A video in which Kamila Shamsie discusses Burnt Shadows
describes the inspiration behind Burnt Shadows, her powerful, sweeping epic novel crossing generations, cultures and continents
I'd been interested - for lack of a better word - in the bombing of Nagasaki for
years before writing 'Burnt Shadows.' As a university student in America I one
heard someone say, 'Even if you accept the arguments used to justify Hiroshima,
how do you justify Nagasaki.' For some reason it stuck in my mind - how could
anyone witness the devastation of Hiroshima and three days later decide to
repeat the act? Years later, when both Pakistan and India became nuclear states
this question returned to me with greater urgency.
My original idea was to write about a Pakistani character whose grandmother was
Japanese and had survived Nagasaki. But then I read John Hersey's 'Hiroshima',
and came upon this line: "On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns
- . . .on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb
and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to their skin) the shapes of
flowers they had had on their kimonos." Right away, I had an image of a women
with the tattoo of birds along her back, from the bird-pattered kimono she'd
been wearing at the moment the bomb fell - and I knew quite soon after that the
book would have to tell her story. She couldn't merely function as the
mother/grandmother figure in the background.
Hersey's book also told me that there were a number of Germans in Japan during
the war - and that's how the character of Konrad took shape. I suppose the
figure of the German outside Germany during WWII also intrigued me because of
personal history - my grandmother was German, married to an Indian and living in
Delhi and Mussourie (like Elizabeth Burton) during the war and until Partition.
So I suppose the choice of moving the story to India, to the family of the
part-German Burtons, was the consequence of that family history. (The
particulars of Elizabeth's story have no relation to that of my grandmother's
With the first draft I was largely making things up as I went along - so I had
no idea when writing the Nagasaki and Delhi sections where I would go next. But
increasingly the book that had started out with the idea of nuclear war and the
dropping of a second bomb became a story of two families caught up in the
crossfire of their personal histories and the history of the different nations
of which they were a part. So I started to see that the next logical step would
have to be the time and place where Pakistan's history and that of the 'West'
(particularly America) intertwined in a way that we're still seeing the effects
of - i.e Afghanistan, during the Soviet invasion. The fact that present day
history was making us look back to that time period made it seem all the more
necessary to re-visit it. And in one of those moments of serendipity that often accompanies the writing of
a book, a friend of mine, who is an academic, sent me a paper he was writing
about Private Military Companies. And I instantly saw how that would be one of
the worlds of the final part of the novel.
But through the whole novel I was also looking at the question which had come to
creep under my skin in the years since 9/11 (years during which I was living in
Karachi, London and upstate New York) - the question of how people who entirely
reject notions of any inevitable clash of civilisations respond to a world in
which that notion is taken as fact. It seemed much too simplistic to say that
personal relationships exist outside history or will always prove stronger than
political rhetoric. And so ultimately I think 'Burnt Shadows' is an exploration
of how individuals and families negotiate their way through the darker forces of
history - and also how, sometimes, those darker forces swallow up the light.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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