Shamsie, Kamila 1973-
SHAMSIE, Kamila 1973-
PERSONAL: Born 1973, in Karachi, Pakistan; daughter of Muneeza Shamsie (a writer and editor) Education: Hamilton College, B.A.; University of Massachusetts, M.F.A.
ADDRESSES: Office—Hamilton College, 198 College Hill Rd., Clinton, NY 13323.
CAREER: Writer. Hamilton College, Clinton, NY, creative writing teacher.
In the City by the Sea, Penguin (New York, NY), 1998.
Salt and Saffron, Bloomsbury USA (New York, NY), 2000.
Kartography, Bloomsbury (London, England), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: Though she was born in Pakistan, Kamila Shamsie's first novel was written in English, the result of an upbringing and education that is dexterously chronicled in her 1998 debut, In the City by the Sea. Shamsie, like the protagonist Hasan, was born in Karachi, one of Pakistan's largest cities, and actual events from her childhood—the writer was born in 1973—play an integral role in the turmoil of the young character's life. At the age of eleven, Hasan leads a pleasant life as the well-loved son of educated, liberal parents. His father is an attorney, while his artist mother runs a gallery. Both the father and an uncle, the popular head of a political party, have been educated at elite English universities—a legacy, in part, of Pakistan's former colonial ties to the British Empire—and rose to prominence after Pakistan gained independence in 1947.
This idyllic era suddenly ends when Hasan's uncle, Salman mamoo, is placed under house arrest after a political upheaval. When Shamsie was still a toddler, liberal Pakistan president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was arrested and jailed after a 1977 military coup. Martial law was declared, and a dictatorship remained in place for several years until his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, became the first female leader elected to head a Muslim country. As the events of In the City by the Sea unfold, the young Hasan understands only some of the drama. The family is harassed, his mother's gallery is forced to close, but they are finally granted permission to visit their uncle's house.
Hasan attends an English-language school, Karachi Grammar, and shortly after the arrest of his uncle, he waits as a participant in one of its interminable elocution assemblies. Here, students contest one another in standard recitations culled from the classics of English poetry and prose. As he awaits his turn, however, Hasan thinks about the poem on a magazine page his mother has bookmarked; he secretly visits her desk every morning before school to look at it, where he "found a new water-coloured fingerprint on the page." He shocks the assembly when he recites "Some Advice to Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison," by a Turkish dissident writer, instead of his scheduled oration.
In the City by the Sea also chronicles another decisive factor in Hasan's upset life: his guilt over the death of a neighbor boy who had been flying a kite on a roof. Hasan believes the boy was trying to impress him, a situation that touches upon some of Karachi's keen class divisions. He is also enamored of the thirteen year old who lives next door, Zehra, who can translate some of the tumult outside their sheltered Karachi neighborhood for his understanding. Real-life political leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was executed two years later, and a military dictatorship fostered even greater turmoil for the country over the next several years. "This is the first novel of our generation," declared Rehan Ansari in Himal, explaining that the generation of his parents came of age in the 1960s, a time of liberalization and progress in Pakistan that ended with the 1977 coup. "People of my generation, urban, from Karachi and Lahore professional families . . . have not recovered from dictatorship, segregation and Islamisation."
Other reviews of In the City by the Sea were similarly positive. "This is a richly complicated tapestry, but Shamsie weaves the many bright threads skilfully and humourously," declared Times Literary Supplement writer Sarah Curtis, who saw the rooftop death episode as the attempt by one boy to escape the terror of the ground. "It is Shamsie's understanding of the partiality of Hasan's comprehension, the reliance of children on magical means to will away what they do not want to happen, that makes this book memorable."
In Salt and Saffron, a Pakistani woman, Aliya, tells the story of her family history. Trying to reconcile the present, and its more progressive nature, with the past, and its history of tradition, Aliya must also deal with class distinction—the salt (ordinary people), and the saffron (the elite). Reviewing the book for World Literature Today, Bruce King wrote, "This is . . . a novel about social divisions and the way they are often constructed on a past that no one really knows.... Salt and Saffron is too much of a good thing." A Publishers Weekly review called Salt and Saffron "clever, witty and inventive," and wrote that it "resonates more deeply than its lighthearted tone would suggest."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, September 1, 2000, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Salt and Saffron, p. 67.
Himal, June 25, 1999.
Library Journal, September 15, 2000, Jo Manning, review of Salt and Saffron, p. 114.
Massachusetts Review, spring, 1998.
Publishers Weekly, August 28, 2000, review of Salt and Saffron, p. 55.
Times Literary Supplement, December 18, 1998.
World Literature Today, summer, 2000, Bruce King, review of Salt and Saffron, p. 588.*