The Politics of Being Best of Friends
In Kamila Shamsie’s novel, a life-long friendship faces the ultimate test: principle or loyalty
Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Best of Friends, explores how a long, complicated friendship is shaped and tried in tumultuous political landscapes. Maryam and Zahra are unlike in several respects—the families and social classes they come from as well as the values they intend to live by could not be any more different. Yet, in ‘80s Karachi, none of these differences seem to matter. Even as the girls move from Karachi to London and the former grows up to be a venture capitalist whereas the latter an advocate for human rights, they remain deeply committed to being there for each other. Neither the passage of time nor the conflicting nature of their professional lives can drive a wedge between them. However, when they confront a shared, painful memory from their Karachi days in present-day London, they can no longer avoid speaking of their differences.
Questions related to justice and loyalty often form the core of Shamsie’s fictions. Her previous novel, Home Fire, winner of the prestigious Women’s Prize for Fiction, dealt with issues of filial loyalty, set against the backdrop of an unjust mandate issued by a nation state. In Best of Friends, Shamsie considers how assumptions of justice and loyalty impact a lifelong friendship. Reading the new book, I was struck by her artful portrayal of two ambitious and powerful women, and the broader cultural contexts changing their relation. When I spoke with Shamsie over Zoom, I asked her about the driving forces behind the novel and the historical moments that were formative for her and her main characters.
Torsa Ghosal: Your novel’s premise reminded me of tweets, memes, and Quora threads pondering if it’s ok to lose friends over politics. The online discussions raise a question: is the place of true friendship outside the sphere of one’s political life? I feel your novel shows how friendships—even childhood friendships—are motivated by belief systems and these belief systems are, in the end, political. I was wondering if you think there’s something about our cultural moment that has made it urgent for us to reassess the meaning of friendship. I guess, this is another way of me asking you why write this book now?
Kamila Shamsie: All those posts about “don’t lose your friends with politics”—I will be surprised if very many of them came from Pakistanis. When I went to university in America, and I was writing, people started to make comments about bringing politics into fiction, as though politics was something that stood outside. But when I was growing up, it wasn’t something standing outside of daily life. Some of my earliest memories include the day Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged when I was six. A friend of my parents came in the middle of the school day to pick up his two sons, my sister, and me and take us to his house. He lived quite near our school. So, as soon as Bhutto was hanged and there was news that there might be trouble in the city, my parents basically got on the phone with him, and he went and picked all of us up. To me at the time, there was something exciting about leaving school in the middle of the school day and going home to my friend’s house. So, I was always aware of political events and how they were, you know, doing something as basic as disrupting the school day.
Many years ago, I was somewhere in the States, and someone asked me this question about bringing fiction and politics together. It was a young woman who asked it and I sort of said to her, not with any prescience at all, but just in a kind of “let me imagine a situation” way, if ever Roe v. Wade is overturned in this country, you’ll see that politics isn’t separate from life. What’s happening now in the U.S., certainly, but I think, also in the U.K. around Brexit, and with the laws that spring up around COVID, is that there’s this greater recognition that what goes on politically is deeply intertwined with the fabric of our society and therefore, our family and friendships. But, to go back more directly to your question, I did notice in 2016 that between Brexit and Trump there were a lot of people saying I can no longer speak to so and so, because we have such divergent views. And again, it’s nothing new to people from the subcontinent. In India I’m sure for a while now over Modi, there have been these kinds of conversations going on between old friends. I had this idea of a novel of childhood friendship which I’d wanted to write for a long time, but now I could see it in the moment, in a very specific kind of way.
TG: A gap of 30 years separates the two major sections of the novel. Did you decide on that gap at the outset, or did you arrive at it later?
KS: I always knew I was going to follow a friendship through several decades. The original idea was that you would see Zahra and Maryam in many more sections. You’d see their 20s and 30s. But at a certain point I realized that the story itself was in the adolescent years and then in the mid-40s and that the other stuff—I had to think through them—but that wasn’t what the novel wanted. So, I started out imagining quite a different shape, but it was always going to be two girls who were absolute best friends. That we would see them at a very early stage and follow their friendship down the stream, see the ways in which they were very different people in a world where they couldn’t ignore the differences anymore.
TG: I noticed Zahra’s and Maryam’s relationship to images—photos and videos floating across media platforms as well as their own self-images. Zahra is committed to projecting a virtuous image of herself, and because she is intelligent, she is aware of what she is doing until she is not. Maryam, on the other hand, takes responsibility for protecting her friend’s image, which in turn contributes to her own ideas of who she is—someone who works behind the scenes to save the people she loves. And the self-images of both Zahra and Maryam are influenced by the political moment in which Benazir Bhutto gets elected Pakistan’s Prime Minister. I wonder why you chose that moment in history—do you have memories of what Bhutto’s election meant to you at the time and what you think of that era in retrospect?
KS: It was such a significant moment. I was 15 at the time, so I have extremely clear memories of the day Zia-ul-Haq died. I was convinced that we would just have another military dictator after him. I was only four years old when Zia-ul-Haq came into power. So, I didn’t know any other reality. I didn’t know how to conceive of any other reality. And much like in the novel when the adults started to say there will be democratic elections I just thought, why are they being so stupid. I really thought they were being unbelievably naïve. Once it happened and Benazir was elected, it was amazing. It felt like the whole city of Karachi became a giant party. Before that only because of cricket I knew that the whole country could feel joyous together, and this was ten times that or hundred times that, just a feeling of change and something new, and things we hadn’t believed possible seemed possible now. It was so dramatic to see a woman there because power had only ever looked male to me. At school parties, we would listen to campaign songs, and they would bring us to the dance floor like nothing else did.
There was a period after that, and maybe this is why I didn’t write about it earlier, I equated the joy with the disillusionment that followed because, of course, nothing can live up to that kind of hype. Also you realize how many old systems remain in place and people can be disappointing. So, it has taken for me to get even older to look back and think, actually, to have lived through a political transformation, to have lived through a moment where what seemed impossible proved possible is an incredible thing. I am very, very grateful that I have that.
TG: Living through such a moment makes you believe that things can change! I wondered about the extent to which Zahra’s and Maryam’s takes on the image of the “woman in power” contribute to their rejection of conventional heterosexual paradigms in their own ways, even though there are questions raised in the novel about whether Maryam is making a “wife” out of her talented sculptor partner and if their domestic arrangement is a radical departure from heterosexual marriages.
KS: Both Zahra and Maryam are very excited by the election of Benazir but for Zahra it’s the fact that there is democracy, and all the people who have been her father’s friends—journalists as well as human rights lawyers—are suddenly on the winning side of history. She does have a wider sense of it, and then beyond that she’s delighted that it’s a woman. But Maryam doesn’t care that much for democracy itself. To her, there’s a woman. That is very significant because Maryam wants to run her family’s business. She wants to take on the roles traditionally associated with men. I don’t think Zahra is rejecting heterosexuality, though she rejects the traditional paradigm of heterosexuality. Whereas Maryam just rejects all of it—heterosexuality and marriage—although she does have the partner and the child, so in that she is hewing close to tradition more than Zahra.
I wanted to show two young girls who see through the figure of Benazir that the paradigm you’ve been taught as the norm doesn’t have to be the norm. And then, at the same moment, as Benazir comes to power, they have the car ride where they see that the world will still treat them as vulnerable. They will still inhabit the bodies of vulnerable fourteen-year-old girls. So, how to navigate that with the idea of the woman being empowered?
TG: Yeah. As for the rejection and replication of paradigms, I was also struck by the older Maryam thinking of herself as a “conqueror” in the U.K. It is deeply problematic and ironic given the colonial history, but Maryam is also a character who you can see thinking in this way. Your novel shows how generational wealth and privilege transfer across borders and the extent to which one’s sense of justice becomes rooted in privilege.
KS: There’s corruption in the world in which Maryam grows up. Corruption comes with the class position they have—in the way they use it to get favors from their friends. They are not above using violence to have their own way. They don’t think that the law applies to them—what matters is who they know and what they can get away with. I think there’s an interesting conversation within Maryam where she justifies everything as looking out for your family or friends. I also wanted to show how easy it is to transport that to another country. I think, very often, class is talked about as being very specific to a place and, of course, the subtexts and nuances of it are. But also because of Maryam’s privilege, she has a sense of entitlement. It doesn’t occur to her that there’s any room she won’t be welcome in. So, she walks into every room and privilege recognizes privilege. In the UK, she’s able to do a lot of replicating of the network she’s grown up with in Pakistan.
TG: Like how easily she blends in with the members of the High Table! I also think your portrayal of a range of class, gender, racial, and social positions in this novel underlines how identity is not ethics. A Pakistani-origin woman making a place for herself in an exclusive club that’s predominantly white and male need not be a moral or virtuous undertaking by default. Could you talk about what it means to differentiate ethics from identity?
KS: That’s particularly relevant at the moment in Britain because you are having the leadership contest for the Conservative Party, and a lot of people are commenting on the fact that the leading candidates were, with one exception, either women or not white. It was sort of like “look.” But these candidates were all saying how they will commit the most cruel acts against refugees and immigrants. So, what difference does it make? It’s such a shallow version of diversity to say it’s essentially about skin color and name. There’s also very little diversity of class, and that doesn’t get talked about. Beyond that, what’s happening is a very old story. It’s a colonial story. You go back to Macaulay’s Minute on Education where he says, we will create a class of Indians who is Indian by blood and color but English by temperament, so they will rule for us. They will do the work of the Empire. For a while you’ve seen people who aren’t white, who look at world where power is defined by whiteness and make decisions about the positions they’ll take to get to the top, which is to basically replicate certain forms of whiteness without being white. That’s very convenient for their political party because no one can accuse them of racism when they enact racist policy.
Years ago, I was listening to an interview with John Edgar Wideman. This was in the ‘90s and I was relatively new to America and much about race in America, I just didn’t understand. I remember listening to John Edgar Wideman talking about how racist societies have these safety valves. If you treat any large group of people only with brutality and oppression, then that will create pressure and the pressure will build and build until they blow the roof off. So, you create a safety valve that allows a little of the pressure to dissipate. You do that by having a few people from that other group who do get to the top and then you can point to them and say we’re not racist. And that in fact helps the racist system to keep going, because the system says, look, we are changing, and their hope is that no one notices if there’s a change in substance or if the change is a cosmetic change. Now Maryam is someone who absolutely sees how she can play the system.