Her great aunt was the writer Attia Husain, and her grandfather studied Classics at Oxford University. From an early age, she was determined to be a writer. In her late teens, she attended university in America. At the age of twenty-one, she started writing her first novel.
That novel, In the City by the Sea, was published in 1998. It is about an eleven-year-old boy called Hasan living in Karachi at a time of political turbulence in Pakistan. As real life becomes more fraught with danger, Hasan escapes into the realm of the imagination, making friends with characters from Arthurian legends and Shakespeare. Shamsie’s next three novels followed in quick succession. Salt and Saffron (2000), Kartography (2002) and Broken Verses (2005) continued to explore the same five square miles of Karachi.
Burnt Shadows (2009), her fifth novel, signalled a departure in her geographical and historical scope. It tracked a family history through the ruptures of the late twentieth century, starting with the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki, moving through Pakistan in the 1980s, and ending in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. It is a novel that combined Shamsie’s formidable skill as a storyteller with a crystalline prose style that delved deep into the minds of her characters.
A God in Every Stone moved further back into the past. A few months before the outbreak of the First World War, Vivian Rose Spencer, a young English archaeologist, uncovers the Temple of Zeus in Turkey. A year later, Qayyum Gul is fighting for the British Indian Army at Ypres. When he loses an eye in battle, he returns to his home in Peshawar, Pakistan. On the train, he shares a carriage with Vivian, who is looking for a fabled circlet worn by the fifth century BCE explorer Scylax. Their very different lives cross paths again twenty years later on Peshawar’s famous Street of Storytellers.
Home Fire, her most accomplished work to date, won the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is a re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone that follows the lives of two Muslim families in contemporary Britain. Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz grow up knowing their jihadist father was killed on his way to Guantanamo Bay. Whilst Isma, the older sister and maternal presence, is studying at an American university, Parvaiz is recruited by a member of Islamic State and leaves for Syria. Then, the British Home Secretary’s son, Eamonn, falls in love with Aneeka. Both families become entrenched in a political war where love and family are pitted against the machinations of the state.
Nick Major met Shamsie in London, where she has lived since 2007. It was a July day of sticky, subcontinental heat. They sat in a corner of an airy café filled with Quakers and political aficionados a ten-minute walk from The British Library. Shamsie has dark hair and wore a light pink dress. She spoke for an hour and a half, pausing once to jump up and hold open a door for a lady struggling with a tray piled high with teapots and cups. On meeting her, it is immediately clear she possesses a lively intellect and an eloquent, confident voice. She is comfortable talking about any subject under the sun. The conversation ranged from her writerly childhood and growing up under military dictatorship, to the erosion of civil liberties in Britain and how to adapt an ancient Greek myth. It also touched briefly on her first work of literature: a book about dog heaven.
SRB: You’re not long back from holiday in the United States. You’ve lived there in the past. How long for?
Kamila Shamsie: Between 1991 to 2006, America was very much part of the rotation of my life. I was at university there from 1991 to 1998. I did my undergraduate degree at Hamilton College, then a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Then, between 2000 and 2006, I had a recurring position as a visiting teacher of creative writing at Hamilton. I really just know a tiny corner of America, on the east coast. This was my first time out west. Just after I won the Women’s Prize, my sister and I went on a road trip from Phoenix, Arizona, to Las Vegas via three Canyons (Grand, Bryce and Zion).
What was that like?
The thing you know in the abstract, but which you have to see, is the vastness of the place and how little relationship one side of it has to another. Mostly, the landscape is just unbelievably beautiful. You do a lot of looking and not that much thinking.
A friend of mine recently moved back to America. She said it was quite painful to live under Trump’s presidency.
I’ve been back a few times since Trump has been elected. I usually go to New York or Massachusetts. All my friends are in a state of trauma, grief and depression or some spirit of resistance. But this time I was on a holiday. We were just going from hotel to hotel. We had no idea what was going on anywhere. Out in these small towns you just have a [local] newspaper, where all that’s going on is some bake sale or something. It was only when I went on to the Guardian website one night that I realized Trump was having his summit with Kim [Jong-Un]. It might have been interesting to have conversations in those parts of America where there is a much larger Trump constituency. But I was on holiday and I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into those sorts of conversations.
You were born and grew up in Karachi. Your mother is a distinguished writer. What was your family life like?
In retrospect, it was odd. At the time it was just my childhood. I didn’t think twice about it. Pakistan, politically, was incredibly bleak. When I was four, in 1977, military rule came in and lasted until I was fifteen. There was a lot of pretend Islamisation. It was also the period of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan got involved and trained up jihadis. I would sit and listen to adults having conversations about the terrible path the country was on and the dangers of religious extremism. On the other hand, I had my family life, which was a happy place full of books. When I was growing up, my mother was doing feature pieces for newspapers, but her real interest was books. She would interview any writers who were coming through. She made sure she knew what was happening in the world of contemporary writing. Now you have very good bookshops in Karachi, but at that time it was hard to find literary fiction. She would always find out who had won the Booker Prize and she subscribed to Granta throughout the 1980s. Then, she would order books from London and you would wait tensely in case they got lost in the post. When I was thirteen or fourteen, she started to give me books by Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Anita Desai, and Peter Carey. It was a household in which people were always reading. My great aunt had been a writer. My grandmother was always reciting poetry. My grandfather studied the Classics at Oxford, so he would sit around the dinner table declaiming Greek onomatopoeia. When I talk about it, it sounds like a parody. But I did grow up in these two worlds: there was the world around me, and there was the world of the imagination. Apparently, I was nine years old when I announced I was going to be a writer, and eleven when my best friend and I wrote a book about dog heaven, to cope with the death of our pet dogs.
Were you bilingual from an early age?
I grew up talking, reading and dreaming in English. My schooling was in English, and my parents’ and grandfather’s primary language was English. My maternal grandmother’s first language was Urdu, but she was in a minority. So, regrettably, Urdu has always been a second language. I can speak it, but my grammar is bad and my vocabulary is limited.
Were there any expectations that you would become a writer?
When I was fourteen, my mother did say to me, ‘I hope you’re not doing this because you think…’ I said, ‘No, what else am I going to do? This is the thing I love.’ But, also, my mother’s career really took off when I was at university and she started to do more critical work and edit anthologies about Pakistani writing in English. My grandmother published a memoir in her eighties, but I already had three novels out. So, no, there was never any sense of expectation. It was almost the opposite. There just weren’t Pakistani writers working in English who were being published. I was lucky to be growing up in a generation where it had started to happen in India. So, I could at least read books that seemed close enough to home and I had an idea of what writing in the English language from the subcontinent might look like. But there was only one writer, Bapsi Sidhwa, from Pakistan who was being published. When you only have one, that one seems like the exception rather than the possibility you can follow. One part of my brain was always thinking, this doesn’t happen to people from here.
Did you study in America because you thought it would be easier to get published?
I wasn’t that forward thinking at seventeen. My school followed the English curriculum and has always sent its students out of the country. In an earlier generation, it was the UK. For my generation, it was America. It was almost taken for granted that most people would apply to American universities.
A God in Every Stone is partly set in Peshawar, where there is a Street of Storytellers. Your early novels draw on Pakistan’s rich culture of oral storytelling. Is that culture still alive?
The street still exists by name, but the storytellers have gone. I think first radio and then TV took over from them. Apparently, in the 1980s you could get cassette tapes with oral stories on them. Then they died out. It’s just a market now. But oral storytelling is still part of daily life. I was interviewing Michael Ondaatje a couple of weeks ago, and I asked him about early influences. He said the early influences weren’t books, it was sitting around the family table telling stories. That was something I grew up with too.
Are there any writers – Ondaatje, for example – that you return to again and again?
I return to Ondaatje and Toni Morrison probably more than anyone else. Their writing is so good. One of the greatest strokes of good fortune in my life came when I was eighteen. At Hamilton, a tiny American liberal arts college in a snow belt, on a hill, in the middle of nowhere, there was a poet there called Agha Shahid Ali, who was from Kashmir, a place that was very troubled. He was writing brilliant poetry about conflict, but he was very clear that a good writer never sacrifices the aesthetics of a line in order to make a political point. You have to work at the level of poetry first, and that will carry everything along. Ondaatje does that so well. He writes about wars and nation states and against all sorts of boundaries, subjects that could so easily become woolly. Yet he makes them real and hard and tough. He also has this eagle eye that sees in such a wide sense and another eye that has this zoom lens that will show you a speck of sand in the desert. Toni Morrison does something similar. And they both write at certain angles of history that aren’t always told.
Have they informed your writing in a technical sense or is it that their writing pushed you to be a better writer?
I hate to say they have been an influence because it feels like an act of hubris. But, I suppose they have set the bar for me, and that’s what I aim for. I don’t aim to write like them but to be technically as smart and sound as they are, and to have their imaginative reach.
Do you write every day?
Yes, when I’m writing, which is not now. It’s the only way I can do it. There is an interesting moment when it switches. In the beginning, I sit at my desk in the morning and often not very much happens. There is a point when I see the book, the characters and the voice more clearly. Then, I wake up and I just want to get back to the desk. I don’t have to exert self-discipline in the same way. In the early stages, the only way it is possible [to write] is if I recognize that writing is my job and I have to do it five days a week.
How long does it take to get to the stage where writing feels more instinctual?
It shifts a lot from book to book. With Home Fire, there are five sections. In each section, I had to start anew. I would get into my stride with one section and have it in my head, and then there was another beginning. It was a more stuttering kind of start. Although, it did get written much faster than I have written anything in a long time.
Do you know why?
A couple of reasons. I was writing about the contemporary world, and much of it – London, Karachi, Massachusetts – were places I knew, so I didn’t have to do all the work of research, where you have to stop all the time. I remember at one point with A God in Every Stone, I needed two characters to communicate with each other via telegram. So, I had to find out how telegrams work, how long a telegram would take, how much a telegram would cost, what the language of telegrams was. Also, Home Fire was the first book I have written since my very first novel where – broadly speaking – I set off knowing character, plot and structure. That came out of the fact that it comes out of Antigone. Usually, I start and I have a couple of images and vague ideas. I don’t know where I’m going. That’s a more exciting process because there is a sense of discovery, but it’s also more terrifying, and slower.
Why did you know what was going to happen in your first novel?
I had been writing a lot of short stories at university, but it was the first time I had sat down properly to write a novel. I didn’t think I could do it unless I had a clear sense of what was going to happen, a structure and a shape. It was a very streamlined novel: it was six weeks in the life of an eleven-year-old boy. When it came to the second book, I realized my brain was not able to do that. There were too many different storylines intersecting. Also, at some point, I had worked out that the act of writing engenders ideas.
A God in Every Stone is full of historical and archaeological detail. Whilst I was reading, I wondered if the book started purely imaginatively or with research.
It was both together. With A God in Every Stone I really went down a blind alley. At one point I had to delete ten months of work. At first, I didn’t know it was going to be a novel. I just knew I was interested in Peshawar. That was because I grew up without having an interest in it. If you live in Karachi, you’re aware of Lahore and Islamabad. But Peshawar, even though it’s one of the biggest cities, is considered the wild frontier. In 2009 or 2010, I was on a TV talk show in Karachi discussing my previous novel, Burnt Shadows, which starts in Nagasaki with the atom bomb. At the time, there was a lot of violence in Pakistan, and the Taliban had taken over some areas of territory. There were bombs going off in Peshawar a couple of times a week. [The show] went to a break and the TV anchor turned to me and said, ‘Here we are talking about a bomb in Nagasaki in 1945 and there are bombs going off in Peshawar every day.’ I thought, as a result of having written Burnt Shadows I know more about Nagasaki than I do about Peshawar. That just seemed wrong. As these bombs were going off, I realized I had no sense of the people or the place. As a matter of intellectual curiosity, I did some research. I have always loved ancient history and archaeology. I discovered [Peshawar has] this incredible archaeological heritage. It very quickly became clear that I was researching a novel.
Your characters are always struggling with history. For Hiroko, in Burnt Shadows, history seems an overwhelming burden. Vivian Rose Spencer, in A God in Every Stone, is almost addicted to uncovering it. Do you know why history is so central to your characters?
It has very much to do with where and when I grew up. At partition [between Pakistan and India], of my four grandparents, three left their homes and moved to Pakistan. Half their family was left in India. They thought they would be coming and going without any issue. My mother said that the first time she saw her mother cry was when my grandmother couldn’t get a visa to see her dying mother in India. When I was growing up, the government of Pakistan was telling me that India was the enemy. Then, I would go to my grandmother’s house and there was her brother, who was Indian. My other grandmother, who is German, married an Indian and moved to Delhi. Then World War Two happened. She never went back to Germany. Then partition happened and she moved from Delhi to Pakistan. She lived until 1998. One of my very earliest memories is of the 1977 election in Pakistan – my father showing me the black mark on his thumb, explaining indelible ink to me and saying this was so no-one could vote twice. I remember the military coup that happened that same year, when I was four years old. When I was six, the prime minister was hanged, and there was a boy in my school related to the prime minister, and I remember being taken out of school because they were worried about trouble in the city. So, history and politics were never separate from lived experience. There was never a point at which there was an abstract decision to use history [in the novels]. But, also, I lived under censorship where a lot of history, as it was unfolding, wasn’t being officially acknowledged and wasn’t in the newspapers, so stories became the carriers of history and politics. That was how you learnt about what was going on.
Your first four novels are set in Karachi. Why did you broaden your geographical range after that?
I always thought Karachi was my subject. It was my primary base and it was where I would go to write. I had written those novels without pause. When I finished the fourth one, Broken Verses, I felt wrung-out. I needed to stop. I gave myself six months, and that turned into eighteen months. I did have an idea about what the next book would be. It was going to be set in Karachi in the summer of 1998, when India and Pakistan tested their nuclear bombs. There was going to be a character whose grandmother or mother was a Japanese woman who had survived the bombing of Nagasaki. So, she would have this family history that was at odds with the very jubilant ‘look, we have the bomb’ hyper-nationalism going on. That was all I knew about it. During that eighteen months, I was judging the short-lived Orange Award for New Writing, a debut novel prize. I had to read something like seventy novels in six weeks. I started to get annoyed by a particular structure of storytelling: there would be someone living a fairly ordinary life, then some family secret would disrupt the present day. I kept thinking, why is everyone telling stories in this way? It took me a while to understand that I had done it in a couple of previous novels and I was about to do it again. I thought, well, I can’t do that. Then I started to think, who is this Japanese woman who ended up with family in Karachi? Maybe I should start with her? But that would mean starting with Nagasaki. I was teaching at the time. One of the things I kept blithely telling my students was that if you have an idea for something that scares you, you should at least try it. I thought, I’ll try it and it’ll be a disaster and then I’ll go back to writing about Karachi. It was a disaster, but that made me want to make it not a disaster. I recognized the pleasure and the challenge of writing about things I didn’t know that well. Once that happened, I became a different kind of writer.
In Burnt Shadows there is a scene set in Pakistan in the early 1980s, when there was a ‘growing fervour for a world of rigidity’. It depicts a group of young radicals pulling ‘unIslamic’ books off the shelves in a bookshop. How worried were you about that particular change in society whilst you were growing up?
It was a constant topic of conversation. Zia-ul-Haq was a military ruler who had no popular support so he tried to claim divine support. He brought in very misogynistic laws in the name of Islam. He insisted on more overt piety. Women newsreaders had to start covering their heads, which they had never done before. As a young girl running around in jeans, I was very aware of all that. Adults were incredibly worried about where this was going. I never witnessed a scene like that in the bookshops, but our newspapers would have comic strips, including Archie comics from America, which we all loved reading. Where there was depictions of girls in bikinis the censors would black-out the bodies. You noticed those things from very early on. It spread fast. There’s a line in Sara Suleri’s wonderful memoir Meatless Days: ‘religion left the homes and entered the streets’. I think that’s what happened.
Burnt Shadows touches on radical Islam. What made you want to write about it more intensely in Home Fire?
I didn’t want to write about it. But, at some point, I got quite interested in the subtlety and complexity with which Islamic State was doing their recruitment. As a result, the novel is talked about as if it is about the radicalization of a young boy, which was never my starting point. My starting point was how the British state is responding to radicalization. If you grew up in a dictatorship and your dreams were a democracy with civil liberties, one of the most distressing things to see is how, in the last seventeen years, those democracies have been giving up civil liberties, rule of law, equality of citizens, to fight this thing. You think, you are just eroding the best of yourselves. So that was actually my starting point. But then a novel becomes what a novel becomes.
Karamat Lone, the Home Secretary in the novel, is always using the idea of ‘Britishness’ to manipulate the population. You became a British citizen in 2013. Did that inform your ideas about how the British state defines British people.
I don’t know if that process did. Being Muslim in Britain during those years informed it, [and] the post-7/7 conversation about Britishness. An idea very quickly took hold about the 7/7 bombers that the problem is a lack of Britishness, whatever that is, and the way to fix things is to ensure everyone is properly British. But, really, you can want to not blow people up without being British. Theresa May really expanded the state’s ability to strip people of citizenship. It used to be, if you were a dual citizen [the state could take away your citizenship]. She expanded it to, if you are a dual citizen or if you can be shown to have the right to another citizenship, which is most children of migrants. So, you can be born and raised in Britain and never have lived anywhere else, but if your parents came from Pakistan, the state can strip you of your citizenship. It creates inequality in the way citizens are being treated.
Describe the process of adapting Antigone. Was it simply a case of reading the play and hoping it would find a way into what you were writing or was it more methodological than that?
In September 2014, a man called Jatinder Verma, who runs Tara Arts [Centre, in London] asked me to write a play, perhaps an adaptation of Antigone or The Oresteia. I said I’d at least go away and read Antigone. In August, the figure of Jihadi John, this Brit who was cutting people’s heads off in Syria, had come to people’s attention. Just after he became a figure on the scene, Theresa May had said this thing about stripping people of their citizenship. I was less than a year into being a citizen. I had been thinking of the families of those who had gone away, and their stories. The thing about Antigone is that – and I have this on good authority – it is right now the single most performed play in the world because it has, at its centre, the question, what is the relationship of state to citizen? That has always been a question for countries under military rule, but I think it’s a big question for America and some parts of Europe right now.
In the beginning, there are two sisters saying, our brother’s been a traitor and the state is responding in a way that doesn’t make sense. He’s dead, they’re punishing us. My first response was, I can’t do this, because at the centre of the play is a tyrant saying, this body will not be buried. That’s not going to happen in Britain. We have hygiene laws, if nothing else. It took a while to realize that when you’re saying this body cannot be buried, what you’re saying is that you have no claim to this land, you have no place here, living or dead. I thought, well, that’s kind of the same as saying you’re no longer a citizen. As soon as that opened up, I knew I was going to do it. Except I was pretending I was going to write a play. I knew that I had to be willing to discard what was not useful. It was actually a surprise how little I ended up discarding. It is such a distilled text. I had to get rid of Creon’s wife, who does nothing but kill herself, so I made his wife the Tiresias figure. I read about five or six translations. Then I put them away, and thought, now I’ve got the soil this is going to grow out of. We’ll see what happens. There are all kinds of places where I didn’t realize what I was doing. At one point, Isma says of her younger siblings, ‘I’m their sister, almost their mother,’ which of course comes right back to the incest story of the children of Oedipus, which was not a thing that was in the forefront of my brain at all
Parvaiz, despite the fact that he is groomed by a member of Islamic State, is not a violent or particularly religious person. I think that runs counter to the sort of person many of us think would join IS.
I didn’t want to tell again the story which has become the story about young Muslims, which is: he’s angry so he becomes an extremist. In researching Islamic State propaganda and recruitment, I realized it was so much scarier than we think. Along with most other people, I had assumed, the people who went to Syria were the ones already filled with hatred and violence. But the story is much more complicated. The thing about Islamic State that makes it different to, for instance, Al Qaeda, is that they were actively trying to set up a state. That meant they needed doctors and engineers and media, the sorts of people who were not interested in violence. What was most influential in thinking about Parvaiz was a report by Charlie Winter I read on the BBC website. He looked at a couple of months of the Islamic State propaganda from the early days. He looked at the things they were using to appeal to people. Number one on the list was a sense of belonging. I thought, that’s interesting. That means you’re targeting people who are a little bit lost or alienated. Violence was pretty far down the list. There were other things, like state-building – you will be doing something important – and lack of racism. I saw a video – not one of the grisly ones – which was for the holy occasion of Eid. It was of all these good-looking, joyful young men speaking all different languages: English, Arabic, French. Someone is riding down the road on a horse, they are sitting around having a picnic or giving sweets to children. It is just idyllic, and a little bit homoerotic. There are no women there. But if you are a young man discontented in life, and here are these men who are saying, ‘come, brother’. Well, you can see how this could be powerful. It made me want to tell the story of someone who is not filled with hatred, but who has certain issues and vulnerabilities. In terms of Parvaiz not being very religious: there was a report by MI5 about Brits who had gone [to Syria]. It said it was impossible to find a profile of a typical person. There will be the seventeen-year-old boy who has dropped out of school, and there will be the older man who seems happily married with children and has a nice job. But the most common denominator was that, in most cases, they didn’t grow up in a religiously observant household. It made sense because Islamic State’s version of Islam is so out there that even if you grew up as fairly radical you would probably have to be absent of a religious education in order to be convinced that that is the version of Islam that you should be following.
Home Fire has just won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. How does winning something like that affect you?
The shift really happened when Burnt Shadows was shortlisted for what was then the Orange Prize. There was just a different level of visibility and a difference in the number of people reading my books. The bar does get raised for you. But, when you sit down to write you are back in that place of, here’s a blank screen how do I make a story out of it? One of the things that has always been true is that with every novel I have wanted to do something I haven’t done before. I always want to push myself further. Also, the first three books just came out of life, which, in retrospect, were relatively easy to write. So, it is harder work now. With prizes you have to remind yourself that it is an extremely lucky thing. And you have to expect it not to happen again.
It is your seventh novel. How do you think you have changed as a writer from your first novel to this one?
I started my first novel when I was twenty-one so I really look back and think of it as juvenilia. At a sentence level, I used to be much more interested in a lusher kind of writing. Now, I prefer language more pared down. My sentences say ‘look at what I’m saying’ rather than ‘look at me’. I think I have become more confident, which means I have taken on larger canvases and larger stories. I didn’t want to risk failure earlier on. Whereas now I recognize that if you’re not risking failure you’re getting too comfortable: the kind of books I was writing ten years ago I could now write very easily, and so I mustn’t.
You said you weren’t currently working on anything, but do you have any ideas about what might be next?
No, I’m back to having no thoughts in my head. Someone, please give me an idea. I need to reach a place of boredom where I am really quite desperate. I am not sufficiently bored yet.
Well, I hope you get sufficiently bored soon.