Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s sixth novel, A God In Every Stone, was shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015, an award worth $50,000 (around 30 lakh) that finally went to Jhumpa Lahiri for her novel The Lowland. If award nominations are indicative of a writer’s strength of imagination, Shamsie’s is formidable.

Her first and third novels, In The City By The Sea and Kartography, respectively, were shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and her fifth, Burnt Shadows, for the Orange Prize. The author, who lives in Karachi and London (till 2006, the US was her third home), speaks about why awards make a difference to a writer’s life, the gender bias among award juries, and being particularly bad at writing short stories. Edited excerpts from an interview:

A lot of the plots of your novels develop in Karachi or other parts of Pakistan, like Peshawar in ‘A God In Every Stone’. And you live in the UK. Was it important for you to move away from Pakistan to write about it?

A God In Every Stone is actually the first novel that I have written totally outside, and that has bits in London, bits in Turkey and the bits in Pakistan that it has is Peshawar, which is not about a Pakistan that I know. So it is more like the Karachi novels were written when I was in Karachi and now a different kind of writing seems to be happening.

You’ve said before that your writing about London is sluggish. Has that changed?

I think it is very hard to put in words or know for sure the connection between your imagination and the places you worked in. Peshawar is not a city I know; I spent one afternoon there. And it was halfway through writing the book that I went there. And I went to the old parts which had been around in 1915 and 1930, the times I was writing about, so that was a city I had to access almost entirely through my imagination. Whereas when I wrote about Karachi, it was about what was very much around me. So I think I am changing as a writer.

Is it important for you to weave in the political in your novels?

Let’s say it’s interesting to me. I find politics and history very interesting. If I’m writing a story, the question, what was going on at the time, is one that I automatically ask myself. There are some places in the world where it is much easier to make that separation between what is happening at the political level and what is happening in people’s lives. But if you grow up in Karachi, you don’t have that separation.

So, from the beginning, when I was writing about a character’s life, it would be: Was there a strike on at the time, was there a riot, was it during a dictatorship? Those are very basic questions you ask yourself in terms of atmosphere. But more than that, it is just an interest.

With your interest in history and politics, you’ve never considered writing non-fiction?

I do shorter pieces. I do columns; I used to write for The Guardian quite a bit, so the occasional essay here and there. But if I’m going to commit a year or two or three of my life to something, it tends to be the novel. It is how my brain works. (In my writing) it seems increasingly that there is a non-fiction aspect of it, but then I like being able to make things up in between.

You have several writers in your family. Did that inspire you to be one yourself, or the way you think of your stories? Is there a connection there?

In terms of what I write, my great-aunt Attia Hosain wrote a novel called Sunlight On A Broken Column, which was set around Partition. And then I wrote one called Salt And Saffron, which has a backstory around Partition. There are certainly echoes between her novel and mine. Stylistically they are very different, but my Partition stories were ones she lived through. I think with the more recent work, there is less resemblance.

Do you write short stories?

I’m not very good at it. I think like a novelist, so my short stories will sound like a bit of a novel. It’s a form that I really admire and enjoy. There was a phase of my life when I was doing more of them but it has been a while.

How important are awards to you?

They make a big difference to a writer’s life, and I learnt that when my last novel, Burnt Shadows, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. What’s happening increasingly is that you have so many books being published all the time, competing with each other for readers’ attention, and prizes become one way for books to be out in the front of the shop, and also for people to hear about them. So you get that many more readers, I think. That makes a difference.

It’s nice to think a group of people sat in a room with a lot of books and decided that yours is one of the better ones. You don’t write for it and you don’t sit around expecting it to happen. So I think any writer who writes and thinks now I’m going to win the Booker Prize is setting himself up for disappointment. So it’s always a lovely surprise when it comes along.

Do labels—Pakistani, woman writer—annoy you?

It doesn’t annoy me if there are many labels. It would annoy me if there was only one. So if I were only talked about as a woman writer, whereas men are never talked about as men writers, that I find problematic. But I’m perfectly happy to be on a panel with other women writers to talk about particular things that crop up around women writers. And I’m fine with being on a panel with other Pakistani writers because we are writing about a common history, so there are mutual reference points, so that makes sense. But you need to have a lot of labels on you. So you need to be also just talked about as a writer.

The label woman writer is particularly irrelevant, isn’t it?

I think it is very interesting how it gets talked about, so (a panel discussion) on gender bias in publishing...can be fruitful.

I think with the Orange, the Baileys Prize, which is for women, there was a real point to setting that up which had to do with how male-dominated certain lists were, (how) there were certain kinds of books that were regarded as more significant than others.

Is that still true?

So is there some way to address these issues among the community of writers?

Unfortunately what happens is that issues that surround gender—and gender is men and women—tend to be seen as issues for women to talk about.

Writers, essentially, their work is solitary, but you do at various points have them getting together. The most recent was when a huge number of writers got together to sign petitions on the Amazon issue: We did have a kind of writers’ group forming around that. There were other issues as well where you briefly see the writers, but then everyone goes back to their respective desks.

What was your stand on the Amazon issue?

I understand that Amazon and the publishing houses, Hachette particularly at that point, were battling it out over royalty and that kind of thing. But no one knew the details of that, so I am not in a position to say who was being fair. But the problem that all the writers came around for was that Amazon removed the “buy" button from a lot of the Hachette writers.

So what all of us were saying is that if you are having a professional dispute between the publishers and Amazon, go work that out, but don’t hold writers hostage to it. Don’t use them as a negotiation tactic. So that was, and remains, my point on that.

Is it important for writers to hold an activist point of view?

I think the question is, is it important for human beings to hold an activist point of view? I don’t know that writers necessarily should be something else. You do what is in your character to do. And there are fantastic writers who are best at sitting quietly, writing a certain kind of novel. And there are other writers who feel it much more important to take a public stance on things.

I wouldn’t go up to any individual writer and say, why have you not spoken on this? I think if collectively, from a particular group or nation, not one of the writers is speaking, that’s odd. But the writer’s main work has to be from the writing. So any activisim you do on the side, it’s on the side. There are a lot of writers I know who will speak about civil liberties in a quieter way.

What about you?

I am reasonably involved. There is a group called Liberty in the UK, which is the main body that campaigns around civil liberties. I am on the board of Liberty.

Close