Kamila Shamsie Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Kamila Shamsie

Kamila Shamsie

How to pronounce Kamila Shamsie: ka-MEE-lah shum-Sea

An interview with Kamila Shamsie

A video in which Kamila Shamsie discusses Burnt Shadows



Kamila Shamsie 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 life.)

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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Opposite of Everyone
by Joshilyn Jackson

"Quirky and appealing characters, an engaging story, and honest dialogue make this a great book!"
- BookBrowse

About the book
Join the discussion!

Award Winners

  • Book Jacket: A Great Reckoning
    A Great Reckoning
    by Louise Penny
    Canadian author Louise Penny is back with her twelfth entry in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache ...
  • Book Jacket: Homegoing
    Homegoing
    by Yaa Gyasi
    It's all very well to challenge people to be the masters of their own destiny, but when you&#...
  • Book Jacket: When Breath Becomes Air
    When Breath Becomes Air
    by Paul Kalanithi
    When Breath Becomes Air is the autobiography of Paul Kalanithi, written in the time period between ...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Victoria
    by Daisy Goodwin

    Daisy Goodwin breathes new life into Victoria's story, and does so with sensitivity, verve, and wit." - Amanda Foreman

    Read Member Reviews

Who Said...

Men are more moral than they think...

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Word Play

The Big Holiday Wordplay:
$400+ in Prizes

Enter Now

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.