I have always thought of a novel as an intimate space: Kamila Shamsie

I have always thought of a novel as an intimate space: Kamila Shamsie

British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Best of Friends (Bloomsbury India), revolves around the friendship between two women from divergent backgrounds — Maryam Khan and Zahra Ali — who are born in Karachi, but go on to create new worlds for themselves in London, like Shamsie herself. It’s a friendship forged over three decades, and shaped and tested by socio-cultural politics in Pakistan and the UK.

In this extensive interview to The Federal, Shamsie, 49, talks about dipping into the memories of her growing-up years in Karachi, how she works on her novels, and how she found confidence as a writer with her fifth novel, Burnt Shadows (2009) — a formidable and arching tale, dense with history, which spans cultures and continents; a tale of fluid identity, inheritance of loss, foreignness and the need for rootedness and belonging, which careens from Nagasaki in 1945 to India (Delhi) on the brink of Partition, from Pakistan coming into its own in the early 1980s to New York and Afghanistan post-9/11.

Excerpts from the interview:

Best of Friends straddles two worlds, just like you do. Did you conceive it as a novel of friendship between two women, with two cities at its heart?

It’s very much a novel of Karachi and London. I start with the two friends when they are younger. When we first meet Maryam and Zahra, they are 14-year-olds. It’s 1988, a crucial time in Pakistan because this was the year when General Zia-ul-Haq was killed in a plane crash and Benazir Bhutto had come to power. In 1988, the two girls had already been friends for 10 years. They are at that stage in life where what matters most is that you trust the other person. You have a shared sense of humour. You like similar movies. You like the same music. All this is true for them, but they are also very different people from very different families: Maryam’s family is very rich and powerful and believes in using power to help people they know.

Zahra’s family is very different. Her mother runs a school; her father is a cricket writer and a celebrated TV personality. And their friends are much likely to be human rights lawyers and people who have struggled against dictatorship. When Zia is killed and Benazir is elected, we see a glimpse of that, but it’s very much in the background. As 14-year-olds, they are only so interested in the larger world. What they are primarily interested in is the experience of being young together. When the novel moves forward, they are women in their 40s; they’re both in London, and in different ways, they both have power. And so what’s going on in the world of politics, money is no longer irrelevant to their lives and to their friendship.

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Did you have to revisit your own growing-up years in Karachi?

So much of it was in my memory: it was a surprise to me to realise I had never written about that period of time because it was something that I had such clear images and associations with. The novel entailed going back to writing about the stuff of daily life as well. There were times when I would stop and send a WhatsApp chat to a friend or my sister and ask the names of the video shops they frequented. That came as a source of fun as well. We had conversations which we didn’t have as 14-year-olds. For instance, how the videowallahs dealt with girls and boys, and the memories of related things.

It became interesting because I had the conversation with people that I grew up with; I kept going back to certain kinds of memories and seeing how they remember all of them. But so much of it really was in my memory. When you’re old and look back at times past, you see things differently. As a 14-year-old, you didn’t really understand how patriarchy was operating. It’d seem natural that you should have certain kinds of fears all the time or there should be different rules for how boys operate. It was only later that I was able to look back at it and understand it much better.

How did you work on the two worlds these women come from?

You can’t separate the time, place and the families they come from. They are both from the same city and live a couple of miles apart from each other, but they do have different family backgrounds. And that absolutely makes its way into who they are as older people. At 14, Zara has this experience of being wild with the fear that her father was going to be taken away by the intelligence services for not being complimentary about General Zia. Whereas Maryam’s experience of the world is that her parents know the powerful people; she knows she is never going to get into trouble even if she finds somewhere going around the rules. That becomes very significant for the different kinds of women they grow up to be with.

Podcast: Kamila Shamsie on the politics of friendship 

How did you work on the novel’s structure; its two parts, across two cities and time periods?

Originally, I had thought of it as having four-five sections; we’d follow the two girls as they grew up after every 4-5 year. When I started working on it, I quickly realised that I was interested in their early days and then when they had proceeded to establish themselves. I knew that when I started the second section, I’d have to find some way of filling the reader in on who they are now because they had last met them as schoolgirls. I begin the second section in London, signalling that the two women have established themselves — they are known in the fields and people are writing about them; they have a certain reputation and a public presence. I wanted to establish all of that as a way to introduce them to who they are as grown women, but also to show that now they are in a world where it’s no longer the intimate space inhabited by the two of them. In the second half of the novel, they are in the public sphere and the larger world is a part of the story of their friendship.

Best of Friends-Kamila Shamsie
Best of Friends, By Kamila Shamsie,
Bloomsbury India

It becomes very important that they find themselves in the same city when they are older. There are not many people around who know their background, their context, their families, who they were when they were very young. That becomes an important factor later on. I think that they both are aware that it could have damaged the friendship when it happened because the repercussions are big for Maryam; she could have blamed Zara. But it strengthens their friendship; their friendship goes through a test, but they come out of it.

One thing that was interesting to me about the book and the reason why I wanted to tell this story this way is that I’m really interested in charting friendships and the way people can become so different when they grow older. If you have been friends since the age of four or eight, it almost seems not to matter how different you’re, even though you know that if you met for the first time as adults, you won’t be friends. Friendship keeps going on, but I wanted to see what would happen if you put a lot of pressure on it and force the two friends to confront its consequences.

How do you look at the political instability in Pakistan?

There has always been political instability in Pakistan; it was also there when I grew up. So, it’s not a new thing. I’m not saying we should be cavalier about it, just that it’s all familiar. But there is political instability in first-world countries like America and Britain, too. Ever since the new democracy came in Pakistan, there have been teething problems; the military was in power for so long that the military-civilian imbalance got ingrained. But, today, if we look at Britain and across other old democracies, we realise things are not stable and secure there either. If things are not better in Pakistan, they are worse everywhere else; so, the gap has receded. Since I haven’t lived in Pakistan for 15 years, I don’t have any particular insight, but what I have always wanted is that all democratic parties should have the interest of democracy rather than devising how to stay in power. But we see that even leaders in older democracies are thinking about themselves rather than the good of democracy itself.

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Your novels interweave the questions of family and faith with the larger world around. All of them have an intimate feel to them. Do you set out to blend the personal with the political realities in your novel?

Over the years, I have never self-consciously set out to tell larger stories of politics. I think it has to do with the way I see the world, experience the world and the things I am interested in. As someone who grew up in Pakistan, I was witness to its history and politics. As a six-year-old, I remember the day General Zia-ul-Haq hanged Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, but my memory of it is not of a great political event; my memory of it is that I was in school and a friend of my parents came and said, I’m taking you home’ because they were worried there will be violence in the streets. They lived close to the school and my parents had called them and asked them to pick me up. I am accustomed to thinking ways in which history and politics — the big events — come into people’s lives in its intimate space. It’s shameful to remember it now, but it was exciting to know that you could leave school early and go to your friend’s house on a school day. In the novel, I try to bring that sense of how big events actually are always permeating our lives in different ways. But it’s also because I am interested in the world. I am interested in how its structures work and what they do. I have always thought of novels as an intimate space, which is ultimately about characters and their relationships. You have to find a way to work that in.

When I start a novel, I often don’t know what’s going to come into it. It could be the things that I have been thinking or reading about that work their way into the novel.

How do you begin your novels? With an image, an idea or a memory?

With this novel, there were a lot of different things that came together. For a long time, I have been interested in childhood friendships and thought it’d be interesting to write a novel that had friendship as its central relationship. Also, when Brexit happened in Britain in 2016, Donald Trump also got elected in America. I went to a university in the US and have lots of friends there. On both sides, people suddenly started talking about how their really close relationships had started falling apart because they held different views and it was impossible to avoid it. And because I had been interested in childhood friendships, I thought it’d be fascinating to have this old childhood friendship and then tell a story of what happens when the differences start cropping up.

Kamila Shamsie novels

I knew specifically where to begin while I was writing an article on the history of the women’s cricket team in Pakistan. It starts in the winter of 1988 when Benazir Bhutto was elected as Prime Minister. A 17-year-old girl, Shaiza Said Khan, asked, “Well, if a woman can be PM, why can’t they play cricket?” And that’s when she tried to get the match started. While writing the essay, I started with what Pakistan felt like in the winter of 1988. And I realised that I wanted to write a lot more about this. While writing, I was remembering what it felt like to be a teenager in those years. So, all these things came together in the novel in a way. I knew to start with two close friends in the Karachi of 1988 and I knew that it ended in a contemporary London, where the friendship was under stress, but I had no idea how to get from one period to the other.

Was writing about the past more difficult than writing about now?

It did feel different because with the Karachi section, I was really drawing on deeper, older memory. Even though I go to Karachi every year — my parents are still there — but Karachi today looks and feels very different to Karachi of the 1988. So, I had to really go back in time: now it’s 2022, but I started thinking about the novel in 2018-19, so I was very much in the present moment. But, then, I also had to stop and think of what it felt like to be 14 in Karachi. It had a very different feel to it — the two sections were quite dramatically different. It was about three things: the location, the age of the characters and about the time period.

Do you see your characters in conversation with themselves in the novel?

When I am writing, I try to enact myself in the scene. For this novel, I had to have a very specific sense of place. For instance, I couldn’t just say: people are in a room. I had to write what’s the room like, and what else was there in it, what the temperature of the room was. I’m trying to, as far as possible, see and feel it. I want to convey that to the reader. I want them to have the experience of being really immersed in it, without having to go through pages and pages of description. I try to find one or two sentences to do the work of place in the scene, both physically and emotionally.

You have, in some sense, drawn a parallel between the rise of Benazir Bhutto and Mariam’s journey in the novel. Did you want to show that the scepticism around women who lead has not changed in all these years?

It’s one of the ironies of South Asian countries, where the society is largely patriarchal, but they have all had very strong women leaders. I remember the scepticism around Benazir. When she became the PM, she was 35; for 11 years, it had been the military-bureaucratic setup — she had been in the opposition and why would anyone listen to her? But, at the same time, you had millions and millions of people who voted for her because they thought she could do it. One thing that I wanted to convey in the early section of this book is how, when a woman comes to power, it does, in some way, make everything feel different. The landscape for young girls feels different; and yet, as the girls discover in the novel, nothing changes — the two girls from honourable families still have the fear in their heads about what men could do to them.

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How have things changed for women since 1988, particularly in Pakistan? Do they have more agency and freedom?

If you just look at the basic things, like how many women are going to the university now as opposed to then, there is no comparison. Women in Karachi are much more visible. Women are at higher positions in the working world. But there are also several parts where that’s not the case, where there has been a backlash, which is brutal and violent: the more the women are asserting their own freedom and their right to make certain choices, the more there are attempts to stop and stifle them. It has been one of the remarkable changes in the last 30 years; how women have much more agency and visibility, not just in a tiny elite group, but actually in a much wider sense.

Do you see Pakistan as still a predominately male-oriented country where patriarchy remains insidious?

Well, I see Britain that way. I also see America and Canada that way. I think the stagnated countries do better than anyone else. But you go anywhere and look — at the basic level, you look at the CEOs of companies or at the cabinet — and you’ll see only two or three women. Maybe the top person is a woman, but largely we are still living in a hugely patriarchal world. And that’s certainly true in Pakistan. There is change, but it’s not fast enough.

Even though you burst on the scene with your very first novel, In the City by the Sea (1998), many would say that you arrived with Home Fire (2017). What do you think worked for the novel? 

Home Fire did exceptionally well; most writers don’t have any novel that does that well. Burnt Shadows did extremely well, and was translated into 25 languages. For me, that actually is a book which marked the real shift. Earlier, I had been writing novels that were more small and intimate. Burnt Shadows had a much bigger canvas. By that point, I also felt that as a writer, I had more confidence. In my first four novels, I feel I was testing things out. Somehow, it was by the fifth that I had a different kind of ambition and confidence. And I think that comes through the writing as well. But, for me, it has not been the case that suddenly there was a great success. The first novel got nice reviews, but almost no one read it; by Kartography (2002), I had found more readers. More translations were happening too. So, the recognition has been slow, but sustained.

As a result of Home Fire having done as well as it did, for a very long time, I carried on going to festivals and publicising and doing events around it till I got sick of it. There came a time that I never wanted to talk about it again, think about it again. At some point, I told my publishers that I was not doing those anymore because I had started missing writing. It did take another year before I really got going, but, at a certain point, you just have to put the last one aside; however well the last one did, you do want to put it aside. You start every novel with a blank page. Whether you sell five copies or 2,000 copies, it’s in some way irrelevant. When you sit down to write, you are like: Here, I go again. It gives you confidence. When a book does well, all it does is boosts your confidence. When you try different things and it seems to work, it gives you confidence when you sit down to work on another novel. You don’t think: No, I can’t do that. In earlier books, I would think: I don’t think I can do that. Now, it’s like: I don’t know if I can do that, but let’s try and see how it goes.

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