Karachi-born, Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s down-to-earth manner makes it easy to forget that she is the author of four highly intelligent novels; most recently the Orange Prize short-listed Burnt Shadows. However, this quiet intelligence gives way to passion when she discusses her early life under Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator who ruled Pakistan during the late 1970s and 1980s. It is no surprise, therefore, that her novels often deal with the impacts unfolding political events have on the lives of everyday people.
In her early novels the focus was on life in Pakistan; In The City by the Sea and Broken Verses examine the various forms of oppression that were prevalent in Pakistan during the seventies and eighties. Her most recent novel, Burnt Shadows, has a more ambitious agenda: it maps the lives of two families against the seismic world events of the nineteen-forties, such as the atom bomb being dropped on Nagasaki and the partition of India, and the period from the late eighties to the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Shamsie says that writing fiction that tackles political issues head on was not a conscious decision. In Pakistan, “you don’t grow up with the separation between what's happening politically and what's happening in people's lives. When I was growing up politics was about whether the school was open or closed, whether it was safe to go out and visit a friend or if there was trouble in the city. It was all very wrapped up in day-to-day living.” These early experiences, she feels, have left a distinctive imprint on her writing.
It is said that good writers find silences and wonder about the stories behind them. For Shamsie, her interest in history made her increasingly aware that an historical amnesia is rampant in Pakistan. During the Zia years this was exacerbated by the heavy censorship of television and newspapers so that media reports about political events, both contemporary and historical, were refracted through the lens of the military dictator’s Islamist agenda and were inevitably tainted by the regime’s propaganda. Information about major events, such as the 1971 Bangladesh war, could sometimes be gleaned from hushed drawing room conversations or through rumours, stories and anecdotes, but never from history books. As a result, the ideas of storytelling and political events became interwoven in Shamsie’s nascent writer’s mind.
In Burnt Shadows, Shamsie started off wanting to write about the nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan and, in particular, the 1998 nuclear tests the two countries carried out within days of each other. Attached to the memory of this particular sequence of events was the recollection of a small news item in Dawn, a Pakistani English language newspaper, about a group of Japanese survivors of the Hiroshima bomb coming to Pakistan to try to dissuade the government from entering a subcontinental nuclear arms race. That got her wondering what it must feel like for survivors of an atom bomb to see the threat of nuclear war resurfacing in their own backyard. And while Shamsie had no plan to connect the two issues when she set out to write the book, other links with America’s war on terror emerged, as did connections between the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s and the conflict that has been running there since 2001.
The novel has a vast cast of characters, whose lives are charted through six decades and who migrate across continents. While she was writing the book she divided her time between Pakistan, America and Britain, which gave her access to the differing, and often one-sided, arguments about America’s war on terror in each of those countries. As a result, she says, many of the characters ended up reflecting these different points of view on America’s wars. In London, for example, “You are less likely to find people who think history started on 11 September 2001. 9/11 didn’t come out of the blue. The people who did it didn’t wake up one morning and say ‘let's go and do this’. That doesn’t mean it was justified – but such actions are always linked to human behaviour and any stories that don’t acknowledge that just don’t make sense as stories.”
While leading this cosmopolitan existence, Shamsie did not consciously choose between English or Urdu as the language in which to write her novels. English is very much her first language and one in which she has been writing since she was eleven. She cites a number of Indian writers of English novels publishing during the 1980s, including Anita Desai and Rohinton Mistry, as significant influences over her voice as a budding writer. But, in particular, she credits Salman Rushdie’s descriptions of Karachi in Midnight’s Children as the first time she saw writing about her city as a real possibility. She also credits her professor at university, the late Agha Shahid Ali, who was a poet of Kashmiri origin, as a very strong early influence on her creative writing. He made her aware of the importance of every word in a piece of writing: “I was very lucky at 18 to find someone with such a finely tuned sensibility, who would say ‘this is a clunky word, throw it out’. He moved me from teenage scribbling to becoming a serious writer.”
When asked why she is the only contemporary Pakistani female writer of note, she is self-effacing. It’s not that Pakistani women aren't writing, she says, it’s just that in Britain it is a very male-dominated scene. She knows of a number of other Pakistani women who are writing, but are unable to find publishers. However, she identifies another, much more powerful obstacle facing all Pakistani women writers: “For a lot of women in Pakistan there are taboos, which means that there is much you have to fight against before you can get the words onto the page.” As she says, it would be foolish to underestimate those areas that are prohibited to women, such as any hint or acknowledgement of sexual experience. Pakistani women writing about such topics are likely to bring disrepute to their family’s name in a country where family honour and reputation are paramount.
Indeed, she does have a particularly clear-eyed view of the plight of Pakistani women. She is patently aware of the strength of patriarchy in rural areas, where women are viewed as family property and not as individuals in their own right. And yet she is optimistic about the future for Pakistani women. Looking at the transformation of women’s situation in the West compared to a century ago gives her hope: “History moves very fast and in mysterious ways.”
The dearth of published Pakistani women writers may also be due to the fact that the lives of Pakistani women, which still largely revolve around their homes, are not subjects that publishers view as relevant to contemporary Western readerships. But, in Shamsie’s view, “any good novel has to have the possibility of multiple readers”. The only assumptions she makes about her readership are intelligence as well as an interest in history and politics. Beyond that she assumes nothing about who her readers may be; as she says, “when I grew up reading English language novels I was never anyone's intended reader.”
She says there hasn’t been much of a reaction to her books in Pakistan. She ascribes this to the small readership of English novels in that country and that none of her books have been translated into Urdu due to the lack of a translation industry there. “Because they are English language novels only a tiny percentage of the population read them. There are always mixed reviews, but largely they have been pretty favourable. Urdu writers have to face much stronger reactions because they have bigger audiences back home. Still, there is nothing I would love more than for Burnt Shadows to be translated into Urdu.”
So, in the meantime, while Kamila Shamsie bravely attempts to fill the silences she encounters, for the Urdu-speaking Pakistani children of today, the silences continue.