Kamila Shamsie: “I write in the most selfish way possible – I write what I want”

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In 1988, 15-year-old Kamila Shamsie stayed up all night watching television coverage of Pakistan’s general election. When we meet, during the London summer heatwave, she says it wasn’t something she was usually allowed to do. But the election was different – ​​Benazir Bhutto was set to become the country’s first female prime minister.

“Until Benazir came to power, I had never thought about the fact that the landscape of power was entirely male. You do not belive it. It’s just natural. And then you have to have a woman appear and it’s so different,” she tells me, in the cool calm of her agent’s office.

A woman’s power, or lack thereof, is a central theme in Shamsie’s new novel, best of friends. Although this is his eighth book, it is his first since the success of Booker Domestic firepublished in 2017 and widely praised for its nuanced depiction of unhappy love, UK immigration policies and British Muslim identity.

His last work is divided between Karachi at the end of the 1980s and London today. Like Shamsie, the two teenage protagonists, Zahra and Maryam, hide in Zahra’s living room to watch Bhutto’s election. And, like Shamsie, they eventually leave Karachi to pursue successful careers in the UK. The book traces the tumultuous friendship of Zahra and Maryam, which, although strong, is strained by the choices they both make.

The idea for the story came in part from Shamsie’s observation that populist phenomena such as the Brexit vote and the elections of Donald Trump and former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tested social and family relationships like never before, further dividing splintered communities. Around 2016, she heard people say they couldn’t “talk anymore” to certain friends. “Until then,” she says, “you could work around those differences. So what [these things] happened in the world, and you had to face [them] head on.”

Shamsie has lived in London for 15 years and has seen much of this polarization develop firsthand. What is his take on today’s “culture wars”?

“There’s a lot of noise right now,” she replies, “which is a lot of waste. There are many people who claim that a waking agenda takes over. You keep hearing about how all these people get canceled. And then they are on the front page of all the newspapers.

Shamsie, who teaches creative writing at the University of Manchester, says she developed her skepticism about what others see as the dangerous spread of censorship, in part by observing her students. In her eyes, their awareness “of how they talk about others” is commendable rather than alarming, and she points out that “there is always a change from one generation to the next”.

The novelist grew up in a wealthy literary family. She was the principal of one of Pakistan’s most prestigious private schools and spent her college years in the United States.

Her new book, like her previous work in Pakistan, presents the disaffected life of Karachi’s elite and the often tense interactions between the women and men who try to control them. characters in best of friends experience what Maryam calls “fear of girls”: a sense of vulnerability that comes with being a woman. But in Pakistan – a nation torn apart by class difference – how does the writer understand that privilege impacts the experience of femininity? She laughs, “That’s a little question you’re asking.”

Shamsie describes recent conversations with friends about the universality of “fear of girls”. She explained to them a scene from the novel, where the young protagonists are harassed by older boys, during a car ride that starts out fun before suddenly turning threatening. She says all her friends replied – “Oh yeah, we’ve been in that car.”

Having spent much of her adult life in the west, Shamsie feels less familiar with Pakistani politics than before. But in an email exchange about the catastrophic floods that left a third of the country under water, his words are full of anger for media coverage that fails to recognize “the responsibilities and obligations of the countries most guilty of having caused climate change”. disaster to the countries that bear the brunt of it”.

When Shamsie published her first novel in 1998, aged just 25, she was one of a handful of Pakistani authors writing in English. She smiles as she recalls her early friendship with novelist Mohsin Hamid. “Our first books came out around the same time. And Mohsin said to me: ‘Well, we will always have to be friends, because who else am I going to talk to[about Pakistani writing and politics]?’”

Shamsie explains that best of friends does not feel autobiographical. Rather, she says, she places her protagonists and their interactions in landscapes that are familiar to her. A friend of hers once observed that when Shamsie takes pictures, she rarely includes people. “It’s because I often take pictures as a sort of reminder, because I think ‘I might write about this one day,'” she says.

“If you want to be a politician, be a politician,” Shamsie says. “If you want to be a novelist, then you focus on the novel” © Sandra Mickiewicz

The writer has often criticized what she sees as the publishing world’s lackluster efforts to change. In 2015, she called for 2018 to be the year of women editors. Although she is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has won numerous awards, she remains very conscious of symbolism in the industry.

Looking back on his years as an MFA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Shamsie speaks fondly of one of his life’s “great mentors”, Indian-born poet Agha Shahid Ali. He warned her, she said, “There’s a certain kind of white American, Kamila, who really likes people like you and me, because we can have a glass of wine and a conversation at the same time.” And then they can invite us to dinner and feel enlightened in front of their friends.

At 23, she says: “I didn’t quite understand what he meant. [Now], I understand very well what he means. And people are often very blatant about it. They’ll tell you that you were invited to this room, or on this board, or to do this thing, because they needed diversity.

This summer, Shamsie wrote an op-ed for the Guardian in which she criticized the Conservative government’s ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration and described the past 10 years as a decade in which ‘cruelty has become normalized “. She also confessed that she had not written fiction set in contemporary Britain until she became a British citizen, fearing that her words would lead to her citizenship application being refused.

Yet for all her political interests, Shamsie is convinced that it is pointless for novelists to decide to “take” the biggest issue of the day as their next topic. “If you want to be a politician, be a politician. If you want to be a human rights lawyer, be a human rights lawyer. If you’re going to be a novelist, then your focus is the novel.

She adds, “I write novels in the most selfish way possible, which is to say, I write the novels that I want to write.”

Zehra Munir is the FT’s Junior Opinion Editor

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