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The Postergirl of Pakistan

Burnt Shadows has been longlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction. Mohammed Hanif in conversation with its author, Kamila Shamsie.

india Updated: Apr 18, 2009 23:13 IST

Mohammed Hanif: Fifth novel at such a young age. How do you react to the label overachiever?

Kamila Shamsie: I’m pretty sure if I were an over-achiever I’d try to...climb a mountain, test all the biryani recipes in the world ... learn how to juggle. Instead, All I do is sit around and write, so clearly I’m an underachiever...doing the same thing over and over and still so far from figuring out how to do it right....

MH: Some reviewers have called Burnt Shadows your best novel yet. Does it make you protective about your previous novels?

KH: Not until you mentioned it.... don’t we writers always want to keep getting better? Wouldn’t it be terrible to hear everyone agree that the best novels are already written. I’m already hoping that when the next one is written, the reviewers who think Burnt Shadows is the best yet will decide it was really very mediocre by comparison to what comes next...

MH: Burnt Shadows is an epic. Did you set out to write one?

KS: The Odyssey is an epic. Burnt Shadows is just a book that racks up frequent flyer miles. No, I had no idea what I was doing when I started off. It was really a question of saying ‘ok, I don’t know where this is going, but it feels like it could be an interesting journey’.

MH: You have said you have never been to Nagasaki, but still you write about it convincingly. And how did you research? And by the way why not Hiroshima?

KS: Perhaps I only write about it convincingly for those who have never been there...Research...oh, there was the old-fashioned thing of going into libraries and pulling out every book I could find on the subject. But then there was also wild and profligate use of the internet. I literally did start by googling ‘Nagasaki bomb’ and ‘Nagasaki before the bomb’ and seeing what came up. So it was a very scatter gun approach to begin with. Being able to visualise Nagasaki pre-bomb was important so I tried to find as many images as possible — both on the net, and in books. And I used Google Earth to measure the distances between different places in Nagasaki, so that I could work out how far they were from the epicentre to place different characters in different moments.

MH: Why Nagasaki?

KS: Because there seemed to me something particularly horrific about the ability of a government to drop an atom bomb on a nation, see the devastation it caused and then, three days later, do it all over again. It makes you realise there is no act of destruction that makes nations and armies stop instantly and say ‘Never again.’

MH: Was this an attempt to draw parallels with Pakistan’s loose nukes?

KS: Well, when I started this book I did think that the not-really-so-loose nukes on either side of the border would end up being a central part of the story. But the story decided to wander somewhere else, so now it’s background hum rather than central chatter.

MH: What was the silliest question you have been asked about Shadows and about your previous books?

KS: Silliest question ever: is it difficult to be young, glamorous, accomplished, famous and a Muslim woman?

MH: Is it difficult to be young, glamourous, accomplished, famous and a Muslim woman?

KS: I think you should have a sex-change and tell us.

MH: How many stories have you read about Hot Pakistani Writers? Do you think journalists are a desperate lot or is there something really going on in that country?

KS: I’ve lost count though you know, when my first book was out in 1998, I remember walking into Daunt, a bookshop in London, where fiction is categorised by nation, and finding that there was no Pakistan section. I found my book in the ‘Indian’ section instead. A few days ago I was at Daunt’s again, and now there is a Pakistani section and amidst the Pakistani writers I found a novel by the Bangladeshi novelist, Tahmima Anam. So this seems clearly to indicate a shift. Maybe in another few years, there’ll be a Bangladeshi section and there’ll be a Burmese novel tucked away in the middle of it....

So yes, something’s going on in Pakistan. There are a lot more people writing and publishing books in English than was the case a few years ago, but it’s just not nearly as ‘out of the blue’ as if suddenly one morning there were people in Pakistan with fiction to write and the ability to write it as you might think from reading some of the articles about it.

MH: Since this is for an Indian paper, you must anwser this: is Pakistan a failed state?

KS: You mean did it fail the exams and will it have to repeat a year? This is an interesting question. If yes, what year should we repeat? 1947? 1971? 1979? 1988? I’ll go with 1988, the year when Zia died, the Soviets and Americans withdrew from Afghanistan and it was time for Pakistan to decide what was strategically in its long term interests regarding Afghanistan, jihadis, democracy, the military....

MH: Your first four books were set in Karachi and a major part of Shadows is also set there. Now you live in London, tell us about three things that you miss about Karachi.

KS: The beach. People who know how to pronounce my name after hearing it only once. Starting my day by drinking doodh-pati and reading Dawn — nothing else feels like a more well-established ritual stretching back years (reading the on-line version while drinking PG Tip from a teabag really isn’t the same thing at all.)

MH: You have written about cricket with great passion. What is your all time Pakistani dream team?

KS: Hmmm.... I didn’t start watching the game until 1986, so I’m going with a dream team from ’86 onwards since those are the players I’ve watched and loved with two exceptions (because they’re just no-brainers even if you haven’t watched them): Hanif Mohammad (no-brainer no.1), Saeed Anwar Yousuf Youhana/Mohammad Yousuf, Javed Miandad, Inzamam ul-Haq, Imran Khan (captain), Wasim Bari (no-brainer no. 2), Wasim Akram, Saqlain Mushtaq, Abdul Qadir and Waqar Yunus.

Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif is the author of ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’