Kamila Shamsie at Asia House
Internationally successful writer, Kamila Shamsie sat with the Chatterjis for a wee interview at the end of her event at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2014. Quality literature could be Pakistan’s second biggest export after Mangoes and Kamila Shamsie’s work sits on the most coveted international shortlists. Calm, confident and endearing, Kamila gave a wonderful interview and we hope you enjoy it:
You live and work between three locations in three different countries, what aspects do you enjoy and dislike?
Now I only live in London, I used to live in Karachi, London and upstate New York. But now I live in London the most. What I love most about Karachi is that it’s home, it’s where I grew up it’s familiar. My family is there, the sea is there so it’s everything I’ve grown up with. So Karachi is in the way you love your childhood. And London I love in the way I embrace…the future I suppose.
Do you describe yourself a feminist/ what does the term mean to you?
I absolutely describe myself as a feminist. What it means to me is…being against patriarchy, there are more complicated ways of that. We live in a society that is structured in an unjust way and that’s wrong and should be changed.
What do you think identity means today for yourself as a dual citizen and for British born Asians?
I can’t answer for British born Asians, I moved here at 34 so I can’t answer for them. For a lot of people identity tends to be a very fraught issue but if you grew up in the same place as I did, my first eighteen years were in Karachi, you don’t ask that question. I mean I never grew up and said ‘who am I..?’ I was just a girl from Karachi and I think, despite now living in London and being a dual national and having studied in America, I feel there is still a core part of me that sees myself as the girl from Karachi…but one who has now decided to come and live in London!
I”ve read books and authors that I’ve enjoyed as an adult but hated when I was at school. Do you think books should come with age guidelines?
I don’t because you know I think different people come to books at such different times. I read and loved Anna Karenina at 11, I don’t suppose that would be in an age guideline and I’m sure, I haven’t re-read it but I keep meaning to, that it would be a very different book for me now. But I loved it then and I would have hated it if someone had told me there were books I couldn’t read.
I meant more like a recommendation such as PG certificates for movies I know people disregard them…
Mmm, maybe … but I always had free reign over my mother’s bookshelf and I’m grateful for that. I was never told what I shouldn’t be reading. I think possibly when I’d started moving on to Jackie Collins at the age of fourteen she would raise an eyebrow and then she would just leave me to it! I think if you make a thing contraband…does anyone think kids under 13 are not watching PG movies, right?
Do you always finish reading a book or do you ditch it if you don’t like it?
I ditch! I ditch very early. I used to be someone who felt if you start a book you need to finish it. And then in my mid twenties I was reading a book and I thought…this feels like work and reading shouldn’t feel like work in this way and I thought I’m going to stop reading it and it was a transformative moment to know I don’t need to keep going on. And I strongly recommend that if anyone is reading a book by me and they’re not getting on with it then stop because I don’t want to cause them suffering! And maybe a few years later they would like the book.
Please recommend some books that changed your life or inspired you.
Changed your life is a bit dramatic, possibly, to be able to claim that though they would have but not in ways that I can share. Books that are really important are…I suppose because Gabriel Garcia Marquez recently died I’ve been thinking of 100 Years of Solitude set in Columbia but it feels a lot like Pakistan in some ways. Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse is a really big one because it was…I suppose the first time I thought of a book that was written in such a uniquely female sensibility which was also a book not just for women, what ever that phrase might mean, but there was something about the way she was writing about women in there that really struck me. So that was a very important one. Peter Pan from childhood was a great one from my life.
I was born in the UK and grew up slightly embarrassed every time Pakistan was mentioned in the newspapers as it was always a negative portrayal of a third work county behaving in a backward fashion due to Islam. I now make a point of mentioning my Pakistani background so that other nationalities become aware of ‘normal’ Pakistanis. What has been your experience over your life so far and considering that you’ve lived in different countries as well and the associations that Pakistan has?
So of course, growing up in Pakistan you don’t think about what other people think about Pakistan. When I went to America in 1991 as a student no one knew anything about Pakistan so it was really this completely unknown place. Which was slightly odd to realise it was so unknown. You know there we were; the Soviets were in Afghanistan, Pakistan was involved surely you must know…so there were sort of ideas (well this was shortly after Benazir had come to power), there was this mixed sense that some people knew there was this military guy and then this woman was elected but isn’t it all so bad for women…this very generalised kind of thing. So you find you have to do a lot of…explaining, there were a lot of questions, not hostile, just where are you from and that does get slightly boring after a while.
Of course as the years went on the images have gotten much more hostile so now there’s often quite exhausting questions and assumptions like…you’re in England because in Pakistan you would be killed or something rather than oh actually I just really like London it’s a nice city and my sister lives in Pakistan and she really likes it there! It has become a place that is a focus of, no one can deny that there are really awful things that go on there but I think the difficulty is, when you live away, is that you don’t want to deny the awful stuff or pretend it’s not awful but you also want people to see that within the country itself they have been fighting against that and people who represent the opposite of what’s going on. So sometime you spend an awful lot of time trying to explain that and sometimes you just get tired and I want to say: you’re just wrong go and read some novels!
What are your thoughts on the Satanic Verses, considering it’s the 25th anniversary since its publication and do you agree with the thought that ‘I may not agree with what you have to say but I defend your right to say it’
You don’t kill writers it’s that simple. You don’t kill people for what they write, end of story. You can object to what someone writes and you have the write to write something against that but you don’t kill writers and I don’t think you burn books either.
If someone gave me Mein Kampf and told me I’m going to go and burn Hitler I don’t know how I’d feel about that. I’d probably still say don’t burn the book ignore it.
Apart from your editor who gets to preview your new work? And how do you decide what criticism to take and when to maintain your position?
The first people to see my book are my agent and two friends of mine who I’d trust to read it, one has been reading everything I wrote since university and another more recent reader so the three of them. And then I’ll work on editing with my agent and you have to decide on criticism based on the feeling of does it make sense to you? Is this piece of criticism …if you follow it will it be better for the book?
Do you like science fiction? Please elaborate on your answer.
So I love science fiction, it’s a weirdness with me that I love it on TV, Battlestar Galactica was one of the greatest things ever on television but I don’t read much of it. Although China Mavel is fantastic I think if you put him in science fiction but I tend not to read it much but you know I’m on board with the idea of it!
What’s your motto in life?
I don’t have one but maybe that’s it: don’t have mottos!
Which 5 people would be at your dream dinner party?
Oh god this is always a good one isn’t it?! Well you’d have to have Shakespeare there right just for…the drama! I would have Ghalib as well which would be the Persian …he would get into a strop with Shakespeare about who was the better writer, I would have Silvia Pankhurst who was the finest of the suffragettes and one of my great heroes, one would have to be one of my closest friends because when you’re at something like that you need an ally to discuss everything with afterwards and the fifth would be Meryl Streep!
P.S. Do pronounce the Kamila’s name Kaamila and not Camilla (as in Parker Bowles).