She was nine years old when she knew she wanted to be a writer and 11 when she wrote her first story with a friend. Kamila Shamsie smiled with complete self-assurance as she anticipated my question and answered it. But why did she want to be a writer? Because I loved reading stories. But many of us love reading stories, I persist. That doesnt mean we all want to become writers ourselves. Nor indeed, that we would be any good at it. Here is where Kamila Shamsie differs from the rest of us. To her, the love of reading stories seemed to have led naturally to a love of writing them herself. Her latest novel, Burnt Shadows, is published this March, preceded by glowing praise from the likes of fellow writers such as Salman Rushdie and Anita Desai.
When I first met Kamila I remember being struck by the effortless loveliness of her presence in a crowded room. One could almost hear the many British hearts beating among the gentlemen at the venue. She really does look like the authors photos on the back flaps of her books — a somewhat serene, casual grace, like a priceless Kashmiri shawl draped carelessly around someone who does not have to try to make an impression.
We are meeting at a popular café in north London, the city she has now made her home. She has just returned from a visit to Karachi. As Kamila pours her tea I ask about her decision to divide her time between London and Karachi. Why not just live in Karachi and write? Her immediate response is personal rather than professional: many of her friends from Pakistan now live in London. It is a comment on the recent history and patterns of migration of the last two generations of South Asians — in a way a bit like Kamilas stories, which are usually intimate portrayals of the lives of individuals and families buffeted by the backdrop of larger political and social developments over which they have no control.
She also needs to be at a major centre of her core activity — writing in English — which would be either the United States or Britain. She rattles off the names of a number of the Pakistani writers who are making a mark in writing in English — almost all are based in the West. She says she felt more at home in London because of family ties and holidays, though she studied in the United States. In fact, she says, for a while she was living in three continents — Pakistan, Britain and the United States where she taught at Hamilton College. Now she no longer divides her time as equally between Karachi and London as she used to either. Perhaps at last, she muses just a tad wistfully, she now lives in only one place, and that place is London.
Regardless of where history and global movements of people have taken her, however, Karachi remains at the heart of all of Kamila Shamsies novels. Even Burnt Shadows, which has a Japanese protagonist and a starting point in Nagasaki, is not an exception. It was a different challenge, she says, to research and write about places one had not grown up with, but a story without Karachi in it at all has not happened yet. Her first novel, In the City by the Sea (1998), was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, as was her third, Kartography (2002). That novel was my introduction to her writing, actually. At the core of the love story and family mystery at its heart, there was something about being a Bengali in West Pakistan in 1971. I knew plenty about not being a Bengali in East Pakistan that year; Kartography brought home the other side of the coin. In between, Salt and Saffron (2000) earned her a place on the Orange Prize list of 21 writers for the 21st century. Broken Verses (2005) completes the list.
The atmosphere at home made it relatively easy to become a writer, with her mother, journalist and editor Muneeza Shamsie, working away at her own writing. As Kamila puts it, It helped that nobody thought it was a ridiculous thing to do. Her grandmother, Begum Jahanara Habibullah, whose memoirs Kamila acknowledges explicitly in Salt and Saffron, wrote it — originally in Urdu — in the last years of her life. There are other inspirations and influences. One great-aunt was the acclaimed writer Attia Hossain. And her Yaqub-nana, Sahabzada (Lt. Gen.) Yaqub Khan, is as well-known for his erudition and interest in the workings of language as for his career as soldier and diplomat.
In the last few years, Kamila has been to India several times, visiting Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Jaipur (for the literary festival). She hasnt yet made it to Calcutta, though she would like to. And naturally she would like to visit Rampur and Lucknow, with which she has family connections.
I ask Kamila if she thinks South Asians writing in English have now gone beyond being a niche market and become part of the mainstream. There is no such thing as South Asian writers, she tells me firmly. There are Indian writers and Pakistani writers. Not only does nobody in the writing world think of South Asian writers, in Kamilas view there genuinely is a difference between Indian writers writing in English and Pakistani ones. It was true that people didnt usually label writers from the Anglo-Saxon English-speaking world as Australian writers in English or Canadian writers in English. However, India — introduced to the literary world by Salman Rushdie in the early 1980s — is now well established as a major producer of writing in English worldwide.
Pakistani writers are not only new to the field, but Kamila thinks they are shaped by their distinctly different experiences in a way that makes their writing qualitatively different from Indian writers in English. She thought there was more politics in the Pakistanis writing somehow, in a way that big political issues did not seem to infuse Indian writing. I must say General Zia ul Haq kept cropping up with unnerving regularity in the pale afternoon sunshine in a north London café! While Indians wrote on a variety of themes, growing up under censorship and suppression of creative expression has given the new generation of Pakistani writers a particular political edge, Kamila feels. Perhaps she has a point there, but I am unsure. What about Rohinton Mistrys A Fine Balance? I counter, and she readily accepts it as a good example — of the exception!
I ask her where she sees herself as a writer — was there a global category of novelist or was there always going to be a regional element to it? Were such sub-categories even relevant any more? I am comfortable with multiple identities, says Kamila with classic Kamila Shamsie poise and self-assuredness, novelist, woman, Pakistani — I am all of those and comfortable with them all. And despite the pervasive presence of Karachi, Kamila tells me her stories and their characters are not particularly autobiographical. I just make them up, she says with a grin. Just as she did at 11. We all play using our imagination when we are children, she says, Maybe we writers are the ones that never grew up!