics as well as with culture and history.

And her characters are freshly drawn: those who touch readers, give an intimate portrait of the complex cross-currents of human psychology. A relationship exists between the writer and the characters they create on the page, she says. “Even when I don’t expect to be sympathetic to the characters, such as Karamat Lone in Home Fire, I always end up feeling great empathy for them. You have to live inside a character’s skin in order to write them.”

Most importantly, the female characters in her book repeatedly defy the subservient expectations — Vivian Rose Spencer in A God in Every Stone, Hiroko in Burnt Shadows and Aneeka and Isma in Home Fire. Women in her novels is how Shamsie feels about women in the world. “I don’t know any women who are only defined by romantic love and who aren’t multi-layered…”

Also, as she sees things, the torrent of the #MeToo movement, which has emboldened women to challenge predatory behaviour that they silently endured, cuts hard against the standard narrative of hashtag campaigns. Shamsie, cautiously optimistic, says we are in the “very early stages” of holding men accountable for harassment and assault. “Patriarchy has been around a very long time, and in the long run is very adept at surviving all attempts to attack it. Having said that, there’s such strength of feeling behind #MeToo that despite my sense of caution I’m not without hope.”

Shamsie is in a good place right now. Arguably, her watchful temperament and living in London for over a decade now have also given her, her cultural identity, a certain distance from her homeland. She admits it’s been a long time — the last was 2005’s Broken Verses — since the city of her upbringing, Karachi, has been the inspiration behind her work.

“London is my day to day home now, which is why Home Fire centres on the lives of Londoners,” she says. “But having said that, my last novel [A God In Every Stone] was set mostly in Peshawar, where I’ve never lived. So increasingly for me there isn’t necessarily a relationship between the place where I live and place about which I write. I go wherever the stories take me…”

Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.

Kamila Shamsie is taking part in the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, at the InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City, which concludes tomorrow.