Kamila Shamsie is the author of five acclaimed novels: In the City by the Sea; Kartography(both shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize); Salt and Saffron; Broken Verses; and Burnt Shadows, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and has been translated into more than twenty languages.
Three of her novels have received awards from Pakistan’s Academy of Letters. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and in 2013 was named a Granta Best of Young British Novelist. She grew up in Karachi and now lives in London.
Recently she was in New Delhi for the launch of her latest novel, A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury Publications)—here she spoke with Atul K Thakur, about her new book and love for fiction writing—writing in subcontinent and beyond, the place of history in modern time and how the western hype of their tradition and literature keeping heightened misinterpretation around. The edited excerpts of the interview are:
Tell us about your new book: A God in Every Stone? What made you writing on undivided India, struggling against the empire in early 20th century?
For first time, I went to Peshawar two years back—then, I did not know it well. Those days, things were in very bad shape in Pakistan—that seemed wrong to me. I came to read a piece in DAWN about an archeological initiative to shave the monuments—and as
I was always interested in history, I drawn towards it.In Pakistan, women started taking part in archeological activities—when in India that was unheard off. This is an interesting reality.
I do value history and when it is retold in fiction, it creates greater sense. And I tried to absorb the importance of empathy—thus the book bears that and came out.
This book has in center a powerful story of friendship, injustice, love and betrayal—it travails across the globe, into the heart of empires fallen and conquered, reminding us that we all have our place in the chaos of history and that so much of what is lost will not be forgotten.
What exactly the discovery of Temple of Zeus is for Vivian Rose Spencer?
She is a young woman who has lived a very sheltered life—that particular moment of discovery comes to her like first breeze of independence. It is like you do something significant for first time in life and get a sense of discovery. In that discovery, she lives her personal existence—outside the comfort of empire and roving in alien lands with unusual quest.
The call of adventure and the ecstasy of love—all are the better part of fantasy or near about reality?
Yes, a sort of fantasy—as she is very young and has sheltered existence. It is good to be 21 and full with idealism—expectations getting more matured with the time.
At near the age of 30, it is hard to get away from naïve issues—but when one reaches to around 40, the perceptions get shaped through realistic considerations. There might be exceptions, as it is truly hard to be perfect with the perceptions—it fluctuates.
What made you finding another locale, thousands of miles away where a twenty-year old Pathan, Qayyum Gul is learning about brotherhood and loyalty in the British Indian army?
I became interested in the story of Indian soldiers fighting in the world war—and also in the history of freedom movement. The book recalls Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan in great deal—he was called Frontier Gandhi, and as the book is centered on that geography where he worked tirelessly—we see in character Najeeb, a staunch follower of him.
I have chosen to write this novel in post-colonial narrative—so I have particularly found the space for a stretch of subcontinental history( 1910-1940), badly affected with the British Empire.
Nevertheless, this is not the lone reason of making the novel spread into the odd geographies—there is strong personal angle of the protagonists, which necessitated it to further the story from two distant poles.
Both Lahore and Delhi have deeply imagined society—with their old structures and monuments, the city dwellers must ask themselves, how to imagine your cities? Like in imagining Karachi—it felt learning this city. Every city has its own characters—with modern cities, I have hedgy experience. We all must have a very-very deep sense of history.
How perfect is the mysterious long trail of Viv for her beloved? Why A God in Every Stone carries us across the globe, into the heart of empires, almost fallen and conquered?
She is very young, meeting Turkish Man and then they separated. Love story is not to be tested—it’s a romance in very beginning. She has liberty to be with her imagination. A very young naïve women but the book ended with decisive changes.
She believes in empire—English men are superior—their places are in better side of the history. She is a girl of empire, still she recognises empire is damaging. But she changes, the moment she knows the world.
Massacres in Peshawar in 1930’s—made strong disillusionment from the empire. Besides, non-cooperation movement and the world wars made British Empire defensive in stances.
Peshawar was full with events in those periods—and in general, North West frontier has a long history of receiving invasion and instability. Its history is replete with the interventions of Empires, including Ottoman Empire.
Beyond the construct of this novel—how you see our place in the chaos of history and that so much of what is lost will not be forgotten?
I don’t know how to see the chaos in history. It is very hard to assess the time people living in.
You have written acclaimed novels: Burnt Shadows, In the City by the Sea, Kartography, Salt Saffron and Broken Verses—do you write usually for the imagined readers or they come to your writings, and thus you write?
This will sound very self-centered in saying I write for myself—readers come to the novel from diverse locations and tastes.
What makes you dedicated for fictional narrative? At some point of time, will you be also writing a non-fiction book?
I love writing novel. I write for Guardian/Guernica among the other publications—mostly prose and non-fiction but in long term project, fiction writing is my natural forte. I believe, short stories are unfairly under-valued—people still wants to read novel. It’s not declining.
I am recalling your conversation with Pankaj Mishra, about the absence of political anger in western literature and why we shouldn’t be so quick to condemn the writers like, Mo Yan—what made you comfortable for taking position on this?
It was my actual position. I was asked by Guernica to write on it. Pankaj has already written on it—and he has written important books. There is big mismatch on this in western world. Not surprising, if remarkable books from the US is in short supply.
The western part of the world or even China has to address the anger in writing with care and better sensitivity—in absence of that, it is not possible to expect genuine expressions routed through the books.
May we know the answer of your own question asked to Pankaj Mishra: You say fiction comes from a different side of the brain than politics, but doesn’t an overtly political novel demand we engage both sides of the brain at once?
It does—often people have problem with the political norms. They disagree—some people think novel should be essentially written like nice and pleasant story.
This is impossible to achieve—the consciousness for politics very much stays in fiction writing as well. However the degree of reliance on it varies on the personal capacity and choice of a writer.
What is your take on new English writings in India and Pakistan?
Indian English writing is doing very well in non-fiction category—we see many remarkable books have been in recent years by Indian writers. And with fiction writing too, India has lot to offer—from Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh to Kiran Desai, there are many names to be recalled.
Pakistan has seen a very impressive rise in writers, writing standard literary fiction about their troubled land. Nadeem Aslam is an extraordinary writer—he takes his writing very seriously. Mohammed Hanif is so good being fiery and serious.
Usma Aslam Khan is another serious writer, who is writing incredibly beautiful about the Pakistani landscapes. Jamil Ahmad has written an important book on Baluchistan. Mohsin Ahmad has written impressive novels. We can add more names here.
In the Indian subcontinent, this is high creative time—where the history is being reread and retold, with sense of urgency to know the spent time, with rational angle. This is indeed a welcome development.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in Rising Kashmir on April21,2014)