Kamila Shamsie talks about Pakistan’s growing literary scene, her new novel, and love for her home city, Karachi.
Fresh from being named Granta’s Best of Young British Novelist in 2013, Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie returns with A God in Every Stone , a sweeping saga of war, history and love set in the turbulent 20th century in London and Peshawar. Her previous novel, the critically acclaimed Burnt Shadows, was set in Nagasaki post the nuclear bombing. Her other novels include In the City by the Sea, Kartography, Broken Verses and Salt and Saffron. Excerpts from an interview.
A God in Every Stone is set in Peshawar, a city you never visited till you wrote the book. What was your experience like visiting this historical city?
As a student of history, I was curious about Peshawar. I love ancient history and there is so much of it there. Whether it’s art, politics, culture, Peshawar has a lot to offer. Gandhara art came from here and then there was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s remarkable unarmed army of Khudai Khidmatgars.
Who or what is the inspiration behind the remarkably intelligent and independent Vivian Rose?
The inspiration comes from being a woman myself. We live in a patriarchal society and to know the story of a woman who is among the first in a particular field has always fascinated me. In that sense, Vivian Rose is one of the first woman archaeologists of 20th century. In fact, 1915 is an interesting year. Women’s suffrage movement is beginning, World War I is unfolding, women have started to enter the professional arena and an all-female archaeological meet takes place. So it seemed a good year to tell the story of a woman archaeologist.
What kind of research went into the book?
I spent a lot of time researching colonial archives, looking at old photos of Peshawar and reading files of the 1930s massacre. For me, the old photos of Peshawar became very important, I didn’t want images of modern day Peshawar to cloud my imagination while writing the book.
With some interesting work coming out of Pakistan, how do you see the literary scene growing?
It’s all thanks to the growth in Indian publishing. It has helped Pakistani writers get published and reach out to a wider audience. Over the years, the success of Pakistani writers has been an inspiration for younger writers, who are now experimenting with different genres. In the initial years, the focus was more on literary writing but now the new writers are trying out different genres. For example, The Prisoner by Omair Shahid Hamid is a crime thriller set in Karachi while Moni Mohsin’s The Diary of a Social Butterfly is a satire.
From your first novel to this one, how have you grown as a writer?
When I wrote In the City by the Sea, which was set in Karachi, I thought that I would only write about my city. I never did think that I would write about any other city. But when I started writing Burnt Shadows — I had to trick myself into doing that — I discovered that I loved writing about another place; in that case, Japan.
You have lived outside Karachi for long now. Do you think that when you write about it again, you will have the same grip on the city and its changing ethos as before?
It’s true that I don’t feel the city’s daily texture like before, but I would feel terrible to think of myself as an outsider. I visit it regularly and will always be a Karachiwallah.
Actually, I am very comfortable being a Londoner and a Karachiwallah. We put too much emphasis on identities. The fact is that we all have many identities and we keep negotiating between them.
You have been shortlisted for John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. What do awards mean to you?
There are two aspects to it. One, it is nice to get recognition for your work. The other is that with so many books being published nowadays, an award is a sure-fire way to get noticed. It makes a massive difference to a writer.