By Anamika Chatterjee
How does one define ‘modern Muslim identity’ without boxing it into lazy stereotypes? One of the more poignant books on the issue was British Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year. Come March, and Shamsie will be in town to be part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Ahead of her appearance, Shamsie speaks to us about the need to address political anger in modern literature.
You recently wrote about why sociability and solitude are both important for a writer. Could you elaborate on that?
It’s essential for people to have human contact but if writers get stuck in a world where they do not have contact with anything but their own head and abstract ideas, I think they’re going to lose out. I mean how will you be a novelist if you yourself don’t know how people function? On a personal level, I love my solitude. But at the end of that, I also need to go out and be with friends and interact in a very different sort of a way. The idea of a writer-in-solitude has been romanticised in part for the writing to happen. But I think to romanticise it in a way to think other people are not important — that’s false.
There’s another aspect to sociability now: the social media. Has it changed the world of writers?
It’s a hard question. I am on Twitter for distraction and amusement but I don’t know if it is selling many copies of my books. There are plenty of people on Twitter who might be interested in my next tweet, but that doesn’t mean they’d be interested in my next book. I suspect there are some writers for whom it does work in that way. But I don’t think it’s an essential component.
With social media, it’s not just the language that has truncated but also the politics. Do you sense a danger in that trend?
I am always hesitant to get into the social media-bashing bandwagon because I think it’s so easy to do so. I’m on it because there are aspects to it that are also fun and pleasurable. But it’s not made for complex thought. If you remember, when they said we’re going to increase the number of characters from 140 to 280 on Twitter, the general response was outrage. And I kept thinking, all you’re getting is a few more words to express your idea, but somehow that seemed to go completely against the ethos of Twitter. I feel the other danger is, that things can get picked up and disseminated very fast. People can quickly move into positions of being offended rather than having a conversation. Very often, it is about reaction rather than conversation. A few months ago, I moved to Instagram and got a sense that that’s where people want a break from all this. It’s almost as though there are two sides of our brain — the Twitter part of our brain wants argument, while the Instagram part of our brain just wants something soothing. And it’s fine to do this as long as you’re open to complex conversation. The worry is, you aren’t.
Home Fire, your last book that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was the first novel you wrote since you became a British citizen. Did it enable you to take further creative liberties with your narrative?
There was a greater sense of freedom about engaging critically with the British state. I think when you’re in the process of becoming a citizen of a country — and particularly in Britain where in the last couple of years the environment, in some ways, has been hostile to the idea of migrants — it’s hard not to worry about what you might do that would put a doubt in people’s minds.
You also explore the idea of modern Muslim identity in your book in that it addresses what draws young people to extremism, and the Islamophobia prevalent in the West. These are rather complex, ambiguous issues. Is fiction obliged to be objective?
I am not sure what ‘objective’ means. I don’t believe in objective. It’s coming from a point where I have to inhabit points of view that are not my own. So, no, I wasn’t trying to be objective. What I try to do is explore something I am interested in. For me, writing books isn’t about pushing forward ‘Oh this is how I feel about the world’. It’s about raising questions and hope that in that process, something similar happens for the reader as well.
It’s interesting that you don’t believe in objectivity.
Look at history, for instance. One thinks history is objective, but then when you’re reading the history of the 1971 war in Pakistan, that’s one history. If you read it in India, that’s another history. If you read it in Bangladesh, it’s a different history. We are all creatures of the world we have grown up in, and that doesn’t mean we don’t have the ability to question it, but we still, even while questioning it, are conformed by it. The angle at which I approach history is just going to be different than the angle at which someone who grew up in Britain will. Something happens in the world, we know it’s happened. But we don’t actually know the thought processes that went into it. We as writers, look at the world where a million things are happening, and then pick and choose what we’d write about.
You have often been critical of the absence of political anger in Western literature. What does that stem from?
Well, it’s interesting that in the last year when Donald Trump came in, you were able to look around and say, ‘Oh, so this is what America looks like when it gets angry about something.’ And, by comparison, if you look at what George Bush did — the invasion of Iraq or the Guantanamo Bay — those were horrendous things. And Donald Trump hasn’t yet done anything equivalent to that, and yet the rage, the protest and the soul-searching is greater. It’s discomforting because you think, ‘Oh, that other stuff, it really wasn’t bothering you that much?’ It’s been one of the most disturbing things about the Trump presidency that you recognise that it isn’t as though America doesn’t do political process any more. It’s just that other things that the rest of us felt strongly about — they didn’t much like it, but it was all done in the name of America’s freedom and protection. And that has somehow just been acceptable. It will be interesting to see what happens in American fiction in the next few years because Trump has, it seems to me, stirred something. And I am interested to see what’s that going to look like.
How can writers counter Islamophobia in the West?
A novel is, or rather should, naturally be a place where complex realities are explored rather than bigoted stereotypes. I mean if you write characters who are two-dimensional stereotypes, it’s not going to work. So, I think a novel is a very natural place to say — you think you know the stories of what’s going on — let me show you the stories. Having said that, I am not suggesting that it’s incumbent upon any writer to write about a specific subject, because there are a lot of things. But I think once you start going in that direction in fiction, I think what ends up happening is that you’re challenging these lazy stereotypes.
Pakistani literature has evolved beautifully in the past couple of years. Where do you think it’s headed?
There is political anger but there are certain subjects that Pakistani writers aren’t touching because they actually feel it’s dangerous. And that seems, to me, has become stronger now than it was 10 years ago. This fear that what might happen to you if you publicly say the wrong thing, the increase in that level of threat and fear has been worrisome. Having said that, there’s different kinds of fiction now, which is what a vibrant literary culture needs.
Anamika is keenly interested in observing and recording thought and action