10 Questions for Claire Chambers
- By Edward Clifford
"Shamsie condemns Britain’s rising xenophobia and ideas about British purity, but also trumpets London’s convivial diversity, replete as her fictionalization of the city is with Iranian neighbors, Scottish political assistants, and Latin American bodyguards. Despite her focus on acts of terror, this is a quiet, reflective novel, preoccupied by sound yet out of it creating lyricism rather than fury."
—from "Sound and Fury: Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire," Summer 2018 (Vol.59, Issue 2)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My mother is a hoarder who has discovered the Japanese art of decluttering, with the result that she is joyfully recluttering my house. She has recently returned to me a box full of my notebooks, one of which contains a story entitled ‘The Frogs and the Fox’. The story’s two protagonists are Rebic Croak and Rebic Mummy. A fox named Mr. Fox comes to live next door to Rebic Croak and Rebic Mummy. Mr. Fox exhibits signs of aggression towards the Rebic single-parent family, so while he is out one day the Frogs steal from his cupboard cans of "peches, tomartos and custard". Furious at the theft of his tinned goods, Mr. Fox rushes at the Frogs, but they jump into the river and ‘like all foxes’ he can’t swim. (There is a subplot involving a witch, but I won’t detain you with that as the characterization is rather thinly-drawn.) Later, Rebic Croak ill-advisedly goes down to the river by herself. She sees Mr. Fox having a nap. In the setting sun he looks green, so she mistakes him for her friend Hoppey Jummpy and bounces playfully at him. The story ends with the immortal lines: "Now there was such a chase you should have seen it. Until Rebic Croak jumped into the river. So off went Mr. Fox. So Rebic Croak swam her million miles and then went back home. Her mummy was glad to see her."
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
As a nonfiction author I’m inspired by Ahdaf Soueif’s passion and political commitment, Bina Shah’s fearless and eloquent newspaper columns, Muneeza Shamsie (Kamila’s mother!) with her encyclopaedic knowledge of Pakistani literature, Alex von Tunzelmann’s bringing the past to life, Moni Mohsin’s hysterical sense of humour, Marina Warner’s immersion in other cultures, and Malala Yousafzai’s determination to keep on reading and writing no matter what.
What other professions have you worked in?
I spent a year during the 1990s when I was only a teenager myself teaching children between the ages of six and sixteen in Pakistan. At university, I had several retail jobs where I enjoyed spending my staff discount on clothes I couldn’t have otherwise afforded, but was underwhelmed by the paucity of my pay and by standing on my feet all day. I was good at taking people’s coats on the cloakroom at a concert venue, but proved less adept at returning the correct one to its owner. I’ve washed shelves in libraries, helped dyslexic students with note-taking, and boxed up broken Nokia phones and sent them out for repair. I worked on the reception desk at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney in the months before the 2000 Games, and failed to recognize Chris Tarrant the presenter of TV’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? waiting patiently to be served. Finally, alongside my current profession as a university researcher and teacher, since 2012 I have been moonlighting as a Zumba instructor. This is the perfect combination of professions, actually: the sedentary world of books and the raw energy of dance fitness!
What did you want to be when you were young?
I always just really wanted to read and write books. That said, I remember sending a letter to a television show, whose premise was to make kids’ dreams come true, asking for them to send me to the moon. I thought my dad, a physicist, could do experiments there and make it worth their while. Unfortunately they didn’t agree, so the astronaut dream was over before it began and it was back to reading and writing for me. Probably just as well, since the show’s presenter was the now notorious sex offender Jimmy Savile from my home city of Leeds.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Well, this is a really bad moment in history. In 2016 we had the far-right murder of MP Jo Cox just ten miles from where I live, followed a week later by the hate-fuelled Brexit referendum, and the similarly odious election of Donald Trump that November. Last year Britain suffered five acts of terror. The Westminster attack and the awful atrocity at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena are the best known. However, the Finsbury Park mosque attack in which one worshipper died and eight were injured in June 2017 should not be forgotten. The same month, Grenfell Tower, a high-rise block of flats in North Kensington, succumbed to flames. The fire spread quickly due to the building’s inflammable cladding and substandard fire doors. Over half of the 72 people killed at Grenfell Tower had Muslim names, and only approximately three of them were white. Outrage and protests erupted over the fact that Kensington and Chelsea, one of the world’s wealthiest residential areas, could accommodate working-class and ethnic minority people in such parlous conditions.
This last week we have been mourning the one-year anniversary since the Grenfell Tower fire and hearing reports of the arrest of the instigator of Punish a Muslim Day. Amid this madness, Kamila Shamsie’s is a voice of sanity and a voice it is worth training a careful ear to, as I try to do in my essay. Amid this misery, it was a rare good news story to hear that she had deservedly won the Orange Bailey Women's Prize for this excellent novel, Home Fire. Amid these frightening times, I’m recommending that everyone read the novel if they want to understand more about our divided world.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
We’ve been having our kitchen done, very slowly and with great noise. It’s relaxing and helpful to have YouTube playing in the background while I try to write. I’ve discovered Coke Studio, Pakistan’s legendary music television programme which began broadcasting in 2008 using a format and sponsorship from the Coca-Cola Company, and which continues to be very popular today. Just when I was – whisper it! – starting to get a little tired of listening to the same ghazals by amazing singers like Meesha Shafi, one of my regular Zumba class members who hails from Mumbai told me about Coke Studio India, so that opened a whole new world. Art should be without borders.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
In the morning I like to drink strong filter coffee, eat a couple of cinnamon-dusted chocolate almonds, and do a bit of ‘limbering up’ before getting into my more challenging and drawn-out writing tasks. The warm-up might be some editorial work, fiddling with a bibliography, or crafting a delicately-worded email to reassure a student panicking about a deadline. Then I crank up Coke Studio and we’re off!
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’m obsessed with dance and think that academics tend not to focus on their bodies enough, so I’d fling myself around to Reggaeton beats for a living.
What are you working on currently?
At the moment, I’m working hard to try to finish my book in time for its autumn deadline. It's part of a two-book project. The first book was published by Palgrave Macmillan and titled Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations of Britain, 1780−1988. Now I'm working on a second volume, Muslim-Identified British Novels, 1988-Present with chapters on The Satanic Verses, the 1990s, 2000s, and the 2010s. Just as my article for Mass Review is about listening, the book has wound up dealing with depictions of the five senses. I’m finding sensory studies to be a fascinating topic.
What are you reading right now?
I’m working on the chapter concerning Muslim writing in the 2000s and depictions of taste and eating right now, so I’m (re-)reading Leila Aboulela’s Minaret. It’s a lucid novel that is deeply interested in feasting and fasting, so I’m binge-reading it with great enjoyment and trying to digest its message about the perils of over-indulgence and the importance of moderation. While eating chocolate almonds and drinking coffee, of course!
CLAIRE CHAMBERS is a Senior Lecturer at the University of York, where she teaches literature from South Asia, the Arab world, and their diasporas. She is the author of British Muslim Fictions (2011) and Britain Through Muslim Eyes (2015). She recently published a collection of her essays entitled Rivers of Ink (2017). Finally, she co-edited Imagining Muslims in South Asia and the Diaspora (2015). Claire is Editor (with Rachael Gilmour) of the Journal of Commonwealth Literature and Series Editor (with Shital Pravinchandra) of the Routledge book series Global Literature: Twenty-First Century Perspectives. Since 2012, Claire has written bimonthly columns for the Pakistani national newspaper Dawn’s Books and Authors section.
Book Cover courtesy of the author.