Month: March 2009

Shadow Lines: An interview with Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel,Burnt Shadows, is a feat of sorts. The 36-year-old
Pakistan-born author, who lives in London, spins a formidable, arching tale, dense with history. Spanning cultures and continents, it is a tale of fluid identity, inheritance of loss,foreignness and the need for rootedness and belonging. The epigraph, comprising lines from the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali’s A
Nostalgist’s Map of America (Kamila was influenced by Ali at the University of
Massachusetts where she did her MFA) and Sahir Ludhianvi’s epic anti-war poem
Parchaiyaan (Shadows), only serves as a prelude to the loss the inexorable and
sweeping course of history engenders.
The novel opens with a man being unshackled, stripped in a cell, about to be sent to the Guantánamo Bay. As the prisoner wonders, “How did it come to this,” the plot unfolds, careening from Nagasaki in 1945 to India (Delhi) on the brink of Partition, from Pakistan which is coming into its own in the early ’80s to New York and Afghanistan post 9/11.
At the heart of the story is Hiroko Tanaka, a translator, living in Nagasaki during the World War II. She is in love with a German, Konrad Weiss. But before she could find “an island where only the two of us have to live,” America drops atom bomb on Nagasaki. “And the world goes white.”
The blast sears the birds on Hiroko’s kimono on her back, forever. A hibakusha (a victim of atom bomb), the shadows haunt Hiroko forever even as she makes her passage to India, in search of Konrad’s sister, Elizabeth, married to a Brit, James Burton, and falls in love with their employee Sajjad Ali Ashraf, who teaches Urdu to the Burtons.
As the years wear on, the three generations of Weiss-Burtons and Tanaka-Ashrafs find
“spaces to cohabit in complicated shared history”. But in the backdrop, the global
conflicts rage on, only changing their forms and locations. Unable to form their private peace, the two families, besides love, also have their own little “betrayals” to present each other.
While it may not have been a cakewalk to pull the narrative off, Kamila says that the
vastness of the narrative has nothing to do with the vastness of its theme. “I think vast themes can be conveyed in slim novels set within a single room. So no I didn’t think of it that way,” says the author, whose previous novels include In the City By The Sea, Salt and Saffron, Kartography and Broken Verses.
She adds that much of what is “terrible in the world of the book” has to do with the
British empire and the government of Pakistan. She wasn’t, she says, interested in
pretending that “America is the only nation accountable for the world’s problems”.
The line about the world being “a terrible place”, says Kamila, is spoken by Hiroko at a particular moment of anguish. “But I think Hiroko would be the first to acknowledge that there’s much in the world that is not terrible – in her life that comes through primarily in the relationships she has with friends and family. As the book used those central relationships between people to tell the story, it wasn’t hard at all to keep the tone from becoming overwhelmingly bleak,” says Kamila, adding that she also kept in mind Toni Morrison’s argument that you can’t use fiery language to write about fire, but the language that will let the fire glow.
It is the shared histories of the characters and their individual losses that lend intensity to the story. Kamila says: “I wanted to show the complex interweaving of these different lives – they share much of the same pain, and are also responsible for causing each other both suffering and joy. And in many cases they are interacting with each other while living on different sides of history which creates its own tensions and complications.”
Talking about Hiroko’s character, Kamila says that when she started writing, Hiroko was a very young, rather self-involved character. “I had little idea of how she would mature and change. The first section, set in Nagasaki, went through many drafts, and it was only after writing a number of versions of her early life that I felt I really started to get a handle on her character,” says the author.
Burnt Shadows, far from being preachy and harping on radicalisation, stands out for its remarkable restraint. Bring this up with the author and she says: “Being preachy sounds very boring. As for radicalisation and humanising, you certainly can write about the radicalisation of Muslim youth and also humanise the story, as Nadeem Aslam does in The Wasted Vigil. But I was interested in telling other stories, so I did.”
Most of the characters in the novel have one thing in common: their love for languages.
Does that have a personal resonance? Is Kamila bilingual? The answer is no. “I don’t
think of myself as properly bilingual because English is entirely my dominant language – I think in English, dream in English. The language issue in the book started merely as plot device – if you had these people from different nations developing relationships with each other they had to be able to communicate in a shared language. So I had Hiroko and Konrad’s relationship develop around Konrad’s need for a translator who knew both Japanese and German. But as often happens with novels that plot device quickly became a trope of the novel – a symbol of various characters’ willingness to enter different worlds and experiences and make them their own,” she says.
Burnt Shadows, in parts, is reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s style. And Kamila has
taken the title of its final section – “The Speed Necessary To Replace Loss” – from
The English Patient. But Kamila is “wary” of saying that he has been an influence. “That sounds as if I’m claiming there’s something Ondaatje-like in my writing, which seems a very bold claim to make,” she says.
But, yes, he is a writer who Kamila loves “particularly” although her favourite of his novels is In the Skin of a Lion. “Though I do also love The English Patient,” she reveals, adding that he is the master of writing about horror in ways that are both “moving and beautiful”, without using the beauty to “aestheticise horror, which is always a danger”.
The horror in the book is dealt with a great deal of sensitivity – with the novel starting with someone about to be sent to Guantanamo. For the writer, it is only an attempt to “clarify or understand for myself what is happening in the world around us”. She says: “When I write novels, I do always end up writing about things in the world which have been gnawing away at me in some way or the other. Fortunately, something like Guantanamo isn’t happening anymore. But we have yet to see if that’s just a symbolic shift (of course symbols are very important) or will lead to a more deep-rooted change in the use of fear to justify putting aside considerations of justice and human rights.”
In the world mired in the conflicts, identities become a tricky business.
Kamila asserts that her eyes tend to “glaze over in boredom” a little when she hears
people talking about identity issues. This, she says, could be a result of all the tie she spent in academic circles in the ’90s when “identity politics” was the hot topic of the moment. Within the novel, the author explains, there are two competing pulls. She says: “On one hand you have characters such as Hiroko and Ilse who see through the rhetoric of nationhood and are aware of how false and divisive it can be, how it separates people into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ categories, and so want nothing to do with it; on the other hand you have characters such as Raza and Harry who have experienced the feeling of being outcast and simply want to belong – and this leads to a kind of national zeal in Harry and a fabricated life for Raza. Of them all, Raza is probably the one who can carry off multiple identities most successfully – but really he would have done well to learn from his mother who is always herself, and far more comfortable in the world than he is. But of course, ‘her self’ is a self that is curious and open about the worlds she enters, without prejudice or subterfuge – and that attitude seems far more important than a self-conscious awareness of ‘multiple identities’”.
Things in Pakistan have changed since the assassination of its former Prime Minister
Benazir Bhutto. The military chief is no longer at the head of the government. And there is an elected representative in office.
While this is “heartening” for Kamila, she is also aware of the fact that there is also “a
lot that’s disheartening”. And that includes the “undemocratic nature” of many of the
“democratic politicians”.
This is apparently a good time for Pakistani writing in English. While many authors of Pakistani origin – Mohsin Hamid (Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Mohammed Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes), Nadeem Aslam (The Wasted Vigil),
Moni Mohsin (The End of Innocence, The Diary of a Social Butterfly) and of course
Kamila herself – are or have been based elsewhere (London), Kamila says she doesn’t
“divide Pakistanis up between Diaspora and non-Diaspora”. She explains: “There’s too
much back and forth in our lives to make that easy distinction. I was living in Pakistan as much as anywhere else until two years ago (so all my books have been written largely in Pakistan); Daniyal Mueenuddin (Other Rooms, Other Wonders) lives in Pakistan. Mohammed Hanif has just moved back there. Mohsin was living there for long periods of time while writing both his novels. Uzma Aslam Khan lives there.”
Kamila, however, is glad for the “exciting time for Pakistani Writing in English”. And it is not only because as a reader she benefits, not only because many of these other writers are her friends and she’s glad for their achievements, but also because “we’re all benefiting from each others’ success in terms of visibility”. She is aware though that when you do the “really important work of actually writing,” none of this matters. “You are on your own, writing your own work. At the end of the day, that doesn’t change,” says the author, who has a “couple of images and ideas bouncing around in her head”. But they haven’t quite “made their way into whole sentences, let alone paragraphs, yet”. We’ll know when they do.


Inez Baranay: An interview

INEZ BARANAY is an author with no fixed address – always on the move, always on a
quest for a different experience. Born in Naples, Italy, to Hungarian parents, Inez, whose wanderlust has taken her to Dehra Dun for a short sojourn, presents a tribute to Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel, The Razor’s Edge, in With The Tiger, published by
Excerpts from an interview:

Q. With The Tiger is a retelling of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Was he an early
A. I read Maugham first when still a teenager and from time to time would re-read
something of his over the years. I suspect he was in some ways an influence. Many of
the “English” writers I love spent a lot of time outside of Britain. Maugham travelled widely and always wrote evocatively of Asian lands, and he always had sympathy for those whom society shuns or condemns; he judged people by their character not their social standing. He was an eternal outsider, yet was able to move in many different worlds.

Q. Was it challenging to base the story in different zones of space and time, and yet retain the same narrative structure?
A. Yes, very. Once I set myself the formal challenge of keeping to the same structure that Maugham created for The Razor’s Edge, I had to find my own reasons for the characters to experience analogous events, 60 years later and on another side of the world.

Q. Does the novel, in any way, process the personal, dipping into your own experiences in the country?
A. Inevitably to some extent. Creating fiction is a matter of blending personal experience, others’ observed and reported experience, impressions gained from a wide range of reading, and the imagination. It is now impossible to isolate those strands in any given section. I was never a teenage backpacker in India, like one of the novel’s characters, Larry, was, but I have observed many of them in my many trips to the country, and read about them too. I never spent three years at an ashram, but short visits enable the fictive version of a much longer one. None of the characters’ experiences is my own but my own experiences help me understand theirs.

Q. Is Larry’s bohemian life, his wandering and searching, closer to your own
A. The narrator of With the Tiger remarks somewhere that as a writer he understand
Larry’s way of life better than most of his other friends do. I feel similarly: although I did not lead a life quite like Larry’s, I did go my own way so that I could be a writer and have a life of independence and new experiences, rather than fit into a more conventional or prescribed idea of how one should live.

Q. Could you share your engagement with the spiritual India?
A. I find the word “spiritual” very problematic. So I would have to ask you in turn, what do you mean by it? So many things get involved in this vexatious term – religion, superstition, ritual, cultural practices. What are we really talking about here? I am wary of the idea that Indians are more inherently spiritual than other people are, although certainly India has produced rich, influential, complex, ancient traditions of attention to metaphysical questions. It has been said that The Razor’s Edge (first published in 1942) is the novel that began the popular craze for “spiritual India” and that’s partly why I had to revisit it, take it apart and put it together again.

Q. You have also written essays and short stories. Is a novel more creatively
A. A novel is a long-term commitment of great involvement. You have a very intimate
relationship with a novel that undergoes changes over time. It has its satisfactions but you can never achieve the perfection in a novel that a short form makes possible. They say a novel is more like a marriage while a short story is a brief affair. I think I would rather say that each form has different satisfactions. I hope to continue working in several forms.

Q. You have straddled between cities? Do you think travel helped you gain better
perspectives on cultures and people?
A. Travel gives us the opportunity to experience in so many ways, ways without end, that people and cultures are both very various and very similar. Of course, we can also travel in our minds through reading, viewing other art forms, and meeting people outside our usual circles. And some people can cover a lot of distances and not necessarily gain much new perspective.

Q. What is your idea of home? What do you make of the need to belong?
A. At present I have no permanent home or “base” as we more often say these days.
When I say “I’m going home” I mean to the place I will sleep tonight. By now my friends are in many different countries and there are several places I love dearly and want to return to. increasingly meet more and more people who don’t live in only one place; this is the way the world is now. If I can go to bed with a good book and a decent reading lamp beside me I feel at home. As for belonging, I am not certain about this need. Maybe it is unevenly distributed among people, like musical ability or tallness. Increasingly, we have a sense of community with others that is not based on geographical nearness or ethnic sameness,but more on similar interests and world views. The wonderful new technology of the Internet makes possible community and friendship beyond all kinds of borders.

Q. You have always been reinventing your writing with regard to themes, content and
style. After With The Tiger, what next? What is keeping Baranay busy these days?
A. Something completely different (again): I am writing a memoir of a trip to European cities and a friendship associated with each city. I’ve been working on a couple of screenplays also – I love the collaborative process of film, while still needing the solitude of prose writing at other times. I will write a memoir of my many trips to India one day, and am thinking of new fiction.

Q. How do you respond to the tag of a “fringe writer”? How do you perceive the
categorisation of literature? Should the only categorisation be “good” and “bad”?
A. Good or bad according to whom? Good or bad will be the least stable categories, I
suspect. Why do people make categories? Libraries and bookshops need them but as
you suggest readers make their own categories. We all have the books we love and the
books we return to and the books we mean to read one day and the book we read at just the right moment.

Q. How important is your writing to you? Is there an underlying quest to define who you are and what you stand for? Does one need a certain kind of discipline to be a writer?
A. My writing is of the utmost importance to me; the need to write affects every aspect of my life and the decisions I make. Inevitably, a life of writing insists on the kinds of questions you suggest. Writing seriously certainly includes the search for self-knowledge and reveals what your values are. And yes, it requires a great deal of discipline if you want to produce writing for others to read.

Q. Do you feel Australian literature in English has come of age?
A. Australian literature has had a mainstream of mostly Anglo voices while the country’s multicultural reality was only reflected when you added the more marginal small press literature to the picture. While on the one hand the safe commercial tastes of corporate publishing dominates, on the other hand independent small publishers keep springing up to ensure that a range of voices can be heard. I suppose a literature “comes of age” when it makes its way in the world and Australian writing is read everywhere now.

Q. Who are the contemporary Indian writers writing in English you admire?
A. Oh dear, this feels like an exam question. I don’t know whether to include writers of Indian origin who don’t live in India, like Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry. I remember reading Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope in 1986 and being astonished by it; in a quite different way R.K. Narayan revealed another world. In later years, I admired Amitav Ghosh, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Amit Chaudhari. There are so many though, aren’t there? And new writers all the time; in Tamil Nadu Kuzhali Manickaval is an interesting new voice and I’ve just read some great new writing in Tehelka.