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Kamila Shamsie's novel 'Best of Friends' asks if all friendships are meant to last


Zahra and Maryam understand one another as only each other can. Zahra tells Maryam all their other classmates are merely in propinquity, but they are the best of friends - two teenagers in Karachi, when the story opens in 1988, who share thoughts, dreams and anxieties as they grow older in a friendship that runs from their childhoods in Pakistan to their lives as powerful women in London. "Best Of Friends" is the new novel from Kamila Shamsie, who's won the Prime Minister's Award for literature in Pakistan. And she joins us now from London. Thank you so much for being with us.

KAMILA SHAMSIE: My pleasure absolutely, Scott.

SIMON: Maryam and Zahra run in the same circles, but they spring from different backgrounds, don't they?

SHAMSIE: They do, you know? And I was really interested in writing a novel about not just friendship, but childhood friendship. One of them comes from a very wealthy background with a rather ruthless patriarch presiding over the family. And the other one is from a family of, you know, journalists and teachers and people committed to democratic rule, which there is none of in Pakistan at the start of the novel. It's a novel that really came out of something my sister said to me when we were in our 20s. And she said, you know, the friends we make in adult lives are our friends because we have something in common with them. But our childhood friends are our friends because they've always been our friends. And I've known for a while...

SIMON: Yeah.

SHAMSIE: ...That I wanted to write about that very kind of friendship.

SIMON: Let me get you to read a section that might help us take in the Karachi of their youth. Please read us through a paragraph that takes us to the start of an average school day.

SHAMSIE: Right. And this is 1988 in Karachi, and they're 14 years old.

(Reading) The school day hadn't officially started yet, but students in gray-and-white uniforms were already resettling into their formations from the previous term - the cool kids, the thuggish boys, the couples, the judgmental girls, the invisible boys. Zahra had invented these categories after watching a string of teen-centered Hollywood movies on pirated videos. But it did little to make up for the inadequacy of Karachi school life. Without detention, how could there be "The Breakfast Club"? Without a school prom, how could they be "Pretty In Pink"? Without the freedom required to make truancy possible, how could there be "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"? But the one area where the failure was that of the movies, not of Karachi, was when it came to friendship. It was almost always a subplot to romance, never the heart of a story.

SIMON: The story opens in the week surrounding the death of the dictatorial Gen. Zia. To help us understand what that meant in a society like 1988 Pakistan, was it sort of like a massive card debt getting rearranged?

SHAMSIE: So I was 15 when that happened. And I have such a clear memory of the day itself. It was August 1988. The phone rang, and I answered it. And there was an aunt of mine on the phone, and she said, are your parents there? And I said, no, they've gone out. And she said, when they come home, tell them to call me. Gen. Zia has been killed. His plane has exploded. And I said, OK, and I put down the phone. And a little while later, my parents came home, and I didn't say a thing. And a couple of hours later, my mother ran into this other room where I was sitting with my father and said, Zia is dead. And I said, oh, yes, you know, Aunt So-and-So called. And my parents just looked at me, and they said, why didn't you mention it? And I said, oh, well, you know, she's full of tall tales and exaggerations.

And it wasn't until I was writing for the purpose of the novel that I realized the truth was that this man, this dictator, had ruled from the time I was 4 years old. I didn't believe he could die. I didn't believe his rule could come to an end. And then, I certainly didn't believe there would be democratic elections. People started talking about it, and I kept thinking, don't be ridiculous. And then, they said, not only will there be elections, but Benazir Bhutto, this 35-year-old woman, will come to power. And I thought, now you're really being ridiculous. But gradually, this feeling of hope that was in the air and - you know, Scott, it was the most beautiful time to be young and to be a girl.

SIMON: Did it give you and your friends a feeling that - not just of hope, but that your lives could be fulfilled in a way lives of so many women in Pakistan had not been before?

SHAMSIE: I think it's very hard to see the effect it had on - you know, it had a deep effect because, you know, the world, particularly the world of power, had always looked male. And that's one thing that in the novel - I mean, both the young women in it, Zahra and Maryam, you know, they're 14 when Benazir comes to power. They're very moved. And we do see them going on to become powerful women themselves in adult lives. And I think something...

SIMON: Yeah.

SHAMSIE: ...Gets stirred in them at that point that the world that had looked so male - power looked so male. And then, they had this moment of realizing, actually, it can be female. But, of course, the question, which, you know, is a question for a prime minister or for a venture capitalist or for a civil liberties campaigner, is, what does it mean to be a woman and powerful? You know, that's one of the questions that, I think, Benazir had to answer and the characters in the novel have to answer.

SIMON: Well, explain Zahra - they each become very successful in different realms: Zahra a barrister and civil rights activist, Maryam a venture capitalist. They wind up with some markedly different views, don't they? There's a back-and-forth over face-recognition technology that made me hear our future in it.

SHAMSIE: The novel, I think, really does look at those questions and what it means to be living in the world with things like facial recognition technology and social media and all that. But it, I think, also asks this question of, what happens to friendships in moments like this? You know, the novel I first started thinking about a long time ago. But the point where I realized I really wanted to write was 2016. And between Brexit on one side of the Atlantic and Donald Trump on the other, you were suddenly hearing a lot of people say, I can no longer talk to this person who's been in my life for all these years, whether it's a family member or a friend, because we're on opposite sides. And I had the idea then that I want to write about two friends who really very deeply love each other, but they find themselves on very different sides of a divide in a world in which these things can no longer be ignored.

SIMON: Well, that's the question your novel keeps raising. And I found myself wondering, are all friendships meant to last? Or sometimes, do they just get us to the next exit along the highway?

SHAMSIE: I mean, if you have loved someone forever, does that mean you should have them in your life forever? There's a very important moment for me in the novel, which is when Zahra's quite angry with Maryam, and she calls up her father. And crucially, both these women are living in London, and their families - their parents are in Karachi. And her father says, look, here's the important thing you need to know about Maryam, is your mother and I both know that when one of us dies, the first call the other person will make is to Maryam...

SIMON: Yeah.

SHAMSIE: ...Because she's the only person we trust to break the news to you. And she has promised us that not only will she break the news to you, she'll buy two plane tickets to Karachi and fly home with you holding your hand because she will not let you make that journey alone. And the question is, how do you weigh up, with one hand, the weight and the significance of that kind of love and that kind of friendship against the fact that someone behaves in the world in ways you find unethical, intolerable, against everything that your professional and personal values are all about?

SIMON: Yeah.

SHAMSIE: How do you balance these two things against each other?

SIMON: "Best Of Friends" is the new novel from Kamila Shamsie. Thank you so much for being with us.

SHAMSIE: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN MARC'S "SOMETIMES SLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.