Kamila Shamsie on her Women’s Prize-Winning Novel ‘Home Fire’
“Laughing, he said, ‘Cancer or Islam – which is the greater affliction?’ There are still moments when a statement like that could catch a person off-guard.”
Kamila Shamsie delves into these very moments, disgorging all that goes into the making of them, in her latest novel, Home Fire . Moments that burn on your skin like the dry ice. Yet to be released, Shamsie’s seventh novel has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.
In an exclusive interview with The Quint, Shamsie answers some of the questions that the novel, and the excitement around it, engenders. After all, Home Fire tells the story of two Muslim families in Britain – the Lones and the Pashas – whose lives are altered by the growing radicalisation in the country.
Shamsie’s fiction attempts to plug, like Amitav Ghosh, the “gaps in history”. Is Home Fire, then, seeking to trace the story of a "Jihadi John" beyond the headlines?
It’s really not the story of Jihadi John. It’s a completely different kind of character, who has no interest in taking part in any kind of violence. What I wanted to look at was the fact that there are stories of British citizens who went to live in Islamic State – whose stories are not those of Jihadi John. I’m interested in looking at those parts of history that are less explored, or go against popular or official narratives.Kamila Shamsie, Author
Let’s take a look at the official narrative. Since the 1990s, Birmingham and London have emerged as the nursery of global jihadism. To what extent did the UK’s policy of official multiculturalism facilitate this? Did it further the alienation felt by Muslim families, particularly those with roots in countries with troubled relation with Islamism, who despite their British passports could never be out of the circle of suspicion? “In Home Fire, all the characters are British,” Shamsie insists.
Some of them, however, have to prove their Britishness everywhere – from airports to drawing rooms.
“Mr British Values. Mr Strong on Security. Mr Striding Away from Muslimness.”
It is impossible to escape a comparison between Shamsie’s Karamat Lone and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. Was it intentional? Did she create Karamat as a foil to Khan? “No,” she says.
“I had finished the first draft of the novel before Sadiq Khan became mayor of London. He wasn’t particularly on my radar when I wrote the book. Of course, the fact that Britain has now had prominent Muslim politicians – Sadiq Khan, Sajid Javed, Sayeeda Warsi- made it possible to think of the character of a British Muslim Home Secretary without it being far-fetched. But that’s as far as my thinking about Sadiq Khan went.”
Home Fire presents a personalised anatomy of a global conflict. Did Shamsie choose a low-hanging fruit this time? A novel with a tangible presence of the Islamic State is just what the publishers were waiting for. Shamsie issues another denial by referring to the generic definition of conflict.
“‘A pair of nineteen-year-olds, one of them dead,’ was all she said.”
Does the said nuance come from literary techniques? From 'In the City by the Sea' to 'Home Fire', she has told her tales through very young characters.
Shamsie explains, “There’s a big difference between writing about 11 year olds, as I did in In the City by the Sea, and writing about 19 year olds, which I do in part of Home Fire The 11 year old has a very partial understanding of the world, and you can’t allow in any adult perception. By the time people are 19, it’s quite different; they may have some immaturity but they do understand what’s going on around them. Also, of course, in Home Fire there’s a range of narrators, the oldest of whom is around 50 years old, so that allows in different perspectives.”
“Assuming women who wore turbans as ‘a Muslim thing’ couldn’t possibly shake hands with men.”
Home Fire is brilliant in terms of self-reflexive questioning of stereotypes. But, how often does Shamsie, the writer, give in to the cultural stereotypes while creating your characters and the situations around them?
“Any writer who writes stereotypes is writing badly, so I hope I don’t do that,” is her crisp reply. Cross-cultural exchanges, though enriching, can also lay minefields owing to the fault-lines that develop over a period of time. How does she negotiate with them?
Home Fire lays bare, among other things, a crisis of identity. Is Shamsie’s writing sensibility, too, defined by identity or the politics around it? Another crisp reply: “I think it’s mostly defined by the books I read.”
Kamila Shamsie has bagged the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction for ‘Home Fire’.
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(This interview was first published on 04.08.17 and has been re-contextualised to reflect the recent developments.)