You have to expose violence to air: Fatima Bhutto

For the Pakistani writer, Karachi has changed from a city pregnant with longing to a place of loss and fear

August 25, 2018 06:25 pm | Updated August 27, 2018 03:04 pm IST

‘I was very close to my father and I still feel I’m close to him.’

‘I was very close to my father and I still feel I’m close to him.’

In one of the many cafés that line Fulham Road in West London, Fatima Bhutto sits behind a wooden screen, dressed in a beautiful blue dress and even more beautiful blue shoes. “Do you have normal cups?” she asks the waitress, who has brought us two bowls of tea with no handles. The waitress shrugs, as if to say, sorry, this is a French café. Bhutto laughs and leans into me conspiratorially: “These are anti-English, anti-tea-drinking cups.”

Bhutto is inherently interested in the anti, the other, the position one might not naturally gravitate towards. When she told her agents she wanted to write a novel about the effects of violence on a person’s spirit, they said nobody would want to read about that. “But I thought, that’s exactly what I want to read… Have you read Édouard Louis? I was looking at his books, and people do want to read about this. Violence is poverty, and it’s fear and it’s prejudice. Why is one violence readable and another not readable? You have to expose violence to air. The more you hide and shelter it, it grows a mythical power.”

Beyond violence

The range of violence displayed in The Runaways , Bhutto’s forthcoming novel, is so manifold and deftly told, I read it in two fevered days with my heart stuck in my throat. She seems pleased by this image. “Actually, there was much more violence,” she says, “but I took it out because it didn’t need it. The disorientation is much stronger without seeing shooting and things.”

Without giving any spoilers away, this is a novel about three young people whose lives intersect, who suffer different kinds of violence, who are trying to navigate the world and transform their identities. Places involved are Portsmouth, Karachi and Mosul. Bhutto tells me she spent years watching videos and reading blogs about young people getting radicalised. Anyone who follows the news will have seen videos of beheadings, she says, but there’s a whole other strain of videos — of boys being homesick and Skyping their mothers, talking about how lonely they are and how the connections are so bad. “That for me was weirder than seeing those slick videos with the orange jumpsuits and the music. But they were taken down by Twitter and Tumblr. You don’t find those any more. You only find the violence. But it’s incomplete without the other side.”

When I suggest that Bhutto comes from her own particular history of violence, she shakes her head. “That wasn’t really it.” She was thinking instead about the profound violence that is imposed on young brown people in the West growing up feeling alienated, who are not Asian, not Western, not Muslim, not secular. “All the narratives in the West suggest that one specific thing happens to turn someone, or people are just one kind of way, and it isn’t that. It’s hundreds and hundreds of small indignities and humiliations and grief and pain that result in something that violent.”

Bhutto grew up in exile in Syria. As a child, Karachi was a city of dreams. It was her father’s promised land, the place of his childhood. She wanted to go to Karachi the way other kids want to go to Disneyland. In 1993 she returned to Pakistan. Her father, Murtaza Bhutto, was killed in September 1996. Fatima was 14. There can be no resolution with his death, she tells me, because every time she leaves and enters her house she passes the road on which her father was murdered, the trees in which the snipers hid, the lights that were shut off, the passage where he was trapped. “I was very close to my father and I still feel I’m close to him, and that for me is a beautiful thing, and not something I want resolution on. I don’t want a part of my life that was before and after. And as I get older and time grows, it doesn’t make it less painful. I’ve just become different in how I want to carry it.”

When Bhutto speaks about Karachi her voice becomes dreamy, wistful. It’s a place she’s been circling in and out of for years. It has changed from a city pregnant with longing to a place of loss and fear, to a place of defiance, to a place she needs to escape. “It’s a constantly shifting thing,” she says. “When I’m there, I’m frustrated, and when I’m away I miss it painfully, even if it’s only two weeks. A lot of the anger and criticisms I’ve felt over Karachi have settled into a kind of forgiving state because the standard at which I held it was always higher than what I expected of other cities and so its failure always hurt me more. Now I just see that everywhere fails.”

For many years she was meant to write a book about Karachi. The project eventually got shelved, but in The Runaways, she gets to write about parts of the city she’s interested in — the invisible spaces. Not fashion shows under the Taliban, which is what she regularly gets asked to write about. (“This idea that we have fashion shows and therefore we are an evolved people, is a really weak idea.”) Instead, she wanted to write about the culture of the seaside, how it’s the only place you can go to as a family and have some contact with freedom. But Bhutto is equally good at writing about the posh enclaves of the city — Clifton, where she and many of her friends live. This, she calls the anti-romance, anti-history part of Karachi, the sterile part you wouldn’t want to smell and breathe in.

“I guess it’s all these things that bother me that I put into the book. Just the experience of space in South Asia, the way you experience space means cutting off that space for someone else… You see these Vice videos about that side of the city as though there’s some kind of inherent bravery about being elite in a dangerous place like Pakistan. There isn’t. And it’s time to chip at that idea. Many people have done it. But I’m always happy to do it.”

A degree of freedom

The other thing she’s happy to chip away at is social media culture, which she blames for the death of thought, interaction and intimacy. As a cusp millennial, she finds herself at odds with prevailing trends. She’s on Twitter and Instagram but there are very few personal posts. “I’m horrified by this culture of the self. It used to be something embarrassing, to be a narcissist, and social media has now created a competition of narcissists.” She finds it profoundly disturbing and fascinating that talent is no longer a requirement to be famous, but being famous is required of everyone.

“If you come from cultures like ours, we have the opposite belief, that everyone is insignificant and everyone is part of the specks floating around and you’re no better than my speck and I’m no better than your speck because we’re all tied together as specks, so it’s even more jarring. But this idea that every 19-year-old has to be special, it’s so frightening and it’s part of what sends people not just to become fundamentalists in the desert in Iran, but to become right-wing, troll celebrities, or these people using WhatsApp videos in India to terrify communities. It’s all part of that same culture — to be famous, to be powerful, to be watched.”

Books, instead, are her refuge, her enchantment. When people quiz her about dynastic politics and her own political ambitions, she insists she has always and only wanted to be a writer.

But surely you either run from dynastic politics or towards it, I ask. Bhutto keeps one foot firmly in and the other firmly out. “I’m involved in exactly the way I want to be, which is a degree of freedom I have, which I wouldn’t want to cash in and change for anything.”

After a failed career in scuba diving, the writer-dancer moved to a beach to grow vegetables. Her latest book is Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods.

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