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, characters that Shamsie covers feels overwhelming at moments. There were 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 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…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… and the moments of living actually happen.
Shamsie considers 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’.
Yet, Hiroko and Sajjad live 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 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 and motif of sorts. A reminder that 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’
I should say, at this point, this post feels very random. I had a sudden urge to write this. The blog overall feels quite unfinished… there is so much I want to write but I can’t seem to, just yet. So this review will be here floating amidst the unwritten things… Do let me know if you’ve read this or anything else by Shamsie? Or if you enjoyed this format of writing? I hope you’re enjoying the days getting longer and bursts of sunshine?
*If you are a student some interesting things/wider reading:
— If you are to read Shamsie whose writing is problematic and sensationalises Muslims and Muslim experience in many ways, please google Amina Yaqin and read her work on writing about Muslims in the vaguest sense, there are plenty of online articles. I think her work is so comprehensive and accessible. Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin’s Framing Muslims in particular is great for a more in-depth study.
— 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 it was far too much magical realism for me but there is potential for some interesting comparisons to be made here.
— Shamsie’s most recent novel Home Fire is very good and very problematic. I think her tone is clearer, stronger. It is short too, in fact too short, I wanted more! Parts of Home Fire are very problematic and completely 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.
— Other things you could read to think comparatively across this genre would be Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers. Aslam’s Maps is also incredibly problematic and requires a critical eye and eye rolling to get through – but like Shamsie’s, his novel covers so much and is beautifully written in terms of style and form.