Lannan Symposium Welcomes South Asian Writer

Georgetown University’s Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice hosted its annual Spring Literary Symposium and Festival on March 27 and 28. Directed by Professor Aminatta Forna, the symposium was fortunate to receive, as one of its visiting authors, Kamila Shamsie, a British novelist raised in Pakistan.

The theme for this year’s Lannan Symposium was “The Global Soul: Imagining the Cosmopolitan.” Under this heading, the discussion panels centered around the inability of many people today to belong to a single national or ethnic identity. With the world retreating behind closed borders, the question of nationality seems only to allow for a singular answer. For this reason, Georgetown serves as a space to discuss such ideas and their implications in a formal setting with renowned personalities armed with the ability to make themselves heard. The Lannan Symposium was an event that, among others, provided such a setting. It invited artists, journalists, writers, and poets, not only from the DC Metro area but from all over the world to explore the nuances of terms such as transnational identity and cosmopolitanism.

Therefore, the presence at the symposium of people like Kamila Shamsie, who is a dual citizen of Pakistan and the UK, was very significant. Shamsie was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, where she attended Karachi Grammar School for 14 years. As a result, her earlier novels are greatly influenced by her life in Pakistan and tend to depict a class divide that pervades the streets of Karachi. Her later works such as Burnt Shadows, however, take us across the world, transcending the boundaries of time and space. In an exclusive interview, Shamsie admitted, that though she had not, in fact, visited many of the places she portrays in her novels, saying, “the Nagasaki immediately before the bomb does not even exist anymore.” She instead achieved a sense of setting through exhaustive amounts of research and a vivid imagination.

This ability of hers was further emphasized during her panel on March 28 titled, “The Canon: Do countries need a national literature?” Shamsie, along with the other panelists who also adhere to multiple nationalities, debated the redundancy of the notion of a literary canon that was specific to a region within a certain geographic boundary. In this world of rampant globalization and cross-cultural exchange, the question of whether it is even possible to have a national literature is more apt.

Shamsie also participated in another panel, with the title, “Sporting Spirit: Does Sport Unite or Divide?” In this discussion, she acknowledged the potential cricket possessed in soothing or intensifying tensions between India and Pakistan. Being a cricket aficionado herself, she concluded that the political relations between the two countries at the time exert a major influence on the ability of any sport to bridge divides. Shamsie recognized that sports definitely had an effect on mediating certain international conflicts. Her words regarding the 2003 Cricket World Cup resonated with the entire audience: “The cricket pitch provided a space for the expression of certain emotions, both good and bad, that already existed but did not yet have an outlet.”

In this vein, the general consensus among the panelists was that channeling emotions on a cricket pitch, soccer field or basketball stadium is far less dangerous and destructive than on a battlefield and, not only encourages unity, but allows for healthy competition.