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What Makes Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Home Fire’ The Story of Our Times

In a world that is seething with communal hate and often negatively charged discourses , Shamsie’s work asks an important question: is love and empathy in isolation enough?

Zoya Mateen | News18.com

Updated:June 13, 2018, 7:33 PM IST
What Makes Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Home Fire’ The Story of Our Times
In a world that is seething with communal hate and often negatively charged discourses , Shamsie’s work asks an important question: is love and empathy in isolation enough?

British Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire has won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, with the judges unanimously declaring it as “the story of our times”. But who is Shamsie and why is her book so important?

It was on a balmy indoor afternoon from several summers ago that I first heard of Kamila Shamsie. I had been discussing books with my sister, a practice I continued well into adulthood, and Shamsie has since featured in almost all of them.

Kamila Shamsie is the author of six successful novels: In the City by the Sea; Salt and Saffron; Kartography; Broken Verses; Burnt Shadows, A God in Every Stone and now, Home Fire.

Home Fire reworks Sophocles’ Greek classical tragedy ‘Antigone’ (in which Antigone is forbidden to bury her brother Polynices after he is declared a traitor) to tell the story of a British Muslim family’s connection to Islamic State.

In Home Fire, three orphaned siblings: elder sister Isma and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz are burdened by a tumultous past of having a Jihadist father, in the eventuality of which Parvaiz leaves London forever and ends up as the media arm of Isis.

Eamonn, is the son of the British Muslim home secretary, who enters their lives, igniting a spark of hope in Aneeka of using him to save her missing brother. The book also traces the different ideologies of two distinct Muslim families in London and is narrated through shifting perspectives of the five main characters which is non- typical to Shamsie’s style of prose.

But there’s more to the book than the simple story line.

On another level, Home Fire, not unlike the rest of her works, juxtaposes her personal conflicts, love and loss with the greater contemporary realities of the world.

Her stories, suffused with rich undertones particularly in the context of Islamic terrorism and how it affects the lives of ordinary Muslims, reel the reader in to the difficult realities of the characters, inextricably woven into the politics of the times.

Shamsie‘s book is a lament that captures the conflicting self-consciousness of Muslims in foreign lands. The beauty lies in the way these multiple themes interact with one another and solidify into a dazzling commentary that explores the clash between society, family and faith in a modern world. The way her characters engage with their identities is seamless and gentle, almost cinematic.

In the book, Shamsie makers a strong overarching point: conflict is a constant.

Her first novel, In the City by the Sea, was shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and her second, Salt and Saffron, won her a place on Orange's list of '21 Writers for the 21st Century'.

In 1999 Kamila received the Prime Minister's Award for Literature in Pakistan. Her third novel, Kartography, explores the strained relationship between soulmates Karim and Raheen, set against a backdrop of ethnic violence.

Burnt shadows is an ambitious historical novel that traces the journey of a Japanese woman through a world which is at the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Through her stories, she depicts what is ‘right’ has always been contested. That conflicts between family and state or within personal relationships is eternal.

However, what is so brilliant about Home Fire is that in it she traces these familiar questions with a charged contemporary relevance that leaves the reader shaken.

She humanizes the political and rationalizes the emotional. While a tingling wit can be observed throughout her works, her prose is personal and nuanced, yet lyrical.

Sample this line from Kartography, for example:

There’s a ghost of a dream that you don’t even try to shake free off because you’re too in love with the way she haunts you.”

Or maybe this one from Home Fire:

“For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition”

Though the Pakistan Shamsie describes in her books seethes with sensuous details of the place, her novels never become a travel guide or a monologue.

The characters become co-passengers as the reader is taken on a tour of the ‘real’ Karachi: a city of billboards and street violence, floodlit cricket matches, even cheap wine, religious confusion and passionate conversation.

Her characters are all highly articulate. The dialogues between the characters are intense, loaded with accusation, confrontation, romance and philosophy.

The characters in Kartography dealt in anagrams, in Broken Verses, languages define the merging of identities.

Shamsie has also always focused on women-centric narratives where the women have an agency.

Refreshingly strong characters similar to the works of Zadie Smith, Donna Tart and Elif Shafaq, the women in Shamsie’s books are educated, assertive individuals with complete control on their lives.

In real life too, Shamsie is known to be vocal about her support of women litterateurs and authors. In 2015, she slammed the gender bias she saw in the literary world and called for a dedicated year of publishing only works by women in order to redress the inequality.

On the outside, Shamsie’s novels seem to talk about love. The love of a family, of a lover, of a friend. But a closer looks reveals that her depictions are not in isolation. In a world that is seething with communal hate and often negatively charged discourses against Muslims, Shamsie’s work ask an important question: is love and empathy in isolation enough?

Kamila Shamsie’s ability to humanize through her writings, the debates around communal tensions and its effects on common people exemplify the true power of literature in understanding contemporary concepts of conflict, alienation, pride and identity.

Home Fire’ is the book we all need. Now.

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