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An interview with Fatima Bhutto

A rare opportunity to interview a prolific author of colour

Like many people from the subcontinent, the Bhutto name means a lot to us. With roots in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India alike, each of us has heard the name mentioned in the context of war, peace, and everything in between. Our grandparents each had their views on Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto both as a foreign minister and prime minister. Our parents lived through the ascent of Benazir Bhutto as one of the most prominent women in Pakistani politics. But, as our interview made abundantly clear, Fatima Bhutto transcends her family name.

Fatima was one of the first Muslim women of colour we’d had the opportunity to read. To us, she wasn’t merely another member of a political dynasty, but a critically familiar voice in what could be, at times, a rather unfamiliar world: that of contemporary literature. She influenced the ways in which we read, the ways in which we engage with the world around us and, to some extent, our own voices as writers.

Naturally, the opportunity to interview Fatima gave rise to a sense of anticipation and nervous energy. Almost instantly, however, that sense of nervousness was calmed by the elegant rhetoric through which Fatima packages incredibly powerful ideas. We discussed her latest book, The Runaways, which explores the experiences of three radicalised Muslim youths.

By providing a nuanced and empathetic view of those pushed towards radicalism, The Runaways was initially met with some resistance. “The Runaways is published in South Asia, it’s published in Australia and in England, but it doesn’t have a home in [North] America because they don’t want to touch it,” Fatima told us. “These are supposedly places of extreme liberty, tolerance, inclusion, diversity and dissent. But the more we travel through the world, the more we understand that this isn’t really true.”

It’s easy to see how The Runaways might invoke the ire of conservatives. Unlike the vast majority of Western literature on the topic, Fatima does not allow the characters of her book – nor their religion – to take the blame for their own radicalisation. Conversing with her, it’s clear that one of the key maxims of The Runaways is one that takes aim at the Western hegemonies that facilitate any such alienation in the first place.

“This idea that religion is the source of radicalism is completely bogus. It’s not. It is, in fact, things like inequality, humiliation and lack of inclusion that fuel radicalism. People who are vulnerable to radicalism are people who are cut off from society and excluded; who don’t feel they have a say in the building of their future. It is this paranoia of the West, and especially the white populations in the West, that police all of us.”

We tell Fatima how each of us identifies with the character of Sunny. He is similar to us in the way that he is similar to most children of South Asian migrants: his father left the subcontinent in search for a better life in the West, at the expense of the often humiliating process of assimilation.

It’s puzzling, then, that second-generation children such as Sunny – who are at least somewhat better adjusted to life in the West – are more prone to radicalisation. According to Fatima, so much is the result of heightened anxieties concerning the need to immortalise Western supremacy in what has become a culturally homogeneous world.

“What are European values? I don’t really understand what that word means. The experience watching something like Notre Dame burning down is so profoundly alienating for anyone who is not European because it assumes, in a very tone-deaf way, that Europe is the centre of the world. That something in France must automatically affect humanity, art, culture and history assumes that the world must pay respect and homage for these monuments like the French do when they haven’t done that for any country but their own. Today, the experience of young Muslims like Sunny is one of discomfort in places like Europe and America because society there has decided to define itself in some kind of opposition to the world.”

It comes as no surprise that Fatima herself – like most of us existing in brown bodies – has also borne the brunt of this particularly shrewd sense of alienation, no less in the same country that refuses to publish her book.

“I flew to the States quite recently. The immigration officer asked me, ‘What do you do?’ and ‘What do you write?’ and, incredibly, ‘‘Does your book advocate the use of violence?’ The problem is much wider than not having a publisher in the U.S. It’s about a general fear of anything that is not immediately recognisable.”

As South Asian and Muslim student journalists, we explain how we regularly find ourselves pigeon-holed into writing about the issues that follow us around: our race, our culture, the unique diasporic experience of belonging neither here nor there, and so on.

“I think that’s the natural experience that a lot of us have,” she says. “Everyone is comfortable to ghettoise you, and say, “Tell us about Pakistan, but don’t tell us about how racist the West is. Or, ‘How do you explain Shamima Begum?’”

She’s referring, of course, to the ISIS-affiliated British citizen disallowed from returning to England by the UK Home Secretary. “You’re supposed to answer for people like her. But my question is: ‘how do they explain this completely ruthless way in which they are organising their society and defining citizenship?”

With a wry laugh, Fatima remembers how one of her editors pushed for The Runaways to be released in 2017, fearing its loss of relevance as the decline of ISIS drew more imminent. “Really, it’s never a ‘good’ time for a book like this to come out. You’re always going to be fighting against the tide. If this book said, ‘Gosh, look at these young, alienated Muslims, aren’t they dangerous,’ it would be received in a totally different way. And I think people are disappointed that I don’t say that.”

On evading the expectation of creating work that is inherently political and irrevocably tied to her identity, Fatima is optimistic. For her, writing fiction has been a warm remedy to the tired and contrived realm of opinion pieces in the Sunday paper.

“The world of commentary felt so saturated and so controlled. Fiction is powerful because your thoughts can’t be edited down, censored and manipulated like when you’re writing commentary. Fiction is a trojan horse – you pack it with all sorts of insurgent ideas, and people don’t know what’s inside it, so they come to it less suspicious than they would if you were writing an op-ed in a paper.”

When it comes to an antidote for the complex problem of radicalisation, Fatima is intelligent and resolute. “Anytime you don’t create a vision for people where they can see a future for themselves where they might have a voice, a platform… the chance at a dignified, honourable life… they will be vulnerable to somebody else’s vision.”

“I think the antidote is clear, but I don’t think anyone is practising the antidote in any remarkable way.”