Burnt Shadows

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.