Fatima Bhutto on her new novel The Runaways, identity, and her love for Karachi

Editor’s note: Fatima Bhutto’s second novel, The Runaways, brings together three lives from distant corners of the world, each ravaged by violence and grief in different ways. The author spoke to Firstpost about her writing, growing up in one of Pakistan’s foremost political families, writing fiction to find something different from the politics of the country and her hope, or lack thereof in the future of Pakistan.

In a piece you wrote earlier this year in the Guardian, you termed the Pakistan election a circus that has ‘all-knowing ringmasters, caged lions, knife-throwers, trapeze artists flying from perch to perch’. Despite having lived painfully close to this circus, you look to distant, grounded characters in your fiction. Why? What do they offer that the elite politics of Pakistan wouldn’t?

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You were in New York when 9/11 happened. How have years after the event shaped your idea of the West, the things that you did, the places you visited and could not? Has Muslim identity been shaped by a singular narrative since and can something be done about it?

I don’t really believe in the idea of “identity” as it’s conceived of in the West. We from the subcontinent have a different philosophy, as you know. We believe in the multiplicity of ideas, experiences, and belongings. We have no concept of time as the West sees it, we believe in life and death differently — much more expansively. And so as the West has, feeling attacked, shrunk its spaces and started to be very binary — good/bad, us/other, migrant/native- one feels increasingly apart. Muslim narratives, just like Hindu narratives or Christian narratives, can never be shaped by a singular narrative because there’s no such thing as a singular Muslim/Hindu/Christian experience. It’s multiple, constantly changing, and evolving.

File image of Fatima Bhutto. Reuters/Stringer

File image of Fatima Bhutto. Reuters/Stringer

In between your two novels you wrote an acutely personal account, that of your father. Having gone so deep into a part of your life, how did you come out to further explore the world of fiction and the people it offered? How do you balance this weight of politics on one shoulder, and that of literature on the other?

I don’t feel any weight, not on either shoulder. I wrote the book about my father, Songs of Blood and Sword, first — before either novels because it was something very important to me. But I feel at home in fiction. The experience of writing fiction can never be described as a weight — I’m constantly awed by it.

Both, in your first novel and now in The Runaways, you choose multiple lives to tell a story, rather than through the lone protagonist. Why? Is it also indicative of the way the narrative of violence is almost ‘never’ read by the West – multiple threads?

That's a really good point you make — yes, in a way, violence is always described in stark black and white terms these days and I wanted to think about it in a different way. How much pain do you have to be in to go to war against the world? What does it mean to feel wounded by the world, to be humiliated and isolated? Regarding the characters, I never really set out to write about multiple people — this was just a book about two boys when I started writing it: Monty and Sunny. But the story has a life of its own — it moves in all sorts of directions, I just follow it as faithfully as I can.

You’ve suffered the consequences of violence yourself. What does writing offer that maybe nothing else can? Have there been times when writing about a fictional account of violence, brought back too many memories, the pain? How do you address the past then?

I am haunted by the violence I’ve experienced. You have to expose violence to light, to air, it’s the only way you can rob it of its power.

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The Runaways, by Fatima Bhutto

Your relationship, your love for Karachi has always come through in your work. But did you ever contemplate leaving the city, the country, forever? What pulls you back? What are your greatest memories of the city?

My memories of Karachi are really of loss. It’s a city that formed me in fire — I was a child when I first fell under its sway and it raised me to be who I am. I owe it everything. I love its people, its wild, chaotic nature, its unwavering intensity. I’ve never left Karachi because I wanted to, it’s always been because I had to.

You operate with a degree of liberalism and openness in your writing. Surely, your politics is of the same nature. But is their space for such ideas in Pakistan today? Do you ever feel the urge to address that, or do something about it? Would you ever consider doing it or is writing, at least for now, the final frontier?

Of course there is space for such ideas. Many others besides me are constant proof of that. I’m a writer because it’s what I always wanted to do. I fought to do what I wanted and what I love.


Updated Date: Oct 24, 2018 10:43 AM

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