Kamila Shamsie’s Booker longlisted Home Fire has been hailed as the most now of novels, dealing as it does with ideas of citizenship, belonging, and what it means to be young and Muslim in the world today. It springboards off Sophocles’s Antigone , but also takes inspiration from Gillian Slovo’s acclaimed play Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State . Using a matryoshka technique of encased narratives, Shamsie takes us into the lives of her five main characters, enlarging the view as we go along. She presents us with two Muslim families in London with very different trajectories. One is the new home secretary, Karamat Lone, who with his Irish-American wife and two children represents a liberal model-immigrant. The others are the Pasha children, Isma, and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, who live with the complicated legacy of their dead jihadist father. Shamsie writes with her usual brand of intelligence, elegance and humour as she navigates us through the fault lines of these intersecting relationships, but there is also incredible urgency in this novel, and the term rollercoaster would not be misapplied. Shamsie and I met in London recently, over the very British institution of tea, where we talked about a novelist’s responsibility in these unusual times, the importance of warmth, and why she will always fail the Tebbit test. Excerpts:
I want to talk about the character of Parvaiz in your novel, who goes off to Syria to join the Islamic State. You really cracked the essence of understanding what it is that makes someone flip their life around…
So, what I didn’t want was for him to be a kind of violent horrible man who goes off. He had to be someone that this twin sister of his would love and adore, and not in a you know, ‘I’m one of those women who hates horrible men’ sort of way, but in a genuine, ‘I just love this man, my brother, because of who he is.’ I wanted him to start off being vulnerable in a lot of ways, and what helped was looking at a report on the kind of propaganda that Daesh used to attract people. My assumption had been that the propaganda had been all about violence, but there was an excellent report by Charlie Winter, who statistically broke it down, and actually, violence was a relatively small part of it. There was a lot of appeal to a sense of community and belonging, appeals to being part of building a state, and an extraordinary amount of videos and photos about zoos.
Yes, in the sort of here’s a place you can come with your family, so that helped me think about him, and what would he be drawn to. It wouldn’t be to come there and kill people. It would be something in him that’s lost. Also, an appeal to masculinity. And this came up because in the original of course, Antigone and her siblings are the children of Oedipus, so there’s a family stain, and in this instance, I thought, Jihadi Guantanamo. Let that be the thing they live with… So when Farooq comes to Parvaiz and says, ‘Your father was at Bagram. Do you know what they did to prisoners at Bagram?’ he doesn’t have to invent things because things were done. There has never been a full apology. You haven’t had the British government stand up and say we were complicit in torture, we apologise to the families, because the underlying story is that they were really bad men and they deserve what they get. So, that was the point at which I started. How does someone who is not a misogynistic brute still end up in the most misogynistic brutish place?
At the Bjørnson lecture you recently gave in Norway, “You Can’t Make This Up,” you talked about political responsibility. What is the role of the novel within this?
It’s such an odd one. On one hand I have this terrible fear that I’ll be cast in the role of the person who says that the novel can only be about the most urgent contemporary political questions of the day. Of course, you can’t hem in what the novel does and what it should do in that way, but I think the novel, certainly in places like Britain and America, may have wandered too far away, and left the realm of the political to other people.
You mean nonfiction writers?
Yes, nonfiction writers, and there’s a fear around the phrase political novel here, so even writers who I think of as having written political novels say, ‘no no,’ because there seems to be the assumption that the political must be polemical, and god knows we don’t want to write polemical novels. I think partly, that the very weird political moment does contain within it so many interesting stories of conflict, and that’s food for the novelist. We shouldn’t be discounting that as a possibility. We can do something within the length and depth of the novel that journalists can’t do.
You also made the charge, “know more,” to writers in countries where things are comparatively safe…
Freedom of expression is always invoked as something important and valuable that all writers must cherish, but the context in which that’s done is that if you live in an oppressive regime, then as a writer, it’s your job to write against it, regardless of the costs. The costs can be extraordinarily high. The cost can be your family. The cost can be your life. So, I would never say to any writer who’s living in a repressive regime that it’s your obligation to do this because you have an obligation to the living, including yourself. And yet, in places where writers are not going to face death for what they write, they seem to think it’s fine to not address what’s pressing, to not address injustice, and there is a responsibility when you have the ability to write about what’s going on in the world, when you see certain stories aren’t being told, or are being mistold. You’re a writer and you have the voice and the platform and the intelligence, but you choose not to do it because you don’t want to get your hands dirty with the political. Then I think you’re really failing.
There’s frequently a central story of love in your novels. So obviously, despite all the horrible stuff going on in the world, you still have faith in love?
When I think of the novel I don’t think of characters in isolation, always in relation to each other, and I suppose I’m interested in those bonds between people and what happens when they get disrupted. I don’t have much interest in characters who are nasty and venal and love no one. It’s not about the importance of writing likeable or dislikeable characters, it’s more that I suppose I like a degree of warmth in the thing I’m writing, however awful everything is around it, and also because I think the most heart-breaking things that happened, are the things when there is the intimacy and warmth and love, and the cruelty comes in as a contrast.
The novel also explores ideas of citizenship...you’ve had your own anxieties about becoming a British citizen, could you talk about this?
When the Booker longlist was announced, every news report broke down where these writers are from. They all said four British writers, and then Mohsin (Hamid) and I were in some places, two U.K.-Pakistani dual nationals, and in other places, we were just Pakistani, or Pakistani-born. And I thought, actually six British writers have been long listed, two of which are also Pakistani, but no one has said six. It’s as if by virtue of being dual nationals we are neither British nor Pakistani. To me, citizenship is about legal rights, but I think people put all this emotion around it; they want it to mean all kinds of things. Quite soon after I qualified, I remember reading that if you are a dual citizen, the government can revoke your citizenship, so there are two kinds of systems. There are those citizens whose citizenship is absolutely assured, it cannot be taken away from them no matter what they do. And then there’s another category of us, for whom it’s a privilege, which is inherently unjust and racist.
And then you have ridiculous things like the Tebbit test…
Which I proudly fail and will continue to fail.
The other thing that struck me was this longing for intimacy which is such a contemporary theme. There seems to be this great disconnect because technology has made it so…
I don’t think it’s only about technology. Maybe it’s to do with the growth of individualism. There was a time when people accepted the normal idea that you were part of a structure, whether that was a family, a tribe or a neighbourhood, and everyone within that structure works for the betterment of it. I’m not saying it was ideal, but I think it’s possible to go too far in the direction of I want I want I want. I think we live increasingly in a world where ‘this is what I’m entitled to because I’m an individual’ becomes problematic because there’s only so much resource in the world to go around, and only a few people are going to get all these things they want. It’s one thing to dream, and another to feel entitled. If you hope for something and never get it, it’s okay, but if you’re entitled and it doesn’t happen, then you get angry, and there’s a lot of angry going on right now.
If someone wanted to reconstruct Kamila Shamsie’s life, how would they do it?
They could do a lot through email, except that the nature of email has become increasingly slapdash and hurried. But you know, I would be quite happy for someone not to reconstruct my life. It’s one of those catch-22s. Of course a book comes out, we want publicity, we want to be invited to festivals, but I still have such a strong sense of what I think of as the pure reading experience of my childhood. When I was in Karachi I would find a book. I wouldn’t know anything about the writer or how the book had been received other than what was on the cover. It was purely a relationship of you and the book, and I didn’t have the writer explaining things to me, or interpreting things to me, and that’s lovely. So I would be fine with there being no trace of me in the world. Except for the books.
The interviewer’s latest book is a collection of poems , Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods.