Brought up in Pakistan with English as her first language, and educated in the United States, it is perhaps no surprise that the novelist Kamila Shamsie feels at home in both the west and the Indian subcontinent. She now lives in both London and Karachi.
“I don’t know why people have this sense that a relationship with home has to be a monogamous relationship,” she said.
“I very often think of identification with cities [rather than nations]. Karachi is home. London is home. London is my day-to-day home.
“Karachi is home in the way a place that’s always been home is. I can walk down a particular street and remember what it was to be three years old there and 13 and 23 and 33 and 43. The continuity of your life is in a particular place.”
While Shamsie might feel the strongest ties to Karachi, it is in modern-day London that her latest novel, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Home Fire, is partly set.
Speaking at the UEA International Literary Festival 2017, the 44-year-old, a dual Pakistani and British national, said she felt she was writing it “from within, not as a foreigner”.
While the book has a very modern subject matter, dealing as it does with issues such as Islamic extremism, it is a reworking of the play Antigone by the Ancient Greek writer Sophocles. Shamsie admitted that some of the thrill of novel-writing was, in this case, absent, because she knew how the story would have to develop.
“I realised there was an adrenaline rush from not knowing. You have no idea where your novel is going. You have no idea where these balls you have thrown up will come down – the excitement of that and the sense of scanning ahead for different possibilities,” she said while being interviewed by Professor Christopher Bigsby.
“I don’t want to say dull, but [it was] dull. It was as if a certain kind of excitement had been taken out of it.”
Reading and books were central to the environment in which Shamsie, who was a “voracious reader” as a child, grew up.
Indeed she says that people often say she came from a family of writers. This she describes as “true and not true”.
While she had a great aunt who was a published author, a grandmother, Jahanara Habibullah, who went on write her memoirs and a mother, Muneeza Shamsie, who was a critic, editor and author, it was not a family where people made their living from books.
“I grew up in a family where there was writing … but not necessarily as a career service; you did it because you loved it,” she said.
Shamsie herself has made a career as a novelist that has been more than a little successful. Seven novels in, she has already won a clutch of awards and been shortlisted for several others.
Many of her books deal with issues related to India and Pakistan, as do those of Salman Rushdie, with whom she has been compared. Fittingly, Shamsie indicated that Rushdie’s most celebrated novel, Midnight’s Children, which centres on a character who was born at the exact time of Indian independence, was an inspiration to her younger self.
“I remember reading Midnight’s Children for the first time. It was like a miracle that there could be a novel that was coming out of my world, that fiction wasn’t from a very far off [place]. It could be intimate and familiar to me,” she said.
Partition and independence, came up regularly in the discussion between Shamsie and Bigsby, perhaps unsurprisingly given how its effects resonated through Shamsie’s own family for decades.
“My grandparents’ generation lived through partition, which was also independence. There was the way in which families were divided,” she said.
“I never heard my grandmother complain. Once a week she would sit and write a letter to her sister in India. Once a week for 46 years.
“They were exceptionally close, but there were years in which they couldn’t see each other. She wasn’t a sorrowful woman. She made her life in the country she moved to. She remembered and she moved forward.”
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