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Mortar: A Conversation

From Brick 100

Kamila Shamsie: When did you first think you wanted to write?

Gillian Slovo: I never thought I wanted to write, and I never intended to become a writer. I decided to have a go in my early twenties. I’d left my first job after university and was taking a year off to see what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had a friend who was on a sabbatical, and we both used to read hard-boiled detective novels. We had a drunken conversation one day and decided to each try to write one. So we plotted them out, talked to each other every now and then, and I started to write. I liked it, and I thought, This could be a job for me—far more interesting than anything else I can think of doing. What about you?

Shamsie: It’s the only thing I ever intended to do. I was nine when I first announced I was going to be a writer. I was eleven when I started co-writing a book with my best friend. So in my case also there was a friend, a friend who came over when I was eleven. We’d both lost our dogs recently, and I’d just read a novel about dog heaven. I said, “Here’s a book you must read.” And he said, “Let’s write a book.” We wrote the first chapter together, and then we alternated chapters. When we finished, we wrote another book together. And then my mother said to me, “If you’re really serious about this, try writing something on your own to develop your own voice.” So I did another one on my own. And when I finished that one, I felt empty in contrast with what it feels to have a novel on the go. That’s when I thought, Oh, if I don’t do this with my life, I’ll feel unhappy.

Slovo: So the mortar for you is the act of writing.

Shamsie: It started with love of reading. Back then, I’d read a book a day. I would finish one and immediately pick up another. I’d feel insecure if I didn’t. For me, writing came out of this first love, the first childhood love, which was novels, books, sentences.

Slovo: Yes, I would say mine was novels, books, worlds. When I lived in South Africa, we didn’t have television. There was hardly any radio worth listening to, but there were books. And books for me were an escape into another world because I didn’t particularly like the world I was living in. You know, I’ve said that when I’m writing I feel as if I’m home, but maybeit’s interesting, I’ve never thought of this before—it’s because when I was a kid and reading, I felt safe in the world I was reading about and not safe in the world I was living in. There’s a lot of security for me in fiction, but perhaps, contrary to what I always thought, the security comes from leaving home rather than being there.

Shamsie: In my case, the 1980s were boring years to be young in Pakistan. They were terrifying years to be older in Pakistan—it was a period of military dictatorship—but as a child I just remember life being very circumscribed. Within that, my imagination was having a field day because of books.

Slovo: Another thing we have in common is mothers who wrote, and maybe that taught us this was a suitable job for a woman. My mother was quite unusual for a white South African in insisting on having her voice heard in the world.

Shamsie: When I think of my childhood, I have a strong physical sense of my mother in her study and hearing the typewriter keys, which is something we have in common.

Slovo: My mother used to write her journalism in a very eccentric way. It was a pre-computer age, and she used to cut and paste physically. She would type paragraphs, and if they didn’t follow on from each other, she’d cut them out and paste them onto the right place with pins. Her work was distinctive. And actually, as I was describing that image, I thought to myself that when I do verbatim plays I work in a similar way, though given I now have a computer I don’t use pins. So I think our mothers were part of our mortar.


Shamsie: Yes. And why do you think you were writing detective books to start with?

Slovo: I think there was an element related to having had a traumatic childhood in which things kept happening that threatened my parents’ lives and therefore my world. I became an incredible eavesdropper; I would try to find out what was going on. That’s what a detective in a crime novel is doing: trying to find out things everyone else is trying to stop them from knowing. But partly, I wrote detective novels because I thought the plot would be a guide to writing and would pull me through the book. I started writing crime because I felt safe in a plot, and I stopped writing crime because I was ready to stop feeling safe. That’s another element of writing—do you think?—always pushing the boundaries.

Shamsie: Burnt Shadows felt risky in terms of being such a break from what I’d done before. I had gone from writing the world I knew so well to writing places I’d never stepped foot in and knew nothing about. I always thought of myself as a writer whose subject was Karachi, so that book broke my idea of what kind of writer I was. Since then, a novel has had to carry the risk of complete failure for me to do it. There has to be something that makes me think, I really don’t know if I can do this, if I can pull it off.

Slovo: I actually think the more you write, the more difficult writing is. If there isn’t a risk involved, it’s tedious to be doing something so difficult. So maybe the risk is the excitement that makes us want to keep writing.

Shamsie: The way I feel about writing now is quite different than twenty years ago. It’s not about love and comfort and security anymore. Of course, I’m looking back and thinking writing then was a lot easier than it really was.

Slovo: It was easier! Like you, I never know what I’m going to write next. It’s agony to find what to write next because I don’t know where to look.

Shamsie: That’s the damage of not having one place to write about anymore.

Slovo: It is. If I had continued to write inside South Africa, there are many stories and many themes that would have occurred to me. But because I don’t live there, I’ve had to go into myself to find my subjects. There’s been a transition in my writing from “this is my world and I’m exploring it” to “this is my mind,” which is harder.

Shamsie: I think that’s true for me as well.

Slovo: I guess for both of us, our troubled countries have a lot of drama in them, but now we’re both living in a country that until recently had very little drama. Now it’s become more like the rest of the world.

Shamsie: And we’ve both been writing about that in our most recent novels. I suppose that’s why, in some sense, I feel I’m still writing about those things that were preoccupying me from the start—the relationship of the individual to the state, the individual to politics and history. I always thought Karachi itself was what was drawing me as a writer, and it seems clearer now that actually it was these elements of living in Karachi.

Slovo: Maybe coming from troubled countries has helped us understand how crucial politics are to individual lives, which is not as clear when you live in an old democracy where everything seems to tick over until something disastrous like Trump or Brexit or Grenfell happens.

Shamsie: Do you think that writing about the difficult things in the world just makes you understand them better, or does it also make you able to bear them better? Or does the understanding make them more unbearable?

Slovo: I don’t think it makes them more unbearable. Maybe I’m more arrogant than that. Maybe I think I have an understanding of the difficult things in the world, and I want to find a way to share it with people without lecturing them. Maybe I’m trying to find a way to make people look at the world without shutting their eyes, and that’s why I use popular genres and a narrative flow. Partly it’s because I like a good narrative flow and partly I suppose because I’m disguising the serious import of what I’m writing about or the serious impact it could have on a reader. But why did you ask that question? Do you think you’re trying to make the world more bearable for yourself?

Shamsie: Possibly. I don’t know. It occurred to me as a question, but I don’t know the answer. And I don’t know if it makes it more bearable or unbearable—you’d think it would make it more unbearable to look closely, but somehow . . . maybe writing a novel around a thing gives you an illusion of control.

Slovo: Maybe. Or maybe it’s not unbearable because, as I know from living in South Africa, in the most terrible of times, things weren’t unremittingly grim. People were funnier, they were braver, they had more relationships because they were living on the edge. They didn’t have staid lives. When we’re writing about life in difficulty, we’re writing about cutting through the difficulty and trying also to write about how people survive these moments.

Shamsie: I suppose one of the reasons Home Fire seemed more difficult than anything before, including Burnt Shadows, which has nuclear holocaust and Partition, was this incredible feeling of hopelessness that this is a story set in Britain, this modern-day democracy. When you grow up under an oppressive regime, you think certain awfulnesses only happen in these kinds of regimes. And one of the things that’s changed in the past few years is this sense that here we’ve got these democracies and courts and justice systems—all this horror is happening within them. Where you have the dictatorship, you have those other stories, of people fighting against it, incredible bravery, and in the end the oppressive regime goes away, and great shining democracy comes in. That was the story I grew up with. Of course, I’m not saying that living in Britain today is as bad as living in Zia-ul-Haq’s Pakistan, that’s a nonsense idea, but I think that seeing the growing injustices in democratic systems is part of what’s hard now in knowing how to look at the world.

Slovo: So we sit at our desks and tolerate loneliness and write into these and other worlds.

Shamsie: Aloneness is different from loneliness. I think I can tolerate aloneness. It’s the opposite.

Slovo: Yes, so the ability to tolerate aloneness and the wish to be alone in that space is one of the things that makes writing satisfying. Do you agree?

Shamsie: Yeah. So you’d better write another novel.

Slovo: Oh, shut up.

Kamila Shamsie is the author of five novels, including Burnt Shadows, which was translated into more than twenty languages. She grew up in Karachi and now lives in London.