Writer’s Block with Fatima Bhutto

Sophie Grenham speaks to author FATIMA BHUTTO about early reading, artistic healing and The Runaways

Photograph by Caroline Issa

Fatima Bhutto is a journalist, an academic and bestselling author of six books including Whispers of the Desert (1998), her collection of poems which she published at age fifteen, her family memoir Songs of Blood and Sword (2010) and her first novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (2013). She was born in Kabul, Afghanistan to a political dynasty. Fatima’s parents divorced when she was a small child and she traveled from country to country with her father Murtaza Bhutto, who was in exile from Pakistan during the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq. Her aunt was Benazir Bhutto and her grandfather was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who were both former Prime Ministers of Pakistan. All three family members tragically lost their lives to murder or execution.

Fatima’s new novel, The Runaways, is told from the perspective of Sunny, Anita Rose and Monty, three vulnerable youngsters from Pakistan and Portsmouth. They are all drawn towards ISIS, each with a different internal struggle and united in their desperate desire to belong. Despite what is considered a controversial topic, particularly in the USA, the author fearlessly examines why young people become radicalised. She faces her subject head-on, and in the process manages to gift us a brilliant slice of realism that’s told with a piercing wit and undeniable heart. Elif Shafak called The Runaways “a tender, powerful and richly embroidered novel.” Aminatta Forna has said, “Fatima Bhutto blurs the imagined line between us and them to show how extremists are made not born. They could be anyone’s children. They could be ours.”

Fatima was raised in Damascus, Syria and Karachi, Pakistan. She graduated in 2004 from Barnard College, Columbia University in New York, where she majored in Middle Eastern and Asian languages and cultures. She has an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of London, which she completed in 2005. She wrote her dissertation on the resistance movement in Pakistan.

Fatima Bhutto is currently of no fixed abode and working on her next book.

The Runaways (€17.99) is published by Viking and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

Because of work, a new book project that’s taken me all over the world, the past two years I’ve had to live a little bit everywhere. The constant companion to my travels is my little Jack Russell who I manage to bring with me when I know I have to be away for long periods. She is an incredibly good sport about it all. But I’ll tell you about my home in Karachi, Pakistan. It was my father’s home and his father’s before him. We live not far from the Arabian sea, on a road covered with ageing banyan trees. Liberty Books is my local bookshop and next to it, the best restaurant in all of Karachi – nay, the world – Barbeque Tonight where you can sit on the roof and eat Afghan kebabs, fluffy naan, and aloo Bukhara, the best plum chutney I’ve ever had. My dog and I go running sometimes on Seaview beach but she always tries to swim and sometimes we get funny looks.

On roots

As a child I lived in Damascus, Syria. When I think back to my childhood, I remember the scent of jasmines that covered the air in the summer, the beautiful sound of the call to prayer which came from the Jamia al Akram mosque, near our home in Mezzeh, and warm, dry summers spent swimming with my friends until we turned blue from the cold, Damascene spring water used in our local pool. At night during football games and weddings you could hear cars honking madly, making a noise somewhat like music in celebration.

On early reading

I can’t remember the name of my favourite books I loved when I was small – it was about a monster and jelly beans? It was very maudlin and sad and I’m upset I can’t remember it because something about it made me feel at the time that it was about exile and displacement. Before I could read myself, my father read to me using accents and exclamations, he made it very dramatic and fun. My father, who raised me as a single parent, and I were in Syria, away from our home, Pakistan, and whenever he read me that story I felt that there was someone else in the world who understood what we had been through. Maybe it was just about jelly beans but that’s my memory of it. The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr was another favourite of mine because who doesn’t want to have tea with a tiger?

My father took me to the library for the first time when I was very small, I still remember how he treated it like it was a sacred occasion. He was a big reader and loved books and he passed that down to me. And it was my father who encouraged me to write when I started. I found a letter recently he had written for me to a publisher in New York (he took the name and address from the back pages of The Economist which used to have ads for publishing houses) when I was ten years old and wanted to be a writer but didn’t know how.

On creating

I write in my room, where ever I am, because when I’m working I need to be alone. I can’t have noise or people or traffic around me. I wrote The Runaways over three desks and they all looked the same: it’s empty except for papers, notebooks and pens. My dog is near me looking amazingly bored, at intervals she moves into my lap and naps while I work. I don’t have any talismans as such, my needs are only space and quiet but right now as I answer these questions, I have a glass evil eye given to me by a Turkish friend that sits in front of me. Each book is different but for this one I worked from morning till afternoon, stopping only for coffee breaks or to take the dog out. I never listen to music while working – and can never get anything productive done in coffee shops or public places – but while I wrote a lot of the Sunny sections in The Runaways, I listened to Frank Ocean on repeat. At the end of the day, when I would finish writing, I felt a need to be outside, with people but still alone, just so I could observe my thoughts and watch the world as it moved around me.

On favourite bookshops

In Islamabad I love Saeed Book Bank. They have so many titles and booksellers who are so well informed. Daunt Books in London is another favourite because I love the idea of browsing books by countries. And Shakespeare and Co in Paris which has a dog and cat in residence plus a space for a live-in writer to work.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I’m very lucky to have been sent proofs of Ocean Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Toni Morrison’s Mouth Full of Blood, and Ruby Lal’s Empress about the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan. Those are the books I’m most excited to read next because Vuong’s poetry is beautiful and I can’t wait to see how it translates into prose, Morrison because she is Morrison and Empress because I love the idea of subversive women.

On escape

I go running. That’s the best escape for me anywhere. I put on my trainers and go outside and for 45 minutes I feel alone and free and good. I heartily recommend it.

On The Runaways

I began writing The Runaways in the fall of 2014. That was the summer that ISIS captured our attention with their brutality. It was also the summer that we saw so many people fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq and I was so disturbed not just to see what was happening there – out in the world – but also to see how in the West there was this cold approach to the refugees and to the loss of human life out beyond their borders. There was so much they didn’t seem to understand about radicalism and the radicalised that when a friend suggested I write about it, I sat down and got right to work. I jumped into the research and then wrote the first draft of the novel very quickly, in a blaze. (And rewrote it and rewrote it for four years).

On artistic healing

It was Beckett who wrote to a friend, “Don’t lose heart: plug yourself into despair and sing it for us.” There is something beautiful about taking pain and touching it until it no longer hurts.

On what’s next

A non-fiction book on global pop culture which I spent two years traveling to research!


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