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‘You can’t expect novels to alter history’: Kamila Shamsie

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Award-winning novelist Kamila Shamsie says that she doesn’t feel optimistic about the future of anyone these days, between rising populism and the horror of climate change

British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie hit the headlines recently when the jury for a German literary prize reversed its decision to honour her with the award. The reason cited was Shamsie’s support for a pro-Palestine/ anti-Israel movement. Several authors (Noam Chomsky, J.M. Coetzee, William Dalrymple, Jeanette Winterson, Ben Okri, among them) expressed outrage over this in an open letter published in the London Review of Books.

In this interview, Shamsie talks of her position as a writer, her last novel, Home Fire (2017), and about difficulties of representation. Excerpts:

How do you define yourself — as a diaspora writer, a transnational/ international writer, Muslim writer, or something else?

I don’t really. When you’re writing you don’t think of labels. At various times, depending on context, I have talked about myself as a Pakistani writer, a woman writer, a Muslim writer, a British-Pakistani writer. The words that don’t have any resonance for me are ‘transnational/ international’ and ‘diaspora’.

Do you think writing is a responsibility? Do you feel accountable for representing your community?

I’ve wanted to write since I was 11 — responsibility doesn’t enter the picture at that age. It’s about love. Of course, I am responsible to my subjects and my material and to the novel form. But I go where the story takes me rather than where I feel I should go because of some external sense of responsibility. And no, I don’t feel accountable for representing any community. But I am aware of the stereotypes that exist about some of the people I write about, and I know that a good novel in its complexity and nuance will write against stereotype.

How is it to be a writer of a community which is seen as the ‘other’ in this world? Are you conscious of the stereotypes of Muslims while you write?

What do you mean by ‘this world’? Muslims aren’t seen as the other in Pakistan, which is one of the countries where I have readers. I don’t assume a particular kind of reader or attitude. I have to write novels that will work for those who are Muslim and for those to whom Muslims are the ‘other.’

I meant this contemporary world where Muslims are pigeonholed. What prompted you to write a book (Home Fire) involving the ISIS, Britain, and Muslims? Would you have done so without the Antigone frame?

Antigone came first and the story of Home Fire followed, so I don’t know whether I would have done it without Antigone.

What prompted me to write it was reading Antigone and thinking of all the ways in which it echoed stories in the headlines about young Britons joining the ISIS, their families left behind, and the government’s response.

Home Fire is a retelling of Antigone, but you have made it your own. How much of Antigone is still present in Home Fire?

It’s hard for me to answer that. Sometimes I see it very clearly. Other times it disappears and I only see the characters I wrote. When I was working on the novel I had to push Antigone to the back of my brain, so I wasn’t so conscious of it but it was still present.

Home Fire opens with Isma being interrogated at Heathrow. Did you have similar experiences? Have you ever felt threatened about your identity post 9/11?

Not like Isma, but for a number of years after 9/11, I was routinely sent to the secondary interrogation room at American airports. Nothing unpleasant ever happened, but as I sat in the room waiting to be called up I would imagine all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. It was impossible not to feel myself Muslim and Pakistani and therefore possibly suspect.

Have events like the Rushdie affair and 9/11 affected you as a writer?

Everything that happens in the world that I’m aware of and that makes me see things differently affects me as a writer, so, yes. I was only 16 at the time of the Rushdie affair but 9/11 happened at a point when I was living part of my life in America, part in England and part in Pakistan — it was impossible not to be aware of how different histories were colliding and what suspicions were arising. That made its way into Burnt Shadows and continues on in Home Fire.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of Muslims?

I’m afraid I don’t feel optimistic about the future of anyone these days, between rising populism and the horror of climate change.

How far do you think is Home Fire relevant to our times? Do you believe writing can bring changes in the perception of people about Muslims?

I don’t think you can expect novels to alter history. They don’t do that. They make some people think differently — that’s as much as you can claim.

In Home Fire, Aneeka coins the acronym GWM (Googling While Muslim) to connote the vulnerability of being a Muslim in this age of surveillance and Islamophobia. As a writer, you need to investigate things which could prove to be harmful: how do you deal with it?

I was very careful about the things I was looking at — both because I didn’t want to pollute my mind with the ISIS’s barbaric videos and because I was very conscious of GWM. So it was useful to be able to use the work of researchers who had looked at all the websites and Twitter accounts that I felt nervous about.

How do you form perceptions about things you don’t much about?

You read, you watch, you think, you write. And when you enter the minds of characters who think unlike you, you discover the most about perception and how limited it can be.

Do you have a feeling that there aren’t many Muslim voices present?

If you mean in ‘the West’ then yes, there are very few Muslim voices amidst all the talk about Muslims.

Your novels narrate the realities faced by Muslims. However, do you think there is politics involved in the representation of Muslims?

I think there’s politics involved in all representation. You decide which stories and points of view to tell — that’s extremely political.

Isma’s supervisor is a Kashmiri-American (Dr. Hira Shah, who had been educated at a convent school in Kashmir). Does it echo your relationship with Agha Shahid Ali? As a Kashmiri, I would be interested in knowing more about this poet-teacher.

It doesn’t echo the relationship as such but by making her Kashmiri and giving her the name, Shah (which I thought of as an abbreviated Shahid), I was paying private homage to my mentor and friend. Hira Shah isn’t at all like Shahid, except in one important detail — her house becomes a place of welcome and food and conversations for Isma, and Shahid’s house very much functioned that way for me when I was in graduate school.

I knew him from my days as an undergraduate in Hamilton College, took my first writing class with him, and he was a good part of the reason I ended up at UMass Amherst (University of Massachusetts at Amherst), where he had started to teach when I was still at Hamilton.

You have been placing your homeland, Karachi, somehow in your novels. Do you think you will be writing about Kashmir some time?

I don’t know where my novels will go in the future. Certainly the world needs to hear stories of Kashmir, but I know the best of those stories have come from, and will come from, Kashmiris.

The Nelly Sachs Prize was withdrawn over your support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. What do you think of political censorship?

Obviously, I’m not a fan. And I think the demonising of BDS, which is a peaceful movement asking for international law to be upheld, is an outrage.

More than 250 writers defended you...

It was heartening to see the number of writers willing to put their name to that letter.

You have emerged as a voice for the under-represented people of the world — are you happy with your role as a writer?

I’m happy that I get to be a writer, which is what I’ve wanted to do all my life. But every writer wants to be a better writer than they are, and I’m not an exception.

I certainly don’t see myself as a voice for the under-represented people of the world, but I’m always touched when people say that I have told stories that echo their lives and which they too rarely see represented in fiction.

Do you have any suggestions for writers?

My great-aunt, Attia Hossain, told me when I was a child “Whatever happens, don’t stop writing. Writing is a muscle and if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.” That remains the best advice I’ve ever received.

The interviewer researches contemporary Muslim fiction in the Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University.

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Printable version | Dec 13, 2019 7:50:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/you-cant-expect-novels-to-alter-history-kamila-shamsie/article29851793.ece

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