While reading Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows I couldn’t help but think back to the Post Colonial paper I took during my final year of University. There is so much happening in this novel: the breadth of time, location and characters that Shamsie covers feels overwhelming at moments. There were some moments I felt completely lost in Hiroko & Sajjad’s beautiful love story and achieved the escape I wanted from reading. More often, however, I was sat with a pen in hand scribbling away in the margins about Shamsie’s skill and merging of different, profound tragic moments that bond characters and nations. Shamsie draws attention to the physical and emotional legacies these tragic moments leave behind. How do we honour them? Must survivors honour these moments because they have ‘overcome’ them?
Shamsie’s characters are aware of the many tragedies surrounding them and seem to notice beauty in the tragic. They seem intent on finding and communicating it. They teach us, at moments, ‘how to notice the world’ despite the sense of imminent end surrounding them. I think this is the beauty of the tragic form that Shamsie draws on; so much is going on, everything feels precarious and we are scared at every moment, yet, the description, the content of the tragedy, (in this case, Shamsie’s novel) has so much beauty. So much life. The urge to live is brought out by Hiroko and Sajjad’s story and the moments of living actually happen despite the tragedy.
Shamsie demonstrates the interaction between humans and tragedy where the tragic moment is seemingly caused by something so inhuman: nuclear power, bombs, 9/11 ‘modern’ warfare.
There is a moment in the novel when Harry comments on Hiroko and Sajjad’s pairing:
‘partition and bomb’ (Hiroko survived the Nagasaki bombing and Sajjad, partition) ‘the two of you are proof that humans can overcome anything’.
Despite the formative tragedy they have overcome Hiroko and Sajjad continue to live on in the moment, they live and experience a lifetime of each others love. In fact, their lifetime of love begins after the bombing and partition.The memory and impact of each other’s tragedy exists through their pairing; in marriage and companionship. They honour each other’s experiences, ‘negotiate’ between them, they ‘notice the world’ through sharing their languages and tragic experiences. They find a home in different corners of the world and solace in each other’s languages.
Burnt Shadows does so much, it tells many stories. However, I found Hiroko and Sajjad’s to be the one I was drawn to most, the one that made me feel warmth and hope, the others felt unsatisfying at moments, only available in pieces. Hiroko is the constant in the narrative amidst the profound loss the characters and nations in the novel endure. Hiroko is a little obscure and the captivating type. A wandering figure in the novel (and the fiction I have read so far). Sajjad looks at her as if ‘she would slip away in fluid form. Everything about her was precarious’ and yet, for the readers, she is the constant. From Nagasaki, Delhi, Pakistan, Istanbul, New York and the incomprehensible tragedies Shamsie’s characters endure. She continues living, she forgives, she is pragmatic and compassionate, almost so untouched by the tragedy that surrounds her. I think she serves as a reminder as Sajjad says: ‘If these days teach us anything it’s that all we can do in preparation for tomorrow is nothing. So let’s talk about today’
*If you are a student here is some suggested wider reading:
— If you are to read Shamsie whose writing is somewhat problematic and sensationalises Muslims and the Muslim experience in many ways, please read Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin’s Framing Muslims.
— If you enjoyed the seamless moving between nations and cultures, read Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West – I have a lot of critique for it and I think there was far too much magical realism for me but there are some interesting comparisons to be made here between Hamid and Shamsie.
— Shamsie’s most recent novel Home Fire is very good and equally, problematic. I think her tone in Home Fire is clearer, stronger. It is short too, in fact too short, I wanted more! Parts of Home Fire pander to an exoticised-orientalist sensationalised Muslim trope but there are other parts that are spot on and really capture what it means to be Muslim in Britain today. I find the newspaper style writing by the end to be very clever too. Home Fire reimagines Sophocles Antigone so poignantly and reminds us why Antigone endures over the years. It is also a nuanced and layered connection between the ‘post-colonial’ ‘migrant’ genre and the tragic / Muslim narrative post 9/11. It would be an interesting comparison to read Home Fire and Burnt Shadows together and contrast the understandings of tragedy and tragic characters and the lens of historic tragic events that structure the narratives.