In 2013, Kamila Shamsie was included in the Granta list of 20 best young British writers. In conversation with Sanah Agrawal, she talks about her latest book “A God in Every Stone” and how her life experiences have influenced her as a writer.
There is always a starting point for a book- a particular image, a sudden idea, which just helps you take off- so what set off, “A God in Every Stone”?
The starting point was the city itself, the city of Peshawar and its history.
A God in every stone is based in Peshawar and you have written very lovingly about Karachi… in a recent essay you spoke about the experience of “sleeping with London” and “waking up to London.” How do you humanize cities and what is it that truly defines the experience of a city? Is it the power relations? It’s history? It’s geography?
It’s a good question and a complicated one and would require hours to answer it but I think, with London and Karachi my first understanding of it and why I humanize it is because of my relationship to the people who are there but also things like the museums that might be there; in the case of London. In the case of Karachi, it’s the beach that I love. So you build up an emotional attachment to the place and that is what is humanized I think. With Peshawar it was very different, I had to build up an imaginative relationship. I came to love this city while writing this book rather than through an experience of being there, but of course the better get to know a place the more you get to see it’s complexities. Karachi is the city I know the best. I love it but I can see its many problems and a lot that has to do with divisions along ethnic lines, along income lines and all kinds of things. So the more you look at a city the more complicated it grows.
Where is home in a globalized world then?
I don’t know what this phrase “globalized world” is really suppose to mean because I think that you may move from somewhere to another place, but I think it is a bit of a myth. If you have ever had a Pakistani passport, you know the world of visa regimes means that it is not a globalized world at all. There are some people; the more privileged you are, the easier it is to move around, but for most people actually it is very difficult to move around so the world isn’t really that globalized. For me, really I have two homes and they are very different kinds of homes. Karachi is the home of my childhood and my family and all of that. London is the home of my present and I am quite happy to love both of them. But I am aware that the longer I live in, the last few years because I have been mostly in London, I don’t have the same daily relationship with Karachi that I used to.
You were born and brought up in Karachi, studied in the US and now live in London… In your writings, you deal with multicultural, multinational and multi-religious identities. How much of these identities are a lived reality?
The first four novels I wrote, my characters were Karachi-ites and they might be from different backgrounds; so Karim is half Bengali and Aliya’s family came from India across the borders, but they are very much Karachiwalas themselves. It’s in the last two books- it was actually with Burnt Shadows, with them moving around and even in this one, A God in every stone, there are the Peshawaris and there is the Londoner. But that one book, Burnt Shadows, was looking much more. I think I am less interested in multiculturism than I am in the intersecting histories of different nations. So that you can be from Pakistan and America and Japan and Afghanistan can be part of your history. So that tends to be my interest than I suppose, that multi-culturedness of history rather than individuals.
There is a continuous play of temporal and spatial zones in your writings. What are the challenges and how do you deal with them when writing about a different timeline?
The challenge is to write a novel that works and this one took a long time not working. You just sort of stick in there and keep it interesting for yourself. I took a very long time on how I wanted to do it so everything about it is a challenge, but it also what makes it interesting and with this book I wanted to have these different time periods; its what I am interested in. I wanted to have a sense of the ancient world as well as the twentieth century. So the challenge is to take what you want and to achieve it.
There is interplay of mythical and historical elements in your writing, how difficult is it to blend the two and what attracts you to that sort of writing?
I don’t see that as so difficult because I suppose when I look at the story of Scylax from 515 B.C. I see echoes with the twentieth century characters. Here’s a man who is sent on a mission by the empire but then comes to doubt his own loyalty to the empire. It’s a very human contemporary story as well so I suppose a way to take it is to find the human in the mythic and find the echoes and parallels with contemporary stories and that I think is how I do it.
The poet Agha Shahid Ali influenced your time in UMass, what are your other literary influences?
Shahid was the one who was most influential in terms of someone who I knew and who was a teacher. The other influences have been mostly books I have read. Someone like Michael Ondaatje who wrote The English Patient has been a big influence; in the way his writing is cinematic, in the way he takes on history in the structure of his books. When I was at University, writers like Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf were very important as well. In the 80s when I was growing up, the 80s and 90s, when there was very little fiction coming out of Pakistan in English, the Indian writers were very important for teaching me how the English novel wasn’t just about faraway places, that the history of this region and what was going on in this region could also become part of fiction. So lots of different influences.
What are you currently reading?
I have just started a book called, “What Was Promised” by a wonderful English writer called Tobias Hill, coming out this week.
I have no idea! I have finished the last one, I have no idea for the next thing so I think for a little while I am going to be doing this kind of thing, just talking about it, which is nice. You spend three years locked in room writing a book in silence and then you get to come out and talk about it. At the moment, that’s what I am doing.
Writing, they say, is a very solitary exercise. But for authors it doesn’t end with the completion of a book or its publication anymore. They have to go on multi city tours for promotion and launch of a book-
If you are lucky, if you are not lucky, no one asks you to do anything!
How draining is it for the writer within you?
It is pretty draining. I mean, I can’t do this and write at the same time. Right now I’m at the beginning of it so I’m sort of fairly fresh there. There comes a point where, and again, if you are lucky, I think all writers recognize it; on one hand its exhausting but on another you are in a fortunate position, that when you have been talking about the same books for months, there does come a point where you think I need to write the next thing now and just stop doing this for a while. It does get exhausting, having said that, some of the best travel of my life has been through festivals and some of the best friends of my life such as Ruchir(Joshi), is someone I met at the Edinburgh festival years ago, so very nice things come out of it as well.