Kamila Shamsie is the author of six novels, including Burnt Shadows (shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction) and, most recently, A God in Every Stone, which was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. She was born in Karachi and now lives in London, where she spoke to Tank.
Interview: Thomas Roueché / Portrait: Pankaj Mishra
Thomas Roueché How do you relate to realism as an author?
Kamila Shamsie I suppose I’d put it this way: rather than using the word realism, I’m interested in understanding certain realities of the world through my fiction. So for me fiction is, possibly perversely, the place where I can most understand what is happening in the world around me. Through reading it, and actually, more specifically, through writing, in some odd way through the experience of imaginatively placing characters within some kind of realist frame, the real becomes more real.
I think empathy is one of the most crucial things you need as a writer. I suppose part of the reason why I need to sort of move back from the term ‘realism’ a little is because I think that someone like China Miéville, writing The City & the City, to me there’s a realism in that. I remember when my mother was talking years ago to someone about Salman Rushdie’s work Midnight’s Children and this person made some disparaging comment about magical realism and my mother said, “Your magical is my realism.” It’s empathy that is central to work or to imaginative work. I think sometimes people use “imagination” as a synonym for the “made up” or fantasy. To me the imagination is about imagining yourself in someone else’s experience, or someone else’s worldview.
TR Aminatta Forna has written about this.
KS Aminatta is a really good example because her book The Hired Man is set in Croatia but it’s a novel about war and violence and living with the aftermath of that, which has exactly been Aminatta’s topic in her earlier books. In that sense she was still working in the same terrain, but what becomes interesting is how people define your particular terrain. Because part of Aminatta’s family is from Sierra Leone, it becomes, “Oh, you write about Africa” rather than, “You write about violence and brutality.” Another example would be Gillian Slovo, who is well known for books on South Africa, but actually she writes about injustices and oppressions, and people living in difficlut moments of history. So whether she’s writing about Russia or the Sudan, similar themes come up. It is interesting how writers from outside the UK and US have their work identified with place, rather than a more thoughtful, philosophical area.
I do think it’s incredibly reactionary, actually, a lot of the conversations around appropriation. I understand part of it. The conversation around appropriation started in a very interesting way, as part of postcolonial conversation, you know, “Why are our stories always being told by someone else?” But that position then hardened and became a conversation that said: “You can’t write about it unless it’s your story.” I think all fiction writers, actually everyone, needs to push back against this idea, which ultimately moves into a very reactionary worldview of, “You cannot understand anyone who is different from you.” I think as soon as you accept that, it’s pretty much game over for the human race.
TR Is that something you would advocate, an increased political engagement?
KS It’s interesting because one of the writers who I think of as being a wonderfully political writer is Ali Smith, whom you rarely hear talked about in that way. In Ali Smith’s works there will be questions of surveillance, for instance, and what it means. She will approach it from wonderfully intimate stories, but she’s talking about surveillance, estrangement, how humans are being shaped by the changing world around us and the laws we’re living under.
I would never point to any specific writer and say, “Well, why aren’t you taking on the political, in some large sense of the word,” because we all do what we do and there has to be space for every kind of writing. My interest is more in the nervousness around writers being described in certain ways, or the unwillingness of critics to describe them so, when that’s quite obviously what is going on in their work. Why is it that we want to take the politics out of fiction? Unless of course it’s a book coming from the postcolonial nations, and then everyone is more than happy to talk about it in terms of its politics and conflict and the statements it’s making about the world. So you do have this double standard. It goes back to Aminatta’s excellent article – there are certain kinds of tags that get attached to writers from outside the Anglo-American tradition. Within the last 15 years you’ve seen, at the level of the domestic, so many changes in laws and attitudes, whether it’s to do with migrants, or surveillance, or with what we think are acceptable intrusions to our private lives. These are central to the novelist’s concerns. It’s not about the UK sending its forces into Helmand Province, it’s about what happens when you sit down to write a love letter by email – who’s reading that? Are you aware of someone reading? The really intimate stuff like that, how just the daily assumptions of our lives have changed. And who but novelists should be writing about that?
TR What are you working on at the moment?
KS It’s hard to answer because I’m at the very beginning of starting a new novel. The only certainty is whatever I start with is not going to be what the book looks to. At the moment it does seem like I will be writing about something contemporary and of the now, in a way I haven’t done in a while, because the last book was early 20th century. So I suppose that’s partly why all these questions are on my mind. It’s one thing that strikes me because it’s been a while since Burnt Shadows was published, six years ago, and the action of the novel ends in 2002. Now I’m sitting down to think about something being written in 2014, 2015, and I’m immediately struck by the questions of how people are communicating with each other. If they have secrets, are they aware of people listening in or reading along, and do I have to use the words Twitter and Facebook in my novels, and why does that feel so peculiar a thing to do? So there are certain questions that have startled me by how basic they are in terms of when you sit down to write about the present, how different that feels to me to having written about the present a dozen years ago. I suppose writing in the present allows a different feeling of urgency. I remember the writer Nadeem Aslam saying once about writing about Pakistan in the present, saying, “You feel as if you’re writing with a pen on fire.” Which is both problematic and rewarding, I think. §
A God in Every Stone, published by Bloomsbury, is out now.