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Kamila Shamsie: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Kamila Shamsie is the author of four novels, including Kartography and Broken Verses. She writes for The Guardian, Index on Censorship, Prospect and the New Statesman (UK), Newsline and DAWN (Pakistan) and The Daily Star (Bangladesh). She grew up in Karachi, and now lives in London. Shamsie's most recent novel, Burnt Shadows, a complex story that starts in 1945 Nagasaki and ends in post-9/11 New York City, was shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize.

Tell me about your personal library.

Full of gaps! For many years I lead a very nomadic life, moving between Karachi, London and upstate New York every few months, which meant I had to pack my life in a couple of suitcases. As a result I became very proficient at borrowing rather than buying books, and at giving away the books that I did acquire. It's only in the last couple of years that I've been able to hold on to books - so my bookshelves are filled with a lot of contemporary fiction from the last two years, and all those college books which were sitting in boxes in storage all these years....

What are you reading now?

Sarah Waters' Fingersmith—don't know what took me so long to get to it.

How did the story for Burnt Shadows come to you?

In bits and pieces. I had an idea that I wanted to start in Nagasaki and then leap forward 50 years to India and Pakistan's nuclear tests. But as I started writing the Nagasaki section the story branched into different directions....so instead I found myself moving to Delhi in 1947, Pakistan in 1983, Afghanistan and New York in 2002. I blame that branching on the character of Hiroko, who was originally supposed to be a minor character, but who took over my imagination so entirely that I jettisoned my early plans in order to keep her as the anchor of the novel.

Burnt Shadows begins—and seems deeply rooted in--America's dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945. Ending in Guantanamo Bay in 2002, it's almost tale of how we got here. Do you find similarities between the current "war on terror" and the bombing of Nagasaki?

I can understand why some readers would focus on the American aspects of the novel - to me, though, it's a book about empires (American and British - and to less extents, Japanese and Soviet) and the relationships of individuals from different nations in times of war. One of the pre-requisites to war (and to the rise of Empires) is the successful proliferation of the idea that the lives of people from other countries matter less. This allows citizens of different nations to support their governments' decisions to bomb, colonise, exploit, manipulate the citizens of other nations, all in the name of 'national interest' or 'protecting the lives of its own citizens'. Of course this way of thinking applies to the bombing of Nagasaki as well as the War on Terror - it also applies to the British empire, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan's acts of self-interest during over 20 years of war in Afghanistan, the relationship between the governments of India and Pakistan etc.

So in the novel I was interested in seeing how the personal relationships of characters from different nations would play out in fraught historical moments when the rhetoric of government is divisive and exclusionary, but the pull of friendship and love moves in the opposite directions.

Several of the characters have a gift and a love for languages. How does this play into the story?

I wasn't interested in the kind of story that had people from one nation arriving in another nation and feeling completely alien and excluded. It was far more interesting to me to have characters who, via the acquisition of language, were able to enter different worlds, communicate with people within the worlds, and set up connections - many of which would later be tested. In some cases, that language acquisition led to love and friendship. In other cases, it enables deception. But it always leads to more complicated and interesting relationships, I think, than the one that exists between people who cannot get any where near each other because there is the gulf of Can't-Communicate between them.

Burnt Shadows spans generations, continents, nationalities, cultures, languages... Was it hard to keep track of everything while writing? Do you have a research process?

No, not hard at all. The story is linear, each section has - at most - 4 or 5 main characters. When I listen to other people talk about the novel I often think they make it sound far more complex than it ever felt to me while I was writing it. The only thing I needed to check occasionally was the birth dates of different characters, so I'd know how old they were between one section and the next.

There was a great deal of research involved, though not much process! I'd find books and articles and websites that seemed to have some connection to what I was writing about, start reading them, and generally find that the research led me to ideas about plot and character....and then while I was writing that plot, and those characters, I'd feel the need to have more information about something or the other so I'd go back to do more research.

You're from Pakistan, but have lived all over the world. How has your background influenced your writing?

I can't claim 'all over the world' - just the UK and US (other than Pakistan, that is.) Honestly, I don't know in what ways I'd have been a different writer if I had lived all my life in one place. I will say this - even when I was growing up in Pakistan I was reading fiction from many different parts of the world, so I always felt compelled by, and invested in, stories from different countries - and interested in both the overlaps and divergence of different histories. So I think it's possible I would have written a multi-nation novel such as Burnt Shadows without having lived away from Pakistan. My imagination has always enjoyed traveling.

What do you hope the reader leaves your book thinking about?

I just hope the reader leaves the book thinking.

Which part(s) were the hardest to write?

The bombing of Nagasaki. And the death of a beloved character later in the book.

What books or authors have inspired you?

I always get stuck on questions about which books have influenced or inspired me. There are plenty of books I love - but I find inspiration to be a harder thing to put my finger on. Though I do remember reading David Mitchell's Ghostwritten when it first came out, and thinking how extraordinary it was that he'd written a novel in which every section was set in a different part of the world - so perhaps that was some kind of inspiration for the multi-nation novel that is Burnt Shadows.

You review books for The Guardian—anything new and exciting we should keep an eye out for?

I haven't done much reviewing in the last few months - but earlier this year I reviewed Tobias Hill's The Hidden - which isn't published in the US yet, I believe. It's brilliant - a truly intelligent novel, written with a clarity of prose and a sense of mystery which makes it completely gripping.

—interview by Abby Blachly

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