“Women are getting out into the world and are much less dependent on men”
Kamila Shamsie, author of Man Booker-longlisted novel Home Fire, discusses Pakistan, girls’ education and cricket with Ben East.
In the final pages of Kamila Shamsie’s new novel Home Fire, one of her ill-starred characters finally makes it to Karachi. It’s a Karachi of “colourful buses, colourless buildings, graffitied walls, billboards advertising mobile phones and soft drinks and ice cream, birds circling in the white-hot sky”. And in this globetrotting novel of love, morals and fundamentalism set against Sophocles’ Greek myth Antigone, it feels like the perfect setting for its denouement.
“A friend of mine joked with me that all my plots, as they move away from Karachi, still manage to find some way to get back there,” laughs the Karachi-born 44-year-old, who has called Britain home for the past ten years. “So, in [Shamsie’s last book] A God in Every Stone, Karachi has nothing to do with anyone in the plot. But there is a bit where a character falls sick, and she hangs around in Karachi being unwell before taking herself off to Peshawar. It’s like the way Alfred Hitchcock put himself in every film he did!”
Shamsie is being modest: her seven novels cumulatively reflect on the sweep of Pakistan’s history, from Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military rule in the 1980s (In the City by the Sea) to the effects of partition (Salt and Saffron) and the 1971 civil war (Kartography). Broken Verses begins in a post-9/11 Pakistan, and we’re brought right up to date with the frantic, Islamophobic world of Home Fire.
It’s a hugely important book. Beginning with Isma leaving north London to study in America after bringing up her twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz, the latter soon learns the father they hardly knew died on the way to Guantanamo Bay as a jihadi suspect. It becomes one of the motivations Parvaiz needs to head to Raqqa in Syria to work for the media arm of ISIS. Meanwhile, Aneeka falls in love with Eamonn, the son of a British Muslim Home Secretary who revokes the citizenship of all dual nationals who leave Britain for jihad.
Needless to say – this is Greek tragedy, after all – it cannot end well, and the various strands of the story merge in the white heat of Karachi.
“Home Fire is very much a London story, but it’s about families who have migrated from Pakistan,” explains Shamsie. “Pakistan is my first point of reference, so the angle at which I approach history has to do with having grown up there. I go back for between six and eight weeks in the winter – it never has the kind of shock or surprise that people feel when they’ve been away for years, but you really feel the intensity of a place when you’re living in it.”
I go back [to Pakistan] for between six and eight weeks in the winter.
Shamsie feels that being from Pakistan means that she’s uniquely equipped to deal with the heightened political debate in the United Kingdom over the past 18 months. Home Fire certainly covers some of that ground, with clear-eyed writing – sometimes witty, sometimes heartbreaking – on immigration, integration and the suspicion of, and anxiety within, the Muslim community.
In the context of the climate in Britain, Shamsie says she was quite encouraged by what she found on her last trip to Karachi. “There was a feeling of lightness, because the security and crime situation had improved and people seemed to be a little more cheerful than they had been. Four or five years ago it felt like everybody who could afford to was talking about ways to leave.”
As Shamsie sees it, the reasons for the reduction in crime levels in Karachi are attributable to increased paramilitary and police clean-up operations. These, she argues, are important in making people feel safer but “don’t deal with the deeper structural malaise”. Sadly, she says, Lahore felt tenser owing to a spate of bomb attacks in the city.
Which is why VSO’s projects in Pakistan are so important, given they focus on developing a positive culture of peace, reconciliation, social cohesion and gender equality. Limited prospects for employment and education are seen by VSO Pakistan as contributing factors to militancy and extremism – an environment Parvaiz experiences in Home Fire, albeit in London. He isn’t particularly interested in religion, it’s the search for masculinity and identity that is the most powerful allure of jihad.
“If you look at the ISIS propaganda a lot of it has to do with a sense of belonging, state building, a lack of racism,” says Shamsie. “So I was interested in who would be targeted by that kind of propaganda. They all have a sense of powerlessness, that other people are getting more, that their own place in the world is being threatened.
In Pakistan in particular the education levels among women have gone up so much.
“You see this everywhere, not just Pakistan, and an interesting aspect of it is that women are getting out into the world and are less dependent on men. In Pakistan in particular the education levels among women have gone up so much.”
These kinds of issues percolate through Shamsie’s writing, whether novels or opinion pieces. She no longer feels the burden of representing Pakistan and can now take refuge, it seems, in subjects such as cricket. Shamsie feels that Pakistan’s beloved sport has the power to be a place of “respite from hostility”, as she found in June when covering the Champions Trophy final between India and Pakistan at the Oval, in south London, for The Guardian. As Shamsie observed, “it can bring us into stands together bantering in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, English”.
Which, of course, they can’t do in Pakistan itself, given that no international cricket team has played there since the 2009 attack on the Sri Lanka side. Indeed, Pakistan’s cricket team seems a kind of shorthand for Shamsie’s relationship with her motherland: a “glimmer of hope, but also much trepidation”.
“Cricket can’t do the work of politicians,” she says, “but as long as you have this situation where Pakistan cannot play at home, it continues this notion that it is such a perilous place that can only be regarded through a veil of danger.
“That’s why the game in September against a World XI in Lahore was so important psychologically. It said to everyone ‘normal life is possible’.”
Home Fire, published by Bloomsbury, is out now.
VSO Pakistan was established in 1987. Our work currently focuses on youth engagement, social cohesion, secure livelihoods, women’s empowerment, resilience and disaster risk management, and inclusive education.
We currently have two exciting volunteer vacancies in Pakistan. You can find out more about the Diaspora Engagement Advisor role here or the Youth Engagement Specialist role here if you are interested in applying.