by Natalie Hanman)
I want to go to Peshawar," a young Englishwoman with a passion for archeology tells her mother in Kamila Shamsie's latest novel, A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury), "because there's more past than present there." While Vivian Rose Spencer goes on to dig her way into the past literally – in a dramatic hunt for an ancient artefact as Britain's imperial reign crumbles – Shamsie does so with words. "I love the part of history that is story," she tells me from her flat perched high among trees near Lord's cricket ground in north London. "If a thing is interesting enough, then I want to find the story in it."
Shamsie's stories, in the six novels she has published so far, explore huge themes such as war and love, while zooming in on the intricate detail of her characters as they cross continents and decades in search of themselves, and the truth. One narrative device she deploys is that of the twinned storyline, as a way of exploring how people's lives are shaped by history. "As a novelist, there's a dramatic interest in having the individual lives and then this much larger canvas," she explains. "This notion that we are individuals who control our destiny is an absurdity if you grew up in a place like Pakistan."
Shamsie was born in 1973 in Karachi – "a really violent, damaged city but also the most cosmopolitan and energetic and vibrant place in Pakistan" – to an English-speaking family. It was hard to get hold of good books during Zia-ul-Haq's dictatorship. Shamsie's mother, a literary critic (and the third in, now, four generations of women writers in her family), made a concerted effort, pestering travelling friends to bring books back and subscribing to Granta magazine. The editions of the 80s and 90s, which championed contemporary realist fiction from around the world, lined one of the family's bookshelves, and were well-thumbed by Shamsie as a teenager. A year ago Shamsie was included in Granta's latest list of best young British novelists. Her mother has a copy of the issue of the magazine, on that same bookshelf. "Growing up, if you'd said to me, 'And one day you will be here', that was ridiculous," Shamsie laughs.
She went on to study creative writing in the US, writing her first novel, In the City by the Sea, while at the University of Massachusetts. It was published in 1998, when she was just 25, and was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys prize in the UK.
Her first four novels are set in Karachi, most of them in the same neighbourhood where she grew up. Karachi is "the canvas of my life", she says. I ask about the tendency for western journalists to label work by non-white writers "autobiographical", something the writer Aminatta Forna has called "intellectual laziness … those journalists did not recognise the things I wrote about as coming from their own lives, ergo they must have come from mine". Shamsie acknowledges the process of othering: "There will be journalists who come to you and they want to find the Muslim in you, the Pakistani in you."
After a nomadic decade moving between the US, Pakistan and the UK, Shamsie settled in London six years ago and she recently became a British citizen. Writing about the thorny process of applying for citizenship, she reflects on being both "betrayed and betrayer", as the British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar calls it, in relation to Pakistan. She has found it harder in the last few years to feel optimistic about the country of her birth, and there has been an unlocking and moving away from Karachi in her work, as well as in her life. Her fifth novel, the Orange prize-shortlisted Burnt Shadows, marked a departure in terms of place, with its opening set in Japan. And then, "as a single woman, London is a nicer place to live than Karachi".
Some of the most memorable moments in Shamsie's new novel explore the issues of feminism's first wave, including women's suffrage and work during the first world war. When I ask about being a woman in the world today, she says without missing a beat: "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." She dismisses cultural relativism: "The worst thing that people say is 'oh well, compared to where you're from' as if that's an excuse, or makes any difference … It's not that girls are being shot in the head for going to school, and thank God for that, but there are these other levels that you have to contend with." She references the current debate around the gender imbalance in book reviewing, how women's books are marketed and how only men's fiction is deemed to be "weighty" and "serious". "The number of times I've heard my books referred to as romances," she scoffs. "Male writers such as Mohsin Hamid and Nadeem Aslam will write novels which have romances at their centre but the books are never, ever, referred to as romances."
While Shamsie is committed to fiction as a form, she also writes comment articles, including for the Guardian. "A lot of what you are doing in a novel is trying not to hit people over the head with a sledgehammer," she says, whereas writing journalism is much more immediate. "There's a clarity and logic that you can try to bring to bear on something which is enjoyable." She is also one of many novelists who have taken to the even more focused medium of Twitter. "It's an interesting way, if you're in one place, to be part of a certain kind of conversation in another place." And for someone who lives round the corner from Lord's and recognises how impossible it is to be Pakistani without also being a cricket fan, "Twitter's a good place to be when Pakistan is playing a cricket match."
Shamsie is self-deprecating about her craft: "Michael Ondaatje had a phrase for it, 'the artist who follows the brush' – a lovely way of making an incredibly chaotic process sound like it has some intrinsic meaning." And she has a horror of sounding superior: "The only way to be a writer is to assume that someone who is reading it knows more than you do about everything in the novel, including how to write a sentence – and that's the reader you're aiming for."
But Pakistan is a "very young country" in a "very old region", she explains, rich with untold stories that she wants to discover and share. Many aspects of the country's history, such as its creation in 1947 or the 1971 war, are not part of the national conversation "because everyone is trying to stake a claim for the narrative of Pakistan and its foundation myths, and there are such opposing viewpoints – about minority rights, Islam, what kind of Islam – that very often the complications don't get acknowledged."
A God in Every Stone unpeels one such story, of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who led a non-violent resistance to the British Raj and opposed the creation of the state of Pakistan – someone Shamsie never heard about when growing up because he didn't fit into "a certain national narrative". The novel builds by telling the overlapping stories of Viv and a young Pathan man, Qayyum Gul, who served in the British Indian army, up to the moment when Ghaffar Khan's followers clashed with British troops on the Street of Storytellers in Peshawar on 23 April 1930, leading to hundreds of deaths, including that of a young girl. In witness accounts Shamsie discovered references to trucks taking away the bodies of the protesters to dispose of them without the knowledge of their families. She spent days researching in the British Library until she found in the colonial archives an official letter admitting to what had happened that night. "I remember looking up at all these people just doing their work, feeling delighted because it gave me what I needed for the novel, but also disturbed by the historical awfulness of it," she says.
Shamsie observes these events through a postcolonial lens (Viv's informal tutoring of Qayyum's younger brother is called "her Civilising Mission"), and this is a key part of what makes the novel so much more than just a thriller. The "urgent historical question" she is addressing "is the ongoing one of the empire. The real loss is the loss of a girl's body rather than the loss of the 2,500-year-old artefact."
Shamsie is a political writer, and in an era when many artists are silent on the urgent questions of our time, unashamedly so. A former trustee of English PEN and Free Word, and currently one of Liberty's "Writers at Liberty", she is passionate about "the novel as a place for politics", without being dogmatic. "Thank God that in the world there exist novels like Cold Comfort Farm," she says. "The book that can just make you laugh, without really worrying about anything else except laughing, is a fantastic thing. We need those books in the world. We need books like Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which is about women in one house, but is the largest novel as well. So it would be wrong to be prescriptive to any individual writer about what they are writing. But out of every country, if you have enough writers, some of them will engage in some way with the politics of their nation."
This is what Shamsie is doing. Pakistan's place in the world, and how its becoming has altered people's lives, drives her stories. "Writing a novel is the best way I know of exploring an idea, a place, a time," she says. "I don't think there's anything like the novel for empathy … If you write non-fiction it's as though you are from the outside looking at something. But if you write fiction, you are behind someone's eyes looking out, and that's the difference."
She is scathing about what she sees as a lack of rage in the fiction coming out of the world's superpower, a country with such a tangled involvement – both past and present - in the region she comes from. "I am deeply critical of American writers for their total failure to engage with the American empire. It's a completely shocking failure, not of any individual writer … but it's the strangest thing to look around and say, 'Where is the American writer writing about America in Afghanistan, America in Pakistan?'. At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning."