Even before Riverhead Books published Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Home Fire, in the United States this week, the Man Booker Prize committee had announced it was one of thirteen books on the longlist for its prestigious award. Reviews in the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post have been effusive. Here at Amazon, Home Fire is one of our Best of the Month picks for August.
Shamsie, a native of Karachi who has written six previous novels, sets Home Fire among two Pakistani émigré families living in very different communities in London. Isma Pasha, the devout orphaned daughter of a jihadi fighter, has raised her younger sister and brother in the largely Asian neighborhood of Wembly. Eamonn, the son of the British Home Secretary (a secularlized Muslim) has grown up in posh Holland Park. His family has the power to help hers, and their friendship leads inexorably to a dramatic political crisis that echoes Sophocles' tale of Antigone.
Kamila Shamsie answered questions about Home Fire by email.
Amazon Book Review: Home Fire is a title with several possible meanings. Could you talk a little about its significance to your novel?
Kamila Shamsie: It's a novel about very close and intimate relationships but also about great destructiveness within families, and in the world. I wanted the title to convey both the warmth by invoking ‘keep the home fires burning’ and the conflagration via the image of a house on fire.
Early in the novel, you describe a moment when Isma, the young scholar who has recently moved to Northampton, MA, hears, from within her apartment, a mysterious music “impossible to pinpoint as any known instrument, voice or birdcall.” When she runs outside to see the icicles that are its source, she is felled by sudden pain: “Pain swerved at her them, physical, bringing her to her knees.” It’s unclear whether she is in emotional pain—missing her brother – or physical pain. Can you tell us a little about that ambiguous moment?
Emotional pain often manifests itself in a physical way, doesn't it? That's what's going on here. It's a significant moment because she's so angry at her brother for certain choices he's made that she's tried to will herself into not allowing herself to feel emotional pain about it. But the strange music she hears reminds her of him and it makes the pain she's been holding at bay swerve towards her unexpectedly and too quickly for her to try and block it.
There is plenty of humor in your book, whether it is your characters’ references to “GWM” – Googling While Muslim (always risky), or “ecosystem beards” – beards large enough to contain an ecosystem. But in general, the political tone of the current era seems far removed from the 1970s, when “Lone Wolf,” the secularized Muslim who becomes Home Secretary in Home Fire, attends rallies where he sees slogans like “Nazis are no fun” and “Racists are bad in bed.” Is there humor in the current political debate, or are we in a different spot? Can novelists like you make an impact on the tone?
If you've grown up in Pakistan you know there's no such thing as a political spot in which humor can't play a role. Satire is a powerful tool to use against those who want above all to be taken seriously. Humor is also an important human defense against bleakness. I think the mistake people sometimes make is in thinking that humor is synonymous with lightness or flippancy or frivolity. It isn't. Humor can be very, very angry.
Home Fire begins when Isma is detained and interrogated by airport security on her way to study in the United States, and the difficulties Muslims have entering or reentering the US and Britain is central to the plot. You yourself were raised in Karachi, attended college in the United States, and now live in London. Did you have to make a choice between those possible homes, or was that choice made for you by circumstance? Would you choose otherwise if you could?
After grad school, I was fairly nomadic for about a decade. Karachi was my primary base and, significantly, where I did most of my writing - but I would spend a few months every year in London and had a recurring position as a visiting professor at Hamilton College in upstate New York. For a while, that was the life I wanted. But at a certain point I wanted to stop and have a home in which I could unpack my books and put a painting or two in the walls. Somewhere in the course of the decade London had become the place I most wanted to stay in. I wouldn't say I had to make a choice - I did make a choice, and it's one I've never regretted.
In Home Fire, Lone Wolf argues that citizenship is a privilege, not a right – and can therefore be revoked. Where do you stand on that?
It's dangerous nonsense, and sadly it isn't only fictional politicians who say it. Citizenship is a right. It's a legal status. The point of having a system of justice in a country is that you have people stand trial for crimes they've committed and sentence them if they're found guilty. But to decide that certain people should simply be thrown out of the country or forbidden from returning goes against the very idea of a system of justice. Also, why should other countries be expected to take in people who've committed such damning crimes?
Well, nothing has happened overnight. Nadeem published his first novel 25 years ago, Mohsin and I almost twenty years ago. It was only about 6 or 7 years ago that people started to talk about a "boom" in Pakistani writing - and the conversation around that in the US and UK was generally about the writers you've mentioned as well as Mohammed Hanif and Daniyal Mueenuddin. There were then and are now other fine writers being published, but none have received the same kind of attention outside the subcontinent. So actually my feeling is one of disappointment that, several years later, there aren't other writers whose names are also on that list.
Having said all that - if you're from Pakistan you understand how closely connected the political and the personal are, and very often that comes through in the writing. I think this is a moment in history when American readers want that. So right now, I don't think there's something about Pakistan that is leading to such attention being given to Pakistani writers - there's something about America.
Home Fire, like Nadeem Aslam’s The Golden Legend and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, allows the reader room for a moment, or a fantasy, of what you might call a happy ending. Tell us a little about that: do you feel that moment of happiness is necessary to the experience of the reader, or is it expressing some essential truth about your characters’ experience? Is it just too discouraging for everyone if you show full-on destruction?
I can't comment on what either Mohsin or Nadeem were doing in their novels but I can tell you that I wasn't thinking about what my readers wanted or needed when I wrote my ending - I was only thinking of what seemed right for the novel. I wrote the last sentence, thinking there might be other sentences that followed and then I realized, no, this is it, this is where we end.
As a writer, you're often operating on instinct or allowing the thinking about “why this choice and not others” to go on at the back of your brain without being consciously aware of it.
This is your seventh novel. In what way have you changed as a writer over the course of your career?
I was twenty-one and in graduate school when I started to write my first novel. So I like to think my writing and I have done some growing up since. I suppose what's been most striking to me with Home Fire is that I want my writing to be much more pared down than it previously was. When I started off I liked more by way of stylistic flourishes; now I think writing conveys more through restraint. But I suppose the most obvious change is that you become more confident and ambitious as a writer, and I hope that shows through in the work.
Thanks so much, Kamila Shamsie.
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