Kamila Shamsie is the author of four novels, including Kartography and Broken Verses. Her most recent novel, Burnt Shadows, was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize in fiction. I spoke with Kamila recently about this compelling, eye-opening novel, and her decisions to set the book in several very different countries. Shamsie is a generous, expansive writer; one who paints the most intricate details with vivid sentences. She has a confident, directly articulate voice that rings true on paper and in person. I hosted her at RiverRun Bookstore, where I am events coordinator, recently, and then interviewed her via e-mail.
Michele Filgate: Can you talk about your decision to set Burnt Shadows in five different countries? It lends an epic scope to the narrative. Was this a conscious decision before you sat down to write the book?
Kamila Shamsie: Not a conscious decision at all—at least, not prior to starting the novel. My original intention was that there would be a very brief Nagasaki section, ending with the bomb, and then the novel would move to 1998 when India and Pakistan tested their nuclear bombs . . . I imagined a Pakistani character whose grandmother had been in Nagasaki when the bomb fell. But as I started thinking about the grandmother in Nagasaki it became her story I was interested in, and I decided to follow it and see where it went. In the end there was no grandson, and no 1998 section—but there is a link between the woman in Nagasaki and a young man from Pakistan.
MF: What sort of research went into the opening chapter set in Nagasaki? You really capture how it might have felt to be there when the bomb was dropped.
KS: The starting point was reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima followed by the comic book Barefoot Gen and the animated film Grave of the Fireflies (both of which are set in Hiroshima, rather than Nagasaki, when the bomb falls). But they helped me start to visualise details such as clothing, interiors, details of wartime living. . . . Then I swept through the internet, and later through the library at Hamilton College (where I was teaching during part of the writing of the novel) searching out anything I could find about Nagasaki before the bomb and on the day of the bomb. I was particularly interested in finding images of pre-bomb Nagasaki, so I could picture the world in which my characters’ lived. And maps—maps of Nagasaki were very important, too, to help me —well, get my bearings.
MF: Much of the research never went into the novel, or only appeared in one or two sentences—for instance, details about the Church in Nagasaki; research about the Dutch in Nagasaki, and the history of places such as the International Club; details about the “moga” or “modern girls” of the early years of the 20th century.
KS: Even though the Nagasaki section ended up being less than 25 pages (in an earlier draft it was closer to 70 pages) I think I must have spent more time working on that section alone than on the rest of the novel.
MF: Are you a writer who conducts all your research before you sit down to write the story?
KS: No. I conduct enough research to make some kind of start, but then as the story unfolds it determines the direction in which the research goes, and as the research proceeds it nudges the story in one direction or the other.
MF: How challenging is it to write a novel set in the past, and capture all the details without ever having been there?
KS: Writing about Nagasaki was very challenging—I set out to do it without any certainty that I’d be able to imagine the place vividly enough to convince myself, let alone anyone else, that I could write about it . . . and yet, it seemed necessary to at least try.
MF: As someone who was born in Karachi, lived in London, and attended college in the United States, how have all of these places influenced your writing?
KS: It’s impossible for me to know. If I hadn’t lived in all those places I’m sure I’d be a different person, and thus a different writer—but I can’t pinpoint the ways in which one place or the other has influenced my writing. An unsatisfactory answer I know—the truth is I’m not very reflective about the relationship between my lived experiences and my writing; I’m content to let the two work on each other without questioning it too much.
MF: The image of the kimono burnt onto Hiroko’s back is a powerful one. Where did you come up with this?
KS: In John Hersey’s Hiroshima there’s this detail: “On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns— . . . on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to their skin) the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.” I read that, and immediately had an image of a woman with bird-shapes burnt into her back.
MF: A section of this novel is set in New York after 9/11. Did you deliberately set out to write a post 9/11 novel?
KS: No. As I said earlier, I originally envisaged a very different kind of novel. In fact, when I told a writer friend that I was writing about Nagasaki he said, “Oh, so that’ll be your 9/11 novel” and my reaction was to get quite annoyed. I recall thinking, “No it won’t. There are other stories in the world!” It was only when I was about halfway through—finishing up the Delhi 1947 section—that I realized that the novel was not going to be about the Indo-Pak nuclear standoff and was, instead, moving towards a War on Terror narrative. Even now I quite deliberately use the phrase “War on Terror” rather than post-9/11 to talk about the final section of the novel. It may seem just a semantic difference—but to talk about a “War on Terror” novel is to really talk about the consequences of the decisions made by various governments (including those of the US and Pakistan), rather than to place the terrorists of 9/11 at the centre of the narrative.
MF: Did you find similarities between Nagasaki and modern acts of destruction, like 9/11?
KS: There were various echoes—in Nagasaki after the bomb, the train and bus stations were covered in pleas for information about people’s family members who hadn’t been heard from since the bomb; when I read about that it made me think immediately of all those heartbreaking signs that went up around NYC after 9/11 when so many were missing and unaccounted for. And descriptions of how the smell of burning lasted and lasted . . .
But I was also struck by the disconnection . . . imagine if, on August 6, 1945, the world had seen wall-to-wall coverage of the bombing of Hiroshima . . . would it still have been possible for the US to bomb Nagasaki, just three days later? One of the more startling things I discovered in my research was that by August 9 a great many people in Nagasaki still didn’t know what had happened in Hiroshima—there were rumors about a “New Bomb” but there were no images, scant facts.
But, of course, the great and overwhelming difference between Nagasaki and 9/11 is that the first was carried out by a government, in the name of self-defense, and a great many people will still say it was the right thing to do; 9/11 comes out of a completely different context. So 9/11 itself is not part of the novel’s direct gaze; the final section of the book starts in December 2001. There are plenty of books about the effects of 9/11, and what that day itself meant for the people of New York. But I was interested in looking at the human cost of actions which are carried out by “legitimate” governments, often with popular support (the bombing of Nagasaki, Britain’s games of Empire in India, Pakistan and Russia and America’s actions in Afghanistan in the 80′s, the War on Terror . . .)
MF: It seems like Hiroko is searching for a home, a place to settle. Is her search at all a metaphor for people trying to understand their own place in history?
KS: Hmmm . . . interesting. I like that idea, but it’s not how I saw her. To me, she’s a woman who is buffeted about by history and learns how to adapt in order to feel at ease in different places, without ever letting go of her sense of self. I think Hiroko would reject such phrases as ‘their own place in history’—she just wants history to leave her alone.
MF: What is the common thread that links all the time periods you write about together?
KS: At the level of narrative, all the sections have the following elements: two families, one of the East and one of the West; situations when it’s impossible for the characters to feel themselves living outside history; the interaction of foreigners and nationals; something gained and something lost as a consequence of the interactions of the members of the two families.
And if we’re to talk about larger themes—I adamantly reject the phrase “Clash of Civilizations” which implies something inevitable or essential about enmity between people from different places, different religions; but I was interested, through Burnt Shadows, in looking at what happens to the relationships of people from contrasting backgrounds when they start to feel themselves on different sides of history/politics. In what situations can such relationships endure, and in what situations do they crumble?
MF: How was writing this novel different from other books you’ve written so far?
KS: The most obvious difference is that my earlier novels were set in Karachi, so I had always written about a city I knew well—as opposed to writing about places I’d never been (Nagasaki, Afghanistan) or in which I had only spent a few days (Delhi), as well as those I knew better (Karachi, New York.)
But equally significant was the structural shift—this is a novel in four sections, each of which is fairly self-contained and consists of different characters (only Hiroko is constant through the novel, and even she recedes from the foreground over the course of the novel.) So that meant the rhythm and the structure was quite distinct from all my earlier novels—it’s the longest book I’ve written, but the writing style had to be more succinct in order to get in all these various stories without producing a bloated, puffed-up interminable narrative. There was a constant movement between burrowing deeply into one time period, one set of characters, and then stepping way back to see if that worked as a mosaic piece for the larger picture (hopelessly mixed metaphor there!)
MF: Who have been some of your biggest literary influences?
I know the writers I love—Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, Italo Calvino, Grace Paley to name a handful . . . but influence? Influence is a hard one to pin down—I suspect readers are better are being able to detect influence in my work than I am. (This may just be further evidence of my lack of reflection about how the writing happens . . . )
MF: What are you currently working on?
KS: Thinking about thinking about the next novel . . .
Michele Filgate is the Events Coordinator at RiverRun Bookstore and also a freelance writer. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in CBSNews.com, The Brooklyn Rail, Bookslut and PopMatters. She is a book reviews editor at Identity Theory and runs a blog.
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