Novelist Kamila Shamsie picks up after just two distinctive British double ringtones, from her home in London. When asked how she is, Shamsie laughs, a full-throated contralto chuckle. “I’m pretty great this morning!” That’s because her newest book, “Home Fire,” has made the long list for the Man Booker Prize, Great Britain’s most prestigious literary award.
While that would be good news for any writer, it’s even better news for an artist who has chosen to adapt one of the world’s most significant dramas. “Home Fire” (Riverhead: 288 pp., $26) is Shamsie’s retelling of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” one of his three Theban Plays (the others are “Oedipus Rex” and “Oedipus at Colonus”). “Antigone” centers on its eponymous heroine, her sister Ismene and their dead warrior brother Polyneices, who has been denied proper burial by the King of Thebes, Creon. Further explication of the plot might send your eyeballs spinning; the important things to know about the play are its twin focuses on family loyalty and civil disobedience.
When Shamsie, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan, makes Ismene into Isma, Antigone into Aneeka and Polyneices into Parvaiz and sets the action in London and Karachi, she takes those themes and makes them shockingly relevant. “It is a rather daunting play to take on,” says the author. “When the idea was given to me, I literally went on Wikipedia to refresh my memory of the plot!”
It starts with Isma detained at Heathrow; after years taking care of her younger siblings, she is en route to the United States to finally begin a PhD program. The story also follows her sister in London, her brother in Istanbul, and the dark legacy their father has left them. Isma’s efforts to not attract attention — she carries no Koran, no family photos — present a harrowing view of the anxiety people of Muslim heritage feel while traveling in the post-9/11 world.
That feeling comes partly from Shamsie’s personal experience. “For years, I was detained regularly due to a computer glitch, and there would always be a note saying, ‘She’s just here because of a computer glitch,’ and still I would be nervous,” she says. “Really nervous. Do I have the right documentation? Do I have the telephone numbers of people nearby who can vouch for my identity if necessary?”
Born in Pakistan, Shamsie spent some time in America, but when she decided to settle, it was, for the most part, in Great Britain. “My time in America was in small college towns,” she says, “and I’m a big-city person.” For a time, her post-grad-school life was nomadic: time in Amherst, Mass, where she got her MFA at the University of Massachusetts, winter in Karachi, then some months in London. “Some time in my mid-30s,” she says, “I realized I wanted one place, one place where I could keep an expensive set of kitchen knives.”
However, Shamsie still spends winters in Karachi, “when the weather there is heavenly, unlike in London,” and it’s important to her that the characters in “Home Fire” identify as Pakistani British. “For all of them, London is home,” she says. “Even Eamonn’s father, Karamat, the King Creon character, is sympathetic to me in his hard-headed view about Englishness, because he is simply trying to be at home. There’s a part of him that yearns for his cultural heritage, but he’s put himself in a strange position and doesn’t know how to get back to the part of him that loves Pakistan as well as England.”
The tensions of fatherhood, duty and belonging extend to one of her characters, Parvaiz. “Quite early on, I knew that Parvaiz would be the one least interested in religion — but he’d be the one going off to join the Islamic State,” Shamsie says. “MI6 reports that people who go from Britain to join Islamic states have very little by way of religion in their background; they may be Muslim, but religion is not a big part of their lives. What is a big part of their lives is missing certain things about masculinity. Parvaiz’s father is gone to him, but when he is approached by one of these militant recruiters, he can be swayed by wanting to belong, wanting to have agency, wanting to ‘be a man’ like his father was.”
Basing a book on a Greek tragedy has certain hazards. The final scene of “Home Fire” was “pretty awful” to write, Shamsie says. “It feels very physical, to write that kind of ending, you sort of write it and have to get up and walk, or run. When I was writing it, I was at a retreat I regularly attend in Tuscany, and there are some wonderful dogs there. I finished writing and had to get up and go outside and play with the dogs.”
Patrick is a writer and critic whose work appears in the Washington Post and on NPR Books.