Interview with Kamila Shamsie: “The anti-migrant position of the government exceeds that of the public”
KAmila Shamsie still remembers with absolute clarity a moment that happened to her many years ago when she was a teenager in Karachi. “I was in a car with a group of friends and a man was driving. We were having fun and then, in an instant, something changed and it became dangerous and threatening. Fortunately, the moment passed quickly but I’ve never forgotten it. The moment, barely 30 seconds in length, contained a change of mood rather than an actual threat, but it was nonetheless full of meaning.” As I get older, what becomes clearer, c It’s when, if you’re a woman, that feeling of sexual risk comes into your life,” Shamsie says. “You’re suddenly made aware that the world is dangerous for girls.”
This car ride appears in a slightly different form in Shamsie’s new novel, best of friends, both an initiation novel for teenagers and a hymn to female friendship. The first half is set in Karachi in 1988 and draws intimately on an emotional level from memories of Shamsie’s adolescence. Close as thieves since the age of four, Zahra and Maryam share an undying love for George Michael and Jackie Collins despite their different backgrounds – Zahra’s parents are artsy and middle class; Maryam’s relationship with the establishment is much richer. But then comes the thing that changes everything. Zahra gets into a car containing a classmate and a stranger, and after a moment’s hesitation, Maryam follows her. Suddenly they realize that they are trapped in a situation they cannot control. Nothing too dreadful happens, but then Maryam is sent off to boarding school in England, while Zahra will be scarred by the sudden power shift that occurs inside the car into adulthood, unable to cope. completely forget the feelings of shame that the moment caused, despite not being responsible at all. “It’s a feeling that a lot of women can carry with them for the rest of their lives,” Shamsie says. “Every time I’ve mentioned this experience to friends, regardless of where they grew up, they say, ‘Oh yeah, we know that car ride. “”
best of friendspicking up the story of Maryam and Zahra’s 2019 friendship, when the two established successful careers in London, is Shamsie’s first novel since winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her 2017 novel Domestic fire — a moment she describes as one of the greatest of her life. He is particularly excellent on the peculiarities of adult friendship forged in childhood. “My older friends know all versions of me,” Shamsie laughs. We’re talking on Zoom earlier this summer, the day the mercury hits 38 degrees (Shamsie stocked up on watermelon) but Shamsie is so engaging and warm we might as well be in the same room. “I now have very different political views than many of these friends, but you get into your 40s and you realize how much these people carry your childhood selves.”
Like many of his novels, it is also deeply concerned with how personal lives are shaped by larger political forces: 1988, of course, was the year Pakistan’s military dictator General Zia was largely suspected of having been murdered in Pakistan (he died in an unexplained plane crash). It was after this that Benazir Bhutto took over, making her the first democratically elected female leader in Pakistan. This relatively fleeting moment in Pakistani history, steeped in democratic optimism and feminist hope, provides a richly symbolic backdrop to the first half of the novel, but I suggest it also feels very distant. After all, the four-year rule of Imran Khan, who was ousted earlier this year in a no-confidence vote, has been marred by his religious crackdown on women’s rights and support for the Taliban. Afghans and Pakistanis. Yet Shamsie, who became a British citizen in 2013, fears she is being too critical of her home country.
“I don’t want to sound like the expatriate who says, ‘That’s how it is’,” she says. She was so in disbelief when she first heard about Zia’s death from a school friend that she at first thought it was a joke – even though, “At 15, I I thought everything was going to change. But at this point, I don’t think about it anymore. The thing is, it’s hard to talk about Pakistan without tying it to populist governments in power around the world, and the disillusion that stems from these successive political failures. Someone asked me recently if things have improved in Pakistan. I said, ‘No, but things got worse everywhere else.’ The gap has closed. »
Shamsie, 49, grew up in a safe and affluent intellectual environment in Karachi and always knew she wanted to be a writer, publishing her first novel, In the city by the seaat the age of 25. Her first four books, all about her childhood home, were well received, though perhaps not that widely read, but her career took off with those of 2009. burnt shadows, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She’s lived in London since 2007 (although she still spends part of every year in Karachi) and is, she says, fully established – she has a healthy bank balance, gets paid to write books, is shortlisted for awards and often appears on the radio. 4. These things were also true in 2012, but she still felt extremely nervous about applying for British citizenship. “I was on the privileged end of the scale…yet every time I applied for a visa renewal I was afraid it wouldn’t be accepted,” she says. “Later on, stories started coming out around the Windrush generation and more broadly about why people were being rejected. I remember reading them thinking, yes, if those stories had been published five years earlier , I would have been even more panicked.
She has long been critical of the British government’s immigration and civil rights policies and tells me that she only felt able to write Domestic fire – which updates Sophocles Antigone to offer a piercing critique of Islamophobia within the British political establishment – after she became a citizen of this country. “One of the things that interested me as I compared Pakistan in the 1980s to Britain in 2019 was that [under Zia] we were very aware that we were living under surveillance. We have a different version of it here, but we have it. I’m very interested in how countries that have established democracies think they can tear up the standards. It’s really dangerous. It’s not just about proroguing and trying to overturn the Supreme Court; it’s who pays political parties what and what they get in return. We’ve seen a lot of that cronyism during Covid. And I wasn’t surprised at all.
best of friends also has a subplot featuring an asylum seeker that acutely reflects the extent to which current state policy foments public hostility against immigration. But Shamsie also wonders if on this issue, at least, we would have reached a turning point. “Brexit legitimized anti-migrant sentiment,” she says. “But we are now at this very horrific and interesting moment where the government’s anti-migrant stance now massively overtakes that of the British public. Rwanda’s plan was that moment. For all the anti-migrant sentiment, that’s not what most people want to happen. We’ll see if she’s right.
‘Best of Friends’ is published today by Bloomsbury