‘Identity is an overused word’

Print edition : September 15, 2017

Kamila Shamsie, author of "Home Fire". Photo: Zain Mustafa

THE longlist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize 2017 was announced on July 27, with Kamila Shamsie (for Home Fire), Arundhati Roy (for The Ministry of Utmost Happiness) and 11 other writers in the fray. The shortlist of six books will be released on September 13, and the prize will be announced on October 17 in London.

A well-travelled and widely read writer, Kamila Shamsie is the grand-niece of the writer-broadcaster Attia Hosain, who hailed from the Lucknow of pre-Partition India. As Kamila Shamsie has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and so on for her earlier novels, her mantelpiece of accomplishment is already well-stocked.

The Man Booker could be what she needs to cross over from the ranks of excellent writers of her generation to being seen as an exceptional one. Whether that materialises or not, Home Fire is sure to keep fiction aficionados engrossed. The book is said to be an “explosive story of love and a family torn apart... the suspenseful and heartbreaking story of an immigrant family driven to pit love against loyalty, with devastating consequences”. Home Fire comes riding a wave of high praise. If it left Peter Carey “awestruck on the edge of [his] chair, filled with admiration for her courage and ambition”, Salman Rushdie was no less effusive, saying: “Kamila Shamsie is a writer of immense ambition and strength. She understands a great deal about the ways in which the world’s many tragedies and histories shape one another.”

Ambition and ability shine through the pages of Home Fire, which Publisher’s Weekly finds “memorable… salient and heartbreaking, culminating in a shocking ending”. While the warning comes in the nick of time for those accustomed to opening their books from the back flap or the last chapter, Kamila Shamsie laughs it off as she takes a few questions from Frontline.

Excerpts from the interview:

At a time when Muslims across the world are facing a battle for identity, is “Home Fire” the novel that was waiting to be written? More so because it comes from the pen of an author who has herself divided her time between London and Karachi.

Personally, I don’t think of it as a novel about identity. It is a novel about masculinity, about fathers and sons, about the relationship of the individual to the state, about different ways of being a woman, about the legal ties that governments have with their citizens, about how vulnerabilities can be exploited, as well as about love and grief and sacrifice and selfishness and family. I think “identity” is a word that gets overused; it’s not really a word I’m all that interested in.

Your novel is largely about two ways of being a Muslim: the “good Muslim” who is integrated into Western society and lives by its principles and the “bad Muslim” who insists on having his own value system even as he uses the opportunities provided by the West. Is it not time to find a midpoint?

There are no good and bad Muslims in there; there are complicated, flawed characters who all make mistakes and all live with the consequences.

The whole idea of “good Muslim/bad Muslim” is one I’ve always understood as being used to talk about the way Muslims are perceived by non-Muslims, particularly in the West. Those who assimilate are seen as “good” and those who don’t are seen as “bad”. It’s a reductionist, stereotyped way of viewing Muslims, but unfortunately it’s all too common now.

So if the novel approaches the issue of “good/bad Muslim”, it does so by acknowledging that these characters live in a world in which many people view Muslims in this reductionist way, and that creates certain pressures for the characters—in particular for the British Muslim politician in the novel who must prove himself a “good” Muslim.

In your novel, the son, Parvaiz, follows in his father’s footsteps. Is it not the reality of a jehadi’s life, a life spent in the shadows, chasing a mirage?

I don’t want to say too much for fear of giving away important parts of the book, but Parvaiz doesn’t exactly follow in his father’s footsteps. As for the reality of a jehadi’s life, I think there are many different ways in which that can go. I don’t think the Mujahideen of Afghanistan in the 1980s would think their lives were spent in the shadows, chasing a mirage—they were fighting an occupying force.

The word “jehadi” itself tells us little—it can mean the Mujahideen who were fighting the Soviet army or it can mean the man who detonated a bomb in a concert arena in Manchester recently and killed children.

In a way, the novel is a study of migrants, how a person (or his parents/grandparents) leaves the country of his birth, also leaves behind certain privileges and principles. Yet, is every migrant not almost always living a hyphenated existence? Like a bit of Pakistan or India sandpapered away for a generation of immigrants settled in the U.K. or the U.S., and vice-versa when they come back “home”?

Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t lead a hyphenated existence? I haven’t. Certainly not in Karachi. There’s no such thing as “purity”, and thank god for that. People interact with others, they take on new influences, they change. How can people from the subcontinent—which has so many different kinds of people, languages, religions as part of its history—think that there should be such a thing as “cultural purity” or that no one should ever leave the place where they were born?

Also, the idea that migrants leave behind “principles” when they leave the country of their birth is an odd one. Are all Indians [staying in India] principled, and are all Indian migrants less so? It certainly doesn’t work that way.

Within my novel, all the characters are born and raised in Britain. They aren’t “sandpapered Pakistanis” (though that’s a nice phrase!); they’re British, but in a way that British people 50 years ago wouldn’t have been able to imagine.

The West, for all its norms of freedom, ends up smothering immigrants with its own perceived or lived values. In a bid to be integrated into larger society, the immigrants lose their identity, their lives, their connect with their roots. How does one explain this paradox?

London, where I now live, is a city that has many problems, but the way in which its older inhabitants and new migrants and children and grandchildren of migrants live together is actually something that most cities of the world could learn a great deal from. That’s how I see it, rather than thinking in terms of a paradox of freedom/smothering.

You talk of Aneeka as young and wise, having seen trauma from close quarters. How much does tragedy, or trauma, shape the person he/she becomes? Does it not provide the person an opportunity to be who he/she innately is?

The question of tragedy/trauma is an interesting one. Does it just heighten characteristics that are already there, or does it shape character? I suspect it’s a mixture of both. Which is another way of saying that I think the character responds both to circumstance and to something more innate, that is, genetics.

Is the character of Karamat not emblematic of those who forget who they are in order to become what society would like them to be? I ask because he names his son Eamonn, not the Muslim name Ayman.

Karamat’s wife is of Irish heritage. They choose a name that works in both cultures—Eamonn (Irish)/Ayman (Pakistani). If he agrees that the spelling of his son’s name should reflect his wife’s heritage rather than his own, I don’t think that’s a sign of forgetting who he is. It is a sign that he isn’t the kind of male chauvinist who thinks his children should only reflect who he is.

But moving away from names, Karamat’s problem is not one of forgetting, it’s of making a deliberate choice. He wants a political career in Britain. He makes calculations about how to be a “good Muslim” in order to do it. Of course, these days in real life, we have a Muslim Mayor in London who is very open about his faith and who shows that there are other ways of being a successful Muslim politician in Britain.

“Home Fire” is your eighth novel. How much do you draw upon lived experience? Where does a writer’s keen observation come into play?

If I had to draw very much on lived experience, my novels would not be very interesting at all! The main characters and incidents are imagined rather than based on experience. Having said that, the novel is set in the contemporary world and not in some made-up place, so there are certainly elements of observation in there. It is always useful to spend some time wandering around neighbourhoods you are going to write about and talk to people who live there.

Finally, as an author where do you belong—a Karachite based in London or a London girl who hops over to Pakistan to get her creative juices flowing?

I love London as well as Karachi. They are different kinds of loves though. One is a love I was born into, and the other is a love I chose. They’re both generous cities that allow me to belong to both of them. I used to live in Karachi and visit London, now I live in London and visit Karachi. So I suppose that says something about my changing relationship with them both.

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