Authors Discuss the Political Novel

Pakistani novelists Kamila Shamsie '94 and Tariq Ali participated in a panel on “Art, History, and Politics of the Novel” on Nov. 12. The lecture was part of The Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center 2009-10 series “Crisis: Danger and Opportunity,” and was moderated by Hamilton’s Assistant Professor of English Tina Hall.

Each author attempted to define the role of politics in fiction. Shamsie noted that the post-colonial novel oftentimes examines the nation-state, and thus inevitably becomes “political.” She also discussed her novel, Burnt Shadows, and addressed the question of whether it was meant to be a political novel. She said that although her first four novels have political ties, none were seen as a political novel. However, since bringing in the role of America into Burnt Shadows, the question of whether it is political novel is continuously asked. Shamsie noted that modern American novelists are not writing novels that discuss Americans’ role past September 11th, and doing so is something these authors should consider for the future.

Tariq Ali discussed the sudden popularity of historical novels and fictional narratives based on historical truths. He noted the importance of reading historical novels in order to understand current events. Ali said there are different ways of reading a book, especially when one grows older, that gives the reader insight into different facets of the world.

Both authors agreed that they do not write novels to “be political.” They do not write with the intention of changing people’s minds, as fiction is simply a mode of communicating ideas but does not allow authors to really “create” as authors do in the non-fiction genre. In his novel, Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, Ali writes from a historical perspective in order to reconstruct the history of Islam in Europe.

Shamsie’s first novel, In the City by the Sea, was shortlisted for the “Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize,” and her second, Salt and Saffron, won her a place on Orange's list of “21 Writers for the 21st Century.” In 1999, Shamsie received the Prime Minister's Award for Literature in Pakistan. She also writes for The Guardian, The New Statesman, Index on Censorship and Prospect magazine and she broadcasts on the radio.

Ali is a historian, novelist, filmmaker, political campaigner and commentator. He regularly contributes to The Guardian, CounterPunch, and the London Review of Books. He is the author of several books, including Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope, Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, and The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power.
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