D, A, N,
G, E, R, U, S,
"There's only one rule with writing. If it works, do it"
Kamila Shamsie talks about her 18-month break from writing, her new book and her favourite authors
By Huma Imtiaz
Kamila Shamsie is one of Pakistan's most prominent English novelists and with the release of her fifth book, titled Burnt Shadows, she has cemented her place in the list of English-language writers who have not only gained fame and prestige domestically, but also internationally. Her newest novel takes the reader from Nagasaki in World War II, to Delhi during Partition, Karachi in the 80s and then to Guantanamo Bay. TNS caught up with Kamila during her book tour in Karachi. Excerpts from the interview as follows:
The News on Sunday: You took a hiatus for nearly 18 months before you started working on your next novel -- why the break, and how did it affect the book?
Kamila Shamsie: Writing Broken Verses involved inhabiting the skin of someone who had suffered an enormous amount of pain which left her emotionally scarred -- so when I was done with the book I felt emotionally drained, and it seemed necessary to take some time off before diving into the next project. I wrote my first four novels back-to-back, usually starting one while still finishing up the editing work on the one before -- when I finally allowed myself to take some time off I just knew that I wanted to do something completely different. So I think of that 18 month break as giving me time to clear my mind of every habit and pattern of writing that I'd fallen into. It meant that when I started writing again it was with a sense of -- to use a bookish term -- starting a new chapter.
TNS: What kind of research went into Burnt Shadows?
KS: I just found an old email when I sent to a friend at the end of 2006 when I was working on the book -- I was writing the final section (the book is in four parts), but also doing a little bit of research on part I in order to re-write it. The email said "I'm presently surrounded by books on the following subjects: taxi cab unions in New York City, Private Military Contractors, Bilingual Aphasia, Japanese women during WWII, Afghanistan in the 80's." The bilingual aphasia part never went into the book -- but before I decided it didn't fit the plot I had read about 10 articles and 5 medical books on the subject.
Yet in my mind I did very little research for Part 4, because it paled in comparison to all the research I did for Part 1 -- set in Nagasaki the day the bomb falls. Because I knew so little about Nagasaki in 1945, I had to research every aspect of it -- from climate and topography, to clothes and the architecture of houses, to the effects of the atom bomb, to the history of Nagasaki going back to the 18th century. I relied a lot on old photographs as well as books, articles and films. And at one point I used Google Maps to allow me to pinpoint exactly where my characters were at different points in the novel and what the distances between different places were.
TNS: Karachi has always been the central theme and place in all your previous novels -- why did you choose to not do the same in Burnt Shadows?
KS: Well, it did start with Karachi again. The original idea was to write about a Pakistani -- a Karachiwalla -- who is living through the Indo-Pak nuclear tests and subsequent round of sabre rattling; but his reaction to all that's going on has a lot to do with the fact that his grandmother was Japanese and lived through the bombing of Nagasaki. But as I thought that I became more and more interested in the figure of this grandmother who goes from Nagasaki to Pakistan -- and so the grandson character never actually made it to the book. Instead, I decided to start in Nagasaki the day the bomb fell, and then move that female character to Pakistan (via Delhi) and then onward from there. There is still a Karachi section in the book -- part 3, set in the 80's, takes place largely in Karachi. And the main character of parts 3 and 4 is a Karachiwalla. So the original idea still centred around Karachi -- but when it wanted to drift in other directions I decided to follow the story and see where it would go.
TNS: Out of all your books, which one do you like the most and why?
KS: It's always the one I'm working on or have just finished. Why? Because the book you're writing is the book you're completely engaged with at the time. By the time a book is published I start to feel my connection to it is weakening -- it goes out into the world to develop relationships with its readers, and I move on to thinking about the next book.
TNS: What authors are you inspired by, and why?
KS: Hmmm....I don't think of being 'inspired by' writers. I'm inspired by the world around me and the possibilities of language to transform that work into stories. But there are, of course, many writers I admire -- Michael Ondaatje, Nadeem Aslam, Ali Smith, David Mitchell, Grace Paley. They are very different writers, but they share a strong attention to both the tiny details (an individual phrase or sentence) and the bigger picture. Doing both simultaneously is, for me, the mark of a really fine writer. And they're all writers who take risks, rather than repeating the same old formula which they've been successful with in the past.
TNS: What are you reading right now?
KS: There are so many books I haven't read. I very rarely re-read anything. But right now I'm re-reading Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 which is as funny and brilliant and unexpected the second time round as the first.
TNS: Have you started work on the next book yet?
KS: I have about 5 sentences and three or four images in my head. So I don't even know what it's about yet.
TNS: What dos and don'ts would you suggest for upcoming writers from Pakistan?
KS: My old friend and mentor, the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali, used to say: There's only one rule with writing. If it works, do it. Beyond that I don't think writing is something you can draw up dos and don'ts about. People who have a need to write will write. And they'll figure out their own process, style, interests. This is exactly how it should be.
Huma Imtiaz works as a correspondent for Geo News, and can be reached at [email protected]
G, A,M, E S,
By Hassan S Gardezi
It's a hot day and I hate my wife.
We're playing Scrabble. That's how bad it is. I'm 42 years old, it's a blistering hot Sunday afternoon and all I can think of doing with my life is to play Scrabble.
I should be out, doing exercise, spending money, meeting people. I don't think I've spoken to anyone except my wife since Thursday morning. On Thursday morning I spoke to the milkman.
My letters are crap.
I play, appropriately, BEGIN. With the N on the little pink star. Sixteen points.
I watch my wife's smug expression as she rearranges her letters. Clack, clack, clack. I hate her. If she wasn't around, I'd be doing something interesting right now. I'd be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. I'd be starring in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. I'd be sailing the Vendee Globe on a 60-foot clipper called the New Horizons - I don't know, but I'd be doing something.
She plays JINXED, with the J on a double-letter score. 29 points. She's beating me already. Maybe I should kill her.
If only I had a D, then I could play MURDER. That would be a sign. That would be permission.
I start chewing on my U. It's a bad habit, I know. All the letters are frayed. I play WARMER for 22 points, mainly so I can keep chewing on my U.
As I'm picking new letters from the bag, I find myself thinking - the letters will tell me what to do. If they spell out KILL, or STAB, or her name, or anything, I'll do it right now. I'll finish her off.
My rack spells MIHZPA. Plus the U in my mouth. Damn.
The heat of the sun is pushing at me through the window. I can hear buzzing insects outside. I hope they're not bees. My cousin Amjad swallowed a bee when he was nine, his throat swelled up and he died. I hope that if they are bees, they fly into my wife's throat.
She plays SWEATIER, using all her letters. 22 points plus a 50 point bonus. If it wasn't too hot to move I would strangle her right now.
I am getting sweatier. It needs to rain, to clear the air. As soon as that thought crosses my mind, I find a good word. HUMID on a double-word score, using the D of JINXED. The U makes a little splash of saliva when I put it down. Another 22 points. I hope she has lousy letters.
She tells me she has lousy letters. For some reason, I hate her more.
She plays FAN, with the F on a double-letter, and gets up to fill the kettle and turn on the air conditioning.
It's the hottest day for ten years and my wife is turning on the kettle. This is why I hate my wife. I play ZAPS, with the Z doubled, and she gets a static shock off the air conditioning unit. I find this remarkably satisfying.
She sits back down with a heavy sigh and starts fiddling with her letters again. Clack clack. Clack clack. I feel a terrible rage build up inside me. Some inner poison slowly spreading through my limbs, and when it gets to my fingertips I am going to jump out of my chair, spilling the Scrabble tiles over the floor, and I am going to start hitting her again and again and again.
The rage gets to my fingertips and passes. My heart is beating. I'm sweating. I think my face actually twitches. Then I sigh, deeply, and sit back into my chair. The kettle starts whistling. As the whistle builds it makes me feel hotter.
She plays READY on a double-word for 18 points, then goes to pour herself a cup of tea. No I do not want one.
I steal a blank tile from the letter bag when she's not looking, and throw back a V from my rack. She gives me a suspicious look. She sits back down with her cup of tea, making a cup-ring on the table, as I play an 8-letter word: CHEATING, using the A of READY. 64 points, including the 50-point bonus, which means I'm beating her now.
She asks me if I cheated.
I really, really hate her.
She plays IGNORE on the triple-word for 21 points. The score is 153 to her, 155 to me.
The steam rising from her cup of tea makes me feel hotter. I try to make murderous words with the letters on my rack, but the best I can do is SLEEP.
My wife sleeps all the time. She slept through an argument our next-door neighbours had that resulted in a broken door, a smashed TV and a Teletubby Lala doll with all the stuffing coming out. And then she bitched at me for being moody the next day from lack of sleep.
If only there was some way for me to get rid of her.
I spot a chance to use all my letters. EXPLODES, using the X of JINXED. 72 points. That'll show her.
As I put the last letter down, there is a deafening bang and the air conditioning unit fails.
My heart is racing, but not from the shock of the bang. I don't believe it - but it can't be a coincidence. The letters made it happen. I played the word EXPLODES, and it happened - the air conditioning unit exploded. And before, I played the word CHEATING when I cheated. And ZAP when my wife got the electric shock. The words are coming true. The letters are choosing their future. The whole game is - JINXED.
My wife plays SIGN, with the N on a triple-letter, for 10 points.
I have to test this.
I have to play something and see if it happens. Something unlikely, to prove that the letters are making it happen. My rack is ABQYFWE. That doesn't leave me with a lot of options. I start frantically chewing on the B.
I play FLY, using the L of EXPLODES. I sit back in my chair and close my eyes, waiting for the sensation of rising up from my chair. Waiting to fly.
Stupid. I open my eyes, and there's a fly. An insect, buzzing around above the Scrabble board, surfing the thermals from the tepid cup of tea. That proves nothing. The fly could have been there anyway.
I need to play something unambiguous. Something that cannot be misinterpreted. Something absolute and final. Something terminal. Something murderous.
My wife plays CAUTION, using a blank tile for the N. 18 points.
My rack is AQWEUK, plus the B in my mouth. I am awed by the power of the letters, and frustrated that I cannot wield it. Maybe I should cheat again, and pick out the letters I need to spell SLASH or SLAY.
Then it hits me. The perfect word. A powerful, dangerous, terrible word.
I play QUAKE for 19 points.
I wonder if the strength of the quake will be proportionate to how many points it scored. I can feel the trembling energy of potential in my veins. I am commanding fate. I am manipulating destiny.
My wife plays DEATH for 34 points, just as the room starts to shake.
I gasp with surprise and vindication -- and the B that I was chewing on gets lodged in my throat. I try to cough. My face goes red, then blue. My throat swells. I draw blood clawing at my neck. The earthquake builds to a climax.
I fall to the floor. My wife just sits there, watching.
There are two current types of reading aloud: reading by authors and reading by actors. Authors may have a more accurate knowledge of the tone and rhythm of their own work, they do not, as authors, have the ability to communicate that tone and rhythm to others by means of the voice.
And there are two kinds of actor -- readers: the reader of a single role and the reader of many roles. Both of them need to be first rate actors, the reader of the later category reads the speeches (when he comes to dialogue) with full characterisation in the voice and approximate characterisation of posture, gesture, and facial expression. Not every actor can do it, but I have been privileged enough to see two (of the third, the great Gielgud, anon) splendid actors achieve this feat: Emlyn Williams and Charles Laughton.
When Emlyn Williams read Dickens, he took on a character's tone of voice and embellished the narrative passages with any noises and gestures that may be intimated by them. A quick movement of his hand to his face told us that something untoward had happened. He built a whole scene by a repeated turn of his head to see if the speaker's companion was listening. At the end of a chapter he 'froze' under the dimming lights with one arm outstretched. He had perfected the one-man-theatre craft. Laughton had his own mannerisms but the effect he created when he read Shaw was equally mesmerising. What we must remember is that Williams and Laughton had a complete actor's technique to draw upon.
It is not easy to define the reader of a single role. By a single role I mean that the reader does not make an attempt at in-depth characterisation, but this should not imply that he doesn't differentiate between characters. In so far as he stands behind a lectern and reads a narrative in the third person he remains (like the reader of many roles) a pure reader. Sir John Gielgud did not alter his 'voices' for reading Mercutio's Queen Mab speech and Richard II's 'Let us talk of graves, of worms and epitaph' speech, but the timbre and texture of his voice assumed a different scale and both characters came to life with remarkable poignancy.
An actor alone can do it because he has learned to seek an author's meaning and, more importantly, learned not to make a climax of every speech, and he has acquired the knack of conserving his energy.
Acting is both natural and artificial. All great actors have one thing in common: they all had -- and have -- the ability to correct the balance, they are natural in counteracting excessive artifice, and artificial in countering excessive naturalness. Naturalness and artificial is relative to place as well as time. A gesture natural to an Indian is unnatural to an Englishman and the same is true of artificial.
What do you go to the theatre for? Sorry, the question should be phrased differently because we really don't have a theatre to go to. Why do we go to see a dramatic performance as and when it takes place in our cities? Not so much to be ennobled but to be amused and to recognise things out of the life that we left behind us. Sometimes we find that the dramatist has drawn on the everyday life of our own existence with so much ease that we begin to wonder why we never thought about it before. This is why we say of a certain actor, "he is just like so and so" or "she is just like my friend's wife" or of this speech or the other one, "Just what my father always said." Theatre expends an inordinate amount of energy engineering such recognition.
The recognition stems from the actor. I am, of course, talking about a trained actor who speaks, stands, walks, makes gestures, but does not give the impression that he is taking part in classroom exercises.
And what is virtuosity in acting? Well, Hamlet's advice to the players says it all: 'suit the action to the word, the word to the action with this special observance that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature…'
We do not know how Shakespeare was acted in his time and our assumption is that it was all highly mannered. We learn from Hamlet's advice to the players that actors of his age sawed the air with their hands, mouthed their speeches like the town-crier and "tore a passion to tatters, to very rags and split the ears of the groundlings."
Shakespeare surely would not have allowed his own plays to be interpreted in this manner. He must have exercised enough influence over his players (he had some say in the productions of his plays) to acquire and beget a smoothness for he believed that the purpose of acting was to hold a mirror up to nature.
In the 17th century the dramatic art was confined to the elegance with which an actor recited the verse. Dr Johnson wrote that we go to the theatre "to hear a certain number of lines recited with just gesture and elegant modulation." Dryden who wrote many unmemorable, lengthy dramas seems not to have demanded much more: "all passions may be lively represented on the stage if to the well-writing of them the actor supplies a good voice and limbs that move easily and without stiffness."
This is, of course, the literary view of the theatre, but if literature is what you are reading you had better pay heed to what Dr Johnson said.
Recitation or reading out loud is not the opposite of acting, it is half-way to acting. (Radio actors half-act their plays). Too often, we hear authors read from their works, roaring instead of speaking, sawing the air with their arms and whining instead of whispering. What enables an actor to portray a character successfully when he reads from a text -- fiction or non fiction -- is not his practice in reciting but his practice in acting. Any one just trained in reciting cannot recite well.