I’d argue the first two sentences of that question are very loosely related, and the third is totally disconnected. Of course, as a writer (and as a human being) I don’t believe that specificities of nationhood prevent feelings of solidarity, empathy, love etc with people of other nations. Given that my grandmother was German, my favorite cousin is Danish, half my family is Indian, my godson is American, and I’m a dual Pakistani-British national, the idea of unity being hemmed in by national boundaries really is a non-starter. (And I haven’t even mentioned the diverse nationalities of my favorite writers who’ve done so much to shape how I think about the world.) But how and why should we jump from that line of Tolstoy to a question about whether cultural and national distinctions are a critical component of voice? Of course they are–or certainly, national distinctions are (there is no such thing as a unity of culture within any nation or city or even family).
When I say ‘distinctions’ I don’t mean ‘separateness.’ I mean, instead, that there is no way of extracting history and politics from a novel, or from a life. As a writer, I am drawn back continuously to Pakistan’s short but very troubled history – even when I’m writing about the atom bomb in Nagasaki, my starting point is Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons. So the nation itself, the question of ‘what happened here, what might yet happen here, and what impact do these real and hypothetical events have on the lives lived within this particular patch of earth’ has always been central to my fiction. As for who I write for–well, whoever will read me, of course. The beauty of writing is that there’s no telling where a novel will strike a particular nerve–after all, two of the best books I’ve read about the 80s and 90s in Karachi are Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men (which is actually set in Libya) and Juan Gabriel Vasquez‘s The Sound of Things Falling (set in Colombia).
—Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels: In the City by the Sea, Kartography (both shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), Salt and Saffron, Broken Verses and Burnt Shadows which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and has been translated into more than twenty languages. She is a trustee of English PEN and Free Word, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She grew up in Karachi and now lives in London.
2paragraphs gives special thanks to Anderson Tepper for curating our International Writers Interviews. Mr. Tepper is on the staff of Vanity Fair and is a Contributing Editor at Words Without Borders.