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Kamila Shamsie on bigotry, ISIS recruitment and being Muslim in England

Pakistan-born author visits with her acclaimed new novel, Home Fire

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Acclaimed Pakistan-born author Kamila Shamsie has lived in England for a decade, and in 2013 became a British citizen. But when she started researching her new novel, Home Fire, she got nervous. She needed to search topics like “ISIS recruitment techniques” online and — well, you know. “It’s actually quite disturbing to think there’s a part of you that’s second-guessing. And you don’t want the Secret Service knocking on your door,” she says.

Shamsie’s personal concerns echo key themes in the engrossing Home Fire, published Aug. 15 by Riverhead Books. The plot centers on the relationship between three young-adult siblings — the British-born children of Pakistani immigrants — and the family of a rising British politician also of Pakistani ancestry. In this modern retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, sisters Aneeka and Isma are horrified when their brother, Parvaiz, attempts to honor their late father’s jihadist legacy. The sisters ultimately clash with Karamat Lone, a political hard-liner who’s the new British Home Secretary, through their association with his privileged son, Eamonn. 

The timely novel — critically hailed on both sides of the Atlantic, and long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize — engages questions of bigotry, nationalism and national identity.

Shamsie says Home Fire was informed by her own lengthy route to British citizenship. “Part of being a newly minted British citizen is you look very closely at what people are saying about British citizenship, and what the laws around British citizenship are,” she says from her home in London, via Skype. People who hold two passports, as she does, are subject to revocation of British citizenship if they are deemed a threat. “[T]he injustice of that two-tiered system,” she says, helped drive the novel: It’s the same system, for instance, that during an airport interrogation scene makes hijab-wearing Isma wonder “how British she really is.” And it’s the system that makes Parvaiz feel so much an outsider that he’s susceptible to the manipulations of an ISIS recruiter. Shamed all his young life by the story of his jihadist father, Parvaiz is ripe for a slick recruiter who tells him, instead, that it would honor him to live up to the old man’s heroic example of fighting oppression.

As Shamsie makes clear in the novel, many ISIS recruits are young and extremely impressionable, and not all are lured by the promise of doing violence. Targeting doctors, engineers and even media-makers, jihadists offer paradisiacal visions of a unified Muslim community — even though the reality of ISIS, Shamsie says, is “purely horrific.”

Shamsie, 44, studied in the 1990s at New York’s Hamilton College and the University of Amherst, in Massachusetts. (Her Aug. 26 reading at Alphabet City is her first public appearance in Pittsburgh.) These days, she feels more “British” — in part, ironically, because of last year’s Brexit vote. “Oh, God, what have we done?” she remembers thinking. As she quips, “It has to be the idea of national calamity to make me feel part of nation.” And these days, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and another couple of prominent British political figures are Muslim, she notes, something unthinkable a decade ago.

Still, the first of Shamsie’s seven novels to be set in contemporary London emphasizes that to be a Muslim Brit is still to be suspect. Home Fire is structured in five parts, each told from the perspective of a different main character. Particularly provocative is the story of Karamat, who built his career within the Muslim community, only to broaden his base by criticizing Muslims who, as he puts it, “set themselves apart” with traditionally non-British behaviors like wearing the hijab. Born into a Muslim family but determined to defend so-called “British values” as staunchly as any reactionary native Anglo, Karamat seems the ultimate in assimilation. 

Shamsie, however, likes to paraphrase novelist Hanif Kureishi: “When people talk about assimilating, you never hear of the queen being asked to assimilate.” Some differences, in other words, are more different than others. Karamat himself might seem the novel’s heavy, but he too operates in a culture where Muslims are viewed as either secular or fundamentalists. In fact, Shamsie says, there is a whole spectrum of belief and cultural practice, including culturally Muslim atheists and devout but nonfundamentalist believers.

And, Shamsie notes, Karamat genuinely wants to improve the way Muslims are perceived — but to Muslims themselves, his approach can seem to pander to racism and Islamophobia. “He does represent the sort of strange position of being a Muslim in Britain,” she says.



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