Tuesday, November 06, 2007

"Kartography" - Kamila Shamsie

The city of Karachi is the main protagonist of "Kartography", a city where the streets truly have "no name" and where directions are intimately tied with events.

It may be violent, chaotic and "brazilified", with the wealthy taking their cars between mansions and country clubs, but Shamsie had me believe it is also magical - somewhere beauty is hard to come by and all the more unexpected and precious because of it.

The story centers around a childhood friendship between Raheen and Karim. Just when they step into adolescence and could have naturally evolved into boyfriend and girlfriend, Karim's father decides to take his wife and son to London and away from the escalating sectarian violence in the city.

The distance creates some misunderstandings, but the greatest one is caused by family history, for Karim's mother was once engaged to Raheen's father, and the boy's mother to the girl's father. What happened is intimately connected to the political violence of 1971, when Pakistan fought East Pakistan (Bangladesh), and to the ethnic groups each of the grown-ups belong to.

How much (or how little) Raheen and Karim know about these events will drive a wedge into their friendship, even though they never discuss it openly.

After boy and girl separate at Karachi's airport, each 13 years old, we next meet Raheen at an Ivy League university in the States. Frankly I didn't much enjoy that part: I kept feeling I'd read it before in some other book.

It's complicated, because the reality is that so many Pakistani, Indians, Chinese etc do go to universities in the U.S., many to study writing (like the author)and yet on the page, those experiences usually read like a cliché.

The other thing is that Raheen, our narrator, grows up to be less than likeable. At 13 she is a spirited young thing, but at 20 she's a bit of a sulker, unable to withstand any real affection from men, and she really does believe everything is about her.

In all honesty many 20 year olds are like that, but it sure gets a little grating. But never mind, soon Raheem and Karim, along with best friends Zia and Sonia are back in Karachi and "Kartography" really takes off - scaling violence and political unrest seem to conspire in order to throw our protagonists into similar tragic situations as those faced by their parents 20 years earlier.

There are many interesting map lines in "Kartography": the different kind of emigrants Raheen and Karim become (she, oblivious to the political situation of her country; he, obsessed by it); the subplot of their parents tale explained in separate chapters dated 1971; and the shifting identification of country, social class and ethnic group.

Overall, "Kartography" is an enjoyable book, though it left me with some nagging questions. There seem to be a lot of young writers, born in third world countries and educated in anglo-saxonic universities who rely on their regions of birth for their subject matter. In itself, that should hardly constitute a problem, but good literature needs more than a first hand knowledge of an exotic location.

One gets the feeling that in american universities these writers are urged to "write about what you know", and so they do. But they seem to aim at a western audience and so, play the "exotic" card rather heavy-handedly, while the main characters, the narrators, are of an almost absolute western sensitivity.

I don't really know what driving at exactly, except that of course, I want my books set in Karachi or Beijing or Seoul, but maybe I don't need the "benefit" of a american/ british university educated narrator every time.

Would those books get published quite as easily? I don't know.

I guess I used to be more naive about book publishing and have only recently started to realize that, like everything else, it is also political. There are many new writers who come from different ethnic backgrounds being published in the U.S. yet, it seems to me that most of them, besides being mostly female, have in common a degree in "Creative Writing" of some sort in a well-known university. Sometimes I fear they are all being coaxed into writing in a certain way by american professors, or worse, that only those who do, get published.

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