April issue 2014
Interview: Kamila Shamsie
While reading A God in Every Stone, I couldn’t help but think about the amount of research that must have gone into it. Was it easy finding information about life in Peshawar before Partition (as compared to information on WWI or Scylax)?
It was actually remarkably easy to find quite a lot of information about life in Peshawar before Partition, due to the obsessive record-keeping of colonial rule, and my proximity to the British Library where those records are kept. So, for starters, there were thousands of pages — from both the colonial side and the Congress side — about the massacre at Qissa Khwani and its aftermath. There were also, very usefully, thousands of photographs of Peshawar and copies of the Archaeological Survey of India annual reports. Not to mention travel writing. But this also meant that information was one-sided. There’s no shortage of anything about the administrative side, or the life led by the British — but it required far more work of the imagination to create the lives of Peshawari women who, in those British reports and photographs, are typically just seen and described as barely glimpsed figures in a burqa. With the men, there’s a little more material, particularly around the Khudai Khidmatgar.
Was there a specific image or historical incident that served as a starting point for this novel?
From the beginning, it was going to be a book that had a search for an artefact within it. Once I started researching the ancient history of Peshawar, it quickly became clear to me that I wanted that artefact to relate to Scylax, so I invented the circlet for him.
In your novels you often travel across various cities and in this one there’s also a jump in time from 1915-1930. Do you outline your novels? Or is it more spontaneous than that?
Oh, I never know where I’m going to end up when I start off, but I don’t know if ‘spontaneous’ is the right word. Even if I think I knew in which direction I’m going there’s always something of interest that I see in the corner of my eye which pulls me in another direction. Donald Barthelme had a way of describing it, which makes sense to me: ‘Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how… The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.’ So I think of it as ‘the scanning process,’ rather than ‘spontaneity.’ Of course, that’s the early drafts of the novel. At the later stages, it’s necessary to exert a tight control.
Vivian, Najeeb and Qayyum inhabit such different worlds — psychologically at least, if not physically. Was any one character easier to get inside than the others?
Najeeb landed on the page fully formed — and he did so as an adult (I wrote part of the 1930 section first), after which I had to go back and write the younger version of him. Viv was the hardest — I kept writing and re-writing her. Getting into the mind of someone who is of a deeply sympathetic nature but also believes firmly in Empire and the civilising mission proved to be quite difficult. I really had to fully understand the times she was living in and the attitudes that were commonplace in order to do that.
There’s an ongoing debate about creative writing programs with many (including the likes of Hanif Kureishi) saying they are a waste of time. And for some reason, MFA programs in the visual and performance arts don’t get that kind of criticism. As someone who’s studied creative writing at Hamilton and then at UMass, what are your thoughts on this?
My understanding from someone who was there is that Hanif’s comments have been twisted somewhat. Your point about other MFA programmes goes to the heart of the matter — of course you can’t teach talent. No one could make a really good sculptor of me; my hands just don’t know how to respond to clay in the way that my ear knows how to respond to language. But MFA programmes can help people learn how to listen to criticism; they can help people learn how to write to deadlines; they can make them look at writing in a writerly way and consider different aspects of craft; and they can provide the structure and opportunity for writing to occur. The problem, of course, occurs if you have teachers who are proscriptive or if the MFA programmes turn into factories to churn out a particular kind of writing. Or if the workshop structure means that lots of attention is being paid to individual sentences and none to the larger vision.
In Pakistan, there’s also the issue of writing in English versus in Urdu. Is this a debate that needs to be put to rest or do you think that, in some ways, English fiction from Pakistan is out of touch with the world of Urdu?
I certainly can’t say I’m in touch with the world of Urdu fiction. But Mohammed Hanif is, and Bilal Tanweer is, and Nadeem Aslam is, and I’m sure it’s true of other writers as well. Does English fiction have to be in touch with Urdu fiction is another question — to which the easy answer is, fiction should be in touch with as much other fiction as possible. I really wish we had a proper translation industry that would translate across all the languages of Pakistan — English, Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Siraiki, Balochi, etc.
There’s another issue that has to do with English being one of the primary languages of global capitalism. The English language writers are given opportunities — financial and otherwise — as a consequence, that don’t come the way of writers in the other languages. It’s wholly unfair, but there are forces much larger than publishing at work there.
Last year at KLF, you talked about how men often don’t read books by women writers. Is there a difference in how works by men and women are promoted. Sometimes it seems even book covers are gendered. How have things changed since your first book was published in 1998?
Yes. Women get colourful pretty jackets and book blurbs that play up the romance angles of their novels. Men’s works are presented as much more sombre and serious, and high-minded. And covers are definitely gendered. I wish I could say things have changed since 1998, but I don’t really think they have. Except in this way — the setting up of the Orange (now Bailey’s) prize for women’s writing in the UK has drawn attention to gender-skewing around prizes, and I think has made a great deal of difference to many women writers and to the way people talk about gender and prizes. That had started before 1998, but the cumulative effect is continuing.
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s April 2014 issue.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.