“A lot of fiction about migration focuses on difference but there is also this experience of arriving in a new place and finding things that are familiar,” British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie, 49, tells me over a Zoom call from her home in London. Shamsie’s latest novel Best of Friends, her eighth, is about childhood friends we first meet as teenagers in Karachi under military dictatorship and then as women in their 40s in London, with public profiles. They are diametrically different, but familiar to each other.
Beautiful and imperious Maryam was designated to be the heiress of her family’s leather business till a fateful evening turned her life awry. Zahra, the daughter of a journalist and a teacher, has an intimidating intelligence and a quiet determination. The two know each other so well that it is easy for them to draw blood. The contours of their relationship may remind readers of Elena Ferrante’s celebrated Neapolitan Novels, though redolent with Karachi’s night-flowering jasmine, and London summers. Edited excerpts from the interview:
There’s a line early in the book about Maryam and Zahra: “Deep down they both knew that no one had the kind of friendship when they were forty that the two of them had at fourteen.” What is so unique about female adolescent friendship?
I want to start off saying that my closest friend as an adolescent was a boy who remains one of my closest friends, so I don’t want to say that it’s a lesser sort of thing. There is a real intensity in adolescent friendships. When you’re an adolescent, your closest friend becomes the person who you have a level of communication with that is rare in friendships later. You are becoming adults together. With female friendships, you are also experiencing the change from girlhood to womanhood together. It’s a really significant thing that’s happening, probably quite confusing in some ways. And to have someone who is sharing that... you know just this granular stuff.
Do you believe a friendship weakens in strength or mutates into something else?
From a 14-year-old’s perspective, the friendship of adults is weaker. By the time they’re adults, they realise that the stronger friendship is one where you don’t need to see each other every day. You recognise each others’ failings but you remain friends. You acknowledge that something of that intensity is gone. It stops being intense but it doesn’t stop being strong.
For me, the line that distils the essence of the book is by a minor character: “You can’t let politics get in the way of friendship.” Does Kamila Shamsie believe this?
I don’t think you can separate the two. Politics is not something that happens in parliament. Years ago, I was doing an event at an American university and someone asked me why politics comes into all of my novels. And I said it doesn’t come in, it’s part of the fabric of life. And Zahra certainly sees politics a certain way. Politics means that when she was 14, she was worried her father would be arrested. It’s not something she knows how to separate. For Maryam, politics is about her business dealings and she wants that to be kept separate. I feel different readers will have different views on that.
This reminds me of readers asking each other whether they were a Lila or a Lenu during peak Ferrante fever. What are the female friendships in cinema or fiction that have made an impact on you?
I love the Ferrante novels. But even while I was reading them, I thought I had read too many versions of the story — I’m not criticising, I think hers were the best — where it seemed the heart of the story was jealousy and then a love triangle.
I do think something like Sex and the City is nice since it’s about four women who are friends, and for all the men in their lives, their friendship is a proper friendship. Also growing up there was Cagney & Lacey, a TV drama about two women cops. Right now, I’ve just been watching a TV series on Amazon Prime called A League of their Own and there’s a really beautiful friendship between these two women, Max and Clance.
One thing that seems to be common in stories about two women who are friends is that they tend to be opposites.
There’s a lot more dramatic potential. I always knew that I wanted the novel to investigate the idea that you become friends with people in childhood for reasons you don’t remember. Maybe you sat next to each other in school when you were four years old. Adult friendships are based on shared interests, or maybe shared views of the world, but the nature of childhood friendships is that you can grow up to be people who are completely opposite, you can grow up to be people who, if you met as adults, you would never be friends with.
Was it hard to plot a novel whose narrative tension is primarily wound around this one evening that left repercussions on their lives for the next 30 years?
I’m very bad at plotting, it’s something I don’t do beforehand. I’ll know some things about the novel but a lot of it becomes clearer to me in the writing. It took me a while to figure out the structure for this one. There was an earlier draft where I actually wrote some of the middle years, them in their 20s and 30s, and it just wasn’t working, partly because the tension was slack. My first draft is always a mess.
You’ve also used text messages to convey a side track — one entire sexual equation plays out through texts. I found the newspaper articles used to re-introduce the two women, now in their 40s, very effective. Are these styles you’re more recently experimenting with?
Home Fire had quite a lot of Skype and text, but that was the first one. If you’re writing about a certain kind of person in the 21st century, it would be very silly not to use their lingo. I didn’t do it till Home Fire because the two novels that preceded it were taking place much earlier. I don’t understand writers who are writing about the kind of people who are attached to their phones but want to avoid the phone in some way.
The newspaper articles were very much me thinking I want to catch up my readers on what Zahra and Maryam are doing in their lives, but I also wanted to convey that they are women with a public profile now and [must control] the ways they get written about and the way they present their public self.
You’ve thanked your editor Alexandra Pringle in the acknowledgements for the magic of the last 28 years. How has that female friendship worked?
I met her when I was 21, so she really has been with me through my growing up. She was 41 and the most glamorous human being I’d ever seen. I was so tongue-tied. Now she is a friend. Her skill as an editor — it took me a few books to realise this — is that I would come in to see her about something and she obviously knew that certain things weren’t working, and also had her ideas of what should be done but never forced her ideas on me. She would talk to me about the problems in a way that allowed me to start thinking of solutions. It’s a very rare editor or human being who can do that, because it really means you putting your ego on the backseat and saying, “You are the writer, maybe you have different solutions…” It is important to have someone who you trust with your work like that.
As a South Asian writer today, do you feel a sense of duty to bring up certain issues?
My duty is to the novel, to write the best novels I’m capable of writing, and to do that without cynicism. By which I mean not to try to guess what people want to read but just to sit down and write the stories I’m interested in writing.
I don’t think about things like duty, which is really too heavy a word. A novel is pleasure and [I want to think about] how someone will enjoy the novel and enter the lives of these characters…
Do you find writing fiction pleasurable?
It can be terrible. Particularly, beginnings for me are very hard. You sit there thinking how is this going to be a novel, is this working, there are problems here and what do I do about them. The pleasure for me actually comes at a later stage. The last draft is lovely, you know your world, you know your characters and the changes you need to make. The whole book is so inside you that you can move pieces around with a kind of fluidity and ease that was nowhere inside in the beginning. So the pleasure comes late. But even in the early stages, there will be moments of pleasure. There is a sense that when I’m sitting down and writing fiction, I’m at home.
The writer is a Mumbai-based arts journalist and editor. Her debut novel The Illuminated was published in 2021.