My Historical Novels Review article has been published!

A Study in Perspective: The Cultural Themes of Kamila Shamsie’s Epics

by Andrea Connell

A God in Every StoneKamila 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.

Notes:
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.

Advertisements

Interview with Kamila Shamsie about her works of historical fiction

images5I am grateful for the invitation to write an article for the HNR about Kamila Shamsie’s historical fiction with the 2014 publication of A God in Every Stone. I read both A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadows as part of my research and was astounded at how this author tackles so many hot-button topics in her novels. From the relations between subjects and Empire during the Raj in India to the WW2 atomic bombing of Nagasaki, to the Partition and formation of Pakistan and a inside look at the Afghan mujahedin  (opposition groups who initially rebelled against the government of the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan  (DRA) during the late 1970s, and fought the DRA and the Soviet forces during the Soviet War in Afghanistan), even to a glimpse at modern-day terrorism. Not only does she tackle historical periods and events but also social topics like feminism, morality,  cultural divisions, and everything in between.

I was fortunate to conduct an e-mail interview with Ms. Shamsie, which helped inform my article. Much of the interview could not be covered in the piece and has some interesting information for fans of the author, so here it is, in its entirety from September 29,  2014:

BECAUSE THE AUTHORS BOOKS SEEM TO RANGE BETWEEN LITERARY FICTION AND TRADE FICTION, I WAS CURIOUS ABOUT HER THOUGHTS ON HER BOOKS IN THIS SENSE

1) Who are your literary influences?

It’s such a hard thing to pin down–much more easy to talk about literary loves. I love Virginia Woolf, but I don’t know that I can claim to be influenced by her, for example. So let me pick a few loves and readers of my work can decide if there’s influence there. Earliest loves – Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh. University-era loves: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino. More recent loves: Ali Smith, David Mitchell. I tend not to let go of old loves; just add more onto them as time moves on.

2) Do you consider your books to be literary fiction or more trade-focused? Do different novels fall into different categories?

I always cringe a little at the term ‘literary fiction’ which seems to imply all other books lack literariness – or that you can either be literary or commercial (which is just insulting to readers.) Having said that, the books I read fall within the category referred to as literary fiction, and I suppose I write into that area where I read.

HERE, I WAS TRYING TO GET AT THE ESSENCE OF WHO SHE FEELS SHE IS WRITING FOR, WHAT KIND OF AUDIENCE SHE TARGETED WHEN SHE CAME UP WITH HER CONCEPTS.

3) What audience are you aiming for with your books?

Honestly? Anyone who’ll read them.

index2

4) Your novels have been described as international historical epics- how would you describe them?

Generally if someone asks me to describe my book I turn to the nearest friend or relative and say, ‘please describe my books for me.’ I suppose if I had to I’d talk about them as 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.

THIS WAS THE MOST FASCINATING RESPONSE OUT OF ALL THE QUESTIONS, FOR ME AT LEAST, IN LIGHT OF THE POLITICAL NATURE OF HER WORK…

images35) How is your work received in different parts of the world? Different reception in the UK, in India, in Muslim countries? Have any of your books caused controversy?

I don’t really recognise ‘Muslim countries’ as a category. All my books are connected to Pakistan, which is where I’m from, so of course my work is going to speak far more directly to people there than in, say, Indonesia or Iran. No major controversy that I’m aware of – though in Pakistan, there were quite a few people raising eyebrows when my novel Salt and Saffron depicted a relationship between people of different classes (that caused more of a stir than anything I’ve ever written about politics or religion). But yes, different countries have different responses based on their own histories and anxieties. With A God In Every Stone the UK responses were very much centred on the figure of the Englishwoman in the novel and the First World War, while in both India and Pakistan the Pathan/Pashtun figures got more attention as did the colonial aspect of the book. With my previous novel Burnt Shadows journalists in Denmark and Norway asked a great many questions about my thoughts on migrants – very much tied to Scandinavia’s very recent history of having to contend with having a migrant population.

THE REST OF THE QUESTIONS ARE DIRECTLY RELATED TO THE TWO HISTORICAL NOVELS.

6) How did you choose the settings and time periods for these two books?

There’s nothing particularly ordered about my writing process. 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 lead 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 after writing my way from 1915 to 1981 and beginning to imagine sections in the 90’s and 2009, 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 lead me from Peshawar to the Eastern and Western front of the First World War.   Somehow it all comes together in the end, but it’s a terrifyingly haphazard process.

index7) Where did the archeological historical theme running through Gods in Every Stone originate?

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient history – and the city of Peshawar is so rich in material along those lines for a novelist. It’s a city that’s been continuously inhabited for over 2500 years – it was part of the Persian empire (Herodotus writes about it); Alexander and his armies came through there; later it became one of the great centres of Buddhism; and it’s home to the extraordinary syncretic Gandhara art which shows all these influences – you have statuary of Buddha being supported on the shoulders of Atlas and other such wonderful images. Hard not to be drawn to that as a writer. 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…)

images47) Burnt Shadows: Interesting evolution between a bomb survivor of Nagasaki leading to a young man choosing his allegiance in the war in Afghanistan- how in the world did you get from one place to the next? Can you talk about your thought process?

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, 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. (I would argue, though, that the young man is never unclear about his allegiances – it’s the people around him who doubt where his loyalties lie)

8) One of the major themes threads through both books is the English-Indian relationship, and you write about the overarching themes in this relationship. What is empire to its subjects? Was colonialism enlightenment or slavery (being treated as second class citizens)? What are your thoughts about this issue?

Colonialism was a system of economic exploitation which justified itself on the basis of racist ideas about the superiority of the ‘civilised’ English over the ‘uncivilised’ Indians. Hard to see that as enlightenment. But as a novelist what I’m most interested in is how the inequality of historical positions gets in the way of relationships between people of different nations who do have a certain degree of affinity for each other. And of course there are other complications – if you’re an Englishwoman in Imperial India, as is the case with Viv Spencer in A God in Every Stone, there’s a complex interplay of patriarchy and imperialism going on.

9) We have seen in the news since America got involved in Pakistan much about the Pathan culture- did you write this book with current events in mind? If so, how did they influence this story?

As I mentioned, the novel was originally supposed to end in 2009, so yes, I did very much start with current events in mind. All that changed, but I suppose what remained was an impulse to write about the Pathans 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 non-violent resistance to colonial rule which I wanted to explore in the novel, while also exploring the very old syncretic traditions of Peshawar.

10) Confusion over cultural identity and loyalty to one’s nation/sect/tribe seem to be overarching themes in both books- are these things you have personally struggled over? Family history? Witnessed? What led to your focus on these themes?

In some odd way, I think I’m interested in it because I haven’t considered it a struggle. It’s been pretty angst-free for me to move between Karachi, London and the East Coast; and within my own Pakistani family there’s a German grandmother, Danish cousins, England-raised mother etc etc. – none of which I’ve ever regarded as problematic or confusing to me personally. But I suppose at a certain point I realised that not everyone has the luxury of feeling simultaneously so fixed and so fluid about their relationship to nations and ethnicities and other such groupings, and that divergence from my own experience became an interesting thing to examine. Though really I’m just guessing here – I have a strange superstition about not really wanting to examine the connections between my life and what I’m interested in writing about. It’s almost as if I think the tap will turn itself off it I try to work out why it’s flowing.

******************************************************************************************************

*Thank you very much to Meghan Walker at Tandem Literary for arranging this interview.

Interview as Helen Hollick’s “Guest of the Day”

Thanks to Helen for giving me the opportunity to tell my story. It was fun to write this interview, but I was absolutely stumped by the dinner guest question (pressure to perform in front of all the conference attendees) and Helen picked me up and dusted me off, thank goodness! Enjoy!

http://helen-myguests.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/hns-london-2012-conference.html

On another note, I am way behind in the Battle of the Book Review Blogs and voting closes on Monday, September 3…if you’d care to vote, please go to http://www.undergroundbookreviews.com/3/post/2012/08/battle-of-the-book-review-blogs.html.

Thank you to those readers who have voted for The Queen’s Quill; you’ve made my day!

Welcome!

I love the physical sensation of books–they way they feel in my hands, the way they smell, the satisfaction of turning the crisp pages of a newly minted tome. The idea of reading e-books is completely abhorrent to me. Reading on a cold, impersonal computer? Or even the vaunted iPad?  Call me old-fashioned  (especially as e-publishing seems to be quite the “in” subject at this year’s BEA) but NO WAY!

I am an avid collector and my home is overflowing with books–even when  I was a child, I was a book collector (amazing what a kid can scrounge out of desperation. . . ). I was a voracious reader back then, a trait that never left me and which I have transformed into my professional life, working as a content editor for a new academic press. My off-hours passion is reading and reviewing historical fiction . . . which has led me into the position of reviews editor for the Historical Novel Society’s online publication, HNS Online. Covering  new (and at times more “seasoned”) titles from subsidy-publishing, e-publishing, and self-publishing enterprises is like searching for gold in a stream or a needle in a haystack, but I work with a team of exceptionally talented reviewers who are willing to risk their time and attention in search of that hidden gem . . . which they discover more often than one would believe.  The downside of this job: telling an author honestly that I do not believe the “baby” is as appealing or as perfect as he or she imagines. Ouch. The upside: the delightful moments when I share good news with exuberant authors . . . my favorite part of the job.

To tell the truth, I am rather intimidated by the web presence of so many talented book bloggers–and I’m still a novice in this new world. But I do hope I can contribute something to the fray, and I look forward to getting to know some of you whose blogs are helping me out with the newbie’s “how to cope at BEA 2010” fears.

I am beginning with a couple of posts from the past, when I was struggling to keep any book club on its feet for more than two months. Three book club start-ups, three failures. Then I decided that maybe the book club idea wasn’t quite so hot and that I should focus on HNS work and my own leisure reading. I still hold out hope for the future, but I have conceded that a book club is not in the cards for the present.

The first was a contemporary book club, choosing novels from the “book club bestsellers list,” the selections  of which left us quite unsatisfied. We then disbanded and came together again as a “Classics” book club. Which lasted three books. . . woo hoo!!! We became impatient with our picks once again and disbanded (this is sounding like some Monty Python skit!), leaving me to start afresh with a meet up group for historical fiction. Which lasted all of two books, and the members lost interest. Maybe it was me, perhaps it was the books, but that was it for my attempts. Three swings and you’re out! There’s my history in a nut shell : )

So, welcome! Sit back and relax, have a cuppa and some healthy dark chocolate and enjoy your visit!