A Study in Perspective: The Cultural Themes of Kamila Shamsie’s Epics
by Andrea Connell
Kamila Shamsie has written novels of extraordinary power and depth, epics that transcend genres and time periods. Her historical fiction is packed with hard-hitting themes and exploration of cultures and locations — and combinations of these — that one does not commonly see on bookstore shelves.
Shamsie was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1973, into an English-speaking family; her mother and grandmother were both writers. She herself studied creative writing in the United States, publishing her first novel in 1998 while a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts. Now she divides her time between Pakistan and the UK, as well as teaching in the United States. She has written six novels, two of which are historical fiction. Burnt Shadows, her fifth novel (Bloomsbury, 2009; reviewed in HNR Issue 48, May 2009), was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize and translated in more than twenty countries, while her latest novel, A God in Every Stone (reviewed in this issue), was released in the United States by Atavist Books (August 2014).
Her historical works show her passion for unearthing stories related to Pakistan’s history, as well as utilizing the influence of intercultural factors on relationships as a metaphor for larger political or social issues. Both these books are intricate literary feasts, exploring the tumultuous periods and relationships between vastly different cultures from the First World War to the beginning of the War on Terror. With so much variation in each novel, just how did the author’s conceptions for her multicultural epics arise?
Shamsie elaborates: “With Burnt Shadows I thought I was going to write a book set in Karachi during the summer of 1998 when India and Pakistan tested their nuclear bombs, but that led me to think about the use of atom bombs in Japan in 1945 — and next thing I knew I had a novel starting in Nagasaki; researching Nagasaki 1945 made me think of parallels with post 9/11 New York — so the entire geographical trajectory of the novel changed. With A God in Every Stone, I was interested in exploring the city of Peshawar and thought that, as with Burnt Shadows, I would write a multi-part novel that would come up to the present day. But I discovered that actually it was the early 20th century story I was interested in, so I cut out everything later and concentrated on 1915 and 1930. And those stories led me from Peshawar to the Eastern and Western front of the First World War.”1
A God in Every Stone transports the reader from the killing fields of Flanders in 1915 to the bloody Peshawar massacre of 1930, while digging through ancient discoveries that intertwine with the dramatic events of the present. Young London archeologist Vivian Rose Spencer, fascinated by the history of ancient empires, joins a dig in Turkey in 1914. A bond forms between her and Turkish archeologist Tahsin Bey, with promise of a future engagement; what happens to their relationship, however, is a tragic consequence of a wartime choice Vivian makes. She also mentors Najeeb, a gifted Indian boy, in whom she senses great potential. In turn, Najeeb is quite taken with her search for the silver circlet of Scylax, a fifth-century BCE explorer who worked on behalf of the Persian king Darius I, and indeed he pursues this passion, in spite of the antagonism of Qayyum, his brother, who is an infantryman in the 40th Pathan Regiment of the British Indian Army.
The archeological theme that threads through the book originated from the author’s fascination with ancient history: “The city of Peshawar is so rich in material for a novelist. It’s been continuously inhabited for over 2500 years and was part of the Persian empire (Herodotus writes about it); Alexander and his armies came through there; later it became one of the great centers of Buddhism; and it’s home to the extraordinary syncretic Gandhara art which shows all these influences. One of the first things I knew about the novel was that it would have archaeologists and an ancient artifact that everyone was looking for (perhaps my childhood love for Indiana Jones coming through there).”
After returning to Peshawar from Flanders, where he was wounded during the battle of Ypres, Qayyum discards the idea of violent revolt against the Raj. He joins an organization of nonviolent revolutionaries but must defy Pashtun tradition and convince his fellows of the plausibility of nonviolence. The strained relationship between the brothers, separated by an immeasurable cultural divide, again surfaces when Najeeb discovers an artifact of great archeological importance and tries to re-establish contact with Vivian at the dig in April 1930. Soon after this, the simmering unease erupts as a nonviolent — yet provocative — protest turns deadly, resulting in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre. The forces of empire and the anger of second-class Indian subjects clash, as do the past and the present, and the brothers — one a protégé of the British, the other a disillusioned soldier turned nonviolent anti-imperial activist — finally cross into each other’s worlds.
Burnt Shadows picks up, in a manner of speaking, where A God In Every Stone leaves off, during the demise of the British Raj. However, the novel begins unexpectedly with the horrific atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Hiroko Tanaka, a 21-year-old schoolteacher-turned-wartime munitions factory worker, is content until her lover, Konrad Weiss, an idealistic and artistic German expatriate, suddenly becomes nothing more than a shadow on a rock and Hiroko is left branded with burns in the shape of the birds on the kimono she was wearing on that fateful day. As a hibakusha — a survivor of the bomb — Hiroko is ostracized from Japanese society, and she finds refuge in New Delhi. It is the end of the British reign in India, and the rest of the story encapsulates, through the protagonists’ relationships, the chaotic demise of the Raj and the devastating upheaval caused by man-made boundaries combined with ethnic and religious hatreds.
Burnt Shadows is an historical epic in every sense of the term — spanning sixty years, four countries, and several generations. To that effect, we see interwoven relationships that cross continents, and world events that have rippled consequences as, once again, Shamsie tackles large themes from distinct and unique angles. In Burnt Shadows, the reader views the empire and its subjects’ relationships from a Japanese perspective. The Partition, the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan, 9/11, the involvement of the CIA and private military companies in the war in Afghanistan, and finally — perhaps most intriguing of all — a foray into the minds of radical Islamists — are all political topics covered in Burnt Shadows. This is a rich book, full of insights into human nature and human relations as well.
The author describes the evolution of her thought process for this unusual sequence of events from Japan to Pakistan: “If you look closely enough at history, it’s all so interlinked. Pakistan’s history is the most obvious link between those stories: nuclear bombs and Afghan wars are both so much a part of the country’s recent history that I don’t really see it as much of a jump to get from one to the other. I suppose another way of saying that is that the novel follows its characters, and the characters travel from one link in history to another. What I mean is, I didn’t start off thinking I would go from Nagasaki to Afghanistan and New York, but I allowed the characters to follow their trajectory through history.”
A hallmark of Shamsie’s books, and what makes these novels “multicultural epics,” is her ability to showcase a foreign perspective.2 The Western perspective is not dominant in these stories; rather, they focus on Pakistanis, Indians, and Japanese, and portray events as seen through their eyes. These characters relate their own versions of events and speak from their own cultural points of view, which are deeply influenced by the ethnicities and traditions they inhabit. We see events in A God in Every Stone through the eyes of Qayyum, whose affiliation with his Pashtun ethnicity is the cornerstone of his identity. Shamsie said, in the process of writing, she discarded one idea after another but, “what remained was an impulse to write about the Pathans [Pashtuns] in a way that goes beyond the crass stereotypes of people who live and die by the gun. In the early 20th century there was a very sophisticated and popular movement of nonviolent resistance to colonial rule which I wanted to explore in the novel, while also exploring the very old syncretic traditions of Peshawar.”
Shamsie’s historical fiction is also unapologetically political, portraying strong opinions on hot-button topics. This is a writer not afraid to be publicly critical of the “Islamization” of her native country in her fiction. She is outspoken on the subject of women’s treatment, unafraid to delve into the Indian version of the chaos during the Peshawar massacre of 1930, as well as able to offer a strong Muslim-focused point of view of the Partition. The issue of patriarchy — as a type of imperialism — is also deeply embedded in both novels. Hiroko and Vivian often express negative opinions on this issue, regardless of the different periods in which they live — and the author’s personal opinion on patriarchy is unambiguous: “Wherever in the world you go, you’re living in the world’s oldest and most pervasive empire, which is the empire of patriarchy. I don’t know a place I’ve been to where it doesn’t exist.”3
Yet despite the underlying political commentary in her books, ultimately Shamsie’s protagonists are humans caught up in larger dramas, and the purpose of her books is to be, in the author’s words, “novels which look at what it means to live individual lives entwined with history — how to reconcile the awfulness of the world with the joy of it; how to love, how to be loyal.”
About the contributor: Long-time member of the HNS and National Book Critics Circle, ANDREA CONNELL is a reviews editor for HNR and has been professionally reviewing historical fiction for over a decade. For her day job, she is a project editor for a small university press, as well as a freelance editor for a think tank in the Washington, DC area.
1. Email interview with Kamila Shamsie, 29 September 2014, posted in its entirety on thequeensquillreview.com.
2. Jordan Konell, “US fiction perspective skewed,” Yale Daily News, 27 September 2011, http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2011/09/27/us-fiction-perspective-skewed/
3. Natalie Hanman, “Kamila Shamsie: Where is the American writer writing about America in Pakistan? There is a deep lack of reckoning,” The Guardian, 11 April 2014.