Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published by The Irish Examiner on 28th March 2009.
In 2002, when India and Pakistan were at the brink of nuclear war, the novelist Kamila Shamsie was spending time at home in Karachi. Life went on much as normal, and it was only afterwards that she realised how very close to the bring her country had been.
This got her thinking about the bomb; and the debates around it.
“In Pakistan people think of the nuclear bomb as something we have achieved which we have to have because India had it, and India is now less likely to attack. When you are living in the middle of it, you don’t, somehow, think about what a nuclear attack really means. It’s ‘we can annihilate them before they annihilate us.’ There’s little talk about fallout.”
This worried her. So when she decided to write about Pakistan at the time of the nuclear tests, she thought she’d start her novel in Nagasaki. The images of that first chapter will burn onto the reader’s mind.
“It’s an odd thing,” she says, “but in the narrative of the second world war people, quite rightly, think of the Nazis as the villains. It’s very hard for them, then, to say, ‘well the good guys did this terrible, appalling thing at the end.
“I was reading books about the atom bomb in Nagasaki looking for an image. I learned how, when the bomb fell, women who were wearing white kimonos with dark shapes on them, the white reflected the heat off, and the black drew it in. I had this visual flash of a woman with three birds burnt onto her back.”
The woman was Hiroko, whose German fiancé, Konrad, perishes; his image burnt onto a rock. The novel takes her to India, where she stays with Konrad’s half sister, whose marriage to James Burton is in freefall. Hiroko finds happiness, but the bomb’s shadows linger.
Hiroko has a miscarriage, and her son, growing up in Pakistan is told by a girlfriend, that everyone thinks of him as deformed by the bomb.
“That is a horrible moment for him,” says Kamila. “Raza is already self conscious about not looking like the others, and now people are worrying about what might be hidden inside him. That completely thrown him.”
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie is published by Bloomsbury at 14.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2009.