February issue 2009
Interview: Kamila Shamsie
Kamila Shamsie is one of Pakistan’s best-known writers, both locally and internationally. She is the author of four novels: In the City by the Sea, Salt and Saffron, Kartography and Broken Verses.
In between writing novels, she writes guest columns and opinion pieces for newspapers in England. Prolific and articulate, the unassuming Shamsie talks to Newsline about her forthcoming novel, Burnt Shadows.
Q: Your previous novels were mostly set in Karachi. How challenging was it to write about Nagasaki in Burnt Shadows?
A: It was a completely different experience. It almost felt like I had to learn to write; it was a different way of thinking about writing a book because I’d always started with the world I knew, and then I’d have to fill in bits of information. It meant massive research. I had no idea what Nagasaki looked like. I didn’t go there, in part, because at a certain point I looked up the requirements for a Pakistani to get a visa, so it was sort of impossible. Also, I could never go back to the Nagasaki that existed before the bombing. So I relied a lot on old photographs and being able to visualise it which was, in some ways, a major thing for me. Also, there are books written about Nagasaki and survivor stories which gave me a glimpse of life just before the bombings. Besides, if you’re going to write about a place you need to know the background. Even though that first section in the book is about four hours long — it starts around eight in the morning and ends by 11-something — I had to go back to figure out what their lives were like, what the history of Nagasaki was and its relationship to the outside world. At one point, it was 70 pages long but it ends up being only a 20-page section. But I think that for every sentence on those 20 pages there’s been hours and hours of research.
It’s something very different but, at the same time, it was very liberating.
Q: You mention how you’ve mostly written about surroundings and cities you’re most familiar with, and how Burnt Shadows is a departure from the previous novels. How is it that you’ve never written about London (where you live) and New York (where you attended college)?
A: Burnt Shadows has a bit that’s in New York, although it’s actually based in New York City, where I’ve never lived. I lived in a college town in upstate New York. In the US, I always lived in small university towns. And London is where I now live, and although I’ve spent a lot of time there, I’ve just never found myself writing about it. But, interestingly, the book I’m now thinking about will possibly start in a college town in Massachusetts [where I’ve also lived].
Q: What made you want to write a novel based in Nagasaki the day the nuclear bomb was dropped?
A: Years ago, when I was at university, I remember I attended a talk where the speaker was talking about the awful things that America’s done in the world, which often get defended. For instance, those people who defend the bombing of Hiroshima, how do they defend Nagasaki three days later? And for some reason, it just stuck in my mind because I realised we hear so much about Hiroshima because it was the first city that was bombed. But, lately, as more and more historical evidence is coming up, it shows that Americans knew that Japan was going to surrender. And it just sort of makes you think. To me, Nagasaki really epitomised the sort of crazy inhuman lengths, and I don’t think it’s a particularly American thing, nations will go to in times of war. I suppose the fact that the last few years we’ve been living in a ‘war on terror’ world, where it’s all about us and them, makes those ideas come back.
Q: By writing about the explosion of nuclear bombs in Japan, are you drawing parallels to the current situation in Pakistan?
A: I thought I’d be drawing more parallels than I ended up doing. When I first thought of the novel, it was going to be a Pakistani who was part-Japanese — whose grandmother had lived through Hiroshima. That was the original idea and that it would take on Pakistan’s nuclear history and all that, but novels have a way of getting away from me, so it ended up not being that much about it. So that’s a part of it but it’s not necessarily the main focus.
Q: Do you feel that there has been a surge of interest in Pakistani writers from the western world?
A: Two things have happened. One is that there seem to be more Pakistani writers. But there’s also an interest in Pakistan generally in the world because of 9/11, which you would rather wish wasn’t there. But because you’ve had writers like Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam and Mohammed Hanif in very quick succession, people have sort of turned their attention onto Pakistan thinking that this is the new, interesting place where writing is emerging from. But I don’t think it’s only post-9/11 stuff. The country in which the publishers are most interested in Pakistani writings is India. And that’s not just about the last five or six years. I think it’s the last 61 or so years.
Q: Most of the dialogues in your novels are quite poetic. Do you write poetry as well?
A: When I was an undergraduate in college, I had to write poetry because I was taking creative writing courses that required it. And I’m really glad I did because I think it was very good for my prose and it taught me to really pay attention to every word and to its sound. But I’m more interested in the novel form. I love to read poetry but I don’t think I’d ever want to write a poem.
Q: What about short stories?
A: I love the short story form; I think it’s hugely underrated. I think that a really good short story is, in its own way, a harder thing to produce than a really good novel, because there’s such compression involved. The best stories are told in 10 or 12 pages which can really create this very complex kind of a universe. So I love to do it. Again, it’s a form that’s too slippery for me to get a hold of. I know a lot of my short stories are sort of like a novelist trying to write a short story.
Q: Among the short-story writers, who are your favourites?
A: Grace Paley, I think, is extraordinary, Jorge Luis Borges, Alice Monroe … It’s interesting really how it tends to be far more female short-story writers than male, which isn’t true for the novel. This is something that struck me only a couple of months ago when a friend of mine was compiling a list of short-story writers. Ali Smith, a contemporary of mine, is extraordinary.
Q: What do you do in between writing novels? Have you already started writing another one?
A: In between books, I’m very good at being lazy. I’m really good at spending the day doing nothing. I read a lot; I do an occasional bit of writing for the papers in England, which keeps my brain ticking a little. But it’s really easy to spend the day reading, then you go for lunch with friends, go for a walk, you go and see an art exhibition, do something else and the day is gone.
Ideally, I would like to have started the next novel before the book is out, because there’s usually about a year between the time I finish writing and the book is published. Except that this one’s fallen slightly behind — I’ve only written a couple of paragraphs. But I know that in the next few weeks there’s going to be a beginning. But it’s more a matter of something in your brain just clicking and saying, “Now I really miss not writing.”
Q: What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
A: Writing is something that I’ve always wanted to do and it’s so much a part of me that I have a really hard time imagining not doing it. So I don’t know, I’m sure I’d be doing something related to books, maybe I’d be a teacher, maybe I’d be a critic.
Q: Out of all the novels you’ve written and published so far, which one is a personal favourite?
A: Well, it always tends to be the one that I’m just working on or the one that I’ve just finished. So at the moment it’s Burnt Shadows, but as soon as I start writing another one it will be that one.