June 17, 2009 / 3:41 AM / 10 years ago

Book Talk: Kamila Shamsie's nuclear obsession underlies epic

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - The September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 anchor acclaimed Pakistani-born author Kamila Shamsie’s epic novel — a love story that also explores how mass killings are justified in terms of self-defense.

At almost 400 pages, “Burned Shadows,” published in May, starts with the story of Hiroko Tanaka, a Japanese resident of Nagasaki whose world changes on August 9, 1945 — her back is marked by burns shaped like the birds patterning the kimono she was wearing when the bomb dropped.

It ends some half a century later on the other side of the world, after journeying through British-administered India and Afghanistan, at a U.S. prison cell where a man suspected of terrorism is waiting to be sent to the infamous Guantanamo jail.

The book is London-based Shamsie’s fifth novel, and a departure from her earlier, award-winning works such as “Salt and Saffron,” “Broken Verses” and “Kartography” which have centered around her hometown Karachi.

The author who was long-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction spoke to Reuters recently about writing and the bomb:

Q: What inspired you to write such an ambitious book?

A: “I didn’t know I was going to write an epic when I first started. I started around 2005 and went through until 2007. The original idea was that it was going to be a very short early section in Nagasaki and then the novel would be set in contemporary times and would very much be about India and Pakistan and the whole nuclear standoff.

But as soon as I started writing the Nagasaki bit, I became very interested in the character of Hiroko, and wanted to know what happens to her. I found I had written myself into a novel that was completely different than what I had started out to do.”

Q: What interests you so much about the nuclear issue?

A: “The bombing of Nagasaki was something that burned a hole in my imagination and you can connect that to the fact that India and Pakistan have revived the whole fear of nuclear bombs. My interest intensified after both nations’ nuclear tests.

When I was at university, I went to a lecture and someone was talking about certain aspects of foreign policy. I don’t remember who he was, but I remember the person said ‘If you can justify Hiroshima, but how can you justify Nagasaki three days later?’

This was around the same time that I had read documents that showed the Americans had probably known that Japan was likely to surrender without the bombings. These became little things that attached themselves to my head. And then I kept noticing that there was a lot of talk about Hiroshima, but Nagasaki, the question of how could you do it again, was rarely looked at.”

Q: You describe your book as a love story, but it’s also got a very political message.

A: “Nagasaki to me became a symbol of what nations are willing to applaud during wartime. (Former U.S. president Harry) Truman is remembered as a great president because, among other things, he had the guts to drop the bomb. One of the justifications was yes, it was terrible, but it saved American lives. This is not a particularly American way of thinking either. Everything is justified if it saves the lives of your people, regardless of how many people from other countries are killed.

“It started me thinking: what can you justify in terms of self-defense? The war on terror? Afghanistan? What the British did in India during the Raj?”

Q: This book is very different than your previous works. Was it more difficult to write?

A: “It was a different kind of experience. I was so used to writing about worlds I know about, I was placing characters in landscapes I knew very well. But with Nagasaki, I knew nothing really, and got deep into researching it. Even if I set only 25 pages there, I researched it more than I did the rest of the book. And with this book, I really had no idea where it was going. But it helps being on your fifth novel, you trust things and I trust the ability of stories to build in a certain way. And if it didn’t work, then I would go and cross things out.”

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: “Just write. The world is full of people who tell me that one day they will write a book, and the biggest impediment seems to be actually starting. How you write, and what you write about, is so personal — my first novel was 6 weeks in the life of an 11-year-old boy. So a book can be about anything.

“Some people even worry about publishers, marketing and agents even before writing, which is mad. You should write because you want to write, not because you could get published.

Editing by Sugita Katyal

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