Kamila Shamsie has written eight novels, including Home Fire which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2017. Her new novel, Best of Friends, is out in September 2022, and charts the shifting friendship of two women across several decades from Karachi to London.
Sunjeev Sahota is the author of the novels Ours are the Streets, The Year of the Runaways, and, last year, China Room, which follows two teenagers as they each come of age at different moments in twentieth-century Punjab.
Both authors were chosen for Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists issue in 2013 – one decade on they discuss plants, architecture and writing into and out of the darkness.
I’m writing to you from my desk in London, looking out onto a semi-busy street with buses trundling past. I always know when I’m deeply immersed in writing when I don’t hear the traffic at all, or – even better – when some part of my brain translates traffic into the sound of waves breaking on shore (does everyone’s brain do that or is it the product of growing up in a seaside city? I’ve never stopped to wonder that before.) But as you know, the place where I wrote a good chunk of my latest book, Best of Friends (2022), is my family home in Karachi, out on the patio, with birds pecking at fallen fruit from the nearby chikoo tree and garden cats wandering around. When I started out as a writer I had such a strong insistence on my relationship to place – I believed all my novels had to be set in Karachi, within the world in which I’d grown up. I sort of tricked my brain into writing Burnt Shadows (2009) – which I had initially thought of as a Karachi novel, like the four novels that preceded it, only to find that it had to start in Nagasaki and move on to Delhi before alighting in Karachi for a while, and then moving off again. It was halfway through the process of writing that novel that I moved to London (at the time the UK had a visa for ‘writers, artists and composers’ which seems extraordinary now) – and I don’t suppose I would have been able to make that move if I still believed that the city in which I grew up, the city in which I did most of my writing and the city about which I wrote all needed to be one and the same.
It felt both liberating and terrifying to discover that I could write about other places, and people whose experiences ranged far beyond my own. When I read your books I sometimes wonder about your own relationship to place – the novels are variously set in India, Pakistan and Britain but I’ve always thought of Ours Are the Streets (2011) and The Year of the Runaways (2015) as primarily focused on Britain, whereas your most recent book, China Room, has Britain at its periphery and India as its core. Of course as soon as I say that I want to back-pedal a little because it seems like a very reductive way to talk about your complex novels . . . but I’m not back-pedalling entirely because I remain interested in your response.
I spotted that those garden cats jumping off the chikoo tree had found their way into Best of Friends, alongside frangipanis, the kikar, the neem, the falsa. One of the real joys of your novel is your charting of the natural world, and how in Karachi the natural, the man-made and the human are all in synthesis, compared to England where, according to your character Maryam, ‘everything fits in a little box with its own precise purpose’. I know I don’t have that eye for the verdant: there’s, I think, only one plant in China Room and even that’s a fairly unassuming plane tree. Perhaps not unrelatedly, I’d always thought I was not interested in place as a writer. Convention dictates that novels must be set somewhere, so I set my first two in places familiar to me: Sheffield, Punjab. But I never felt that those places exerted any real pressure on the books or on the characters. They were largely backdrop. And perhaps that was sometimes germane – the boys in The Year of the Runaways would go anywhere to find work; the place was immaterial. However, in China Room, I did for the first time start writing a little more deliberately about the small town outside of Sheffield in which I grew up, and I’ve just finished a draft of a new novel set entirely in the UK, on the English streets of my childhood and adolescence. It’s beginning to feel like I am, after all, interested in notions of place, though it’s not lost on me that I’ve only been able to write about those English streets now that my parents have moved and I no longer have any ties to my hometown, and no reason to ever go back there: only now it’s no longer inside me am I capable of letting it go and really seeing it.
It fascinates me that your early novels are embedded in the city of your childhood and that your later ones travelled to other places, and that mine are undertaking the reverse journey. Maybe it is all connected to ideas of ‘belonging’ and how rooted we feel, or are allowed to feel, in our childhood environments. But wherever a story takes place, I agree with D.H. Lawrence when he said that every one of his novels is set in ‘the country of my heart’. When I think of Best of Friends, I recall many things: Maryam and Zahra and their lifelong friendship, the London of their adulthood, their pain and anger. But it feels to me that none of that would be possible without the complicated childhood that Karachi hands the two friends, that the city pumps real life throughout the pages of the novel.
Does place inform not only the setting but also how you structure your novels? I ask because I’m always eager to know how other novelists go about building their books. But also because, since Burnt Shadows, different cities and their histories seem so central to the architecture of your works. Are you a great traveller and historian?
It’s funny you should mention how verdant my novels are. I’m an urban cliché in my ignorance of the natural world but when I write I always find it strangely important to know what trees and plants are growing in the places and seasons I’m writing about. (That kikar tree you mention in Best of Friends – I had to ask my sister the name of the trees that lined our schoolyard.)
I’m really interested in the fact that you’re only now really writing about the streets of your childhood and adolescence. With Best of Friends I wrote about the Karachi of my adolescence for the second time, having done it twenty years ago with an earlier novel called Kartography. Even though I was the one who started talking about the importance of place, I find myself wanting to say that what’s most significant to me about that Karachi section in Best of Friends isn’t place but time of life. That wasn’t the case with Kartography, but something about my forties seems to bring girlhood into particular focus. I wonder if your new novel is set during the time of your adolescence as well as the place of your adolescence? I also wonder if writing just a few pages about your hometown in China Room brought with it desire to return (imaginatively) and locate an entire novel there?
Structure is something I find hard to talk about. I’ve always admired structure in your novels – the spiralling structure of China Room in which past and present appear to move closer and closer to each other is one of the novel’s great pleasures – and I suspect you might be someone with the ability to work out a structure before you plunge into writing. That’s an ability I admire and long to have. I’m very much a writer who makes things up as I go along, trying to write my way out of darkness. With Burnt Shadows, in particular, I wrote much of the novel with little idea where I was going (in terms of location, or plot, or character). It was terrifying. But my way of getting through the terror is to write on, and eventually certain patterns and repetitions start occurring; once I understand what those patterns and repetitions are it starts to become easier to see where I’m going next. The moment when I understand the structure of the novel is always a moment of triumph – and it may not occur until several drafts in.
Even as I read back over what I’ve written I start to doubt it all; I’m separating place, time, structure as though they’re distinct from each other but in the writing everything happens together. Or perhaps it happens separately but our brains are preoccupied with trying to synthesise different elements so we experience writing as ‘everything happens together’. But maybe I’m projecting my writing process onto you and you experience it quite differently?
I think you’re right and that all aspects of writing happen both together and separately, like the colour of the sky, perhaps, which we apprehend as singly blue despite the spectrum behind it. It’s striking to me how often writers speak of structure, or form, in terms of construction: as scaffolding, framework, or, as I did, as architecture. Your metaphor feels much more apposite, where form is the seeking out of a path through darkness; it’s also genuinely inspiring to learn of the trust you have in your process and your faith in the generosity of narrative, that the narrative will in time reveal itself to you and, maybe, you to it. For my part, I can’t write into darkness in that way and before I can properly embark on the novel I do need to first spy some lights in the distance, lights that enable me to half-glimpse the whole: though it’s crucial most of the novel remains a mystery to be uncovered, I need to be able to trick myself into believing I can see the thing’s shape, its end, and that I have a general feel for the long, difficult sweep that is the middle of a book. I’ve also noticed that the novel doesn’t fully click into gear until I have a title. Until that moment arrives, and however much I will have convinced myself otherwise, any writing ends up being very preparatory, almost doodling. But once I’m certain what the book is to be called the novel gets written under the banner of that title; or better to say that the title is in some important sense the camera lens through which the novel comes into focus. So: lights, camera – all of which can take years – and then the action of writing, which happens quicker, as if it’s a matter of trying to free myself from the awful grip the novel by that point has on me. I get the impression you think hard about titles, too – Broken Verses, Burnt Shadows, Home Fire: they all inhabit a tension that then thrums inside the novels. Best of Friends, of course, is also a phrase laced with irony.
The book I’m working on isn’t directly set in the years of my adolescence, though its concerns can be traced to that time. It’s a novel that considers concepts of community and class, about how to achieve change, and all of this was fraught territory in the former mining town of my childhood. Even now we still prefix these places ‘former’, they’re still absolutely defined by what they once were, by what they’ve lost. It feels to me that class is also a strong note in Best of Friends, by way of Maryam and Zahra’s differing backgrounds and the impact this has both on their friendship and on how they each relate to the world. I loved Maryam’s observation that ‘When you’re achingly middle class, the racist shit of your childhood is largely metaphorical.’ There’s also, throughout the novel, an awareness of inequality, of the precarious lives of drivers and servants, of homes falling into ruin, which is ‘the kind of thing that only the rich could find charming’. Can I ask how you see Maryam and Zahra and class in the novel?
Also, cricket. What does the sport mean to you? Was it a big part of your own girlhood? In the novel, the cricket pitch is the only place that the workers feel they can lower their guard and treat Maryam as an equal. The pitch is also the site of Maryam’s deepening awareness of her own changing body; subsequently, she begins to distance herself from playing the game she loves. Do you see any connection or tension, either inside or outside the novel, between cricket and class and gender? I guess we do still say ‘It’s just not cricket’, which suggests that the game harbours a desire for fairness, though I’m not sure if that desire extends to the world beyond the boundary.
There’s so much wit in the novel, Kamila, which I think is obvious from even the short bits I’ve quoted. I’d ask how you do that, but I suspect it’s a question of sensibility, a reflection of your particular gaze. It’s invigorating to see the world through your eyes.
I suspect we aren’t all that far apart in terms of writing in the darkness/spying lights in the distance as we set off. When I talk about my writing process I always inject a tone of certainty into a process marked by its uncertainties. Another way to say this is, writing is doing, while talking about writing requires us to remember the doing – and then we construct a narrative out of our memories. When I talk about finding a path in the darkness I’m erasing from the narrative the period of several months between the time I glimpse the novel ahead and actually start writing it. What am I doing in those several months if not trying to spy some light, some shape? Much darkness still remains – your phrase: ‘it’s crucial most of the novel remains a mystery to be uncovered’ says it beautifully.
But here’s one thing I can be declarative about: my titles are almost always the very last thing to fall into place. You mention Broken Verses, Burnt Shadows, Home Fire – the first two were suggested by other people when I said I was stuck for a title and told them a little about the novel itself; the third was prompted by a friend who had read a late draft and said that it was a pity The Fire This Time had already been used because it would work very well. So I started scribbling down word combinations that included ‘Fire’. In all three cases I didn’t have a title until my editor warned me the catalogue was almost ready to go to press. Some form of title is always essential, though, so each of my drafts have working titles that I always know to be ‘Not-Working Titles’. I sometimes wonder what it’s all about, my inability to think up titles. It’s so interesting to me that for you titles are the lens through which you see the novel come into focus. I’ll go back to the idea of the brain furiously at work trying to synthesise different elements when we write fiction; some crucial part of that synthesis must remain murky to me so that I can’t find the words that will bring the whole novel together under a single banner – but when someone else presents me with the right word combination I recognise it. So I have to ask, how do your titles come to you? Do you work on them in some way or is there just an Aha! moment when they emerge?
But, look. I have yet to address class and gender and cricket. How to do all that in just a paragraph or two? I’m going to settle on class because during my writing life I’ve talked about that much less than gender and cricket. Now how exactly have I managed to talk more about cricket than class? That wouldn’t be possible if class didn’t remain the least talked of structures in the middle-class Britain in which I now live. Even that term – middle class – seeks to erase the vast gulf between its opposite poles. In Best of Friends both Zahra and Maryam are from middle-class families, but Zahra’s family is ‘solidly middle-class’ while Maryam’s family is ‘upper middle-class’, and even while their mutual middle-classness means that they inhabit some of the same spaces (most notably their private school) they are in very different spheres when it comes to their relationship to money and power and their own exceptionalism. I was interested in looking very closely at those differences between them and then seeing what would happen if I moved them out of the context in which the subtexts of the Pakistani class system are apparent to everyone and placed them in the UK. What elements of class travel across continents, what elements are blurred by migration and fame and success and a certain kind of university education. Relatedly, I sometimes think someone could write a fascinating play about race and class and power using as characters the children of migrants in the upper echelons of the Tory party. You ever wanted to write a play, Sunjeev?
I’d love to write a play one day, and spending time inside the heads of upper-class Tories and their progeny would be instructive, even when not edifying.
Early on, I called China Room ‘The Women’s Room’, which managed the feat of being both too generic and hopelessly on the nose. I returned to my notebooks with an instinct that the real title was proving elusive because something was absent from the story. In time, I saw that the women’s room in the novel was too austere, or that it wasn’t austere in quite the right way. Once I put some chinaware on the shelves, the title lit up, and lit too some hitherto opaque corners of the narrative. All that said, the other day my eldest asked me the title of the new novel I’m working on. When I told her, she wrinkled her nose and muttered, ‘Sounds a bit woo-woo.’ Woo-woo!