She called her talk in Cleveland “Why Weep for Stones?” and built it into a riveting meditation on history, art, war and morals. Readers of her fiction – Shamsie won a 2010 Anisfield-Wolf prize for “Burnt Shadows” – will recognize the thematic confluence at once.
Standing in the ornate neo-Gothic Harkness Chapel of Case Western Reserve University, Shamsie drew her listeners into thinking about the political destruction of art, such as the desecration and damage in Palmyra, Syria, amid a civil war that has claimed more than a quarter of a million lives. Recent reports indicate that some of Palmyra’s irreplaceable ruins have survived the fighting.
“What do we celebrate when we celebrate ancient artifacts withstanding savagery?” Shamsie asked, before venturing a few answers in her mellifluous voice. “We celebrate the mere fact of endurance to begin with. We celebrate humanity’s search for beauty in every age and every corner of the globe. We celebrate the expansion of our own ways of seeing, the deepening of our understanding of beauty and art. We celebrate the dedication of the artists and artisans. We celebrate the work of those who preserve rather than destroy. We celebrate human curiosity.”
Shamsie, 43, who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, knows a tension exists in valuing art in times of war. “There is no equation for calculating the value of a life against the value of a 2,000 year-old ruin,” she said. “The two acts of decimation cannot be seen in opposition . . . Or to put it another way, if you encounter someone who is going to dynamite a 2,000 year-old temple because they find it offensive you can be pretty sure they’ve killed some people on their way there.”
Such pithiness made Shamsie a highlight of the Cleveland Humanities Festival, which spent the first ten days of April “Remembering War.” The novelist wrote her fifth of sixth novels, “Burnt Shadows,” out of the foreboding of nuclear war threatened between India and Pakistan. The book begins with the 1945 bombing of Nagasaki, and ends in 2002 in a U.S. prison cell, where a character awaits being sent to Guantanamo Bay.
As the scope of “Burnt Shadows” indicates, Shamsie is deeply interested in history. She enlists it often in her writing, including frequent columns in the Guardian newspaper, to combat the amnesia that feeds toxic political impulses.
In 32 A.D., the wondrous temple in Palmyra “was dedicated to the Mesopotamian god, Bel, who is often identified with the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter; during the Byzantine Era the Temple was converted into a Christian church; in the 12th century the Arabs further converted it into a mosque,” Shamsie reminded her Cleveland listeners. “The people of different faiths who worshipped here over the centuries were separated by a great deal but they all recognized the majesty of the temple and were moved to incorporate it into their own belief system.”
Not so for ISIS, or, as Shamsie prefers, Daesh – a term this group has outlawed in the territories it controls. Daesh first desecrated the temple with public executions, then blew it up. Of course, some of this is propaganda. “After a point, the outside word stops being interested in the stories of human victims, but dynamite a 2,000 year old structure and you’re back in the headlines,” she said.
In Pakistan a decade ago, Shamsie started meditating on “why weep for stones” when she visited Peshawar, near Afghanistan at the foot of the Khyber Pass. Within the city, Taliban influence has grown, and her own family in Karachi was nervous about her visit.
The novelist bridled: “It seemed to me I was allowing a kind of propaganda victory to the Taliban in reducing that city primarily to their actions and their influence, and to have very little sense of everything in Peshawar that stood in opposition to their narrow-minded, small-hearted version of the world.”
She found it in the Peshawar Museum, where Shamsie entered “close to a state of rapture.” Nearby is a 2007 excavation trench revealing Peshawar as a continuously-inhabited city back to the 6th century B.C. Persians form the baseline. Then came Greeks, then Indo-Greeks, then Scytho-Parthians, then Kushans, then White Huns, then Mughals, then Sikhs and the British.
Being among Peshawar’s ancient artifacts “in a time when Pakistan is one of the epicenters of the battle within Islam . . . is to be reminded that there are two stories we can tell ourselves about the interaction of different cultures and beliefs,” Shamsie said. “One is the story of conquest and destruction. The other is the story of exchange and deepening knowledge. Both stories are true, but we get to choose which one we choose as our worldview, which one we bear in mind when we consider if we want to build walls or doorways.”
Shamsie first arrived in the United States 25 years ago as a college exchange student. What she found as a Pakistani and Muslim, she said, was welcome. She called on her audience – embroiled in national political rhetoric of walls and banishment – to remember that version of American hospitality, and themselves.
More than 200 prominent authors—among them Anisfield-Wolf winners Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie—have publicly objected to the PEN American Center’s decision to present French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo its Free Expression Courage award. Gunmen aggrieved by the magazine’s depiction of Islam targeted the controversial Paris weekly in January and killed a dozen people.
The signatories of an April letter to PEN argue that power and privilege must be considered when defining courageousness in satire: “The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.” One of the critics is former PEN American president Francine Prose.
Defending the decision, her successor, Andrew Solomon, co-wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, noting that, “Satire is often vulnerable to being construed as hate.” Solomon, who won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf prize in nonfiction for “Far From the Tree,” expressed respect for those criticizing the award, but argues their emphasis is misplaced.
“I think that if we don’t endorse people who are taking these courageous stances,” Solomon told NPR, “if we don’t recognize the enormous personal risks they’re taking and if we don’t fully acknowledge that in taking that risk they keep a public discourse alive that otherwise is in danger of being entirely closed down, that we miss the purpose of standing up for free speech.”
Charlie Hebdo editor Gérard Biard is expected to accept the award on behalf of the magazine at PEN America’s annual gala in Manhattan May 5.
Brooklyn, N.Y. — The Brooklyn Book Festival—a celebratory, cerebral, free event that runs one Sunday in September—attracted tens of thousands of readers, and this year, a spike of controversy.
Anisfield-Wolf jurors Rita Dove and Joyce Carol Oates read from their work, soaking up warm applause, while two recent fiction winners—Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie—signed a petition calling on the festival to sever its support from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
“It is deeply regrettable that the Festival has chosen to accept funding from the Israeli government just weeks after Israel’s bloody 50-day assault on the Gaza Strip, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians – including 500 children – dead,” asserts the petition, distributed by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel. “Sustaining a partnership with the Israeli consulate at this time amounts to a tacit endorsement of Israel’s many violations of international law and Palestinian human rights.”
The nub of the criticism centered on a small aspect of the festival: the sponsorship of Israeli writer Assaf Gavron by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Gavron, whose much-lauded novel, “The Hilltop,” will publish in the United States in October, participated in a panel entitled “A Sense of Place: Writing From Within and Without.”
Diaz, who won both a 2008 Pulitzer Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” stayed away, as did the Pakistani writer Shamsie, who won for the novel “Burnt Shadows” in 2010. But a number of the signatories—New Yorker writers Elif Batuman and Sasha Frere-Jones, author Greg Grandin and essayist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts—also participated as speakers at the festival.
So did two other Anisfield-Wolf winners, Zadie Smith, a Londoner who won in 2006 for her novel “On Beauty” and James McBride, whose best-selling memoir “The Color of Water” earned the prize in 1997 and whose most recent book, “The Good Lord Bird” surprised the bookies by winning a National Book Award last year.
Appearing on the main stage with other poets laureate, Dove praised 19-year-old Ramya Ramana, who recited a moving piece called “A Testimony in Progress.” For her part, Ramana described Dove as one of her essential inspirations.
In a panel titled “Influence of the Real,” Oates spoke of her latest story collection, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” in which an elderly Robert Frost is visited by a disturbing young woman in the title story. “Each of these stories jolted me awake,” said the critic Alan Cheuse, “like a bark from a monstrous dog.”
Meanwhile, an affable James McBride appeared on a panel with novelist Jeffery Renard Allen, whose dense and beautiful historical novel “Song of the Shank” scored a cover review this summer in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times Book Review.
“I wanted to do something different,” McBride said of his comic slavery novel. “Many books about race are [dropping his voice to sing] ‘Ohhh, Freedom, Ohhh Freedom.’ I didn’t want to read that book. I wanted to write to the common place. I was thinking about the kid who reads Spider-Man comics.”
Allen, whose “Song of the Shank” has comic elements, said a famous black writer told him that the makers of the film “12 Years a Slave” forgot that black people like to laugh. Allen added that Langston Hughes entitled one of his novels, “Not Without Laughter.”
McBride, who allowed that he’d “had my buns toasted” over his irreverent portrait of Frederick Douglass in “The Good Lord Bird,” said that the sainted abolitionist lived under one roof with his black wife and his white mistress, a set-up that the writer found “too delicious” to pass up.
The festival, now in its ninth year, awarded McBride its BoBi prize for “an author whose body of work exemplifies or speaks to the spirit of Brooklyn.”
We don’t know what the weather is like where you live, but this weekend it’s going to hot and humid. Just the thought of 90-degree temperatures sends us scrambling inside for the air conditioning and a good book.
Kamila Shamsie is one of the few female authors of the 90s who managed to get Pakistan on the literary map. Shamsie’s Kartography is a literary masterpiece and her passion and love for her city Karachi is evident in her every sentence, page and chapter.
Of Hamid’s Moth Smoke:
Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke told the story of a marijuana-smoking ex-banker in post-nuclear-test Lahore who falls in love with his best friend’s wife and becomes a heroin addict. It was published in 2000 and quickly became a hit in Pakistan and India.
How do we change the face of education worldwide? Is it simply a matter of producing better teachers? Donating money for repairs and renovations of some of the most dilapidated schools? Is it by working more closely with parents? Staff at the Open Society Foundations decided that an conversation on worldwide education had to start with a conversation on culture. They tapped several writers to contribute to the project—Chimamanda Adiche (writing on Nigeria), Aleksander Hemon (on Bosnia), Tahmima Anam (on Bangladesh), Petina Guppah (on Zimbabwe), Nathalie Handal (on Haiti), Rachel Holmes (on Palestine), Nick Laird (on Nepal), Kamila Shamsie (on Pakistan), Hardeep Sing Kholi (on India), and Zukisa Wanner (on South Africa).
Zadie Smith (also an Anisfield-Wolf award winner) wrote the introduction to the series. In the video above, Kamila talks about her initial reactions to the project and what she hopes others will get out of it.
Kamila Shamsie spent most of her formative years living in Karachi, Pakistan, a sprawling city on the coast where “you can live your entire life without ever glimpsing the sea.” Shamsie gives a wonderfully poetic description of her hometown in the latest issue of Newsweek:
If there’s one word used more often than others to characterize the city by those who love it, it’s “resilience”—the ability to endure suffering without breaking—but Karachi is full of broken people who have long since ceased to be astonished at discovering new ways to break. And the unbroken develop carapaces that allow them to endure the suffering of others. This isn’t resilience, it’s survival.
Each week, we’ll be helping you to get to know our winners better (what a great bunch they are) and highlighting the best of their work, interviews and essays.
We’ve dedicated this week to all things concerning Kamila Shamsie, 2010 winner for fiction. Check out this video in which she discusses having a cosmopolitan with one of Shakespeare’s characters, the one book she just doesn’t “get,” and her biggest annoyance about book critics.
2011 Anisfield-Wolf winner Kamila Shamsie reflects on the availability of literature through the world’s public libraries—and what that means for future generations:
“A couple of years ago, after a reading in Karachi, I told off a young man who was asking me to sign a pirated copy of one of my books. Piracy is destroying publishing in Pakistan, I told him. He said he understood but added that because pirated books are cheaper he could buy more of them. It’s not as if Karachi is filled with public libraries, he said.”
Shamsie goes on to discuss the rising crisis in London, where 10 percent of all libraries have closed since April 2011. Read the full article here. A commenter on the article added:
“Libraries are important not just for the poor. They work for all of us and not only for books or computers. During this financial crisis we are living in, more people is going to the library to learn something new, to attend a free lecture, to polish his/her resume, to enjoy music from all over the world. Libraries are making everything they can to adapt their services to a new the technology not to mention how they help the new immigrant population. We have the moral obligation to protect, preserve and increase the public libraries.”
How often do you visit your town’s public library? Do they serve an important purpose in today’s society, even as technology expands our access to literature?
In this brief interview, Kamila Shamsie, a 2010 Anisfield-Wolf award winner, talks about the joy of reading, the upside of ebooks, and whether she considers herself a political writer. A must-listen for anyone who is a fan of her work or a fan of literature in general.