A Lifelong Obsession
Author of Burnt Shadows, short-listed in 2009 for Orange Prize for Fiction,
Kamila Shamsie, who visited this year's Hay Festival held in Dhaka, tells
the Star of her life as a Pakistani woman writing in English.
Kamila Shamsie Photo: Amirul Rajiv
At what point in your lifetime, did you want to be a wrier?
I have never wanted to do anything except writing. When I was a child I used to love reading and a day wasn't complete unless I used to read a whole book in it. But as far as I knew, you cannot grow up to be a reader. Being a writer was the nest best thing and I think I was nine years old when I told my parents I wanted to be a writer. When I was eleven I had a pet dog who died and my best friend also had one and we ended up writing a book about our dogs. It was called “A Dog's Life and After”. I was eleven years old and I typed it in my mother's computer and printed out it. It came to 40 pages which seemed like a whole novel when you are eleven years old. I haven't finished writing since then. Even when I was in school afterwards I would always be working on something; writing some fiction. So it is something that I am doing since I was eleven. Now if I don't do it for long enough I start to feel that I am not really using my brain properly.
What inspires you to write?
It's just something I love to do. There's a friend of mine who is a writer and she says 'when I write I feel like I am home'. I feel that way. It is not so much about wanting to write a particular subject matter, because I think, if you write long enough, the things you write about will change and have to change. It is more just the desire to be creating a piece of fiction, to be coming up with characters and creating a plot around it. So it is the idea of writing the novel that is most exciting to me rather than a particular thing.
Do other writers inspire you?
The word inspiration is used a lot around writing but I am not sure how much of it is really about inspiration. It's about the love of a thing rather than being inspired. Yes there are writers I love. I love Micheal Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan writer who wrote the 'English Patient'. I love Scottish writer called Ali Smith, who is always fantastic. There are plenty of writers and very interesting works are coming out of Pakistan these days which is a wonderful thing; to be a part of this moment when a country you are from is producing a whole bunch of exciting writers. But I don't go to other writers for inspiration. I go to other writers as a reader. I love reading their books. But when you sit down to write you have to in some sense shut off their voices and find a voice of your own, which is not about them. Although, of course everything you read ever is part of who you are as a writer as well.
Being a female writer, do you get stereotyped responses and comments about your writing, especially in Pakistan?
No, I don't. I think what does happen and this is not about Pakistan, it is the world over and there's been lots of studies on how people read — every single study on this and if you look around and ask your friend what you are reading, you discover that women read both men and women whereas men tend to read other male writers. That happens anywhere in the world I know of. This certainly happens in England. Lot of times I will meet someone and they will say 'what are you doing?' and I will say 'I am a writer' and then they will say 'Do you write romances?' So you get that kind of responses.
At one of the sessions in the 'Hay Festival' where you were a panelist, you were saying how silence about 1971 still persists in Pakistani homes and how young people have little knowledge of what happened in 1971. How do you think young people in Pakistan can be sensitised about the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971 and do you as an intellectual have a role to play in it?
After my session (at the Hay Festival), I heard from Mohammad Hanif, who is another writer from Pakistan and a friend of mine, that his son who is 14, in his school, his set text, which they all have to read is Tahmima Anam's 'Golden Age', which I think is the kind of thing that has to happen. He said for his son it was the first time he is really reading about '71. I think Bangladeshi literature and films can play a big role there because it is not going to be something that the government's going to talk about, which will be at the official level. So I think the cultural sphere is an important way for those voices to come through. I do think intellectuals have a role to play. I think people should be talking about it more and writing about it because it is Pakistan's story too and it should be properly disclosed.
Do you face restrictions on freedom of expression in the face of growing fanaticism or military rule? Did you ever receive any threat?
I never felt any kind of threat. I never had any threat directed at me. Also if you are writing in English you are writing to a limited audience within Pakistan. It is only in creative times when writers have been in trouble and actually at this moment not so much. But there's been periods in military rule, when writers had been imprisoned or had to go to exile. They were mainly Urdu language writers, who reached a much wider audience and therefore threatened the state more. I think there are certain subjects that writers might be more careful around. I have no problem writing against extremism or terrorism but if am going to write something that someone might construe as blasphemous, I think, given the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, the way people react to it, I would think twice. I think for me that is when the self-censorship would go on not that I feel any desire to write something blasphemous but I think there are certain areas around which there is a lot of nervousness.
What do you think about this year's Hay Festival at Dhaka? How does Hay help writers?
I think it is fantastic. I had an amazing time so far and I love Dhaka. I have only been here 36 hours. I am told that I love it more because I have seen it on a Friday when there's less traffic. So this may be part of it. The audiences here are lovely. I have been to quite a few festivals and there's always very good ways for writers to meet each other. There are always very good ways for writers to get introduced to writings from that country. So I have already got Anisul Hoque's 'Ma', which I am planning to read and I am going to get more books. There are number of publishers who are here from India, who are hoping to find Bangladeshi writers to publish and get to them to a wider audience. And it starts conversations. You get new readership, you get people who had not heard of you before who come along and listen and hopefully go and buy some books. So that's also always a good thing.
What is your next project?
I am writing a novel at the moment which is going back and set in 1915 and 1930 in Muslim Peshawar, which is not a city I know well but is a fascinating city. It's got an archeologist and freedom fighters and soldiers and all kinds of things going on.