Brief Encounter: Kamila Shamsie

The author on female friendship in fiction, her ancestors and what more can be done to support free speech
September 8, 2022

What is the first news event you can recall?

Elections in Pakistan, 1977, when I was three. My father showed me his thumb-pad, black with ink, and explained that the ink was indelible and meant he would be turned away if he tried to vote again. The elections lead to martial law and 11 years of dictatorship. 

What is the biggest problem of all?

A refusal to acknowledge the truth because it’s more convenient to do otherwise (the truth of human relationships, of the climate crisis, of history’s injustices).

If you could spend a day in one city or place at one moment in history, what would that be?

The day humans discovered you can make food taste better by introducing it to fire. I like to imagine a great frenzy of spearing everything in sight and holding it to an open flame to see what will happen.

What is your favourite quotation?  

“Never underestimate the role of the will in the artistic life… Will is paramount. Not joy, not delight, but grim application.” Alan Bennett, The Habit of Art. 

Your new novel Best of Friends tackles a 40-year friendship between two women. Has female friendship been underexplored in fiction?

Yes, and in particular female friendship that isn’t blighted by sexual jealousy and love triangles. Female friends in novels often seem to despise each other; I wanted to write a friendship that’s complicated but with a lot of love in it. 

After the attack on Salman Rushdie, what more can we do to support free speech?

The category of free speech has been co-opted by those propping up old systems of power and wanting to spew hatred and lies with impunity; it is in need of some refreshing to make clear what we’re talking about is the need to protect writers’ freedoms to confront power, even when it comes with risks. That’s the kind of work Rushdie engaged in long before The Satanic Verses. I don’t believe there is any kind of “protection” that can reduce the risk to zero, but you can protect and grow the space within which such writing can exist. It’s worth remembering that Rushdie was attacked at an event organised by City of Asylum, part of a scheme that offers long-term refuge to persecuted writers and artists—there are more than 50 Cities of Refuge around the world. None of them is in the UK. It’s time to change that.

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of? 

My sister—she’s one of the most generous and unselfish people in the world. She also has a brain that can do many things, compared to my rather single-track reading/writing one. 

What has been your most interesting moment at a book event or signing? 

At the Lahore Literary Festival my friend, Mahvesh, knew that I was in a hurry to leave the venue and said she’d clear a path through the audience at the end of my event. When people gathered around for selfies and signings, she shouted out, “Kamila, your mother is looking for you!” and because this was Pakistan everyone stepped aside so that I wouldn’t keep my mother waiting. 

What have you changed your mind about?

I’m far more enthusiastic about the English cricket team than I dreamt possible growing up in Karachi in the 1980s.  But maybe it’s the team that’s changed more than my mind. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I would make a very good travel agent. 

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?

 I was weeping with joy and nostalgia through much of the Abba Voyageconcert.

What do you most regret? 

I was once at a literary festival with Toni Morrison, and could have found my way to her and said hello.  I didn’t, because I foolishly thought, “What will come of it?” Now I know that being in her presence would have been magnificent.

Best of Friends” by Kamila Shamsie is published by Bloomsbury at £16.99