‘When ultra-nationalism is on the rise, it divides citizens into those whom the state should be proud of, and everyone else’

Kamila Shamsie reimagines Antigone in her new novel, which is already on the Man Booker longlist. The Pakistani writer on researching Islamic State, the right lessons from history and watching Jhulan Goswami play.

Written by Amrita Dutta | Updated: August 6, 2017 12:00:30 am

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What is the seed of Home Fire (Bloomsbury, Rs 599)? Were you trying to understand why young men and women are leaving in search of the Caliphate?
It began with a suggestion from Jatinder Verma, a theatre director in London, that I adapt Antigone as a play for the contemporary times. I started to think about it, and, almost immediately, I knew the story I wanted to tell — but as a novel, rather than a play.

At first, the point of interest was not the story of the young men and women going to join the Islamic State. It was the British government wanting to strip the citizenship of those who had gone away to join IS. I had recently become a British citizen. I am a dual national of Pakistan and Britain, and I was aware that there were increasing powers to strip citizenship of dual nationals. Under what circumstances, does a state say that my citizen is responsibility? And at what point does it say, ‘I don’t like what my citizens are doing, so I will stop making them my citizens instead of dealing with them’? That was the larger issue.

What kind of research did this involve? How did the South African playwright Gillian Slovo’s work Another World: How We Lost Our Children to Islamic State help you?
I was lucky that Gillian was working on this play. She interviewed a lot of people, particularly the mothers of people who left for the Islamic State. There was quite a lot that I was able to get through her. But because there are a lot of scenes in Raqqa in the novel — and there was no question of going there — I had to do a fair amount of online research. As a novelist, you fill in the gaps. But I was nervous about going online looking for all that stuff, because you are so aware of a surveillance state now.

Did you get a fairer understanding of what it is to be a young Muslim in the western world? 
I suppose, you know, it’s something I am aware of — being a Muslim in a western world. But, obviously, I haven’t grown up here. And it is a very different thing if your sense of self has been established somewhere else and you come here, and adapt, as I did.

One of the things Slovo did was to go and talk to young Muslim students, 13 or14 or 15 years old, who had grown up here. On the one hand, they feel completely British. There is no question of belonging to any other nation, but they are also very aware of being viewed with suspicion. When she asked them, ‘What do you know about Islamic State?’, they said we deliberately don’t look at that kind of information because we are worried about what people might think. I was struck by the strong sense of being watched and being under suspicion in these British citizens.

In the novel, Parvaiz is a young man with doting and powerful sisters, and he is weaned away by the Islamic State because he is looking for his father. How does masculinity and femininity help you understand violence?
To me, it is obvious and inextricable that if you have to look at violence, you have to look at issues around masculinity. And tied to that is the need for father figures. Young boys have to grapple with the idea of what it is to be a man in ways which girls don’t.

Someone like Parvaiz should have been a feminist. He has seen how amazing women can be. But Farooq [his handler] is able to pull out of him just that little bit that believes men should be in positions of superiority, and that he is not being a proper man because he allows the women in his life to be more powerful. That is very much part of patriarchal cultures everywhere.

How did a classical Greek tragedy intersect with contemporary Britain?
I think it is interesting that there has been a revival of Greek plays on the London stage in recent years. These are periods of darkness and change in Britain. And the Greeks are very good at all that, at distilling things to the essence.

One of the ways of looking at Antigone is to see how the state is trying to exert a certain kind of control over the life and death of its citizens. But there is one woman who will not accept that. She can be read either as a heroic figure or someone who is incredibly stubborn and foolish, and doesn’t want to accept any boundaries. To me it became this interesting question of what you owe the state, and what the state owes you. That’s central to Antigone.

It is also about heightened emotions. The play is so much about grief and anger, and what you do in grief and anger, the decisions you take in grief and anger. The more anger you have in the world, the more the Greeks will become pertinent.

This is a more urgent, more immediate and less lyrical work, compared to your last novel (A God in Every Stone, 2014). Did you work differently? Did you worry that the human story might be drowned by the politics?
I think that was a worry with the last one as well, in a different way. The worry then was that the history would drown out [the novel]. With this one, the worry was that the contemporary politics would drown it out. But then, as a novelist, there are always challenges you are taking on.

I hadn’t intended for the writing style to be so different. But the original Greek is so slim and pared down, that that is there in the marrow of the novel. It is much less lyrical. Somewhere, I wanted the writing to be almost invisible.

Who is a citizen? Why are so many versions of this debate being heard in contemporary world?
When ultra-nationalism is on the rise, this is what is going to happen. It divides citizens into those whom the state should be proud of, and everyone else — even though legally they may have the same rights, they are seen as lesser, and it becomes easier to enact violence and injustice against them.

A couple of generations ago, left and right were the ideologies to which people attached themselves. But across the world, those have broken down. People are looking for different kinds of identifications, within your religion, your ethnicity, your family. There is a need for belonging in people.

It was one of the things that struck me when I was looking at the propaganda of Islamic State, which is not only about violence. A lot of it is about belonging, and questions of racism. Its promise is that you can come here and be with your brothers (it is not really designed for women). Here is a place where no one will treat you differently for your skin colour. The Islamic State taps into the need for belonging and the dissatisfaction with the state of belonging people are in.

Fiction enlarges your empathy. Do you hope that this novel allows the blacks and the whites to become grey?
There is black and white, of course. I don’t want someone to read it and say, okay, maybe Islamic State isn’t so bad after all. But it really struck me how young some of these men going to the IS were — 17- and 18-year-olds, barely out of childhood. And just to say that they are evil and violent…what is going on here? What is being done to them? That is a question I hope people will think about.

You wrote in The Guardian about how getting a British citizenship was a form of being betrayed and a betrayal? Is loyalty something you think about a lot?
Personally, I do not feel conflicted in my loyalties to two countries. That I have these two different nations is a source of strength rather than any kind of conflict for me. But these are questions I see in the world quite a lot. As a writer, I am interested in them. Through my novels, I want to understand this better.

When you are not writing, what keeps you going? Friends, food, cricket? 
I am a cricket fan. I was at the ICC Women’s World Cup final and it was amazing. I have been wanting to see Jhulan Goswami play for about 10 years now. It really was a joy to finally be able to do that before she retired. She really is extraordinary.

Cricket takes up a fair amount of time. I travel quite a bit. Reading, watching rubbish TV, Game of Thrones. I spend a lot of the day at my desk reading and step out in the evening to meet a few friends. I have no fascinating hobbies like raising tarantulas.

What do you think of the political climate in India? Is it something that is familiar to a Pakistani?
The thing that makes it unfamiliar is that in Pakistan we are used to a lot of awful things under military rule or by non-state actors. What is worrying in many countries of the world, right now, is the democratic election of ultranationalists. I grew up in a military dictatorship thinking that there are certain kinds of things that don’t happen in a democracy. And now that seems a very naive way of seeing the world.

It also seems, sometimes, that in India and Pakistan we are still caught up in 1947. That there is no escaping history. But the thing is that there are many pasts. So 1947 was about a terrible Partition but leading up to it, there was a freedom struggle, great acts of heroism and political coming together. So the question is: which moment of the past seems to define us? Right now, it seems to be the darkest moments. When you are stuck in the bleakest places, it is hard to remember that history is full of ups and downs, that it is full of moments of triumph as well. But we ought to remember that.

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