Cities of (Un)familiarity – An Interview with Kamila Shamsie
In Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie’s first novel, In the City by the Sea (1998), the “City” is both an instigator and a by-stander, working in direct and subtle ways to further the novel’s political and familial events. Shamsie’s latest book, A God In Every Stone (2014), traces its narrative across cities spread over time and space. In connection with Vol 13’s Metropolis theme, Papercuts spoke to Shamsie about the significance of cities in her personal creative writing process.
Papercuts: Broken Verses, In the City by the Sea, Kartography, all interact with Karachi in some way. But your recent novels move away from Karachi, to Nagasaki, Delhi, London. How does your writing and the experience of writing change between the city of origin, the adopted city and the city that is a stranger?
KS: Let me start by clarifying that one of the four sections of ‘Burnt Shadows’ is set in Karachi, so the interaction didn’t end with that novel. It’s the most recent novel A God In Every Stone which is the only one with little space in it for Karachi (other than a 2-page cameo appearance which I couldn’t resist putting in.)
I don’t think of it in terms of city of origin, city of adoption etc. – as a writer what I think about is familiarity and unfamiliarity. If you set a novel in a place that you know well there’s much less work of discovery that goes on in order for you to write about it. Think of it this way: when you write about a familiar place you’re like a playwright who has the stage design and character accents and idiom all in place and your job is to create the story that uses all of these things. When you write about the unfamiliar you have to start by working out what the stage design and accents and idioms are even while you’re trying to write the play. With the last couple of books that extra work of discovery has been both incredibly frustrating and rewarding.
It’s a mistake though to think of familiarity and unfamiliarity solely in terms of place. There are many worlds within Karachi that are as unfamiliar to me as Nagasaki; and there are many periods in Karachi’s history that I know much less about than I do about somewhere such as, say, Libya today.
Papercuts: In your recent essay for The Guardian, you highlighted how citizenship and a sense of belonging do not automatically go hand in hand. This may be quite common when one is seeking foreign citizenship. But do political and social developments in Pakistan make you feel alienated or uneasy there, and how does that show through in your writing?
KS: Anyone who doesn’t feel uneasy about political and social developments on Pakistan is either in a coma or deeply amoral. I wouldn’t say it makes me feel alienated – that’s not the right word. There’s the anger and sadness of seeing history tugging in the opposite direction to where you want it to head but that anger and sadness only reminds you of your connectedness to the place, rather then your alienation from it. As for how all this shows through in my work – the last thing any writer should do is analyse their work. All I’ll say is, the particular sadness and anger I mentioned certainly go into the writing of the books.
Papercuts: Do you think the way you write about a city changes when you are writing in the city as opposed to when you are writing about the same city from afar? If yes, how so?
KS: Of course in a really superficial way there’s the obvious difference – you could be struck by an image you see on Karachi at 10am and put it in the chapter you’re writing at 11am, but that hardly ever happens. And beyond that – not really. Most of my writing about Karachi has been done in Karachi but a substantial amount has also been written in other locations. I couldn’t look at any of my novels now and tell you which bits were written where. I expect if I had ever been away from Karachi for a really prolonged period then that might change the way I write about it, but that’s yet to happen. Also, I haven’t written about Karachi since it stopped being the place I live – the Karachi section of Burnt Shadows was written shortly before I moved to London. So I don’t know how it might be to try and write about Karachi 2014 when I only know it through month-long visits rather than living there.
Papercuts: What do you find missing in fiction coming out of Pakistan, and Karachi in particular?
KS: I couldn’t tell you what’s missing since I only read what’s coming out in English. So what’s missing is me reading all the other languages.
If you’re asking specifically about English language writing I think you need a much much larger body of work before you can start talking about what’s missing. We’re still at the early stage where the only reasonable thing is to look at additions to our bookshelves rather than gaps in them.
Papercuts: How do you think writing on Karachi has changed in the last couple of years?
KS: Well, there’s more of it. And in different genres. So that feels very healthy and vibrant – and worth getting excited about.