When the world is on fire, it’s difficult to find your proper place in it. Fatima Bhutto’s new novel The Runaways faces that question from perspectives highlighting the many facets of modern Pakistan, inevitably encompassing issues of radicalism and Muslim identity.
Bhutto herself, the granddaughter and niece of prime ministers and daughter of a political martyr – leading many to wonder if she is destined for Pakistani politics – faces questions about her own place in a tumultuous world.
“You don’t get to run away from anything, really. You always return to it,” Bhutto says. “I used to think I was running away from the violence that I encountered growing up. But I never escaped from it because I’m always writing about it, thinking about it, replaying it, trying to understand it in new ways. I don’t think you ever really get to run away. You get to see things from different angles but you still battle them.”
Like Bhutto herself, The Runaways is something of a cipher. The book was not available when she spoke at Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali last month. Since then, the novel has been released exclusively in Pakistan. The rest of the world must await its publication by Penguin in March. During her on onstage discussion and our face-to-face interview, Bhutto jealously guards plot details.
Her 2010 family memoir Songs of Blood and Sword drew a lot of attention for pinning the 1996 killing of her father Murtaza Bhutto in a hail of police gunfire on her aunt, Benazir Bhutto, then prime minister, and her husband Asif Ali Zadari. Fatima Bhutto was 14 at the time. “I’m haunted by the violence,” she says. “Writing is a way for me to exorcise the violence, to expose it to air and shrink it.”
The memoir highlights Bhutto’s childhood during her father’s exile from Pakistan during General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime. “Born in Kabul bearing a Pakistani passport, grew up in Syria … You don’t want to be in an airport queue with me,” she jokes.
Bhutto returned to Pakistan as a pre-teen before undertaking undergraduate studies at New York City’s Barnard College and a master’s degree at University of London’s School of Oriental and Asian Studies.
“Pakistan has never really been my own,” Bhutto says. “It’s been a part of me, but it’s also been a part of my father, it’s a part of my family. Whereas growing up, Syria was mine, I felt. I understood that my father was in exile in Syria, but I felt like I belonged there. Of course, that changed. When I went back when I was in my twenties, I would be reminded, oh Syria’s not yours because you’ve been away. So I think you’re always making things your own and then releasing them, at least I am. Sometimes they’re all yours, sometimes you share them. Sometimes you surrender them.”
Bhutto admits, “I don’t feel as if I belong anywhere in particular, which allows me to move pretty comfortably, because everywhere feels as if it has to be travelled lightly through. So you’re always looking for home, always looking for a place that you don’t have to travel lightly through.”
Characters in The Runaways similarly seek places where they needn’t travel lightly. Some are acutely aware of their predicament. Marked as an outsider by her name and weighed down by poverty, Anita Rose finds refuge under the stairs in mansions where her mother massages the feet of wealthy women. Sonny’s father immigrated from Lucknow to Portsmouth, England, to give his family a better life, a condition he defines in part as excising all vestiges of South Asia, leaving Sonny caught between worlds.
On the other hand, Monty unabashedly enjoys wealth in Karachi. “Monty could have gone to see Crazy Rich Asians and recognised his friends, not seen it as anything other than a fun film, not a problem,” Bhutto says. A new girlfriend forces Monty to confront his position of privilege in a place where most people have so little.
Settings in the novel, Bhutto’s second, are drawn from her own journey. “You don’t really know what you pick up, but you become a bit of a magpie,” she says. “In fiction I think it’s hard to separate what you’ve created from what you’ve experienced. They blend in a really odd and powerful way, so you forget in the process of writing which is real and which is not. They become their own kind of world.”
The Karachi, Portsmouth and other locations in The Runaways are both real and imagined. “But the reader and the writer are separated because the reader will never really know what’s real and what’s imagined, but the writer knows. It’s a woven tapestry, so it’s difficult to point out which of the combination is which,” says Bhutto, who also works as a journalist and wrote a book on the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir.
“I think what is powerful about fiction is, of course, the observations you make about life and the struggle of your characters, but especially the universe that you create that has to exist in a real way in your mind. And you populate it in a way that maybe doesn’t even make it to the end of the book, but in your mind it’s so heavily populated by sounds and smells. That’s what I find exciting about this kind of writing over non-fiction.”
Bhutto believes “the job of writers is to observe, to have their eyes open and use their observation to push things towards the confrontation. Whether it’s their job to ask or answer questions, I’m not sure. Sometimes they’re answered, some things are left unsaid. What’s powerful about fiction over non-fiction is that it doesn’t answer your questions for you. It just presents you certain things, and you can take away what you wish from them, whereas non-fiction tells you very clearly, this is what we think, what we believe, and that’s where our role ends. I quite like that fiction doesn’t do that to its readers.” It just leaves them to makes up their own minds in a smouldering world.