By Kamila Shamsie, the author, most recently, of Broken Verses (THE GUARDIAN, 03/07/07):
Growing up in Pakistan, in the benighted days of Zia ul-Haq’s dictatorship, I knew there was always some sense of consistency to be drawn from the evening news, which year after year assured viewers that every day only three items of note occurred in the world: president inaugurates something; someone of significance lauds president; X number of Kashmiris killed (later changed to “martyred”) by Indian army. The print media was rather more courageous in what it was willing to publish, but even so, in those times of censorship and state control the news told you very little about the truth of the country in which you were living.
Remarkably, this absence of truth was often possible without recourse to lies – the president really did inaugurate all kinds of things; disgraceful numbers of the world’s noteworthy figures did extol the virtues of Zia, America’s frontline ally in the Afghan war against the Soviets; and the Indian army was brutal in Kashmir, though it’s worth mentioning that the level of brutality that started in 1987 seemed already to have made itself known to the prescient Pakistani newscasters in the early 80s – though this may well be the unreliable narration of my childhood memory speaking.
Into this world there dropped a book. A novel, to be precise. Its title was Shame, its author Salman Rushdie, its subject the world of Pakistani politics. The book was officially banned, but this only increased the frisson it created, the thrill with which people in drawing rooms relayed to each other sentences about General Raza Hyder and the Virgin Ironpants (clearly modelled on Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto). As an English-language novel, Shame was never going to attract a vast readership in Pakistan, but for me – at 10, too young to read the book – it was the first clear indication that fiction was a place of truth, more trustworthy than the news.
Given this strange disconnect between the factual yet inaccurate picture created by censored news and the fictional yet true worlds of novels, it’s hardly surprising that for many of us who grew up in states of censorship one of the most compelling urges in our fiction is to tell those stories that have been suppressed. (Of course, the censorship we live under is not always official – for me, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, with its haunting portrayal of a woman quite literally being driven mad by enforced domesticity, is one of the most powerful works of fiction to give narrative form to what was previously unsaid.)
Fiction writers go where news reporters and historians dare not tread: into characters’ heads, into the dreams they lose at the moment of waking, into the memories forgotten, the fears never articulated even to themselves. We do all this, even while making stuff up or distorting and embellishing “what really happened” for the sake of a dramatic arc; and, in so doing, we claim our ability to convey emotional truths, more revelatory about a time and place than any series of facts. If I were a historian I am sure this kind of talk would drive me crazy.
But the fact is, making up the emotional truths would not be possible without facts. You need to know the contours of the world into which you are going to drop your made-up characters and their made-up lives; when people ask me which parts of my novel are based on things that really happened, I point out that I can’t make up context, only the shapes that fill it. And though my editing process consists in good part of cutting out every fact I’ve garnered through research, I would never have been able to write the books without that research itself.
My fascination with writing fictional lives set against a backdrop of politics comes in part from growing up under a censoring dictatorship. Indeed, the first novel I wrote was about a child growing up under such a dictatorship. But the best book I’ve read about growing up in the Zia years was not, alas, written by me. That honour goes to Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men. Matar’s novel was really written about growing up in Libya under Gadafy: that’s the fact. But it was also about Pakistan and Zia: that’s the truth. Just as it’s true, two of my South African friends have assured me, that my Karachi-centric novel, Kartography, is actually about Johannesburg.