How I Began to Read

Kamila Shamsie
The house of the spirits. By Massimo Barbieri via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
The house of the spirits. By Massimo Barbieri via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

It started with a bear, and a boy in search of his shadow. Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Pan were the twin companions of my earliest memories (an animal and a child – this has a certain symmetry; in my un-reading life, the primary companions of those days were an Alsatian called Dusty, and my sister). Of the two, it was Peter who lodged himself most deeply in my heart, making me dream of adventurers who would dart in through the open window at night and fly me away to Neverland. In the world of J. M. Barrie parents are understandably wary of Peter and his home ‘second to the right and straight on to morning’ but in my world it was my mother who pointed out to me that Neverland was just off the coast of Karachi, located on a series of small islets, known as Oyster Rocks by the unknowing; that two of the islets looked like granite sentinels made her claim seem all the more plausible. So although Peter might fly into rooms in London he ended up just off the coast on which I lived; a comforting thought. The only problem with the world of Peter was that girls – or rather, the one girl – was relegated to darning socks and playing mother, but I was happy for my imagination to extend beyond Barrie’s and find possibilities for myself other than those of Wendy (who was clearly ‘a girly girl’ and therefore deserved nothing better than unravelling socks).

It was a few years later that I ran into the most damned of the girly girls, within the world of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian Susan is companion and foil to her younger sister, her role more essential to the family dynamic than that of the oldest brother Peter, but in the last novel of the series, The Last Battle, we learn that she is exiled for ever from the world of Narnia because of her interest in lipstick (I may be paraphrasing slightly, but that’s the gist). At the age of thirty or so, I confessed to the novelist Michel Faber that when I was eleven and my sister thirteen I called her ‘Susan’ for daring to grow into an adolescence that I had yet to reach or understand. Did you ever apologize? Michel asked. No, I said, having given it little thought over the years. But you must, he said; it’s a terrible thing to have said. It was more in a spirit of amusement at his insistence than from any belief that my sister needed to hear an apology from me two decades later that I offered up my regrets for having Susanned her. It turned out Michel was right. It’s the worst thing you’ve ever said to me, my sister said, and thanked me for the apology.

Kamila Shamsie
Kamila Shamsie

At eight or nine, I didn’t yet see anything problematic about Susan’s lipstick exile, though I did have enough sense of how far I was from C. S. Lewis’s view of the world to be discomfited by that other Narnia book,

The Horse and His Boy, in which the villains are dark-skinned people with beards and turbans. But I was far more put out on discovering that the entire Narnia series was an allegory for Christianity and Aslan wasn’t a lion, but Christ. My objection, I should say, was not to Christ himself, who I held in high regard, but to the un-lioning of Aslan. I remember very clearly the moment of this discovery – standing in the school library, having pulled a book out of the shelf because it had C. S. Lewis’s name in the title. And then, the horror, the horror. I had two choices at that moment. I could decide that the novels I loved so much that my best friend and I liked nothing better than to play imaginative games set in Narnia were not what I thought they were at all; or I could decide that if other people wanted to see Aslan as Christ they were very welcome to do so, but that was no reason for me to disrupt my relationship with the great lion. It really wasn’t any kind of choice at all.

When I’ve had cause to discuss these early books of my childhood, I too often dwell on the lipstick, the turbaned villain, the allegories of Christ in order to talk about the distance between my life in Karachi and those books. This dwelling is always precursor to discussing the enormous sense of exhilaration with which I entered the world of adult reading in adolescence and encountered Midnight’s Children, in which the English-language novel and the world around me came together in a great starburst of imagination and humour, and made it possible to imagine a space for myself as writer within the changing world of Anglophone fiction. Prior to that, I simply hadn’t known that Karachi could be a location for a novel in English.

But in the process of paying rightful homage to Midnight’s Children I betrayed my earliest loves. Peter and Aslan and all the characters around them taught me to dream and to imagine. The lipstick and the darned socks were minor notes of discordance, hardly worth my attention amidst the wardrobes that open into a world of eternal winter or the boy whose shadow runs away from him. In the Karachi of my childhood, where we had one state-run television channel and a sheltered life which rarely extended beyond the school yard and private homes, I walked through that wardrobe, flew to Neverland with the boy and his shadow. And in doing so I learnt that novels reach further than their own writers’ imagination. Who do you write for? I am often asked, the question framed in terms of nation or ethnicity. My own childhood reading makes me impatient of such questions. C. S. Lewis is unlikely to have ‘written for’ a girl in Karachi, but that doesn’t mean any boy in London grew up with a greater claim on Aslan than I did. There were things I didn’t understand, of course – What was Turkish delight to begin with? Why did all the children drink tea, which was clearly a boring beverage for grown-ups? – but I was happy to read around what I didn’t understand, some- times accepting other rules of living, other times inventing my own explanations. Finding ways of contending with the mystification was as much a part of the joy of reading as was entering fictional worlds and changing their rules (I refer you back to girls and the darning of socks). It is a great gift to a writer, this early knowledge that there will always be people who don’t know the world you’re writing about, will miss allegories and allusions, and yet will love your books.

Now my reading life covers much wider ground than it did in childhood when writers such as C. S. Lewis and J. M. Barrie simultaneously opened up the universe and circumscribed it – from Tolstoy and Toni Morrison to Ali Smith and Juan Gabriel Vásquez the world sits on my bookshelf. But although I recognize the richness and breadth of my adult library, I miss the deep pleasures of childhood reading, the intensity which sent me back to books – and not just the most loved ones – over and over again. And yet, of all those childhood books the one that is arguably the most important to my life is one I only read once.

The Pleasure of Reading (Bloomsbury)
The Pleasure of Reading (Bloomsbury)

I remember clearly the day I found it: I was in my grandfather’s study, looking through his intimidating bookshelves in which anything I might have wanted to read (The Iliad, The Odyssey) was in Greek. I had never yet found anything of interest in those bookshelves, but that didn’t stop me returning to them time and again. Gibbon, Pliny, Marx, boring boring boring (in my defence, I was not quite eleven) . . . and then, there, where I must have looked before, in blue binding a book with a title All Dogs Go to Heaven. I pulled it out of the shelf with the same sense of wonder with which Lucy might have walked through a wardrobe that led into a world of snow. My grandfather said he had never seen the book before and I was welcome to it. I should say here that the only tragedies of my life that had occurred so far had concerned dogs – first Dusty, the German Shepherd, my earliest companion; and more recently, Topsy, the Russian Samoyed, whose death I was still grieving when some force of benevolence placed a book about dog heaven between Gibbon and Pliny just when I needed to read it.

If I ever howled with tears through a novel prior to All Dogs Go to Heaven I don’t recall it. In my memory, it was only hours after I finished reading it that my best friend, Asad, came over. Asad and I shared all our books, and to further bind us together he, too, was also deep in mourning for his pet dog. You have to read this; it’s a book set in dog heaven, I said. He replied: Why don’t we write a book? And so we did. We called it A Dog’s Life, and After. I was eleven years old; I haven’t stopped writing fiction since.

But there is nothing I can tell you about All Dogs Go to Heaven, except that it had a blue cover and was set in dog heaven. I thought Asad borrowed it from me that day we sat down to write our novel together; months later when I asked him if I could have it back he said I never gave it to him. We never lied to each other about books – if one went missing we would say so – and so the disappearance of that novel is as mysterious as its appearance.

A few years ago, while writing something about All Dogs Go to Heaven I realized that I could go online and find a copy of it. How strange that the thought had never occurred to me before. It took some searching to uncover it – the unrelated Disney movie of the same name kept leaping into view instead – but I did finally track down a used copy of the novel, which was mine to buy at the click of a button. Reader, I did not buy it. I did not even attempt to remember the author’s name. It had come into my life when I needed it, made me into a writer, and disappeared again – life-changing and fleeting, like Aslan, like Peter Pan. I was and am content to leave it as such.

Ten Favourites, at this precise moment in time: Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino; Jazz, Toni Morrison; In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje; Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie; To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf; War and Peace, Tolstoy; Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson; Great Expectations, Charles Dickens; Meatless Days, Sara Suleri.

This is an excerpt from The Pleasure of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser, to be published by Bloomsbury Publishing (320 pages, Rs 599).

Kamila Shamsieis the author of six novels, including Burnt Shadows, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, and most recently A God in Every Stone. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was named a Granta’s Best of Young British Novelist.