Writer by detour

NANDINI NAIR | Updated on August 27, 2014

Writing life: Kamila Shamsie finds characters who are at the cusp of loyalties the most interesting. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

Kamila Shamsie on being a Karachiwallah and Londoner and on one of the greatest novels ever written

Author of five novels, Kamila Shamsie is now out with A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury). Essentially set in Peshawar, of the early 20th century, with an interlude in London, the book pivots around a young Englishwoman Vivian Spencer who works as a nurse during the War but whose love is archaeology; and Qayyum Gul, a soldier, who loses an eye and is mired in conflict. Here, Shamsie talks about “following the brush”, deleting eight months of work and her fluid identities. Extracts from the interview:

In A God in Every Stone, there are three generations of archaeologists; Tahsin Bey, Vivian Spencer and Najeeb Gul. Do you feel like the fourth-generation archaeologist?

That is interesting. This book felt like a weird kind of excavation, I started off knowing very little about the history of Peshawar. I was excavating, but I was excavating stuff that was sitting in the British Library rather than going out with a spade anywhere. But there was a lot of sifting through layers.

In your excavations, what was your one find that you felt was yours first and yours only?

It was the discovery of bodies being disposed off after the massacre (the 1930 massacre in Peshawar). It is entirely possible that in the Pashto or Hindko texts about the massacre this fact exists, but I didn’t find it anywhere in the English language texts. I spoke to a historian who has worked on that period and she said she had never heard about it... I was sitting in the British Library the day I found the letter, which details what had happened and I had an extraordinary prickling sensation — you’ve found something which you didn’t really believe was there. And everyone (around me) was poring over manuscripts. I wanted someone to look up and acknowledge that I had found something. But everyone was just carrying on reading about Grain Records of 1833 or whatever they were looking at. (Laughs)

In a novel like this, taken from historic fact, but where you create characters, what is the process? Do you have a plot in mind? Do the characters come to you first?

Neither. I am a very disorganised writer. Michael Ondaatje has a very elegant way of putting it. Which is ‘Writers who follow the brush’. It is a good way of saying you start with very little. I started with two things. I was interested in the archaeological history and particularly the figure of Scylax the traveller. And I was interested in Khudai Khidmatgar and this history of non-violence in Peshawar. These were the two areas I wanted to bring together. But the characters and research happened as I was writing, with many detours and wrong turns. At one point I deleted eight months of work.

Did you almost give up then?

The point till you delete is frustrating, but once you realise what is wrong and delete, that can be very refreshing. The process of writing is not page one, two, three for me. It is this veering, careening course.

The reader largely sees the archaeologist Tahsin Bey through Vivian Spencer’s eyes. How did he come to you?

He became a more significant character later on. He was going to be this archaeologist figure who introduces her to the Circlet of Scylax (an ancient artefact). And originally, he was in the background.

He is an interesting figure for me because he is, as so many characters are, at the cusp of loyalties.

I was also interested in the idea that your allegiances don’t have to fall along lines of nation or ethnicity or gender. But it can be around shared love.

But Vivian ends up betraying him. In a rather epic way…

Rather epic way. Yes. She doesn’t entirely know what she is doing. It is a mix of things. Partly an appeal — the Empire needs you to do this. And in part, she is daddy’s girl. And this is the part where I feel most sympathy for her. In that time and place for a woman to be treated seriously by men... and that is a moment she wants to stretch out and enjoy as far as possible. I think that is an important component of what she does.

Writers such as Nadeem Aslam, Mohsin Hamid and you are seen to belong to the New Wave of Pakistani writers. Is it fair to club you all together as British-Pakistani writers?

We club together because we are friends. But when you read the novels, they have very distinctive styles. What is interesting to me in Mohsin and Uzma Aslam is this process of looking at bits of Pakistan through fiction. In a way that is relatively new in the English language. So it feels exciting. What brings us together is different aspects of the nation and trying to excavate different bits of its history and culture. There is a different coming together that happens because we often find ourselves on platforms together. And because these guys are all my friends. There is a sense of fellowship. But when we sit down to write everyone is a solitary writer.

You said being Pakistani you have to be political. Aslam in an interview once said “I vote with every sentence I write.” Would you say that is true of your writing too?

That is a metaphoric statement rather than a literal one. It is a good question. But what comes through the writing is your own sense of history. When I vote, I vote at a ballot box. And that is more frustrating. When you write a sentence you control it. When you vote at the ballot box you don’t, you choose who is the least bad option there and your guy never wins!

In a recent Guardian article, you write that when you applied for British citizenship, you felt betrayed and were the betrayer. In what ways, do you feel, Pakistan has betrayed you?

Any nation that has high rates of insecurity and poverty and violence has betrayed its citizens. Obviously, where you are along the social and economic ladder lessens that. 1) You don’t have to deal with it that much 2) You have the ability to get out of it. I certainly don’t want to make it sound like I was the oppressed one.

But people in Pakistan do say congratulations when you have a new passport. And there is a level of betrayal. People should be saying, “Why did you leave it?”

My parents lived in England for periods of time. In order to get a British passport, they would have needed to fill out a form at the post office and shown that they had been living there six months. And this was in the late ’50s and early ’60s. My father said, of course, we would not do that, we have just got free of the British. Why would we acquire their nationality? And the betrayal is that my generation doesn’t feel that way.

You grew up in Karachi, studied in the US and live in the UK. What does Karachi mean to you when you are writing?

I still do a lot of writing in Karachi. London is a more distracting place. I don’t think of Karachi as a place where I no longer write. I still go back often enough, to think of it as an ongoing process. There is that sense growing, that I am spending much more time away than here. I don’t see myself as an expat. I very much see myself as a Karachiwallah and Londoner. I don’t know if everyone in Karachi would feel that way, I guess that is the difference.

In an interview with Pankaj Mishra you talk about the importance of political anger in writing. Is rage important in fiction?

Rage is an important response to history. I hope this is not a raging novel. You have to write from stillness. Rage is an interesting one. It is an abstraction. ‘Where is the sense of injustice’ would be the more precise way of articulating it. I don’t want to sound like all writers should take up history and politics. We need novels that simply make us laugh. One of the greatest novels ever written is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. It is all set in one house around a group of women. It is not taking on the big questions of history and politics but it is a really profound, moving novel.

Published on March 14, 2014

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