In the late ’80s, Maryam and Zahra are schoolgirl friends in Karachi, living under the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq and navigating the fussiness of puberty: breasts that get in the way on the cricket field; finicky desires for men in passing cars. Despite their closeness, the girls — dual protagonists of British and Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Best of Friends — are fundamental opposites. Maryam, the well-to-do scion of Khan’s Leather, is a rigid absolutist who knows she’ll one day inherit the company; Zahra, the daughter of a sports reporter in hot water with a brigadier, is curious and muted, constantly dreaming of life abroad.
After Zia is killed in a plane crash and Benazir Bhutto is elected to power, both girls flare up with the possibility of an egalitarian future. They take a terrifying car ride with a male stranger named Jimmy, and while they leave physically unscathed, their lives are forever altered by “girlfear,” the fear of what a man can do to a woman — and the knowledge that not even having a woman prime minister in power can ameliorate it. “I’ve spoken to a number of women friends about the novel, and they say, ‘What’s it about?’” Shamsie tells me. “When I say, ‘There’s this car ride with this guy, and in the end nothing terrible happens, but it is terrifying,’ every single woman says, ‘Oh, yeah, I know that car ride.’”
You may recognize Shamsie from her acclaimed 2016 novel, Home Fire, which reimagined Sophocles’ Antigone within a modern-day British Muslim family. Best of Friends is a friendship myth of her own making. After detailing their girlhood in Pakistan, the novel jumps to Maryam and Zahra as 40-somethings in post-Brexit London, where they’ve become powerful women in opposing spheres (Maryam is a successful venture capitalist; Zahra heads a civil-liberties organization). When figures from the women’s shared past return, the fundamental cracks between them widen, begging the question of how long a shared history can really keep a friendship alive. For Shamsie, a breaking point is very well the point: “I had this idea of having these two childhood friends who are incredibly close through the decades but also are very different people, and as the years go on, those differences become more marked until they’re impossible to ignore,” she says. “I wanted to put a certain pressure on the friendship and see if it would survive or not.”
The novel follows two best friends as schoolgirls in Karachi and picks up later in their lives in London, where they’ve gone on to become very different women who occupy positions of power. What inspired you to write this story?
I’ve been interested for a while in the nature of childhood friendship. When I was in my 20s, my older sister said, “The friends we make as adults are our friends because we have something in common. But our childhood friends are our friends because they’ve always been our friends.” That felt true in my 20s and now in my 40s. The people I’ve become friends with as adults tend to be other writers or they’re in publishing or academia. We occupy the same political views. But my childhood friends are all over the place. They’re in the corporate world, they’re architects, their politics are not my politics. But we’ve been friends forever. We know each other intimately.
In 2016, there was a moment where it stopped being this fuzzy idea. On one side of the Atlantic, you had Brexit; on the other side, you had Trump. In Pakistan, we had Imran Khan, India had Modi, and other countries had their versions of divisive populist figures or movements. People were saying, “I can no longer speak to this member of my family or that person I’ve been friends with because we stand on opposite sides of this.” People who, for a long time, thought their friendships were separate from political views were actually discovering the extent to which your political views are so deeply embedded in who you are and how you see the world that you can’t separate them out.
What was your writing process like?
I first thought I would write Maryam and Zahra through the decades. But as I was writing the bits in their 20s and 30s, I thought, I can’t wait to get to London and their 40s because that’s really where the story is. I had to know who they were growing into and how. But really it wasn’t necessary for the novel, so I cut out the midsections because the story really lies in the beginning and end. In terms of the actual writing, at the beginning of 2019, I said to myself, Okay, 2020 is going to be the year I say no to all public outings. I’m going to be chained to my desk and write.
Tell me more about crafting the friendship between Maryam and Zahra. Have you had similar relationships in your own life?
My closest childhood friend is a man. He’s my best friend, and we don’t have the different views the two women in the novel do, but he lives in New York and works for Goldman Sachs, which is quite different from my professional life. But there are a number of friends from childhood who still persist. We’re all still friends — sometimes complicatedly. There’s areas we profoundly disagree on that we all sort of step around. There’s no point for us to get into certain arguments. We know where the other person stands, we know why, and we know we’ll never convince them, so let’s just wander around the happier thoughts. In the novel, of course, it becomes impossible to avoid those things. But I’m all for a certain kind of respectful avoidance in a friendship.
I know this is rare for America, but the two girls are in the same school from 4 to 18, which was also the case for me and many of my closest friends. Five days a week for the first 18 years of your life, you’re in the same place seeing the same people. The first interesting moment comes when everyone goes to university, where you’re meeting people who don’t already know your flaws and your weaknesses, and you can present the best version of yourself to them. There’s a certain excitement in the discovery of what a new friendship can feel like. A lot of people let go of childhood friendships at that point because this new version of them feels like the one they’d rather be.
Throughout their lives, the girls push up against a term you call “girlfear.” They feel it in the car with Jimmy in Karachi and as adults. Can you speak more about the role of girlfear in the novel and how it impacts the duo in both life stages?
Some years ago, I was sent to Antarctica on a travel-writing assignment. There was one night when most people had left the ship to spend the night on the ice, and I was far too much of a brown person to be doing that, so I said, “I’ll stay on the ship.” There were only a few people there, and I knew all of them. I stepped out onto the deck at midnight. I suddenly became aware of feeling something that I had never felt in my life as far as I could remember, which was a feeling of absolute safety outdoors alone at night. It was so striking to me because I live in London. It’s not that I don’t go out in the evenings or that I’m a nervous person. But there’s always this antenna up for danger when you’re a woman out on your own. It was so extraordinarily wonderful not to have that just for those few minutes, to stand there and not feel it.
That’s when I realized how deep that feeling is. I started thinking to myself, When did this start? When did I learn that, because I’m female, I’m vulnerable in certain ways? I couldn’t remember when it happened. Maybe all children have it. Maybe boys have it as children and they grow out of it at some point, I don’t know. In the novel, I wanted to draw attention to what is possible when you’re a woman in the world, what you live with, and the ways in which you try to break out of certain constraints but how there are certain things lodged deep inside you that are almost impossible to get away from. Although these girls move from a position of vulnerability into various forms of power in their adulthood, neither of them is going to walk through a park at night. The reappearance of Jimmy reactivates that sense of terror and vulnerability that comes with the female body and with the world always telling you that, at any moment, the most terrible things could happen to you.
Maryam and Zahra are girls when Benazir Bhutto is elected but quickly learn that having a woman in power doesn’t absolve girlfear. When we pick up with them later, she has long been assassinated. How does that incident color their lives?
By the time Benazir is assassinated, by which point they’re in their 30s, they already know the truth of the world, which they learned when they were 14. I wanted the dates of Benazir’s assassination and that ride with Jimmy to coincide for precisely the reason you mentioned. On one hand, Maryam and Zahra feel anything is possible for a girl. That very night, they realize they are still subject to the same horrors that they ever were, that nothing had changed. If anything, maybe men are so angered by a woman being in power that it might turn them even a little more vicious than it otherwise had been. Benazir’s assassination is only very lightly alluded to in the novel, but I think it would have been a moment of deep sadness for them. Just remembering that day for myself, you are taken back to how you felt when she first came to power and all the possibilities in that moment. And then, of course, you feel the horror of the violence itself. But at that point in their lives, they already know that a woman in power is not an invulnerable woman by any measure.
Maryam carries a lifelong grudge against Jimmy for what he does to the girls in Karachi. She has keen ideas of justice and revenge, which causes tension in her friendship with Zahra. How did you capture the unique ways the two girls processed trauma?
As women, we know that moment when you stop feeling safe. As soon as it’s switched, that’s it. When the terrifying car ride ends and you’re still okay and no one’s really touched you, it’s possible to sit there and think, How much was in my head? How much of what I felt was about this girlfear I carry inside, and how much was about what the guy was doing? And that’s partly what I wanted to capture in the different ways they see it.
Maryam is so absolutely clear about how responsible Jimmy is, and Zahra is sort of caught up in her own sense of responsibility for what happened. She is someone whose attitude is like, Okay, we’re fine. Nothing happened, so let’s move on. And there’s also the fact that Zahra is accustomed to precarity. For her, a brigadier coming into the house and making veiled threats at her father feels much more real to her. In her psyche, that becomes the overwhelming terror of that period of her life. She sort of allowed the Jimmy incident to become submerged. I want my readers to think through to what extent is Zahra denying the truth of what happened or to what extent she’s saying she really genuinely does feel, Okay, it happened, it could have been terrible, but aren’t we lucky it wasn’t, and let’s move onto the next thing.
The book examines the innate problems of childhood female friendship and how it can and can’t endure as people change. “You sometimes fail to see the adult in front of you because you had such a fixed idea of the teenager she once was, and other times you were unable to see the teenager still alive and kicking within the adult,” you write. Can a childhood friendship really last a lifetime?
My father’s 85 and he still has some childhood friendships, so I think there’s hope there. I think it can last, but it needs to be renewed at different stages. You do have to get to know each other as adults, and you have to, in some cases, let go of your idea of who someone was at 12 or 13. They may be making a very conscious decision to move in a different direction. When you know people so thoroughly, you have to be kind to them as well. And the heart of it is, do you still enjoy each other’s company?
There’s something really wonderful about laughing at jokes you’ve been laughing at since you were 12 years old. I laugh with my childhood friends in a different way to the way I laugh with my adult friends. Friendships can last decades and decades, and there’s something significant when you reach the point where your parents are elderly and you’re losing your parents. Your childhood friends are the ones who knew what it was to grow up in the house with your parents at a point in time when you were the vulnerable ones and you were relying on them. They understand what you’ve lost, what you’re losing.
Would Maryam and Zahra be friends if they met as adults in London?
I don’t think they’d be friends if they met in London. Absolutely not. They would see this version of each other — She’s a venture capitalist who’s giving donations to that party I’m spending my life fighting against would be Zahra’s point of view, and Maryam would think, Why’s she so self-righteous and irritating? So I suspect they wouldn’t. Unless they met at a cricket match. But possibly not.
Would you be friends with your childhood friend?
It’s hard for me to imagine not being friends with my childhood friend. Even as you ask me, I conjure up an image in my mind of my childhood friend, and I just feel a great surge of love and joy. But it’s quite possible I would look at someone and make all kinds of snap judgements. In my 30s and 40s, have I made new friends who work in the corporate world? As adults, you look at those things — the profession someone is in — and maybe make too quick a judgment. I’m glad I made friends with him when I did; let’s put it that way.