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Friday, August 1, 2014

Saturday, June 28, 2008
Literature

Talking with Kamila Shamsie

(An exclusive interview with Kamila Shamsie, author of In the City by the Sea, Salt and Saffron, Kartography and Broken Verses by The Daily Star's Ahmede Hussain.)

AH: How important is it for you to know your 'audience'?
KS: Not at all. By that, I mean I don't know my audience. My novels are not only published in several countries, they're also published in several languages, so in some cases I have no way of even knowing what version of my book is coming across to readers (because all translations are, of course, different 'versions' of the original text.) I suppose my attitude towards 'audience' is shaped by the fact that I grew up reading books for which I couldn't have been the 'intended audience.' I mean, I don't suppose any of the writers I read and loved thought of an Anglophone Pakistani as their 'audience.' And yet, I was still able to appreciate and love books which showed no sign of having a Pakistani readership in mind - even though I would often run into cultural references I didn't understand. I learnt to read around those moments of confusion, or to understand them via context - and as a writer, I always assume that my readers will be able to do the same.

But of course, I'm answering this question as though 'audience' is defined by nationhood, though the question doesn't specify it. (Although each time I'm asked the question in a public forum, it's phrased in a 'do you write for Pakistanis or for the West' sort of the way). And my 'not at all' response is an answer to that question of nation-based audience. I do, however, have a language-based audience in mind. Notwithstanding the fact that books get translated I assume that my audience (which includes my translators) is an Anglophone one - so while I might use occasional words of Urdu in a text, I'll do it in such a way that ensures a non-Urdu speaker will not miss anything crucial by a failure to understand those words.

But really, I don't do a lot of planning before I start writing a book - I let the stories and characters develop according to their own logic, without much thought about what readers might or might not like. I think you have to simply trust your own storytelling abilities. Once the book is finished, and publication approaches, then the marketing departments take over and decide how to 'pitch' the novel to particular audiences. But that's their job, not mine.

AH: Many will 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?
KS: Many can argue that. I find the argument irrelevant. Are novel writers from the non-Western world able to use the novel to look at their own particular nation and its concerns? That's the only important question. The greatness of the novel form lies in the very thing many people find objectionable about it: the looseness of its structure. You can have epic novels. The epic and the novel don't have to be seen as walking different paths. Is Wuthering Heights really about the crisis of modern man? As I see it, the story of Heathcliff and Cathy has more resonances with Sufi concepts of love - losing yourself in the Beloved - than with modernity. But of course in saying that I'm bringing in my reading of non-Western Sufi texts into my reading of Wuthering Heights. And the best novels will always accommodate different ways of reading.

The more pertinent question for me is not about the novel form, but about the fact that I grew up on a diet of novels written by English and American writers, rather than writers from different parts of the world. This must mean that my sensibility is influenced by those writers, which then works its way into my own writing. But the history of artistic expression has always been one of a melding of cultural influences - and as writers from Asia and Africa are becoming more and more prominent in Anglophone publishing the balance is now tilting - so it's no longer a case of South Asian writers being influenced by the West but failing to influence in return. The English language - despite all the problems associated with it - is taking on more and more influences from 'the margins'.

AH:How necessary is it for a writer to have his own voice? What does it really mean, to have one's own voice?
KS: Interesting question - I think this matter of 'voice' is over-rated. We don't want novelists to keep writing in the same style, the same manner, surely. And just as surely, novelists want to experiment and wander in new directions...Perhaps by 'voice' we mean 'sensibility.' As readers, we sometimes come upon a particular sensibility within a novel which appeals to us - and it may seem a betrayal to find that sensibility overturned. I'd guess that because writing is so personal and so intimate something of the writers' sensibility works its way through much of their work, acting as a thread you can follow from one book to the next. But is that a measure of good writing? I don't see why it should be.

Writers should have his or her own voice inasmuch as they shouldn't sound as though they're trying to imitate some other writer (because the word 'imitate' implies a reduction in quality, a lack of originality.) But that doesn't mean a particular writer's voice should stay the same across a body of work - that consistency of voice doesn't seem like grounds on which to judge a writer's body of work.

AH: Does a writer need to be a 'socially responsible' being, conscious of his place in the world as an interpreter of reality? A modern day prophet?
KS: No.

A writer's duty is to write the best novels he or she is capable of writing. There is no general consensus on what makes a novel 'great'. For some, social responsibility is a crucial component. For others, escapism is more vital. My own particular interest, sensibility, etc. has generally led me to writing novels which engage with history and politics, but I would never claim that a novel which chooses a different course is a failure.

And I don't think we need any modern day prophets. Which is to say, we don't need one or two individuals who we look to for truth and guidance - we need to be able to read a range of novels, each one playing a small part (some smaller than others) in helping us construct out own interpretations of reality.

AH: Now, to italicise or not to italicise, is it really an issue?
KS: For me it's an issue, but not a big one.

I think my earlier novels used italics in a rather unthinking way - simply picking up on the inherited notion that words which weren't in English should be italicized. But the problem with the italicised words is that they stand out and assert their foreignness - whereas in the worlds I'm writing about, characters move between English and Urdu quite seamlessly. So there was a disjunction between the way the characters thought of language, and the way language was presented on the page. It just didn't make sense.

And the more you think about what should and shouldn't be italicized, the more absurd it gets given how the English language absorbs words from other languages. So if a word is generally recognized by English-speakers it doesn't have to be italicized? So 'kabab' and 'vindaloo' needn't be italicized, but 'aloo gosht' should? Simpler, and more sensible, to just remove italics altogether.

Ahmede Hussain's novella 'Blues for Allah' has been published in Colloquy, Monash University's journal.

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