An evening with Ali Smith and Kamila Shamsie

Last week I went to see Ali Smith and Kamila Shamsie in conversation at my local Waterstones, as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas. It was a really fascinating evening, but before I get into it, I have to say that both Smith and Shamsie have beautiful speaking voices: Smith has a Scottish accent, Shamsie a Pakistani one, and if they both recorded their own audiobooks I would happily listen to them! Anyway, here’s what these two brilliant writers talked about.

Ali Smith (left) and Kamila Shamsie (right). Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Shamsie and Smith are old friends (apparently they’ve known each other for 20 years) and they clearly appreciate each other’s work. At the beginning of the evening Smith praised Shamsie’s “cogent, important, bloody good” new novel, Home Fire, and then the conversation turned to Smith’s children’s book The Story of Antigone. Both of these works are based on the Greek myth of ‘Antigone’. The story goes that Antigone’s brother, Polynices, dies fighting King Creon (Antigone’s uncle) and his body is left outside the city walls for the wild animals to eat. Antigone, in defiance of king and country, decides that she will go outside the city (against the advice of her sister, Ismene) and bury her brother. Ali Smith’s adaptation is a retelling of the classic story, featuring a watching crow as the voice of the chorus; while Home Fire places the story in a modern setting and follows the sisters Aneeka and Isma as they struggle over their brother’s defection to Isis. (In Shamsie’s novel, the Greek chorus takes the form of fickle, judgemental social media, which Smith says “points up the most modern workings of tragedy”.)

Despite the differences between their stories, both writers did some similar things in their interpretations. For example, both foreground the relationship of the sisters, Antigone and Ismene, ahead of the relationship between Antigone and Creon, for example. Smith pointed out that this focus on the sisterly relationship is something she has only noticed in female interpretations of ‘Antigone’. Also, both Smith and Shamsie made their Antigones the younger sister, even though she is older in the original myth – they suspected that might be because they are both younger sisters themselves!

ali smith kamila shamsie waterstones antigone home fire

As the conversation moved on, Smith and Shamsie started to discuss the nature of novels in general, and topical novels in particular. Of course, this is particularly relevant to Smith’s writing, which always feels right up-to-the-minute – as she describes it: “Let the novel be novel.” Smith says that “novels are about the fact that things go on”, which makes them essentially a hopeful artform, and they both agree that it is essential to write (and read) as topically as possible because this is how we make sense of the world. “We need the novel to tell us how we’re living as a society,” says Smith.

But why is the story of ‘Antigone’ still so compelling to us, thousands of years after it was written? Shamsie says, “‘Antigone’ isn’t the skeleton, it’s the marrow” – there is so much in it, for such a short play, that we are able to understand the timeless core of the story, while still being able to flesh it out with things that are relevant to us today. For example, there’s a note of civil disobedience in ‘Antigone’ which will certainly resonate with modern audiences. Smith claims that humans ought to live for 200 years, because our current lifespans mean that, just as we notice a cycle beginning to repeat itself, we die. This is why stories like ‘Antigone’ perpetuate: they take us out of our lives and show us how the same problems have always resonated through history.

Like many novels, Smith and Shamsie ended on a note of hope. They talked about Malala Yousafzai, who upon waking up in hopsital after being shot by the Taliban for campaigning for female education, thought to herself, “Oh, I am powerful.” Both Smith and Shamsie hope to find more people like her, who want to have their voices heard.

ali smith kamila shamsie how to be both antigone waterstones

After the talk, I went up to get my copy of How to be Both signed by Smith. (I was sorely tempted to buy Home Fire because it sounds brilliant, but I was strict with myself for the sake of my pre-Christmas bank account.) Both Smith and Shamsie seem to be masters at connecting with each person in the book-signing queue (a rare quality), and the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. When I told her my name, Smith recommended I listen to the Ralph McTell song ‘From Clare to Here’ (Ali Smith recommended me a song!) and she drew a little musical note in my book as a reminder. Suffice it to say that How to be Both has rocketed to the top of my to-read pile. What a wonderful evening!

Have you read anything by Ali Smith or Kamila Shamsie that you would recommend? Let me know with a comment down below!

Follow these links to buy The Story of Antigone and Home Fire.

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