Kamila Shamsie: ‘Being a UK citizen makes me feel more able to take part in the conversation’

The author of the Man Booker-longlisted Home Fire on exploring Islamist radicalism, becoming British and the Bake Off ‘cricket test’

Kamila Shamsie was raised in Pakistan, lives in London, and has written seven novels. She was selected in 2013 for Granta’s list of the 20 most promising authors under 40, and became a British citizen in the same year. Her acclaimed 2009 novel Burnt Shadows was followed by A God in Every Stone, which was shortlisted for the Bailey’s women’s prize for fiction. Her latest, Home Fire, is a tense family drama set in Massachusetts, north-west London, Raqqa and Karachi, and has earned a place on the Man Booker longlist. Inspired by the conflict between love and moral duty in Sophocles’s play Antigone, it tells of a tightly knit trio of orphaned siblings, sensible elder sister Isma and the headstrong twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, who are divided by romance, sex and the vampiric forces of Islamist fundamentalism.

The radicalisation of British Muslims is a major theme not just of news reports, but in drama, too, with Peter Kosminsky’s The State on Channel 4 last week. Is it in danger of becoming the go-to plot for modern thriller writers?
I don’t have much time for the idea that art is some languorous thing on the sidelines, and that you have to wait 50 years before you address a subject. It is true some simplistic, stereotypical pieces have been written about what is going on and radicalisation is a low-hanging fruit, but I don’t think a serious artist, someone like Peter Kosminsky, would take that route. And I don’t think a novel can be reliant on news headlines.

What was behind your own take on homegrown Islamist terrorism?
I was really intrigued by the way most people assume Islamic State propaganda is built on violence. Research by Charlie Winter [senior research fellow at King’s College] that I looked at shows much of it is about a sense of belonging and of state-building. It is not that I believe IS are really planning a welfare state equivalent out there, or anything like that; it is the fact this side of it has not been told. I also felt we are accused of sympathising if we say that a young man who goes out there is anything other than a monster. There is more sympathy for the girls, as if grooming can only apply to girls and be about sex.

Much of your new story pivots on secrets kept from loved ones. Is writing a secretive process for you?
The secrets kept inside this book are damaging, whereas a writer aims for their work, with which they have an intimate relationship for a while, to ultimately come out in print. And certain kinds of secrets, like those of my character Parvaiz, are a lie and that is another difference. When I finish a draft I might show it to someone. I talked to the writer Gillian Slovo, who the book is dedicated to, this time because she was writing a play, [Another World, with Nicolas Kent for the National Theatre] about the same thing. Batting ideas around was enormously helpful.

There is a joke in Home Fire about the perils of “Googling while Muslim”. Did this worry you as you researched the online recruiting of radicals?
I was surprised by the extent to which I was conscious of this. I found myself building up a justification as to what I would say if someone came to ask me why I was looking at these websites. This included saying, “Listen, I have been on Radio 4.” There was this sense of living in a surveillance state. My agent knew what I was working on, but I found myself doing strange things like thinking I had looked at too many of those websites in a row and so I should look at some pop culture. Certain images I absolutely didn’t want to see, so I relied on others who have seen them. I was interested in interviews with people who had been into Raqqa and come out. I felt much freer doing this online research in Karachi and the irony of that struck me. When I was growing up in Pakistan it was a police state.

Local library campaigning is a signifier of moral good in this novel. Are you, by any chance, a fan?
It was a pretty dreary time when I was growing up in Karachi under military rule. I was an obsessive reader as a child and there were not a lot of places around to get books. I would read one a day; put it down and have to pick another one of the shelf. The British Council library, in the wonderfully named Bleak House Road, had high ceilings and long fans. Looking through the stacks is such a visceral memory for me. One of the sad things about the war on terror was they had to close it down. But they have just opened it again and above the entrance they have these pictures of writers from Karachi. And I am up there. Seeing that was one of the nicest moments of my life.

Powerful family bonds are central to Home Fire. Do you regard blood as the strongest link between people?
If someone is a horrible person, they are horrible whether they are in your family or not. People don’t get a free pass because they are related to you. If anything, perhaps you are more tough on them. But where it gets complicated is if the person you think is horrible is loved by your beloved aunt. I don’t have such a horrible person in my family, but I do have beloved aunts. The person I am closest to is my sister, so my sense of what a powerful sibling relationship can be must come from that. In London I have made a family of my friends. What matters in the end is the quality of the relationship, whether it comes through circumstance or blood.

A passage in the novel plays with the idea that watching The Great British Bake Off might be seen as a mark of patriotism, like Norman Tebbit’s infamous “cricket match test” of immigrant loyalty. You are a relatively new British citizen and a devotee of cricket. Where do you stand on Bake Off?
I had never watched till last season. I had to see what everyone was going on about. I am not a cake-maker but I did get unexpectedly involved. This is actually the first book I feel I have written from within Britain. That is not about citizenship, though, but about living here for 10 years now. What getting the passport did do was to remove the anxiety. I had always wondered if I would be able to stay if the laws changed. I had a sense I had got to be really good and stay under the radar and I would probably have been more nervous about writing this book if I had still been on the verge of citizenship. Being a citizen makes me feel more able to take part in the conversation. I noticed the first time I used “we”, as in “we British”, was after the Brexit vote, as in “What have we done?”. This may actually be a feature of being Pakistani, though, in that you need things to go disastrously wrong before you feel involved. In men’s cricket, it is always the Pakistani team for me. I went in to Lord’s to watch the women’s cricket final as a neutral, because there are players I love on the Indian side. But at a certain point I just found myself cheering on England surrounded by all the other supporters.

• Home Fire is published by Bloomsbury on 15 September (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Interview by Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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