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    Volume 9 Issue 23| June 4, 2010|

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Leaving Home

'I'll write about other places, I told myself, as I set off for London'

Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie

I thought I was done with Karachi, in fiction. After writing four novels set almost entirely in the city of my birth and upbringing, which long continued to be the centre of my peripatetic life, and where I always returned in order to write, I became embroiled in a fifth novel Burnt Shadows which started in Japan, ended in New York and Afghanistan, and had Karachi as merely one of its several locations. This geographical widening of my imagination was one of the most important factors in my decision to move to London three years ago I was eager to alter my relationship to Karachi from part-time resident to visitor. Prior to that, I would not have been able to contemplate leaving Karachi without worrying I was becoming unmoored from my subject matter.

I'll write about other places now, I grandly told myself, as I packed my bags and set off to London with a passport containing a freshly stamped "writer's visa" (a category sadly now made defunct by the Labour government).

So, when I was commissioned by Radio 3 to write a series of Karachi Postcards (to be broadcast from Monday at 11pm), I thought it a form of leave-taking. One final burst of writing on that city, and then I'd be through. It seemed apt that the final essay in the series was called "Departure". So farewell then, Karachi-of-my-fiction, I imagined myself writing as a final line.

It was not merely location to which I was saying goodbye, but something central in my understanding of the kind of writer I am. There are, of course, many ways to end a sentence which begins "There are two kinds of writers . . .", but for me, one of the most important is "those who write about places with which they are intimately acquainted, and those who don't".

Much space is given in discussion of fiction to the definition of "intimately acquainted", and whether it has to mean that you continue to live in a place, or if it's enough to have lived there for a time. As someone who grew up in Karachi and then, for most of her adult life, lived part of the year there and part in London and upstate New York, I fell somewhere between those two categories, which made it easy to ignore both of them.

But wherever I lived, Karachi was the place I knew best and the place about which I wrote. I knew its subtexts, its geography, its manifestations of snobbery and patriarchy, its passions, its seasonal fruits and their different varieties. I knew the sound of the sunset vocal competition between its birds (mainly crows) and its muezzins. Of course, much of this is a lie Karachi is too complicated for anyone to know all its subtexts, and I've never even set foot in many of its districts. And really the main vocal competition is between the muezzin of one mosque and that of the next; the birds don't stand a chance. So perhaps it's best to hide in metaphor instead of making sweeping claims I can reach out of thousands of windows in the city, rub the air between my fingers and feel texture. Which novelist could give that up?

But when I wrote about Japan and Afghanistan both countries I had never visited I discovered a previously unknown pleasure: how to make a distant place feel intimate. This, I realised, was what fiction had meant to me before I started writing it. In Karachi, growing up immersed in Anglophone novels set Elsewhere, I discovered London and Toronto and Rome and Delhi through fiction. (The only time I recall reading about Karachi in novels was in Salman Rushdie's early works both Midnight's Children and Shame. But Rushdie's vibrant, dynamic Bombay felt far more Karachi-like to me than his versions of Karachi.) So perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised to find myself becoming a writer who wanted to transform the unfamiliar into familiarity. At the very outset of my life as a reader, that transformation had been at the heart of fiction. All this I thought, and believed. And then, last month, I was in Karachi.

Details of the world around me which I would have once stored up, knowing I could use them in evoking the city's texture, I found myself ignoring. But one day I found myself in the studio of the artist Naiza Khan, looking at the work she was producing based around the island of Manora, which is both part of and apart from the city, and which I've only ever skimmed the surface of; and later, I was talking to the photographer Amean J, poring over his photographs of a Karachi bus known informally as "Shehzadi" or "Princess" because it runs the longest route, with the greatest frequency. Its extravagantly decorated interior, in Amean J's pictures, looked like a place of dreams. I've never been on the bus myself, so had no images but his with which to create my impression of Shehzadi. And as I considered the works of these artists, I saw unfamiliar worlds starting to feel familiar.

Karachi landscape.

And this is why the end of the final essay is not what I had anticipated. Instead, it is this: "There are 15-20 million people in Karachi. There is a different Karachi for every one of them."

Does this mean I'll always write about it? No. I already know stories I want to tell that require me to turn my sights elsewhere. But I know now that "writing about places with which you are not intimately acquainted" is not really a question of geography at all. It is a question of texture. Once I was a writer who wrote about a texture she'd felt wrap around her a hundred thousand times. Now, I want to write that texture into being.



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