Like the characters at the centre of her latest novel, Best of Friends, Kamila Shamsie grew up in 1980s Karachi, when Benazir Bhutto became the first female prime minister of Pakistan, but well-to-do young women were still trailed by chaperones, and shuttled in and out of elite private schools by protective chauffeurs. The story follows the friendship of striving Zahra and undaunted, ruthless Maryam as they live through their girlhood (and “girlfear”) within an ivory tower community. Decades later in London, both women are juggernauts in British society, but continue to reckon with a watershed night during their adolescence. Between video calls with her creative writing students at the University of Manchester, Kamila and I went up and down Primrose Hill and then for eggs and toast at Greenberry Café.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Here we are getting around to breakfast at two o’clock in the afternoon, but what do you normally do in the morning? What do you eat?
Is this terrible? I'm not a breakfast person. So I have a cup of coffee if I'm in London or a cup of tea if I'm in Karachi. The tea is much stronger there and there's a lot more milk added in.
So I wake up, have a cup of coffee, check the newspapers – The Guardian, The New York Times, and Dawn in Karachi. I also have to look at who has WhatsApp-ed, because there are always people who are awake earlier than me in London. People with kids are always awake earlier, and Karachi is awake, so my parents and sister and a couple of friends in Karachi have usually messaged me. That's really how I get started, I look at the phone and have a few chats with people.
I try to get to my desk by 9am or 9.30am. Four hours at my desk, if I’m focusing, will usually get me a day’s work. I can be done by 1pm or 2pm and then I have my first meal of the day. I might come for a walk in Primrose Hill, look at the dogs running around. There are also times when I’m just staring at my screen, looking at too many emails, checking to see if there’s something happening on Twitter. Time goes by. At the moment my Instagram feed is full of videos of Roger Federer. So I’m spending a lot of time watching Roger Federer. Also, is there cricket on? Am I sitting and watching cricket? Some days that is definitely happening.
Best of Friends, your eighth novel, is a thematic departure from your last novel, Home Fire, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. What made you want to write about female friendship?
I think I was irritated with myself that friendships had never been central in any of my novels, because they're quite central in my life and always have been. I remember at some point in the last few years, just becoming aware of the fact that you don't see enough friendship in fiction, and then of course, realising that I'm as guilty of this as anyone. And so I've been interested for a long time in that idea, not just about female friendship, but specifically childhood friendship. The idea of a relationship that starts before your character is formed, and how different it can be from friendships that come later on. Do you have a really close childhood friend?
Yes, my husband and I grew up together.
And do you remember why you became friends? Proximity, often – because you were sitting next to each other on the first day of school, maybe, or you played hopscotch together when you were five. That's reason enough for kids to be friends. And then if there’s no reason for the friendship to break off, you might carry on being friends.
I'm really interested in the fact that most of the friends I’ve made as an adult are in the same sort of world that I am – they're writers or academics or journalists, a couple of human rights lawyers. We have vaguely the same political views. But if I look at my childhood friends, they're all very different. And so I wanted to write about that kind of friendship, which forms before those things become important, carrying on through a time where you are choosing your friends based on a very different set of criteria. What happens to those childhood friends?
Particularly around 2016, I was thinking about it a lot, because so many people were split about Brexit. There were these conversations about “I can no longer speak to this person,” because we have such different ways of seeing the world. And we've always known about the differences, but now it’s become impossible to overcome.
What about you? Do you have a close childhood friend?
My best friend growing up was a boy. When we were 11, we wrote our first novel together, and he's still one of my closest friends. He works for Goldman Sachs in New York. So, in one aspect, I do have that kind of friendship [like the relationship in Best of Friends], because one of us became a novelist, and the other went into business. But beyond that it’s dissimilar, because we have a very happy friendship that wouldn’t make a good novel. He's a nicer human being than I am. He's the better friend.
But beyond their jobs, Zahra and Maryam are ideologically distant. They see morality differently. What did you want to come from that tension?
My experience of the world and of my friends is not that if you live in a world where professionally, the bottom line is what matters, that means it’s the same in your personal life – that in private, you wouldn't be capable of great love and generosity. And it's also not true that if, in your dealings with the world, you are a very ethical, moral human being, that doesn't mean you’re a moral person in every aspect of your life. Human beings are complicated. In the case of Maryam, maybe the person who you can rely on most in a crisis is also capable of doing terrible things to other people. Maybe she has a political position you find abhorrent. And can you live with that, or not?
I think you’ve made Maryam an uncomfortably charismatic character. It made me think of populist politicians, and followers who celebrate them for “telling it like it is.” Do you think that’s a fair comparison?
Yes it's so interesting isn’t it? There are people for whom saying “I'm being honest,” about a horrible thing becomes a way of saying, “Oh, I know, you think the same as I do.” When in fact, not everyone thinks like that. But I think we're living in a world where there's a certain unpleasant honesty that gets played into, where someone can claim to be the only one willing to say it out loud. There's a bit of that in Maryam.
Have you experienced falling out with friends over politics, or ethics?
Nothing like the drama of the novel. But I have friends who work in very different industries – hedge funds and investment banking – where there's just a different set of rules about what matters. And we don't talk much about it. If we were to get into political conversations around how they feel about taxing the rich, for example, we would see things differently.
For the novel, I did want to create that sense of the personal over the political. Growing up in Pakistan, I was very much aware of the people you could rely on, who would do anything for their friends, including us. The network of influences and connections and doing things that were against the law, that they felt were justified if you were protecting your tribe. And at a certain point, I think I became aware that the flip side of that was – you help your friends, you help your family, but you don't particularly concern yourself with the cost to the unknowns out there. I'm really interested in that, and the idea that people will see themselves as acting very ethically, because they're protecting their friends and family. They're not concerned with the world. And there are all kinds of ways in which you can apply that thinking – that “my tribe” is what matters, whether your tribe is a particular class or particular ethnicity, a particular race.
The second half of the novel digs into the give-and-take of a wealthy expat Pakistani community in London, whose sense of belonging is smoothed by money and access, juxtaposed with a couple of ordinary immigrants, who can’t find their feet in an intrinsically nativist system. Is that a point that you were making, that wealth is a leveller?
Yes, I’m glad you said that, because I mean, usually the story of migration, particularly of South Asians migrating, is the story of hardship and dislocation. And of course, that is a true story for many people. But there are other stories of people who know how to navigate power and privilege wherever they go.
I think it is a huge position of privilege to not need Britain to recognise you as being an insider, but to be allowed to a certain degree of insider status. And there's a bit of you that is always the outsider, which makes for interesting observations.
Do you feel that way yourself, as an expat and a British citizen?
The first time I ever used the word “we” was when Brexit happened. And I said, “what have we done?” And then I thought, that is the Pakistani in me, that something disastrous has to happen politically, for me to feel implicated.
When I became a British citizen in 2013, the point was very much about passport privilege. Because if you grew up on a Pakistani passport, travel is incredibly problematic. Everyone needs visas and there are complex visa requirements. So for me, getting citizenship meant I could stay here. I didn't have to go through any more rounds of getting visas and extensions and approvals in an ever-changing and increasingly hostile environment. So the main thing was, okay, now I'm British. But the other thing was, now I have a passport with which I can travel very easily. Passport privilege is a very rare thing.
There’s a line in the book’s flap copy about the unknowability of other people. I kept thinking about it towards the end of the novel, when there’s an ambiguous plot twist that I think you deliberately leave unresolved. Is that the crux of the relationship between Zahra and Maryam, that they love each other despite not knowing?
I'm interested in how people read that moment [the ending]. I think neither of them actually knows the truth about themselves or the other, because the unknowability of character is very much also about the unknowability of yourself in any particular moment.
Interview by Jo Rodgers.
Photographs by Liz Seabrook.
Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie is published by Bloomsbury Circus.
Kamila wears our Wool Cashmere Mariner Sweater.