The chapel flooded with apple-cider bearing guests on Thursday, October 24 in celebration and admiration of living writer Kamila Shamsie. As part of the Living Writers series at Colgate, lead by Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice and partnered by many of her colleagues across the university, Shamsie visited campus to join the community in a discussion about her novel, Home Fire.
Waves of students and faculty members came clad with the Women’s Prize for Fiction winning novel and questions for the genius behind it.
First, Professor Brice took to the stage to welcome the novelist, mentioning her series of accolades and providing a brief introduction to Home Fire.
“The personal and the political collide in Ms. Shamsie’s novel Home Fire, a contemporary reimagining of Antigone, the Sophoclean tragedy first performed in 400 BC. In the opening scene of the novel, one of the main characters, a Muslim woman, endures a five hour airport interrogation. From there the stakes grow steadily steeper until the final moment when a geopolitical conflagration plays out on the 21st century equivalent of a Greek stage: live international television,” Brice said.
“Home Fire is a gorgeous, haunting, inventive, occasionally wry and finally shattering account of what happens when people’s most fundamental loyalties to family, to God, to country come into conflict,” she added.
“Far be it for me to be stupid enough to get competitive with Derek Walcott, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got a bigger audience than he did. Just saying,” Shamsie said after being greeted with applause from the audience.
Shamsie’s light-hearted humor and humble display of talent and intelligence permeated her speech.
The talk was saturated with a collection of readings from Home Fire by Shamsie herself, personal stories about the inspiration and research necessary for such a novel and discussion of contemporary issues such as renunciation of citizenship, loyalties to family, state, religion and the simple longing to feel included.
The first spark of the novel was incited by the theater director of Tara Arts Centre in London who emailed her in 2015, interested in her skill with dialogue, to ask if she would adapt Antigone into a contemporary British or British-Asian context.
Although initially perplexed by the task of finding a connection of the Greek tragedy written 2500 years ago and contemporary life, she discovered for the first time the concept of the stripping of citizenship. As a dual citizen of Pakistan and the U.K., this thought grasped her attention and called for further investigation.
Shamsie saw a relationship between rescinded citizenship in ISIS and Creon’s ban on the burial of Polynices body. In both cases, Shamsie stated that authorities are ultimately saying “you have no claim to this land” and “this earth is not for you.”
This lends itself to contemporary problems for people who are both connected to this issue first-hand and those who are in some nuanced way. Shamsie says what she loves about the novel is the simultaneous intimacy and distance that audiences can feel to it.
“What I want people to take away is, ‘I don’t know,’ because what you take away will depend very much on what you came in with. There are people for whom much of what’s in here is very familiar and they’ll take away one kind of thing and other people for whom it is completely unfamiliar. And the thing I love about the novel is that it’s a form that rewards both intimacy and distance,” Shamsie said.
“She doesn’t think of herself as the final authority on her work. She’s open to the possibility that people will see things in the novel she didn’t see herself,” Brice said in response to this idea.
Home Fire is a great example of how each character can be wholly unique in their decision making and motivations, yet give a different impression on the reader. A takeaway from her talk was her emphasis on the idea that the information we do not know about an individual in some way more telling of their character than what we have been told,” sophomore Julia Zaborowsky says.
Home Fire is a novel that kindles empathy and deeper reflections about the world and people around us. Shamsie’s treatment of these difficult subjects is shockingly eye opening, beautifully conveyed and, resultantly, worth the read for any person no matter their walk of life.