Kamila Shamsie, winner of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction, on her eerily prescient novel and the need for women’s experiences to be told more.
“Whether you’re dressing up or down there are always questions around the male gaze and what it means to live in a woman’s body and how much you reveal and how much you hide,” says Kamila Shamsie, whose seventh novel Home Fire has just won the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
In her modern take on Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Antigone, the discourse around Muslim women and their bodies is just one of the standout elements; Home Fire is a timely and eerily prescient novel, which questions what happens when society, family, love and politics collide, and loyalties are split.
Isma and her younger sister Aneeka are dealing with the fallout of their brother Parvaiz having gone to work for the media arm of ISIS. The country’s first Muslim Home Secretary Karamat Lone has proposed to strip those who go to fight for ISIS of their British citizenship. His son Eamonn is pursuing a relationship with Aneeka, which she hopes will help save her brother from the reaches of both ISIS and the British government.
With Isma and Aneeka, Shamsie pushes back against the popular media narrative that Muslim women in headscarves are oppressed and repressed; both characters are independent, educated and liberated.
“I have never met a woman in a headscarf for whom her headscarf is the primary thing about her,” says Shamsie. “So I was never going to write a character to whom that was the most significant thing or who fit into that stereotype. My line is that Malala Yousafzai wears a headscarf, so could we stop saying that it equals repressed women.”
As well as tapping into discussions around women’s clothing choices, Home Fire also presented Karamat Lone, a man who wears and sheds his Muslim identity as and when it suits him politically, months before the ascension of Sajid Javid to the post of Home Secretary in reality. The parallels between the two men can at times seem a little uncanny.
“I did think if I’m going to have someone who will reach the position of Home Secretary and is going to be in the Tory party, what will his relationship to his Muslimness and his migrancy be… Every time Sajid Javid says something, someone on Twitter will tweet it at me and say ‘Karamat Lone’, and sometimes I will think, yes that is Karamat Lone, and other times I feel very defensive of Karamat Lone, saying ‘he would not be saying that’.”
Home Fire is the third of Shamsie’s novels to be shortlisted for the Women’s Prize - Shamsie has long been a supporter of the prize and of women writers. In 2015 she called for this year to be a “Year of Publishing Women”, in which all the new books published were by women authors, prompted by the imbalance in the number of women recognised by big literary prizes and being reviewed.
“I think things have certainly changed and improved [for women writers] since the Women’s Prize was established,” says Shamsie. “If you look back at the Booker prize shortlists of the Eighties and Nineties and compare them to the last decade or two there has been a shift.
“But there hasn’t been enough. When I was doing research for the Year of Publishing Women, everyone talked a lot about how many books by women get on to longlists and shortlists, but no one had ever asked the question about how many are submitted. It was actually that far more books by men are submitted, so you start off with this sort of idea that a certain kind of male book is more likely to be up for a prize like that.”
Campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp will hopefully lead to books exploring what it means to be female, says Shamsie, citing a line in Viv Albertine’s memoir, in which the musician says that she gets older she’s “becoming invisible, still attackable though”.
“It’s a story we actually haven’t been telling much, about what it means to live in a woman’s body, and to grow up feeling attackable and to know that your relationship to public spaces is different to men,” says Shamsie.
Only independent publisher And Other Stories has taken up Shamsie’s challenge of publishing solely women writers in 2018, but the author, who grew up in Karachi and now lives in London and whose first novel was published 20 years ago, is confident that drawing attention to disparities will help push change.
She says: “I don’t think that there is anyone sitting in a darkened room saying how do we keep the women out, and I think a lot of times what you need is actually just to draw attention to certain things and say, ‘here is a place where there is a big disparity, why is that, what can you do about it’. Keep vigilant, really.
“Trust also that if you are vigilant and do point these things out, that within the world of publishing, there is, I really believe, great will to improve the situation. Publishing is full of women, there are far more women reading fiction than men, so our base in a way, is so strongly female.”
The Year of Publishing Women may not have come to fruition, but the tide is changing for women writers, and with her Women’s Prize for Fiction win, it’s certainly the Year of Kamila Shamsie.