Fatima Bhutto is done talking about politics. Done being asked to explain. Always to explain. She’s seated at this table, in a cramped room in Penguin India’s office, copies of her just published first novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, in a teetering pile in front of her, to talk about books and writing and will not be deflected. “Everybody wants to know the same two things about Pakistan,” she says, trying and failing not to roll her eyes, “they want to know it every week and they want to know it in 600 words and they don’t listen. I feel like a broken record.” Or, she adds, switching to a soupy, yoga teacher voice, “They say, ‘Oh, let’s just focus on the positive.’ Politics is so difficult, I don’t want to listen anymore.” With fiction, though, “when you tell people a story, their attention span, their imagination, expands. It allows you to say more”.
For the interviewer, her unwillingness to say those “same two things” about Pakistan is alarming. You have Fatima Bhutto in front of you and you want to ask certain questions. You want to hear her opinions expressed in the forthright, trenchant, sometimes sardonic fashion that has made her such a sought-after columnist. Will she eventually succumb to the lure of the family business, the lure of power? Even if she resists, will her brother be pushed in that direction? What does she think of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari? About Nawaz Sharif? To all of which she theatrically zippers her mouth shut. Alright, then, does she watch Indian politics? What does she make of Rahul Gandhi, like her the scion of a political dynasty that has loomed too large in its country’s young history?
“Nice try,” she laughs. “Nice try. But I’m not going there either.” It’s why she wrote her novel, to get away from talking about all that stuff. Besides, all that stuff was dealt with in the book that made her famous Songs of Blood and Sword, a story of such strife, tragedy and hubris that the Bhuttos came across like the Borgias. Or the Corleones, as the film director Michael Radford suggested to Fatima at a conversation held at School of Oriental and African Studies, where she went to graduate school. For those not up on their Pakistani history, or dinner party gossip, Fatima is, of course, Benazir Bhutto’s niece, sharing her aunt’s cliff-edge cheekbones and barbed intelligence. Her father, Murtaza, was assassinated in 1996, when Fatima was just 14 —- a political murder for which the moral responsibility, Fatima insisted, both in her memoir and in a 2010 documentary lionising Benazir, lay with her aunt.
Small wonder that Fatima, though her mother (which is how she refers to Ghinwa, Murtaza’s second wife and technically Fatima’s stepmother) is a politician, continues to resist the dirty business of politics. She has the writer’s instinctive mistrust of authority and its certainties. “The novel allows you space to think,” Fatima says. “If you go into bookstores now, there are rows and rows of ‘explain-it-all’ political books that don’t get you anywhere because they don’t allow for you to have any compassion, or empathy, or curiosity. They just tell you what they think you need to know. Pakistan, like everything else, is a hundred little things.” It is, of course, the novelist’s trade to worry about those little things. The novelist’s trade to, as Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, range “very subtly and curiously, among almost unknown or unrecorded things”, to alight on “small things and show that perhaps they are not small after all”.
Readers in the UK and the United States turn to Pakistani novelists writing in English — and they are turning in ever greater numbers — not just because they are cultural emissaries, translators of sorts, but because a novelist challenges the reader’s capacity to feel empathy. A novelist, unlike a politician, or, for that matter, a journalist, does not purport to explain the world. Fatima quotes Joan Didion to emphasise the point that writing is a way for writers to find out what they think. A novel is a process of discovery, unlike, for instance, a newspaper column in which the columnist already knows what he thinks and is telling readers about the ‘rightness’ of those thoughts.
Not that empathy for a place as vilified as the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the people in it, comes easy. “There’s a sort of inherent racism when it comes to Pakistan because [foreigners’] views and ideas of the country are already so tarnished,” Fatima says. “Just to speak to you they have to go through all kinds of cobwebs in their mind to understand how you could be from such a place. ‘But you’re like me. You sound normal.’ At least, that was my experience when it came to non-fiction, I don’t know if that leap is still difficult to make when you’re speaking fiction. Well, I guess I’ll find out.”
The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is set in that fraught border area, in the fictionalised town of Mir Ali. There is, as Fatima points out, a Mir Ali in North Waziristan, but hers is unrelated, a composite of the places she travelled through with her parents and named after her nine-year-old brother, adopted by her stepmother Ghinwa when he was barely a couple of weeks old. The novel is set on a single, tumultuous day (well, three hours) in the lives of three brothers. It is cinematic in its sweep and its pacing. A fast, suspenseful, commercial thriller with expansive themes — freedom, love, duty, loyalty, family, ambition, grief.
Although the novel is ‘about’ three brothers, the characters that emerge as complex and powerful are the women, including a sinister American in a blue trouser-suit. Fatima says this surprised her. “When I started, in my mind, this was a story about three brothers and somehow these two women took it over. I think they reflect, at least for me, Pakistani women, who are imagined to be peripheral, secondary, separated and kept in the shadows. But actually they are immense forces. If Pakistan is a resilient country, and it is to have survived all it has, women are the exemplars of that resilience.” It is a rousing sentiment and indicative of Fatima’s good intentions for the novel.