Reading Kamila Shamsie
August 2022, volume 46, No 8

I am not a global citizen. I am a Karachi girl who lives in London.’

-Kamila Shamsie

The self that remains rooted at the place of origin is a different one from the identity that the world creates. Home becomes a place one constantly returns to and the division of the self that occurs when one remains away from home magnifies on encountering one’s old self. Concepts regarding the definition of the self and one’s identity change with time but more importantly are dependent on the location and the surroundings. Kamila Shamsie through her writings has tried to discover Pakistan. She has noticed while exploring the history of her country that narratives around Partition as well as the inception of her country in 1947 and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 are not discussed a lot in Pakistan. There is a trend of sweeping a lot under the carpet and one forgets to recognize the complications that come with trying to find a narrative for Pakistan. The ones in power keep changing the narrative to accommodate themselves in the picture that they want to show and in doing so tend to overlook several underlying issues like the rights of the minorities, the concerns with regards to what kind of Islam is being propagated, to name a few.

As Professor Elleke Boehmer observes, women in order to empower themselves and to resist the forces of patriarchy have had to step in to rewrite their stories. The ignorance of the society regarding their gender became a core issue in women’s writings; the creative works became sites where active identification appeared. According to Kamila Shamsie, she had been treated in a patronizing manner where people often remarked how she had the luxury to write and since she was a woman, it was not expected of her to get a job. The only relief for her was that she did not get to hear this at home. To grow up in a place like Pakistan it is an illusion to remain in if one thinks that one can dictate the terms of one’s life. The act of writing is marked by the differential treatment given to a piece of work which depends on one’s gender. Shamsie points out that the act of writing continues to be dominated by men and how it is difficult for a woman writer to be taken seriously in a space where the male presence is all pervasive. Shamsie herself has been at the receiving end of this preoccupation with people calling her works as romances although the thematic concerns in her works are far from being mere romances; while for the men writing novels they are never considered as writing romances even when thematically romance is at the centre of their works. At the level of a family, women become the chroniclers of the past for the generations to come. And so, becomes the case at reimagining the national identity when women take on the roles of the chroniclers who subvert the given history by looking at the story of a nation from a woman’s point of view—her story thereby dismantling the given narratives that define a nation historically. According to Stuart Hall, ‘We all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always in context, positioned.’

Shamsie’s first novel In the City by the Sea is set in the 1970s, in the era of General Zia ul Haq. Set in the times when freedom of speech is an aberration while dissenting voices are suppressed, the story follows the political turmoil of a country. There is a shift from political history to one’s personal history in Shamsie’s second novel, Salt and Saffron. Family stories and the history of a family are used to represent the national identity in this novel. Family becomes a place where a sense of identification is developed and through this novel Shamsie revisits history while intersecting the personal with the political and in that process, there is a reconstruction of the national identity. Bhabha observes in Nation and Narration that it is through one’s memory that nations are resurrected, and he likens it to narratives calling both of them (memory and nation) as lost in waters of time and losing their story of origin. Adding to it how national identities have been rendered as fixed in the official narratives of a nation and they should be questioned/contested and looked at as if they are in a state of flux.

Kamila’s third novel, Kartography talks about how the history of a nation changed the equations amongst people and created permanent divisions. In August 1947, India was partitioned and Pakistan was created, divided into West Pakistan and East Pakistan which is now Bangladesh. There is a map one creates inside one’s mind. And no matter how much one would like to operate outside of it, there are lines and borders that one is unable to cross over and operate freely. The construction of the map in the head begins early in life and goes on to either deepen those lines that crisscross across the mind or one goes on to extend the map—the original map.

Through her fourth novel, Broken Verses, Shamsie opens up the dark side of the country by bringing in the controversial Hudood laws as well as using real life cases of violence against women in the book. Using religion as a political tool, many discriminatory laws based on gender were introduced in Pakistan that led to further erosion of the rights of women who were already trapped in an orthodox society. The Islamization campaign intensified in the seventies and the eighties thereby encouraging men to gain more control over the lives of women.

It was in 2013 that Shamsie became a British citizen. That idea of changing citizenship was a hard one to digest for her and she considered herself both a betrayer and the betrayed. And as time passes, given the unending political turmoil her country, Pakistan, has been going through she has found it harder and harder to hold on to an idea of things getting better in Pakistan; there has been a conscious effort in her moving away from Karachi. As a novelist, Shamsie has been interested in exploring the lives of the people and tying it up with the country at large. She feels that in a country like Pakistan one is not in possession of one’s life, rather it is determined by forces that are outside of one’s control. Her first four books have been set in Karachi, but from her fifth book onwards there is a distancing from the city of her origins. Shamsie made a conscious decision to stop writing about Karachi as she wanted to explore the places beyond her comfort zone. But for now, she has chosen to stay away from Karachi; not entirely, as the city still seems to find a reference in her later novels—’I may come back to writing about Karachi again, but for now, I have become rather impatient with the idea of nostalgia.’

* This article is an extract from Semeen Ali’s PhD thesis—The Politics of Location in Pakistan with reference to Kamila Shamsie’s Works and from her chapter titled— ‘A Country and its Voice: Reading Kamila Shamsie’s Novels in the Socio-Political Context of Pakistan’.

Semeen Ali holds a doctoral degree in English Literature from University of Delhi. She has four books of poetry to her credit. Her works have featured in several national and international journals as well as anthologies. She has coedited four anthologies and apart from reviewing books, she is the Poetry Editor for the literary journal Muse India.