Charred minars

Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie surveys the world from Guantanamo to Peshawar in an interview ♦

(Photo: Mark Pringle)

Extending from the callousness of the Nagasaki bombing to the compassion of a spider whose web hid the Prophet Mohammed, Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, won praise from critics for its scope and detailing. Shamsie’s characters survive (or succumb to) three historic tragedies, travelling from Japan to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and New York over six decades. Despite its peripatetic plot, Burnt Shadows is tightly written, with rich relationships. It is a provocative rendering of the strong forces of history and the resilience of love. While Shamsie’s novel deals with political events and though her home country (she now lives in the UK and the US) is embroiled in conflict, she affirmed in her email interview that she is, above all, a novelist.

Where did the idea for starting the story – with a Japanese woman as its central character and the Nagasaki bombing as its central event – come from?
I had a vague idea of writing something around the Indo-Pak nuclear tests and/or the threat of nuclear war in 2002. And my central character was going to be a Pakistani whose grandmother was Japanese and had survived the bombing in 1945. This would give the character a different way of thinking about a nuclear age to most of the people around her. But very soon after I had that idea – and before I could start to develop it in any way – I thought, who is this Japanese character who survives a nuclear holocaust and how does she end up in Pakistan? And I knew the story had to follow her through the years before getting to her grandson. As it so happened, the plot (as it always does with me) twisted away from its original notion so there was no grandson at all, and Indo-Pak nuclear confrontations become only a very small segment of the book.

Did it feel like a brave step to you, to render American and Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan so explicitly?
I don’t actually say very much in the book about America’s political relationship with Pakistan beyond the fact that America and Pakistan worked closely together during the Afghan war of the 1980s… I don’t think this is a disputed historical fact. That both Pakistan and America were following their own agendas and were quite suspicious of each other doesn’t seem particularly controversial either – though for specifics on the US-Pak relationship I relied on two books: Afghanistan – The Bear Trap by Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin and Ghost Warriors by Steve Coll. And no, I don’t think of myself as being particularly courageous; and I don’t think I’m committing to one version of a political truth. Within the novel different characters have different ways of viewing history and politics.

Burnt-Shadows-by-Kamila-S-002The novel ends in 2002, with the fallout of the event (9/11) that bring us to present day. How do you see the present geopolitical situation in light of the events of Burnt Shadows?
Well, the novel starts with someone about to be shipped off to Guantanamo Bay. I’m glad that’s no longer something that’s likely to happen! So that’s one good thing. But the whole War on Terror world, with its accompanying rhetoric and fear, is still very much among us – and likely to remain so for a while. And the longer it goes on, it seems the more people both from within “Islam” and within “the West” believe that the other is intent on destroying them. We are still in that situation. I wish we weren’t.

Do you see any way for “the world to stop being such a terrible place”?
Those words are spoken by a character in a moment of deep despair. It doesn’t reflect my view, which is that the world is never only one thing. Look in one direction you see terror, look somewhere else you’ll find hope. A few days ago in Pakistan, it seemed there was nothing but terrible news to be found. And then just recently, the two-year-old lawyers’ movement for the independence of the judiciary ended in victory – it’s a reminder that civil society has a role to play, and can take on even the most powerful.

Where do you see the possibility for redemption in Burnt Shadows?
Near the end of Burnt Shadows there’s talk of “the spider dance”, which the two central families engage in with each other. In one version, it’s full of betrayal and bloodshed; in another version it is characterised by love and friendship, and support.

Does the “promise of democracy” apply to Pakistan?
If I’ve learnt anything about Pakistan, it’s that it is an unpredictable place. As for “the promise of democracy” – well, democracy is a deeply flawed system of governance. But it’s so much better than any other option that we really have to find a way to stick with it.

Burnt Shadows, Penguin, Rs. 425.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, April 2009.