5. Writing Home

by Diana Filar

“Home is a place where I exist at every age.”

What does “home” refer to in the title of Kamila Shamsie’s 2017 novel Home Fire? For a book that opens in an airport, and whose characters travel between London, Karachi, Amherst, Raqqa, Istanbul, and Guantanamo Bay, home is no simple matter. Moreover, for the novel’s Muslim characters, the question of home becomes charged with political meaning when it’s posed in the context of the national security state.

The politics of this question are clear in the first pages of Home Fire, which Shamsie read aloud at the beginning of last week’s episode. The protagonist is Isma, a British woman with Pakistani roots, who is now a graduate student in the US. In the first scene, she finds herself being interrogated at Heathrow airport. Even though Isma holds a British passport, the border officer feels the need to probe the question of her loyalty. “Do you consider yourself British?” he asks. Isma is flummoxed. “I’ve lived here all my life,” she says, thinking that “…there was no other country of which she could feel herself apart.” Still, her words sound “evasive.” Where, in the eyes of the state, does Isma consider home?

During the recording session with Ankhi Mukherjee, Shamsie described her family home in Karachi as a “place where [she] exist[s] at every age.” Home, Shamsie seems to be saying, is more than just a geographical place—it is a kind of spiritual property that she carries with her throughout her life. For a cosmopolitan writer who lives between Karachi and London, this makes sense. But how does this translate into literary terms? How to narrate “home” in the context of constant movement?

I faced a similar question when I was studying for a BFA in fiction. My stories were loosely autobiographical accounts of my upbringing as an immigrant from Poland. Although my characters were physically present in the USA, they lived their inner lives as if they were back home. To mimic this migrant’s sense of spatial disjuncture, I wrote their memories of the past in the present tense. Home was a problem for my characters, but it could at least be resolved by literary means.

My peers in the workshop objected to this formal technique, suggesting paragraph breaks or shifts in perspective to make these jumps between the USA and Poland more coherent. I argued that Poland existed for these characters not just as a place, but as a kind of mental state that intervened in their lives and interrupted their immediate experience. For my characters, Poland was a place they existed at every age.

Home Fire narrates its characters’ attempt to repair a similar disjuncture. What does “home” mean for Isma? For that matter, what does it mean for the radically Conservative Home Secretary Karamat Lone, or for the alienated Parvaiz who travels from London to Raqqa to fight with ISIS? For them, “home” is not a simple place, but a problem without a solution.

image credit: Wikipedia

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