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Of Salt and Saffron

In an exclusive interview with the Star Weekend Magazine novelist Kamila Shamsie talks about her life and work

[Kamila Shamsie was born in 1973 in Pakistan. Her first novel 'In the City by the Sea' was shortlisted for the John Llewelyn Rhys/Mail on Sunday Prize, and was reissued in June 2004 as a Bloomsbury paperback. Her second novel, 'Salt and Saffron', won her a place on the Orange's list of '21 writers for the 21st century'. First published in June 2002, 'Kartography' was shortlisted for the 2003 John Llewelyn Rhys/Mail on Sunday Prize.

In 1999 Kamila received The Award for Literature in Pakistan. Her new novel, Broken Verses, was published by Bloomsbury in April 2005.]

Ahmede Hussain

What is your earliest childhood memory? How important is her childhood to a novelist? Is every art, in the broadest sense of the word, autobiographical?
There are two early memories, I'm not sure which came first. One is the day my family's pet dog was put to sleep - I remember my father had taken him to the vet in his car, and when he came back he was alone. I suppose that was my first encounter with grief or death.

The second memory is during the '77 elections in Pakistan. I remember my father showing me a black mark on his hand and explaining that it couldn't be washed off and was a sign he'd voted, and was to ensure that people didn't go to vote more than once. Now that I think about it, it seems a rather strange memory to have made an impact on a 4-year old.

The question of childhood and novelists is an interesting one...I certainly think memory is very important to a novelist, and in many ways our sharpest memories are of childhood. It seems the older people get the more vividly they recall their childhood while everything else starts to fade and dim, which suggests those earliest memories have a particular hold on our minds. But maybe I only feel this way because my first novel was about an 11-year old, and I did draw a lot on my memories of being that age to help me understand how to create the character - there are plenty of novelists who never write about childhood. I suppose in a broad sense you'd have to say childhood is important to everyone because it's where the formation of our interests and our personalities takes place...so you can never really get away from it.

I would argue against the idea that art is autobiographical - although you do use the phrase 'the broadest sense' which complicates matters a little. How broad is the broadest sense? Certainly everything we write comes out of our own interests, our way of viewing the world - so if you want to speak very very broadly you might be able to classify that as autobiography, though I think that would probably distort the meaning of the word to the point of meaninglessness. If we look at the question in a narrower way and ask if artist's base their work on their experiences, my unequivocal answer is 'no.' The novel I'm now writing starts in Nagasaki in 1945 and wanders around the world, passing through mujahideen training camps, taking in people of many different nationalities....really not autobiographical! Also, the fact is that sometimes the novels we're writing shape our interests, it's not just that they are shaped by our interests. I'll explain what I mean - when I was writing 'Kartography' it occured to me that maps would be a really useful/interesting metaphor for a lot of different ideas I was playing with in the book. But in school geography had been my least favourite subject! I had no interest in maps - until I saw their usefulness as metaphor. And then I started reading about the history of cartography, paying attention to different kinds of maps....and in the end I became very interested in the subject. But it was the novel driving my interest, rather than my interest driving the novel.

Does a female writer's way of handling a certain theme differ from the way a male writer will tackle it?
Well, this is one of those questions we could go back and forth on until the end of time! It's true, I think that there are certain kinds of trends you might see more in writing by women (so-called 'domestic writing') while men are more likely to take on other kinds of stories (eg. war). But having said that, some of the most highly rated war novels are Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy (her name probably has some readers thinking she's a man) whereas there are few women writers who take on the 'domestic' with the subtlety and insight of the short-story writer, Aamer Hussein. So I think we need to be careful of over-statement. Of course, for many years the domestic sphere was seen as a woman's world whereas the battlefield was a man's world. I think it's interesting to see how the question of gender and writing might change in the next hundred years or so in parts of the world where those distinctions are increasingly breaking down...I think only then will we be able to separate the questions of gender from those of experience.

Of course the other thing to take into consideration is that we're all made up of various components of which gender is only one I feel a particular echo and resonance between my work and that of male Pakistani writers such as as Aamer Hussein, Mohsin Hamid, Nadeem Aslam because we share a component of nation....and no, I don't think there's a dividing line which has Aamer, Mohsin, Nadeem on one side and myself, Uzma Aslam Khan, Bapsi Sidhwa on the other.

So while I do think it's possible to make certain statements that are largely (though not entirely) true about distinctions between men and women - whether its learned or innate - when it comes to writers you'll always find individual works here and there which break down those distinctions entirely.

What is true - and different surveys have shown this - is that, broadly speaking, men and women read differently. Which is to say, men will seldom read books written by women, whereas women are far more apt to read books written by both men and women.

The English that we speak in South Asia, do you think we have transformed it enough to call it ours?
I think the question of 'transforming English' is one we possibly get too hung up on whenever it comes to this question of whether English is really 'ours.' As far as I'm concerned, English became ours the day we started to us the English language to demand rights, representation, autonomy, independence etc etc from our colonial masters. What is ownership of a language, after all, except the ability to wield it confidently for your own purposes? Having said this, of course I think a book like 'Midnight's Children' was very important because it used a particularly kind of idiomatic English that can be found in the sub-continent, without apology or explanation, and went on to become one of the Classics of 20th century English literature. In doing so I think it made the case that there was no need for South Asian writers to sound like English writers. We could use our own worlds in whatever way we chose, and still have it be recognised and appreciated as having a place in Anglophone literature.

But, of course, before Midnight's Children won the Booker prize there was another Indian novel that had made it onto the shortlist Anita Desai's 'Clear Light of Day'. Now, Desai didn't 'transform' English in a literal way - by which I mean her grammar and syntax and idiom were more 'conventional' (ie. following the conventions of English Literature from the UK) but she - along with all the earlier Anglophone writers such as Narayan and Ahmed Ali and Attia Hosein - transformed English inasmuch as they used it to tell narratives that were quite different from the narratives the English were telling. I think Ahmed Ali's 'Twilight in Delhi' published in 1940, was a transforming novel - it used English to convey the lives of Old Delhi. Previously, novels in English set in Delhi would very much have been about the English. Here, Ahmed Ali, gave us another view.

And it was controversial enough at the time that in England the printers first refused to print it. So, yes, we've transformed English enough to call it our own not only in terms of form, but also in terms of the stories we tell using it.

There is a separate issue, of course, that has to do with the way the English language and class status long-ago got muddled together, so English became the language of the elite. That's a more pressing issue today, I think. Novels being published in the English language by writers from South Asia are written, to a very large extent, by members of the elite. That needs to change - it must be a more inclusive language - and as English grows in global domination and becomes the language of computers and science I think that class barrier is beginning to break down as an English-language education becomes more widespread...

History is another important issue, isn't it? It is rather murky in South Asia, where the first text book on South Asian history was written by an English School inspector…
Yes, of course history is important - and the question of who writes histories is important. The murkiness is not just about some long-ago English school inspector - it's also about the history textbooks that governments approve for use in schools. So the BJP would have had its own version of what kind of history it wanted to spread, Zia-ul-Haq certainly had his own version (In which Aurengzeb was the greatest of the Great Mughals, and Akbar was frankly very suspect - purely because of their religions ideas) . I'm far more concerned about the history books being approved and circulated today than the ones from long ago. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh, of course, have this vexed question of what to do about history pre-47, and pre-71. In Pakistan there's an attempt to say the history of Muslims in India is part of Pakistan's history - but having said that, the history of what was East-Pakistan from '47 to '71 is completely excised from history. So you end up with a very partial and distorted view.

But I don't think the murkiness of history is a particular South Asian problem - one of the reasons history is so fascinating is precisely this problem of separating fact from agenda....

Many argue that novel itself is a western form of expression. We had epic. Is it not so that the history of novel is also the history of the so-called modern man, his crises?
The Western world also had epics! I would actually argue that in some ways it's a false separation between the epic and the novel...I see them very much along a continuum....Actually, when I read 'early novels' (in traditional classifications of the novel) such as those by Richardson and Fielding I feel far more distant from them, as a writer, than I do when reading The Iliad and Odyssey. So I'm going to side-step the question slightly by refusing to fully accept the distinctions....

But certainly, yes, if we accept conventional Western ideas of modernity as starting in the 18th century, then the history of the novel (as a distinct, critically recognised form) does overlap with that of modernity and is thus a good chronicler of its various trends and crises - primarily those of modern Western man, but increasingly those of modern woman as well as modern Global people.

The novel has another aspect too. You read it alone, it is not like going to the theatre or to a gallery.
It's interesting, I was just reading a series of interviews between the writer Michael Ondaatje and the film editor Walter Murch where Ondaatje mentions that watching a dvd on your own personal laptop is now bringing the intimacy or reading into the experience of watching film....and I realised then that I do actually prefer watching films that way to watching them on a television across the room. There's something about being only inches away from the unfolding story which is quite compelling...and of course, you can pause, go back etc. with dvds in a way that you can't when watching in the movie-theatre or even on tv.

But even so, reading does remain the most intimate ways I know of interacting with a piece of art....reading allows you to set your own pace, as opposed to film where you can pause but you can't really slow down and speed up your watching if you want the movie to make any sense. Even if someone else is reading a book as the time as you are they're going to be going at a different pace, so it's almost impossible that you'll be reading the same words at the same moment, let along imagining the characters in the same way... You can go into an art gallery with someone and move from one exhibit to the other at the same speed, but you can't replicate that with reading.

I've always preferred reading in solitude to doing so with someone else in the room. Even if they're completely quiet, somehow this third presence feels like an intrusion. I want to be able to slam the book down or call out in surprise or just put it down for a few minutes and think about what i've read without being interrupted.

It's the reader in me more than the writer which feels offended when people insist all writing is quite strictly autobiographical I think, if you're capable of fully entering into another world as a reader, one entirely disconnected from your own life, then why don't you think it's possible to do so as a writer? We give too little credit to the imagination sometimes - but reading is entirely about that, isn't it? The exercise of the imagination.


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