When writer Fatima Bhutto agreed to appear at this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia, she insisted on certain conditions.
The granddaughter of a Pakistani prime minister hanged by his military successors, niece of another prime minister, and herself mooted as a candidate for elective office, Bhutto told Ubud’s organizers she was there to talk only about her new novel, The Runaways.
That meant she did not intend to answer questions about politics – not even political Islam, which figures prominently in The Runaways – and not to rehash her 2010 family political memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, in which she pins the 1996 fatal police shooting of her father on her aunt (his sister), then-prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
During her Ubud appearance, though, Bhutto had barely dented the cushion of her seat on the podium when she declared: “The writing I do is political. Everything is political, if you do it right.”
In her session on stage and in a one-on-one interview that followed with Asia Times, Bhutto talked about “everything,” as she defines it.
“For me, politics has never been about getting up and going somewhere. How you live, how you eat, how you observe and move in the world, the choices you make to see, to witness — all these are political. To engage with people is a political act. You have to do it right, though. If you go out to proselytize, you’re doing it wrong.”
The Runaways opens in 2016 and tells the story of three young Pakistanis with very different backgrounds (one is a first-generation Briton living in Portsmouth) who end up in a jihadist movement in Iraq. Their particular back stories suggest that a variety of forces put pressure on young people to become radical.
“Radicalism comes from many, many impulses,” Bhutto said. “Religion might be one of them, but it’s not necessarily the biggest, and certainly not the only one. A lot of the young people that you read about who are radicalized today, who leave comfortable lives in the West, who are running away from homes in England to go live in Syria or wherever, are looking for a community, for a place to belong.
“They’re looking for power. People who feel they’re on the periphery of society are looking for a place where they are the center of power. There is a lot of pain and fear,” she said.
In the view of Sunny, one of the characters in The Runaways, they have come to Iraq “to die. To fight for a world on fire.” More broadly, the novel asks, how does one find one’s place in a world on fire?
“There was a period when it was it assumed that [radicalism] came from out there into here. That’s been completely upended,” Bhutto said. “It’s no longer traveling into your country; it exists in your country, if we’re talking about the West. It’s no longer restricted to a religion or a class or a group of people, it’s now democratic.
“So what happens to a world on fire? I don’t know. What’s interesting about Trump’s presidency, to non-Americans, is that for the first time it seems that Americans are seeing the country the way a lot of the outside world sees it, in terms of its excesses and what’s worrying about American power.
“A sort of mask has been taken off and now they have to confront that. Now it’s not just two or three countries in the world that are worrisome. It’s no longer just Pakistan, Somalia: it’s France, it’s Norway, it’s everywhere. I hope the fire gets put out. I think how we deal with it determines whether it gets oxygen.”
For Bhutto, who was born in Afghanistan, resided in Syria through her early school years, moved to Pakistan ahead of undergraduate studies at New York City’s Barnard College and then on to the United Kingdom for a master’s degree at the University of London’s School of Oriental and Asian Studies, Islam has not been an exclusive force in her life.
“When I was growing up and even when I was a college student in New York, I didn’t really feel like a religious person. I’m interested in all religions, but I didn’t really feel any connection to religion.
“Culturally, I’m very moved by Islam. There are certain things that make me feel at home or give me comfort. I was in Turkey recently, traveling for work and I’d been on the road for a long time. I woke up in Turkey to the sound of the azzan from the mosque, and I felt immediately comforted by it. Those things are also nostalgic. But at the same time I don’t feel terribly limited by the religion of my birth.”
Perhaps thanks to her background, Bhutto has a cultural mobility that rises above that of her characters in The Runaways. “I feel like a rootless person, because I wasn’t born in Pakistan, I was born in Afghanistan. I grew up in a country that wasn’t my own. Home was somewhere else. I moved to Pakistan when I was 11 or 12. I don’t feel as if I belong anywhere in particular, which allows me to move lightly everywhere.”
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, happened while Bhutto was a student in New York. “Before the phone system went down, people were telling me, ‘Don’t say where you’re from, don’t tell anyone your name.’ But I did the opposite. Whenever anyone asked me who I was or where I was from, I said I’m from Pakistan. And I’m glad I did, because all the reactions were kind. People were concerned: Is your family all right? What’s going to happen there?
“But it’s not like that today,” she added. “After 9/11 you were met with kindness. But today, with the paranoia about immigration in the West, they don’t ask you what it’s like where you’re from; they ask you when you’re going back. That’s the feeling that made it into The Runaways.”
Rejecting the runaway label for herself, Bhutto said: “I used to think I was running away from the violence that I encountered growing up. But I never escaped from it because I’m always writing about it, thinking about it, replaying it, trying to understand it in new ways. I don’t think you ever really get to run away.”
Especially, perhaps, from talking about politics when you’re a Pakistani named Bhutto.