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9 November 2022

Kamila Shamsie Q&A: “Ali Smith’s books force me out of pessimism”

The author discusses her heroes, the cricketer Wasim Akram and Nelson Mandela, and her love of Wimbledon.

By New Statesman

Kamila Shamsie was born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1973. She is the author of novels including In the City by the Sea (1998) and Home Fire (2017), which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

What’s your earliest memory?

Riding on the back of my family’s Alsatian, Dusty, in the garden of our home in Karachi. I was three or four. I remember bougainvillaea growing up the side of the house and vividly green grass.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, Wasim Akram, or whoever else had been most recently responsible for improbably winning a match for the Pakistan cricket team. Today my hero is Asma Jahangir, one of Pakistan’s human rights champions.

What book last changed your thinking?

Companion Piece. Every time I read a book by Ali Smith I’m forced out of pessimism.

[See also: Kamila Shamsie’s Best of Friends reveals the complexities of female relationships]

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela, who managed the astonishing feat of not being a terrible disappointment when he finally cameto power.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Dynasty – the 1980s version. I even know the name of Alexis’ last husband.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Anywhere replete with optimism and that has seasons that proceed unremarkably looks good right now, but it would have to include excellent medicine and plumbing. I would like to say that’s somewhere in the future, but I can’t quite do it.

What TV show could you not live without?

Wimbledon – a nerve-racking yet soothing fortnight of TV since my childhood. Which other show could jettison your favourite characters (Navratilova, Graf, Federer), without your interest waning?

Who would paint your portrait?

Shahzia Sikander. We had a conversation once about that possibility. I’m glad to have this Q&A to send her way as a nudge.

What’s your theme tune?

A montage of Abba songs. It covers all human experience, including being in the thrall of giant eagles.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t expect people to be grateful to you for seeing both sides of a story. I haven’t followed it: I just worked out that when you do it in fiction hardly anyone minds.

What’s currently bugging you?

That I travel too much to have a dog.

What single thing would make your life better?

A dog. I grew up with dogs, and life always feels incomplete without the breathing sounds of a sleeping dog keeping me company while I read. The first “novel” I wrote – co-written with my best friend – was about the deaths of our pet dogs. It was set in dog heaven, and called “A Dog’s Life, and After”. (I’m very proud of the comma in the title, given we were 11 years old.)

When were you happiest?

On 10 December 1997. I was in a studio flat in Massachusetts, peeling a potato, when the phone rang. It was my agent, who told me that my novel, In the City by the Sea, had been accepted for publication. 

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Marine archaeologist. If I had known, growing up, that this was a possibility, might my life have been very different?

Are we all doomed?

I’ve read an Ali Smith novel too recently to answer “yes”.

“Best of Friends” by Kamila Shamsie is published by Bloomsbury. She will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival on 18 November. Tickets at cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

[See also: Leah Thomas’s Q&A: “My earliest memory involved a priest, a rabbi and a firefighter”]

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This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink