Home Fire opens in western Massachusetts when Isma Pasha arrives from London to pursue her PhD in sociology at an unnamed Amherst university. Kamila Shamsie ’98G artfully describes the relief of the spring thaw here—how the light pierces through the bare branches and how piles of snow whump to the ground.
“I really enjoyed writing the Northampton bits,” says Shamsie from her home in London, where she is among the city’s literary stars. Home Fire, her latest novel, has given her greater visibility in the United States, having been named one of the best books of 2017 by the New York Times.
From academic life in Massachusetts, Home Fire soon switches back to the world of British Muslims in London and then turns to violence in the Middle East. Shamsie tells her tragic tale (a reimagining of Antigone) through the eyes of five different characters: Isma, her twin siblings, and the British home secretary and his son.
Home Fire is about family, about religion, and about country and identity. The story moves swiftly and suspensefully, with moments of sly humor: one character’s facial hair is called an “ecosystem beard”—large enough to contain a small world. The story concludes with what the New York Times described as one of the most memorable final scenes in a novel this century.
Born in Pakistan, Shamsie studied at Hamilton College in New York and enrolled in the UMass MFA for poets and writers at the suggestion of the Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Al, her mentor at Hamilton before he began teaching at UMass. She says the process of workshopping her writing—both in and outside class—was invaluable. “We had an informal group of six or seven women that we called, ironically, ‘The Fiction Babes,’” she recalls. “Through the years, we came to know one another’s work really well. I owe them a lot.”
Shamsie was just 24 and in her last year of the MFA program when her first novel, In the City by the Sea, was accepted for publication by Granta. She remembers the moment she heard the news on December 10, 1997: “I was at home in my Northampton studio apartment peeling a potato to make something for lunch when my agent called from London. It didn’t feel right to keep peeling the potato, so I threw it away.”
In the 20 years since, her career has flourished: she’s published seven novels and two nonfiction books, won many literary prizes, and has been a finalist for the United Kingdom’s two most prestigious writing awards, the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize.
With Home Fire, the powers that earned her these laurels are in full force.