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t’s conventional wisdom among writers that a novelist must be patient to get her published reward: Most famous writers were rejected numerous times before finding publishers willing to take a chance on them.

Kamila Shamsie is not one of those writers.

Shamsie was lucky enough—and talented enough—to have her first novel, In the City by the Sea, accepted for publication before she even received her master’s in fine arts from the creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts. But Shamsie’s accomplishments since then are even more remarkable: She has published Salt and Saffron, Kartography and her most recent work, Broken Verses, due out this April in Britain (it arrives stateside in June). Her work has been nominated for numerous awards and she was highlighted as one of “21 Writers to Watch” by the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Kamila Shamsie

Shamsie, who comes from a literary matriarchy—her mother, grandmother and great-aunt have all been published—grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and still spends part of the year there. The milieu of her youth affected her career in subtle yet certain ways. Books were always available and treasured in her home. Though there were few writers in her environment, having writers in the family validated that career path for Shamsie. Attending an English-medium school and speaking English with her family and friends made writing in English “a linguistic necessity.” Shamsie also recalls, “One of the first books that must have had a major influence was Midnight’s Children, because it had something to do with my life … You could have a book set in this kind of [desi] world. Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days was influential, as well.”

A city comes to life

Writing genes and linguistic necessities aside, perhaps the secret to Shamsie’s success is the way in which she transforms Karachi into a character in her stories. The city becomes as real and alive as any one of her protagonists, who, in turn, are equally imbued with Shamsie’s love of Karachi and the sea by which it sits.

The city becomes as real and as alive as any one of Shamsie’s protagonists, who, in turn, are equally imbued with her love of Karachi and the sea by which it sits.

For Shamsie, the beach is an integral part of her Karachi life. “I’m a huge fan of the beach … The sea really is important for me there—boating, catching crabs, wandering along the beach.” The beach also manifests another aspect of Karachi that Shamsie finds appealing: the city’s cosmopolitanism. “I love just going down to Clifton and [seeing] the crowd that’s there now. You see people just walking around having a good time. A woman in jeans and a woman in burqa—people of every kind of ethnicity and different levels of conservatism,” she says.

But it’s not just the cosmopolitan feel of the city that ties Shamsie to it so closely. “There’s something unique about Karachi, because I grew up there. I know people who have the same connections to Lahore. Once you grow up in a place, you start to notice the things that make it special,” she explains. And Karachi’s ever-increasing violence—a factor that might cause one’s affection for the city to diminish—has actually strengthened Shamsie’s ties to it. “I think when you grow up in a city that’s under attack from within, it makes you much more conscious of the nature of the city as a city.”

Shamsie adds that her beloved hometown is intriguing because “Karachi has so much energy. It’s a double-edged place. There’s the violence, but there are also so many opportunities; and there’s a lot of irony about the place. There’s something about the energy and the spirit of the city that I really admire.”

“There is something about the energy and the spirit of the city that I really admire.”

No place like home

Shamsie’s obvious admiration for Karachi inevitably seeps into the colorful prose of her novels. “Karachi’s home, and as such, it has importance in my imagination. When I think of stories, Karachi becomes the default location,” she explains. This may also relate to the way in which historical events mold her characters’ personal relationships: Salt and Saffron dealt with the pain of partition, and Kartography reveals the stings felt at the separation from Bangladesh. As Shamsie puts it, “I think in Pakistan you’re always aware of history and politics, whereas in the U.S. you can more easily keep up with the illusion that there is no [personal] connection to politics.”

Will Karachi always be a recurring character in her books? Shamsie’s not sure. “I’m not saying I’ll always write about Karachi, but so far it’s been the place that intrigues me most, the place I’m most invested in.” And though she spends much of the year writing in London and one semester of three or four teaching at her alma mater, Hamilton College, in New York, Shamsie doesn’t feel she has “as much of a personal stake in [London].”

Perhaps fittingly, Shamsie also feels that she gets most of her writing done in Karachi. She spends most of her time in New York teaching, and much of her London stays are taken up with mundane tasks like buying groceries. But it’s her beloved hometown—her own city by the sea—that inspires her to breathe life into her words. n

Nakasha Ahmad‘s family hails from Pakistan.
Published on March 1, 2005.
Photography: Courtesy of Bloomsbury

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