Discerning Obfuscation

Email is a tricky medium in which to interview. It lacks so many of the cues that give a sense of who someone is: body language, tone of voice, pauses. But Kamila Shamsie’s emails portray a powerful sense of self – at least the self she chooses to present. The author of Home Fire prefaces her answers by pushing back at my questions, unwilling to accept their premises: ‘What inspired you to research and write on homegrown Islamist terrorism?’… ‘Nothing…that wasn’t my way into the story’, and picks up on my sloppiness: ‘Have you ever faced derision for writing a novel that gives a sympathetic narrative voice to an Islamic State fighter?’… ‘He isn’t a fighter’ (he, Parvaiz, one of the protagonists, is in fact a sound engineer for IS’s media arm). At times, she makes me feel a little foolish: ‘Did writing Parvaiz give you imaginative insight into why a person might make become radicalised?’… ‘Yes, writing fiction always takes you into the worlds and lives of your characters.’ Shamsie is clearly not one to suffer fools.

This is what makes her such a good writer. Because she really is very good; Home Fire is a work saturated with the detailed, intelligent observations of emotional experience. Shamsie is something of a Realist with a capital ‘R’, savouring the simple machinery of her characters’ daily lives, inviting the reader to crawl under their skins. She can write fear – in the opening chapter we see Isma wondering whether repacking the suitcase that Heathrow security officials have rifled through will only get her into more trouble. She is trying to reach America, to reclaim the academic life she abandoned in order to raise her siblings beyond the long shadow cast by her IS fighter father. Now, due to her brother’s radicalisation, she sits in an airport interrogation room, biting back the sarcastic retorts as she is quizzed on her attitude to The Great British Bake Off, the Queen, Iraq, and more: part of the test of British citizenship. Shamsie can also write shame – Isma later thanks the airport security woman ‘whose thumbprints were on her underwear.’ As the novel tests the moral binaries of good and bad, our intimacy with the characters makes them ever harder to judge dispassionately.

Shamsie’s skill has developed over a career that began at the age of 25, with the publication of her first novel In the City by the Sea, in 1998. Her seven works of fiction form a road-map of her life: the first four are set in Karachi, Pakistan, most of them in the neighbourhood where she grew up, while her sixth, A God in Every Stone, the story of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s non-violent resistance to the British Raj and the creation of Pakistan, marks her increasing engagement with the subject of relations between Muslim communities and the British establishment. As we journey through her work, several ideas emerge again and again: the moments when political and personal loyalties collide, chance meetings, lost parents, how growing up twists and breaks the relationships of childhood. Home Fire explores new and exciting ground, but it is also a product of all that has come before it. And this road-map has become increasingly littered with shortlists and prizes; most recently, the Man Booker longlist.

Shamsie has never shied away from the political potential of a career in the literary spotlight. In 2015, she wrote a piece for The Guardian calling for a radical solution to the problem that only three of the thirteen novels long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker were written by women. ‘We read what publishers submit to us’, judge Sarah Churchwell said bluntly. ‘[If] publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism in our culture.’ Shamsie’s response? 2018 should be the ‘Year of Publishing Women’, in which no new titles written by men should appear on bookshelves. The small publishing house And Other Stories accepted Shamsie’s challenge, which she tells me she is ‘delighted’ about, although she says she didn’t necessarily expect her idea to be taken literally: ‘My hope was at most that it would spark a conversation. Or rather, that it would add a spark to a conversation already taking place. Things are better than they used to be – but there’s a lot of work yet to be done, and it does require specific interventions (such as the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the VIDA count) to move things forward.’ Her sober realism is no overstatement: in 2016 VIDA, a US-based feminist pressure group that uses statistical analysis to uncover literary gender disparity, revealed that only 22% of bylines in the London Review of Books that year were women. More promisingly, however, Shamsie is one of four women of colour on the six-book shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize For Fiction, alongside Elif Batuman, Meena Kandasamy and Jesmyn Ward; a representation double that of last year’s shortlist. As she says, ‘Progress doesn’t come from people sitting around believing that time will right all wrongs.’

Shamsie came to Home Fire a veteran of the novel form: perhaps why, when the Artistic Director of Tara Arts Theatre, Jatinder Verma, took her out for coffee and asked her to adapt Antigone for the modern stage, she instead insisted on reworking Sophocles’ tragedy into a novel.  ‘It very quickly became clear’, Shamsie tells me, ‘how pertinent the Antigone story, of two sisters responding in different ways to their brother’s act of treason, and of a state passing judgements that primarily affect the traitor’s family members, was to the story of radicalised Britons, and the response of the British government.’ In Sophocles’ play, the ruler of Thebes, Creon, forbids Antigone and Ismene from burying their disgraced brother Polyneices. The pragmatist Ismene, who finds her equivalent in Isma in Home Fire, refuses to disobey the king, but the headstrong and impassioned Antigone, or Aneeka in Home Fire, has other ideas.

This same family tragedy is played out in a startlingly modern world. The cracks begin to show when Aneeka skypes her sister Isma in the middle of the night to accuse her of betraying their brother Parvaiz to the police, her angry face disappearing back into the phone as she suddenly hangs up. And the family finally breaks apart when Isma watches her sister on a television screen, kneeling over their brother’s corpse in a Karachi park and demanding that his body be allowed back into the UK for burial. The contemporary quality to the play that Shamsie identifies and preserves, the sense that it is a story for the here and now, was also reflected in her anxieties as she wrote it. She freely admits that she was worried ‘about whether my research into IS recruitment might draw the attention of the state’, a worry constantly echoed by the novel’s characters, as the sisters quiz each other in preparation for the interrogation room, and Aneeka texts Isma, ‘Stop spying on our messages you aresholes and find some bankers to arrest.’

Like so much else in the novel, however, Shamsie’s portrayal of IS is not straightforward. Raqqa is both a nightmare landscape of severed heads and morality police, and a multinational tech hub of SUVs and luxury apartments. And the girls the IS recruits talk and fantasise about might be jihadi brides ‒ but their talk could come straight out of any locker-room; crude, smutty and eager. Of course, there is no moral ambiguity to the torture scenes. At one point, Parvaiz is chained to the floor and left to scream himself into oblivion; later he engineers the sound on propagandistic videos of enemy crucifixions, perfecting ‘the pitch and timbre of a nail through flesh’. Still, Shamsie is clear that the novel doesn’t have a specific political agenda: ‘All good novels have to allow a multiplicity of readings and interpretations, which means that if you have a specific political purpose in mind, you’d be better off finding some way to execute it other than via a novel. I certainly can’t claim I had in mind the political purpose of suggesting that Theresa May appoint Sajid Javid as Home Secretary! That’s just one of those instances of life overtaking fiction… It was a bit spooky though.’ Spooky indeed, that career politician Karamat Lone in Home Fire presaged the appointment of a Conservative Home Secretary with Pakistani Muslim parents and similarly anti-immigrant politics, only a couple of days before this interview.

Lone’s story is interwoven with that of Isma and Aneeka, but he is perhaps the novel’s most complex and enigmatic character. Initially elected to Parliament by a majority-Muslim constituency, he gradually loses their support as he becomes the brown face of the establishment, speaking out against gender-segregated mosques and telling Muslim teenagers: ‘Don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to… Because if you do, you will be treated differently.’ But this is the man who met his wife on a ‘Rock Against Racism’ march wearing a leather jacket and a badge saying ‘Racists are bad in bed’, and who as a father  shouldered most of his teenagers’ parenting during his days as a backbencher; who grins at his son and says, ‘Who is this posh English boy with my face?’ As Shamsie puts it, reactions to him vary from ‘He’s awful’ to ‘I have such a crush on him’, which she ‘finds very pleasing.’ I ask her about her personal attitude towards her most enigmatic creation. But she is evasive: ‘My job is to write the character, not to interpret him for the reader.’ Indeed, the slipperiness of characters like Lone, the impossibility of neatly pinning down right and wrong, is what gives the novel its power.

This inherent slipperiness is partly a result of the tension between form and content. A first-person narrative purports to place you inside someone else’s head, taking you as close to the consciousness of another human being as you’re likely to get. That is a formidable tool for the creation of empathy, and it is nearly impossible not to feel some connection to the five distinct voices that narrate Home Fire, each of whom are given a slice of text to shape and control. The repressed but irreducibly good Isma who begins the novel is a not a difficult character to like, but as we move through the heads of Eamonn and Aneeka and finally end up with the more questionable Parvaiz and Lone, it becomes increasingly difficult as a reader to feel comfortable with your own responses. It should be impossible to warm to Parvaiz, for instance: a traitor, a radical, the participator in acts of cruel, violent death in his role as an IS operative. But this is a novel, and Parvaiz is a lonely, damaged young Muslim man vulnerable to rhetoric and love. His recruitment is a kind of elaborate courtship by the benevolent Farooq, who feeds him heroic stories about the father he has only ever heard derided, in the process becoming a surrogate father figure. Shamsie, ‘had no interest in writing another story of a Muslim who wants to kill and destroy – it was far more interesting to me to write about someone who has absolutely no interest in being part of violence, and yet is still recruited to go and work for a terrorist group because of the very effective and multi-pronged recruiting methods of that group, mixed in with issues of masculinity, human weakness, and the legacy of the War on Terror. And, once recruited, becomes a participant.’ And this trajectory is a familiar one. In January of this year, the IS recruiter Emilie König made international headlines when she tried (and failed) to return to her family in France. Shamsie is responding to the politics of today – she is not writing fantasy.

Shamsie describes the book’s striking black and red jacket as an evocation of ‘the personal trapped by the political’. This is an equally apt description of what the novel does to the reader, who is tripped up at every turn by their own emotional reactions. I was distraught that Eamonn didn’t return Isma’s feelings, but then found myself guiltily enjoying his love affair with her sister; I was desperate to save Parvaiz from himself, and guilt-ridden that I was not instead desperate to save Britain from Parvaiz. In her discerning, but at times frustratingly obfuscatory answers, Shamsie upholds the moral slipperiness that makes the novel so politically charged. She won’t interpret her characters for us, because it is in the evasion of interpretation that the novel’s meaning lies.

If Home Fire is about any one thing, it’s where people come from – geographically, religiously, genetically, morally – and at what point you should stop apologising for who you are. Isma spends the novel doggedly concealing her family history from the world, terrified of the hatred it might produce, although her efforts only seem to shred her family ties further. As her old university professor tells her, ‘Habits of secrecy are damaging things.’ When I asked Shamsie if she has ever faced derision for giving a sympathetic narrative voice to Parvaiz, she said she hadn’t but that, ‘I did think I might. It may yet happen. But other people’s derision isn’t of much concern to me.’ It’s an impressive assertion of self-belief, and one that might have saved her characters a great deal of pain had they been able to share it.