My first inclination was to reach for the loudest, grandest claims. I was going to write about growing up in a time and place (Pakistan, the 1980s) when writers were censored, threatened, forced into exile, trailed by intelligence agencies. Literature matters, I was going to say, because it threatens dictators who have all the force of state apparatus on their side and yet are threatened by a few lines of poetry.
All this is true. But it’s also true that when I think back to those days of childhood when I first came to understand how deeply literature matters to me it was not about anything so grand as resistance to tyrants or the power of stories to subvert the official narratives of an authoritarian state. It was about something far more intimate – the relationship of an individual (specifically, me) to the novels which were such necessary companions that my first act, on finishing one, was to choose the next one I was going to read so that there need be no single moment in my life when I was in the howling emptiness of a world without a novel-companion. Of course, part of the reason why literature matters is that in the course of that companionship I came to understand and feel in certain ways about the injustices of the world around me. So I suppose my early reading shows the ways in which literature can be both intimate and deeply connected with resisting tyrants and subverting official narratives.
I should say that I was in those days entirely compliant and accepting of the status quo. The world was as it was given to me, and though that might not always be right or fair, it was as it was. You could always hide your head in a book to escape from it, couldn’t you? (That the lives around me contained abundant evidence that you couldn’t did nothing to shake my certainty about this truth.) But then came the year between the ages of eleven and twelve when I read, in the space of a few months, Gone with the Wind and Anna Karenina and Watership Down. If I am to try and trace back the resistance I now feel towards compliance and status quo its origins are as easily located in those few months as in any other period of my life.
Watership Down was the first book to genuinely terrify me, with its Efrafa Warren run by the tyrannical General Woundwort; the terror derived not only from the General and his henchmen (hench rabbits?) but also from the meekness and compliance of the rabbits in his warren who would rather live crushed by his rules than risk his wrath by trying to escape or resist. I don’t know if I explicitly made any connection then between General Woundwort and Pakistan’s General Zia, but some part of me must have been aware that those rabbits in England were closer to my world than anything else I had ever read; why else would I have returned to that book time and again, even though my nature was usually to walk away from stories that engendered terror?
It was around the same time that I picked up Anna Karenina, and I clearly recall pacing the kitchen of my family home partway through reading it, worked up about Russian society and its different rules for men and women, rehearsing great speeches about the unfairness of it all. Why had I never felt it quite so personally that the world around me was replete with equal and greater gender inequality? Because the fictional world of a novel can touch you deeply – in some ways Anna was the first woman whose suffering I ‘experienced’ alongside her.
But the most disquieting of all the reading experiences was Gone with the Wind. Here was a book that I was completely caught up in, having picked it up one evening when my older sister, who was reading it, had gone out to a birthday party. What was this incredibly long book that she was enjoying so much? I spent the next several hours unable to stop turning its pages. But how could a book that had cast such a spell on me be so unconscionable in its politics? I had never before resisted the truths that a novel presented to me, but what on earth was this attempt to make us believe that the end of slavery was a bad thing? Watership Down and Anna Karenina may have made me think more deeply about the world around me – its authoritarianism, its patriarchy – even before I fully understood that’s what they were doing, but Gone with the Wind made me question novels themselves. How to reconcile the fact that I loved the book with an awareness of its horrific racism, its sheer wrongness? There were questions in there that would later echo in life: what do you do with your affection for people (real or imagined) whose value system you discover to be so at odds with your own? How do you judge those whose historical position is so distant from yours? And what kind of human being are you if you choose to overlook what is unpleasant in order to enjoy what can be more uncomplicatedly enjoyed? But the most significant thing that Gone with the Wind taught me, the hardest lesson of all, was to never unquestioningly put your faith in anything, not even in a novel. RSL Vice-Chair and novelist Kamila Shamsie on why literature matters