‘It felt horrific to be in Britain as a Muslim after 9/11’: Pankaj Mishra and Kamila Shamsie in conversation

Show caption Pankaj Mishra and Kamila Shamsie. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian Fiction ‘It felt horrific to be in Britain as a Muslim after 9/11’: Pankaj Mishra and Kamila Shamsie in conversation The writers discuss problems of representation, class, the culture wars and how fiction is a great way to ask difficult questions Alex Clark Sat 19 Feb 2022 08.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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Before Pankaj Mishra and Kamila Shamsie settle down to earnest conversation, they spar about Mishra’s recent renunciation of cricket, both as a player and as a spectator; Shamsie, a die-hard fan who has interviewed some of the sport’s greatest players, is mock-horrified to hear that Mishra, 53, now prefers tennis. Ten minutes on court, he contends, feels more rewarding than a whole day at the crease. “This is the real migration that has happened in Pankaj’s life!” laughs Shamsie. “It’s dramatic – he’s exiled himself.”

Sporting differences aside, the pair are united by a deep commitment to the power of fiction, a subject they interrogate during a wide-ranging conversation on a cold day in London. Shamsie, 48, is the author of seven novels, including Burnt Shadows and Home Fire, a contemporary retelling of the myth of Antigone that won the Women’s prize for fiction in 2018. Her new novel Best of Friends will be published in September.

Mishra’s second novel, Run and Hide, is published this week, 20 years after his debut, The Romantics; in between, he has written several highly acclaimed works of nonfiction, including Temptations of the West, Age of Anger and Bland Fanatics, as well as numerous essays and pieces of long-form journalism. Run and Hide centres on a group of friends who meet at the Indian Institute of Technology and come to occupy a dominant position in global technology and finance.

KS: I’m interested in your return to fiction. Having read you through the years, there’s so much in your novel that you’ve been writing about in nonfiction. I wonder whether it’s a question of fiction doing something that nonfiction couldn’t, or was it just that you’ve been waiting for a long time to write a novel and the moment seemed right?

PM: In a way, I turned to nonfiction because after 9/11, there was a demand for accounts of Pakistan or Afghanistan, and I suddenly found myself meeting that demand. So it was partly a professional decision and partly drift – this is how you end up in most places, you just arrive there, you’re not quite sure how, and then two decades go by. I’ve done a lot of nonfiction, I’ve done a lot of books. And yet, I’m sort of haunted by the feeling that this work that I’m doing is just not good enough, in the sense that it’s not really capturing what is going on in the moral and emotional lives of these people that I’m talking about.

Returning to fiction was just so liberating. I was suddenly able to set aside all the formulas of magazine writing, periodical writing, op-ed commentary, and find myself in this realm where I can do anything. I realised this is how life is; people have ideas, but they also have deep inner doubts about those ideas, and their behaviour never quite conforms to how they project themselves to other people.

KS: I wonder whether, around the time you started writing the novel, the need for a form which allows those contradictions became more pertinent?

We’re holding a conversation between two different worlds: one we’ve grown up in, the other where we live now

PM: Definitely. There are several events, obviously, that went into this particular decision, but one of them was certainly this question of identity. When you spend a lot of time in the west and you write in a particular way, pushing back against all kinds of crude prejudices and ideas about the part of the world that I come from, you’re given a certain kind of identity. It’s projected upon you that you are speaking up for people who have been misrepresented. You’re called a polemicist; that’s a word that’s often trailed me. And you realise that actually, your real engagement is what is happening in the part of the world that you spend most of your life in, which for me is India, the massive political changes there. And seven years ago, a person accused of mass murder [Narendra Modi] became prime minister. That was a traumatic event for many of us. And it’s difficult to process. How did a country that was one of the few democracies in Asia suddenly make this catastrophic decision? That was a question I felt I could not answer in my nonfiction.

Then, of course, suddenly you saw that situation everywhere: in Pakistan, a populist coming to power, Brexit here, Trump, so then it became a kind of global situation affecting all our lives. You obviously felt the same in some ways?

KS: Yes. And fiction is a very useful place if you have questions rather than answers.

PM: That’s well put.

KS: You don’t have to have a point of view or an argument you want to build up, you can have the mess of finding yourself holding contradictory thoughts or having sympathies for people in opposing places or finding someone has made a choice you really disagree with, but there’s something you understand about how that choice got made.

PM: I think in both our cases, we’re also trying to hold a conversation between these two different worlds we inhabit. One is the place that we’ve grown up in. And the other is where we now live, where we have different identities, or we’re seen differently. And yet, those experiences often seem to be disconnected. One of the reasons I was motivated to write this book is that in the last four or five years, alongside the explosion of Trumpism and Boris Johnsonism, we’ve also had this other discourse, a lot of it extremely welcome, which is focused on the victims of history and historical injustices. But I think this discourse ought to be complicated by the issue of class, which is important in both our writings. Here you are in the UK and being upheld as a representative of darker-skinned peoples or a representative of Asian literature and religion, any number of things. But the fact is that we belong to privileged classes and caste groups. And that is not evident to people here. But we know that we are products of particular systems of injustices back home.

There’s a curious flattening when people talk about minorities, as if class differences don’t exist

KS: I think what can happen here is there’s a curious flattening when people talk about people who are not white, or are minorities, as though these class differences don’t exist, and as though some of us don’t step into London with huge privilege, which makes it possible to move through the city in ways that other people can’t.

PM: In a way all these problems of representation, which is what essentially we’re talking about … fiction doesn’t exactly give direct answers to these problems, but it complicates them further. I mean, just to give you an example: I was looking at Vanity Fair, and there’s this famous Indian film star called Priyanka Chopra on the cover. And that struck me as actually a rather chilling example of how representation has worked here, which is that we’re supposed to celebrate the fact that a south Asian, a dark-skinned woman, has appeared on the cover of a magazine that has mostly featured either white people or people born in this part of the world. But what that fact hides is that this person who’s on the cover of Vanity Fair and has tweeted in support of Black Lives Matter is also a friend and supporter of Mr Modi, that she has posed for selfies with him, and that her position within the politics and society and culture of India is a deeply contested one. So it’s a question of breaking down these very simplistic ideas about race, class and gender people have in their heads. And fiction can do that.

KS: One of the fascinating things about taking Antigone as a source text for Home Fire was looking at ways in which the play had been interpreted. And you realise in the 20th century, a lot of these rewrites were being written in situations of dictatorship and particularly in the face of civil disobedience to dictatorship. And then you get the 21st century: my Antigone is in Britain today, and Anne Carson when she wrote Antigonick [in 2012] very much referred to Guantánamo and George Bush. This figure of resistance to the unjust ruler is actually beginning to have more of a place in these western liberal democracies. And it was quite striking to me that it’s no longer writing against the junta in Argentina or apartheid in South Africa. Now it is Britain and America that are seen as the countries where there are laws that are inhuman.

PM: Culture has been the enabling factor in much toxic populism around the world. The drumbeat of stories about Muslims by the rightwing media in this country has created a really toxic atmosphere, in which the apotheosis of people like Johnson becomes possible. Politics really cannot be disconnected from literary cultures, intellectual cultures, or popular cultures.

KS: I became a UK citizen in 2013, and moved here a few years prior to that. I was having this conversation with a friend a couple of weeks ago, who said: “When you became a citizen here, you couldn’t have predicted what a bleak country this would become.” And I thought, no one who was Muslim in this country in the early 21st century would make a statement like that. I remember 9/11, 7/7, the grotesqueness and the horror of those times. And I thought: actually, it felt much worse then; back then I would enter a room and be told things like, but you’re not really Muslim, and asked in this very thoughtful, sad way: “What is it about Islam?” It was the kind of Islamophobia that was an assault, really. I’m not saying it’s gone away, but the temperature has lowered. It felt horrific to be in Britain as a Muslim back then. It’s only now that I realise the extent to which, if you weren’t Muslim, or living very close to someone who was, you probably really weren’t aware of just how suffocating and depressing it was. And there’s a clear line from the destruction of civil liberties that became acceptable then to the removal of citizenship that’s happening now.

PM: The culture war globally is the reflex of people who feel besieged right now, who feel deeply challenged. Essentially, it’s people who feel that their moral order or their intellectual order is fading, and that they need to resurrect somehow the certainties that made them so unchallengeable for so long. I see the same reflex at work among people in my upper-caste group in India, who have cuddled up to a demagogue in order to feel protected from what they see as a mob of woke leftists and liberals.

KS: Do you remember that Martin Amis interview [in the Times in 2006]?

PM: Yes, absolutely.

Fiction is stimulating, as opposed to writing yet another piece about Boris Johnson the liar or Joe Biden’s failures

KS: It was such a punch in the stomach to read him basically saying that if Muslims won’t get their house in order, then maybe we need to make them suffer enough to do it. So perhaps they should be banned from travelling. And then, a year later, Amis says: “Oh, that was a thought experiment and I’ve decided, no, that’s probably not the way to go.” People now who complain about cancel culture probably would think those are the good old days when a writer says things like that in print.

PM: One way of looking at it is to concede that cancel culture, if you want to use this unfortunate phrase, has always been with us. People in power have always stifled the free expression of things that they don’t want to hear. Without being melodramatic, from the beginning of my writing career in the west, I’ve confronted one form of cancellation or another. When Afghanistan was being invaded in 2001, I had such a hard time persuading my editors in the UK and the US to publish even something saying that war is a really, really bad idea, or something basic like, maybe the Taliban do have a stake in the country? It was such an atmosphere at that point, such a macho rush to war and to vengeful violence, it was very difficult to go against the consensus.

KS: You’ve talked a lot about the things that you can do in fiction, but here’s my question to you. Isn’t it more fun than writing nonfiction?

PM: Oh, my God. Oh, absolutely. No question. It’s exhilarating, it really is. I mean, you know, going back to your desk every morning, and starting with a scene that you have to describe, or a physical description, all just such stimulating challenges, as opposed to writing yet another piece about Johnson the liar or Joe Biden’s failures. You cannot imagine how demoralising it is, you know, to do it week after week. Here you can escape, even if you’re talking about dark things, there are still moments of beauty you can recover.

• Run and Hide by Pankaj Mishra is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

• Pankaj Mishra will discuss Run and Hide with Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty in a Guardian Live online event on Thursday 17 March. Book tickets here