“The things I’m more deeply disturbed by, I can only get out in fiction”: in conversation with Fatima Bhutto


Dawn: October 7, 2018

An edited version of this interview ran in Dawn last weekend. Fatima’s new book is out in South Asia on October 24 and available for pre-order now.

You can check out my review of The Runaways, and if you’d like more from Fatima, you can see this interview I did with her in 2015 – I loved this one. 


After a spell of five years, Fatima Bhutto is back with her second work of fiction, The Runaways. Set largely in Karachi and Portsmouth, it is the story of three young people, Anita Rose, Monty and Sunny. On the surface, their lives couldn’t be more different – Anita is the daughter of a maalish waali from a Karachi slum while Monty’s family owns most of the city, and Sunny is the coddled child of Indian immigrants – but ultimately, they are all trapped in the blueprint of a future dreamed up by their parents.

It is difficult to talk about this book and what makes it so timely – so terrifying – without giving away too much, but there comes a moment in their lives when Anita, Monty and Sunny are given the chance to step outside of that neatly defined future, to feed their yearning to be more, do more, to be known, and they encounter each other in a place they could have never imagined creating a new life in: Mosul, Iraq.

If you’ve heard or read anything about this book, it might have been easy to pigeonhole it as yet another book about radicalized young men and women. Bhutto describes The Runaways as a story about young people and millennial confusions, about trying to form a sense of self in opposition to the world, and yes, about radicalization. How it festers, like a wound inflicted by the humiliations, the anger and frustration, and most dangerously, the isolation, that young people may feel within their societies. What does it mean to be radicalized – beyond the headlines and past the violence – and what would we see if we swallowed our fear of it? I spoke to Bhutto about The Runaways, why she was cautioned against writing it in the first place, and how she might have ruined her search history forever while researching this book.


The Runaways grapples with issues that play out in the news almost every day, such as migration, sexual identity, religious extremism, and faith. What sparked the idea for the book?

I started thinking about this story in 2014. It was that summer when ISIS had really captured the news, and anywhere you went and anything you read you had these horrific stories, this new face of terror. These were stories we’d been watching for 10 years or so, but it was so much worse, so much scarier, because this time, it was young people, it was global, it was slickly produced. It didn’t come with old grainy videos but these Hollywood-style visuals. I started thinking about what it takes for young people to be radicalized and what radicalization means. There seems to be this idea about radicalization, especially in the West, where it is almost like a fever. You wake up one morning with it and you’re sick. But it’s really a series of many humiliations and many isolations that does that to a person. Its not one thing. So I had started to think about that, but I was largely dissuaded from writing about it by my literary agents.


Why were they hesitant about this book?

They weren’t hesitant, they just said, “Don’t do this.” It was a flat out ‘no’.


I wonder why, since there’s definitely an audience wanting to understand extremist thought or the violence it inspires.

That’s what I would have assumed too, but I think there’s a general terror about not wanting to understand these things. Its really just enough to be afraid of them. There’s no real effort to understand or observe or investigate. Its just this cyclical repetition of horror story, panic, fear, horror story, panic, fear. And novels are essentially compassionate forms. They are small, intimate examinations, and to do that you’d have to ask questions about the person you’re meant to be afraid of. And I think that was the fear. Nobody really wants to know that the radicalized are just as pained as their victims; those at the forefront of violence are just as brutalized by it as the people they inflict it upon, I think.


I think a lot of the stories about this are also very redemptive. There are stories of being radicalized and then coming to your senses and changing your mind, and there seems to be a real market for that kind of fiction or non-fiction when it comes to radicalization. Your book doesn’t really offer that.

I think it’s a very Western idea – that sort of narrative. The structure is – I was good, then I was bad, now I’m good again. But life isn’t like that, people aren’t like that. This sort of thing builds cancerously in a way. At first its imperceptible and you don’t feel anything, and then it grows and it grows and by the time its become dangerous its often too late. I hadn’t seen anything that reflects that at least in popular culture and things I was reading.

I work quietly, and when I was finished with the first draft I gave it to my agents who said, “No way. No thank you. You can’t do this.” I remember being told, “Nobody wants to read about people like this.” And I thought, well, I do. This is exactly the kind of people I want to read about. I’m really tired of reading these novels coming out of the West which are all about women and sad marriages set in suburban comfortable settings. I don’t want to read any of those novels. I want to read about violence. I want to read stories that take place in multiple confusing places that move beyond the three or four locations we’re given. So I ignored them and kept working.


How did you change their mind?

It becomes like a mania when you’re working on a novel. Your mind is always circling these places and these people you’ve started to form. So I kept working for another four years and by the time I showed it to them again, the book was in a different state. I don’t know if they’re convinced about it even now! But I remain more convinced and curious and interested in those worlds and those people.


Do you worry about the reaction from readers?

If you start worrying about reactions, you start writing for reactions. For me, the act of writing is always private. It’s a very quiet solitary act. And by the time I’m finished with it, its too late. By the time it goes out and is published, too much time has passed for me to go back and worry. I’m curious, but not worried.


How did your three main characters, Anita Rose, Sunny and Monty, come to be?

The Runaways was initially just 30,000 words. It was really only about Monty and Sunny. My first readers said it was too small, and you didn’t really know where these characters came from. And so I went back and rewrote it and rewrote it… I’ve lost track of how many drafts I did, but at one point it was a satire, then it was almost too funny and we had to take out all the funny bits; at another point it was too tied to current events, so I had to scrap all the real life references. I mean, I don’t even know if I’m a writer, I’m a rewriter at this point.

But for me, the heart of the book is two people: Sunny and Anita. I’m sure Sunny is probably the hardest for other people to sympathise with, but I did, and I was most curious about him, most worried for him, and most attached to him. I felt a real solidarity with him, with his loneliness and how painful it feels not to belong in a place, especially because you may feel that’s the only place you have or feel you deserve to belong and you don’t.

Anita was the last character, born in the last year of the work. I loved her because of Karachi. What I loved about her is what I love about home: how it builds you and makes you even in all the upsets and turbulence. It creates a certain defiance in the people it throws around. Anita had my heart for that reason, whatever else she does.


This is an area that’s so heavily researched and reported on – people who think their faith ties them to something that has greater meaning, and who then often act on that in terrible ways. Tell me about your research.

I did a deep dive into websites like LiveLeak, which is like an alternative YouTube, so its got all the panda sneezing videos but its also got the war in Syria and constantly updated videos that the rebels put out. In 2014, they also hadn’t shut down all the Tumblrs, Reddits and Twitter accounts that had that kind of stuff. What amazed me in the research was not the violence. If you look up videos of American soldiers walking through Fallujah, if you listen to the audio of the American bombers when they’re targeting people, the things they are saying are not very different to the things ISIS is saying. So the violence was not surprising, but what shocked me was how similar they were.

We always view this turmoil as a religious thing, but to me its not. The guys who are out in Syria have a lot of the same millennial confusion and anger that young people have anywhere else. Its just set against the backdrop of extreme inequality and extreme disorder. But a lot of it comes from the same wanting: to be famous, to be special, to be significant, to have a following. They are obsessed with likes, with viral videos, with the sharing, and that was really surprising to me. It used to be that those groups depended on or survived on secrecy but today nobody wants to be secret, everyone wants to be famous. You don’t have to be famous for anything good either. You want to be watched, it doesn’t matter doing what. That for me was the real education of the research. I spent a lot of time looking at certain kinds of social media accounts, and I thought, oh its just research and I’ll stop looking at this whenever I want. I cant.


In the last five years, between The Shadow of the Crescent Moon and this book, do you feel like you’ve changed as a writer?

I’m one of those people who believes you’re always striving to be better and you should never be done with that. I look at it as a constant trying.

This is a very different book than Crescent and much, much harder to write and took me much, much more time. I worked on this more than any other book I’ve written. If they didn’t stop me I would still be working on this. At some point during the copyediting I was told this is no longer the time to add sentences and rework things. Who said this? “A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned.”

I was always suspicious of the kind of writers who have a new book out every year or two years, because you cant be thinking very deeply about something or polishing and working and correcting and bettering your prose if every 12 months you’re handing it in. So I have grown from the early writer I was, who could churn out work and was happy with short deadlines. I value time and the hard slog of rewriting more now than I used to.


The book explores what it means to be a man today, how a man might think or move through the world. Did you find that difficult to do? Why are you interested in this?

It wasn’t difficult. Once I have the idea for a character, I get very swept up in them. Watching the way in which masculinity is in crisis today, what does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to someone like Monty or Sunny, who have a very particular idea of what it means to be a man, and they suddenly wake up and the world has changed and that meaning is transformed not just immediately but constantly and aggressively? How does that person catch up? Is that required?

And why is your identity of interest to everyone? I couldn’t care less but I have to keep up with the changing rules of it? Think about selfie culture, which requires your idea of yourself to be built for public consumption. I belong to the old school way of thinking that nothing is for public consumption other than your work. Your daily life, your thinking, your misery, your joy – why does that have to be part of it?


But I feel like you have this love-hate relationship with selfie culture and especially social media. On your Twitter or Instagram you do sometimes have a mix of your thoughts or feelings or reactions or photographs of your father or stories about him, and this is something people would not have been able to access a couple of years ago unless you were giving an interview. How do you navigate your public/private identity online?

I think I fail at Instagram because I don’t want to do the personal stuff. My father’s birthday, death anniversary – I will share that, and I’m happy to. Its not that I feel I have to. If I did, I wouldn’t share things. My father I share because of what happened to him. I don’t really share anyone else. My father was a public figure because he was killed so publically, because the people involved in his killing are public figures, he is a part of that public space. That’s okay for me to do then. My favourite thing to share is books I’ve read – I think that’s one big reason I fail at Instagram. But what I had for lunch or what fun thing I did with a friend or what colour I like – I’m pretty happy to keep that to myself.


But why are you okay with seeing other people put those things out there? Why are you on Instagram looking at what other people are doing?

It’s a fascinating place to watch how other people perform their lives. Because its just a performance. I don’t have the impression that I’m watching real life. Its an interesting way to observe how obsessed culture is with the self. How obsessed people are with being famous. It used to be that you had to have a skill or be somewhere interesting – like a witness to something at a moment that might propel you to a level of public notoriety or being known. Now its just meaningless. Now the pressure is so enormous because you can be famous for wearing nail polish. Or that couple that holds each others hands? What is that? How are two people famous for that? For me its fascinating how people monetize their lives, publicize their successes and failures. I find it depressing. I watch it a bit like a car crash, with my hands over my eyes.


Okay we must get back to the book now. There’s a bit in it where a young South Asian man in the UK talks about how he doesn’t ever expect to see himself represented in the culture he lives in – he’s not going to be starring in a movie or on the cover of a magazine. ‘Diversity’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘representation’ are buzzwords now, but it seems you’re suggesting that these are also possible remedies for those who feel isolated in or abandoned by their societies and who then act out against those societies.

When you look at young people who get involved in or caught up in certain actions, the thing you see in their stories is that they weren’t included in their society. Forget being on the cover of a magazine. They live on the outskirts of their societies and are cut off from opportunities – health, education, employment, and so on. That’s really more the issue than being represented on TV or in films.


But we often speak about diversity in those terms – we celebrate a hijab-wearing model on the cover of Vogue or a British-Pakistani actor starring in a major Hollywood movie.

Oh absolutely, and that’s the violence that they do to us all the time. They make us tokens. So they say, “Don’t ask for a political voice, don’t ask for inclusion. We gave you a magazine cover.” Or, “Look, we gave you a character named Apu in our show, there you go, you’re part of the fabric now.” That’s the danger of it. That we get stuck discussing tokenistic inclusion rather than the radical work of physical, political, and social inclusion.


Do your books do well in Pakistan compared with international markets?

Each book is different, so Songs of Blood and Sword did the best in India and Pakistan, while The Shadow of the Crescent Moon did better in France and England. People want a certain thing from me in Pakistan.


That’s what I wanted to ask about. When I mention to people here that I’ve read your new book, they’re often disappointed that it isn’t another non-fiction book.

I understand. Because non-fiction is perceived as being more personal, so people would want that more from me, but fiction is quite personal and reflective of ones thoughts and moods. If its any consolation I can say that the next book will be non-fiction.


Does this frustrate you? The curiosity about your personal life or your family versus an interest in the fiction, especially with this book, as its been one you’ve worked so hard on?

I don’t take it personally. I take it in the sense of wanting a conversation. Somebody wants to talk to you and you’re not there to talk to them. But the way I read fiction and write it is reflective of what I feel at that moment. Maybe we have a perception that fiction is just made up, but you have to inhabit a world for so long when you’re working on fiction, that world is so completely you in certain ways.


I think people will look for clues about your world or life in this book, particularly the sections that deal with Karachi American School or the life of the rich in Karachi.

When people read fiction as a guide to your life, they’re often sorely disappointed. For instance, one of my father’s friends once introduced me to a gentleman from Peshawar. A couple of months later, I asked about the man and how he was, because there had been a string of bombings in Peshawar. And my father’s friend mentioned that the man and his sons would now each go to a separate mosque to pray on Fridays. And that idea bothered me – disturbed me – so much. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it and it eventually turned into The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. So the parts of my life that are in my fiction are things like that, which nobody can really sleuth their way to. The things I’m immediately upset or enraged about, I will then turn to non-fiction. But the things I’m more deeply disturbed by I can only get out in fiction.


Did you have a moment like that with this book?

It wasn’t the same “a-ha!” moment as my last fiction book, but in the summer of 2014, we saw those boats filled with refugees turning up on the coast in Italy and Greece. I was travelling at the time, and people who are otherwise fairly welcoming to me were saying things like, “Oh, these people who turn up with their culture…”, and so on. I remember feeling so wounded. I felt hurt, and a lot of that sat there and settled and that was a personal impetus for writing. I’m also tired of ‘whitesplaining’, of having everything explained through one lens and that lens is always reductive and narrow and not that informed at all. The degree to which the West feels that it is superior, and they don’t see that as having a consequence, and it has a profound consequence – more far-reaching than they can imagine.


One consequence seems to be that people are turning to leaders who soothe the frustration or humiliation, or who promise to ‘talk back’ or to make you “great again”.

People feel humiliated everywhere. And they are turning to worse and worse leaders. Because of their humiliation, they feel they want strong men. And of course, strong men are not known to be the brightest thinkers. To get out of a crisis of humiliation, you need to radically reimagine your history.


But that reimagining often manifests as nostalgia for some idyllic better time.

I think that’s dangerous because all this nostalgia is xenophobic and jingoistic. What time are they imagining? 1947?


No, I think its when you had bars in Karachi and women in Afghanistan wearing skirts and so on…

Well, look at Brexit – its basically built on the back of that sort of imperial nostalgia of the time they were great. That time in Afghanistan when women wore skirts – Trump also loves that idea. So the people who like those ideas are not the people you want on your side.


Absolutely, and I think there’s a real nostalgia here in Pakistan for ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’ or getting back to ‘Iqbal’s vision’. They’re ideas that are being churned out and reimagined for a generation that doesn’t necessarily know its history and cannot challenge it.

I would just make one correction. They are not reimagining it. They are mis-imagining it.


Author: Sanam Maher

Karachi-based journalist and author My work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Caravan Magazine, Buzzfeed, Scroll, Women in the World, British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound, Boat magazine, The Express Tribune, Herald, Daily Times, The Friday Times and Newsweek Pakistan. My first book, The Sensational Life & Death of Qandeel Baloch is out in South Asia now, and the UK in 2019. You can find me on Twitter @SanamMKhi Or follow me on Instagram @topbastard

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