Kamila Shamsie: where does a writer belong?

Kamila Shamsie, one of our ‘Best of Young British Artists’ launched her latest book, A God in Every Stone in Delhi last week.

She shares her thoughts with us on the complexities of writing about place and identity.

The idea of place has a strong presence throughout my works. I seem to think more about cities than countries, cities are much more likely to have identities than nations and I feel a strong pull to explore them and their spirits. Lahore, for example, is a deeply imagined city surrounded by ancient stories. Karachi is much newer. It is a city of migrants who don’t have monuments or histories reaching back to ancient times. Karachi is a new and restless place and so a writer has to learn to imagine Karachi in order to capture it’s essence. My relationship with London very meaningful but it is a little hazier with England.

There is always a tension between distance and place for writers. Some say that they are able to write their most vivid work about a place when they are in a different country or have just recently returned to a place after a long period of absence. Others would say that you have to truly ‘be’ in that place so as to really capture the nuances of the surroundings. For me, I start writing about one place and then the story spills into other locations. When a writer moves through geographical places, it takes longer to write; especially when you are writing about somewhere you haven’t been before. I have to spend time in my head getting to know a place through research but also my imagination.  Also, when you spend so much time thinking about place and how that affects your characters, you really start to question where you belong.

For me, national identity is something very porous. I have been called both a British writer and a Pakistani writer and I love that. Pakistan has quite negative connotations for some people in the west, and so if the words ‘Pakistani’ and ‘writer’ can sit together through me, then I am very happy.

Post by: Emer Coyle

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