Kamila Shamsie Visits American University of Sharjah
By Arfah Siddiqui
SHARJAH—Addressing an audience at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), Kamila Shamsie said that a strong sense of self does not need external factors to decide where home is.
The Pakistani-British author, who was in Sharjah for the emirate’s annual international book fair, spoke about identity and belonging in a world that is rapidly becoming transnational.
Shamsie talked about the challenges of a having transnational identity and having a fluid sense of belonging to nation states, in response to audience members’ questions, many of whom were expats in the UAE.
Shamsie, born and raised in Karachi, writes primarily in English. To date, she has published seven novels, two of which have been shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in the UK.
In 1999, Shamsie received the Prime Minister’s award for Literature in Pakistan for her first book In the City by the Sea. In 2000 after the release of her second novel, Salt and Saffron, Shamsie was selected as one of Orange’s 21Writers of the 21st Century.
In 2010 Shamsie won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. She was also included on Granta’s list of one of the 20 best young British writers in 2013.
Shamsie was recently nominated for the South Asian literature award as a finalist alongside four other authors, including 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. The award is expected to be announced in Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2015.
‘Home’ and belonging
In a heavily cosmopolitan place such as the UAE that hosts a great number of expats, it was no surprise that the dominant thread of Shamsie’s discussion was transnationality and identity in the 21st century.
Many of Shamsie’s novels, including the most recent one – A God in Every Stone – heavily explore themes of belonging, home and the nation state. Shamsie stated that historical circumstances play an important role in assessing the vantage point from which we look at ‘home.’
Relating the idea of ‘home’ to the characters in her latest novel, Shamsie said that it is not a necessary human condition for a person to be a citizen of their homeland for them to feel a strong sense of identity towards it. She added that the definition of home is not limited to a tactile sense, even if it plays a significant role.
Identity and transnationality
Shamsie said that in today’s world, where transnationality is a stark reality, people in large cosmopolitan cities have more in common with other such cities around the world than with smaller, rural towns in their own country.
She added that every nation is transnational and have historical links with each other, one example being British India and the history resulting thereof.
Shamie further said that a strong sense of self does not need external factors to decide where home is. The idea of a national identity is a modern construct, Shamsie stated.
Citing the example of colonial subjects, Shamsie said that colonial subjects weren’t specifically citizens, even if they were physically on land. Thus the concept of ‘home’ is not a necessary singularity.
Shamsie herself has a strong sense of belonging to Pakistan, despite recently applying for dual citizenship. This was reflected not only in her discussion of the relevance of owning our histories, but also in the fact that Shamsie’s first four novels were all set in Karachi, one of Pakistan’s major cities.
Karachi’s lack of imagined history and scope for future
Citing author Bilal Tanweer – who has also been shortlisted for the 2014 South Asian Literature award – Shamsie said that there is a lack of literary history of Karachi.
Shamsie said that the former capital and Pakistan’s most important commercial city has not been imagined in literature the same way that Lahore and Peshawer have been.
Lahore has been romanticized in literature, whereas Karachi lacks that imagined history. Hence, there is a lot of scope for writers coming out of Karachi.
No one can make this claim better than Shamsie, who herself has written extensively on Karachi. Her novel Kartography is one of the few that threads together a beautiful, nostalgic narrative of Karachi, listing out intricate details that capture the essence of the city.
Shamsie says that despite the ethnic feuding and separate histories of its inhabitants, Karachi does not lack history; history can be discovered. “Storytelling is a way of containing trauma – to give it a beginning, middle and an end – to shape it.”
Arfah Siddiqi is a 22 year old Dubai-born Pakistani. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and international relations from the American University of Sharjah. She has interned for an NGO in Dubai and has conducted research on migrant workers, international law and human rights. Her research interests include international humanitarian/human rights law, drone strikes and child labor. Arfah is an aspiring human rights lawyer and plans to pursue a JD in international law. In her free time, she enjoys baking, travelling, postcolonial literature and promoting female empowerment through her blog, which aims to dispel social stigma surrounding fashion.