US fiction perspective skewed

Author Kamila Shamsie lamented American authors’ inability to incorporate foreign viewpoints into their work.
Author Kamila Shamsie lamented American authors’ inability to incorporate foreign viewpoints into their work. Photo by YDN .

Although there is no shortage of American fictional novels about foreign affairs, renowned author Kamila Shamsie said yesterday that very few of them truly capture a foreign perspective.

Shamsie, a Pakistani author who has written five novels and was the recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf Book award and the Premio Boccaccio award, spoke yesterday in Linsly-Chittenden Hall to a crowd of 30 Yale students and professors. The lecture, titled “You’re in our stories, but we aren’t in yours: The perils of the parochial imagination” was a feature of the John Hersey Lecture Series and focused on the lack of foreign perspective in American fictional novels involving foreign policy and international relations.

Shamsie’s talk began on the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey ’36, for whom the Hersey Lecture Series is named. Shamsie specifically referenced the importance of Hersey’s characters and point of view in his renowned essay “Hiroshima” — a series of articles that appeared in the New Yorker imagining the World War II bombing of Hiroshima from the perspective of six Japanese characters.

Shamsie’s talk then shifted toward its focal point: the lack of foreign perspectives in fictional American literature. Shamsie recounted the story of her journey from Karachi, Pakistan to America to study English literature at Hamilton College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and said that she was surprised to see that American novelists could not effectively capture the foreign, and especially Middle Eastern, perspective of their characters.

“Why is it that in America, the fiction writers are not interested in foreign history when it exists in these United States?” Shamsie said, asking why foreign history that has a direct impact on Americans does not appear in fiction. “Please explain why you are in our stories, but we are not in yours.”

She also spoke about the variety of novels that were published after 9/11 and explained that writers have been unable to capture the thoughts and perspective of the “other side.”

“In fiction, 9/11 is an event as ahistorical as an earthquake,” Shamsie said.

During a question and answer session following her lecture, Shamsie said that in England, where she currently resides, the content and meaning of novels has shifted out of the jurisdiction of editors and rather moved to marketing departments.

Geetanjali Singh Chanda, professor in the Women’s Gender, & Sexuality Studies major, said she was impressed by Shamsie’s talk.

“She makes a compelling point, novels must open up the world,” Chanda said. Shamsie is a novelist who is definitely worth reading because her characters come alive, she added.

Haider Shahbaz ’13 said that Shamsie gave a “wonderful talk” and carried insights that went beyond the average lecture.

Shamsie’s most recent novel “Burnt Shadows” has been translated into more than 20 languages, and in 2010 The Telegraph, the London-based tabloid, named her among the 20 best novelists under 40 in Britain. Shamsie now writes for The Guardian, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and is a Trustee of English Poets, Essayists and Novelists, the worldwide association of writers.

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