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Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography and the Itinerary of Cultural Identity: Mapping Traumatic Experience within the “Canker” of History Keep moving, it’s not our destination, yet…♦ Faiz Ahmed Faiz

David Waterman


Dans le roman Kartography de Kamila Shamsie (2002), la guerre civile pakistanaise de 1971 est l’événement traumatisant qui devient le repère psychologique entre générations, incitant les jeunes protagonistes à se demander si c’est la honte d’avoir perdu la guerre ou la culpabilité liée aux actes monstrueux pour tenter de la gagner qui les rend muets – une aphasie collective, symptomatique d’une expérience traumatisante qui se transmet des parents aux enfants. Empruntant le concept de « violence comme outil de cohésion » de Moira Fradinger, nous allons voir comment une structure génératrice d’hostilités a été créée pour définir l’ennemi interne – les Pakistanais devenus Bangladeshis – ce qui permet de réécrire la carte du Pakistan pour effacer certains éléments du passé. A la limite, on arrive à accomplir ce que Philip Gourevitch appelle le « génocide social constructif. »

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  • 1  Kathleen M. Kirby reminds us that the notion of “time-space compression” comes from David Harvey’s (...)
  • 2 Katja Sarkowsky, discussing Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, expands the notion o (...)
  • 3 In an interview with Cara Cilano, Kamila Shamsie remarks on the particularly skewed nature of histo (...)

1Karachi is a city overflowing with history – quite literally overflowing, as contemporary Karachi exists in a space / time compression of cataclysmic events, among them Partition in 1947 and the civil war in 1971, which have profound, lingering effects on both the collective and individual levels; the new maps that resulted are not simple representations on paper, as people and their stories are part and parcel of this space / time compression1. Kartography is a novel about membership, about who belongs where and with whom, about loyalties, about relational cause and effect (see Catherine Belsey xii), including the ongoing, intergenerational consequences of Partition and the 1971 war, all within a period wherein firsthand accounts are still easily available: “Too much history,” Nietzsche warned, can prove to be “the gravedigger of the present, […] since we are the outcome of earlier generations, we are also the outcome of their aberrations, passions and errors, and indeed of their crimes; it is not possible wholly to free oneself from this chain” (76; see also Jeffrey K. Olick 15). Such historical excess takes on geographical form in the novel (see Doreen Massey 145), and the image of mapping in 1980s Karachi becomes highly political in the aftermath of Partition and the civil war, and while maps transform as much as they record, Shamsie’s mapping strategy in particular “refused distinctions between space and story, place and past” (J. E. Mallot 262). Rather than mapping to define the outsider, Kartography ultimately seems to argue for what Kathleen M. Kirby refers to as “a relationship of mutuality with its objects” (65), complementing what is called “rampant plurality” in the novel (Kartography 322), even in the often violent environment of Karachi; indeed, violence and / or traumatic experience sometimes function as the catalyst which accelerates change and cements relationships, binding people in ways we could not have imagined – to threaten identity is simultaneously to affirm it (Laclau 27). “War and murderous politics,” Susan Sontag reminds us, are found on the same map as safety and privilege (102-103); it goes without saying that the trauma of war always spills over onto the domestic map. In Kartography, these families’ struggles offer the reader a personal perspective with which to consider issues of cultural identity on a larger scale, wherein membership is not a closed subject, not a map already traced and defined, but instead an itinerary open to history and memory and desire, a constantly evolving multi-dimensional voyage in space and in time which interrogates the standoff between “cyclicity and ‘real change’” (Massey 151)2. Questions of belonging and loyalty become muddled with the realization that the aggrieved may well be the aggressors too (223), as the characters negotiate which stories to tell – history as narratives of nation and of family – and which stories to bury in silence as the protagonists try to answer the question, “What does 1971 have to do with now?” (269)3.

2The novel begins with an image of space / time based not on physical distance, but on fear (1), wherein historical chronology is “all about effect” in a Karachi subsumed by ethnic riots (4); a roadway accident, for example, quickly surpasses the bounds of family tragedy and explodes into ethnic fighting because the pedestrian girl is a Muhajir and the bus driver a Pathan, “and somehow, somehow, that became the issue, though my mother said ‘a catalyst, no more’” (11). Although the city’s timeline of violence goes back 2,300 years (63), more immediately relevant to these characters is Partition, bringing in an enormous wave of Muhajirs / immigrants from India, indeed the biggest mass movement of peoples ever, and whose effects are still being resented:

‘Karachi’s my home, you know. Why did those bloody Muhajirs have to go and form a political group? Once they’re united they’ll do God knows what. Demanding this, demanding that. Thinking just because they’re a majority in Karachi they can trample over everyone else. Like they did in ’47. Coming across the border thinking we should be grateful for their presence […] Do you hear the way people like Zafar and Yasmin talk about “their Karachi”? My family lived there for generations. Who the hell are these Muhajirs to pretend it’s their city!’ (40-41)

3Throughout the novel is this blurring, even dissolution, of the boundary between the public and the private, wherein geopolitical events are lived on an international scale and relived at the level of family and friends, often with similar, drastic consequences. Adrienne Rich’s notion of a “politics of location” comes to mind; Kirby, in a discussion of Rich and Chandra Mohanty, makes the distinction between place and space in political terms:

Place seems to assume set boundaries that one fills to achieve a solid identity. […] It perpetuates the fixed parameters of ontological categories, making them coherent containers of essence, in relation to which one must be “inside” or “outside,” “native” or “foreign,” in the same way that one can, in the Euclidean universe at least, be in only one place at one time. (19)

  • 4 In an article on recent Karachi violence, Jane Perlez, writing in the International Herald Tribune (...)

4Ideally, identity should be less “either / or” and more open to “both / and” formulas, but in our context of compression, space and time become warped. Given the aforementioned resentment between longstanding Karachiites and more recent immigrants against the backdrop of Partition, the politics of location often seems to result in the according of a partial identity, where the immigrant is seen as a somewhat impure Pakistani, certainly not a Sindhi, a not-quite Karachiite, creating what Moira Fradinger identifies as “citizenship anxiety” (87)4. It is in times of what Mallot calls “geographic madness” (267), when boundaries are in crisis and being reconfigured, when people are even being separated from their own memories and histories, that violence can bind by “instantiating a new political membership,” creating what Fradinger goes on to describe as a “structure of enmity inside the community that divides it by producing enemies whose elimination clarifies a pact among certain of its members each time the need for the clarification becomes urgent. It signifies the desire and failure to fix membership” (4, 16; original italics). The question of membership, of who belongs where and with whom, becomes the “most properly political question” (Fradinger 4), a political resource based on fear and exclusion of one who is very much like one of us, and who was indeed one of us, at least until recently; in extreme cases, such a policy becomes what Philip Gourevitch calls “socially constructive genocide” (see Fradinger 39 and 161; Gourevitch 95). Such genocidal “management of futurity,” to use Djelal Kadir’s term, is carried out as a tool of cynical political expediency, yet creates an endless domino effect; once a given “internal enemy” is exterminated, another must be found (103).

5If the violence of Partition is still festering, when certain Indians became Pakistanis, the violence of the civil war, when certain Pakistanis became Bangladeshis, is even worse as regards the novel, an open wound cutting across the parents’ generation as well as their children’s, making Raheen and Karim different “in some way that seemed to matter terribly to people old enough to understand where significance lay” (43). If many nations include an act of foundational violence in their myth of creation, even afterwards, on a day-to-day basis, the line between ordinary politics and outright civil war seems very thin indeed (see Fradinger 92). The civil war becomes the before-and-after dividing line in Kartography, the halfway point between then and now, the traumatic experience which is everyone’s psychological benchmark:

Between our birth in 1947 and 1995, dead bang between our beginning and our present, is 1971, of which I know next to nothing except that there was a war and East Pakistan became Bangladesh, and what terrible things we must have done then to remain so silent about it. Is it shame at losing the war, or guilt about what we did to try to win that mutes us? (270)

6This silence, this collective aphasia, is symptomatic of these characters’ inter-generational traumatic experience; while much is said and much left unsaid, the reader learns along the way that the characters, although they lived through the same events, do not necessarily interpret their stories and histories in the same way. There is a certain latitude to accommodate different ways of knowing and remembering, even though, Paul Connerton reminds us (in a discussion of Maurice Halbwachs), it is group membership which provides both physical and mental frameworks for the mapping of memories (37), thus creating what Kadir calls “consensus, that goes without saying and, unsaid, where the unspoken becomes the laboratory and the site of rehearsal for the unspeakable” (214). The parents’ generation of Kartography is a group of four; it is they who experienced the 1971 war directly, and it is in the midst of the war that the collective trauma of Pakistan finally losing its eastern wing becomes a family trauma as well. In the novel, Zafar remarks that Pakistan should have changed its name afterwards, since the country was no longer whole (312), an insightful comment, since, according to Mallot, drawing a new map, especially in haste, “is to visually wipe away a particular ‘past’” (261), much as had happened in 1947. Before the war, Raheen’s mother was originally paired with Ali, and her father Zafar with Maheen, and for reasons as yet unexplained a fiancée swap took place, thus bringing the national, collective trauma directly into the family (31). Maheen (become Raheen’s aunt rather than her mother) is Bangladeshi; Raheen already knew this, and attached little importance to the fact in itself. Although the children have been exposed to the prejudices of their elders, their own parents lived through the virulent anti-Bengali sentiment during the war, and indeed the children discover that such sentiment was apparently the reason for the fiancée swap; Maheen had become the internal enemy, the foreigner, the immigrant, suddenly finding herself, recalling Fradinger, in “enemy territory” (187). Confronted by the crazed and armed Shafiq, who demands how he can marry a Bengali, Zafar seems to cave in to the menace, and replies: “How can I marry one of them? How can I let one of them bear my children? Think of it as a civic duty. I’ll be diluting her Bengali blood line” (232). With that comment, the damage had been done: “Zafar stepping into history, no more pretence at living outside the world around him […] Zafar stepping into history, stepping where [Maheen] could not go, and kicking her away as he stepped there, kicking her with blood-drenched boots” (238). The reader, and Raheen too, will later learn that the motivation behind Zafar’s comments is not nearly so simple to interpret.

7Zafar’s daughter Raheen, and Maheen’s son Karim, are the descendants of the fiancée swap – although Karim’s parents will ultimately divorce – and seem destined to lifelong friendship from the cradle (310), summed up in adolescence by Karim’s playful but insightful comment: “You know, if I wasn’t me, you wouldn’t be you” (4). Although they weren’t yet born in 1971, these children represent not only reproduction in the form of the next generation, but reproduction of the aforementioned politics of location and membership as well, and their friendship will suffer nearly to the breaking point, and for many of the same reasons, namely misunderstandings and stories untold, the weight of history on their shoulders. Although Dena E. Eber and Arthur G. Neal are quite right to insist that, “Historical events cannot have the same meaning for those who only hear about them as compared to those who experienced them directly” (177), it may well be that the second and third generations feel the effects of the event just as strongly, if not more so, as those who were there. Zia, for example, understands their implication in history, including their inherited trauma, perfectly, and advises Raheen: “Let Karim go. You’ve lost him already, you know that. You lost him before any of us were born, back in 1971” (277). Although these children were unborn at the time, geopolitical events from Partition to civil war, and the resulting question of membership, invades their personal lives, an unwanted yet unavoidable inheritance of the politics of location. Mapping, and its epic/mythical form, storytelling, become the tools by which these protagonists negotiate the issue of membership and identity, a negotiation which includes the therapeutic aspects of storytelling. Yet the question arises, in the context of identity construction / politics / culture, what happens when a society’s stories are problematic to tell, when, for example, a collective memory is “disgusted with itself” (see Olick 5, 16)?

8By connecting significant – even cataclysmic – events in people’s lives and across generations, mapping and “oral mapping” / storytelling serve to collapse time and distance (see Katja Sarkowsky 334). The stories which get told are like the pieces of a larger puzzle: some are commonly known, others are forgotten, ignored or hidden, yet others are invented or overlap; there is no one story that tells the whole truth. This is the problem with traditional maps – their claim to tell the story – and which explains Raheen’s reticence to join in Karim’s mapmaking frenzy. Although Raheen can reasonably claim to know Karachi better than most – “I saw the blood running through and out of its veins; I knew that I understood the unspoken as much as the articulated among its inhabitants” (297) – she comes to understand that her knowledge is very much circumscribed, contained in a small portion of south central Karachi.

  • 5 Jeffrey C. Alexander places this “identity discomfort” into a context of cultural representation: “ (...)

9If identity is always constructed, to varying degrees, on a process of exclusion, Raheen is uncomfortable with this realization; her sense of “we” – meaning “Karachiites” – has been weakened through abstraction, especially in light of Sontag’s comments that a “general abhorrence of war” and violence is to ignore specific, relevant historical and political details (9; see Stuart Hall 5)5. Unity, Raheen is beginning to understand, is not a given, even within a single city, but is generally a question of compulsory association, often a myth exploited as a political resource, fundamentally a fiction (see “A Land Outside Space” 264). It is also at this point that Karim, a lifelong Karachiite, identifies himself as Bengali, shocking both Zia and Raheen; they’d never before understood that it might be important to him and to his own sense of identity (176). Subjects who ask such self-reflexive questions – “who am I?”, “where do I belong?” – are expressing doubts about their cultural identification, especially within a binary framework of belonging, symptomatic of a culture which is fragile or failed in the wake of revolution, war or mass uprooting, (see Martin W. deVries 407).

10The notion of a cartography which excludes “other” elements of the story, or which attempts to tell a single, fixed, definitive story, is a form of violence in itself; Karim’s maps are, according to Raheen, doing just that (131). Raheen and Karim don’t yet realize that their different mapping strategies are complementary, merging scientific and literary mapping, Raheen favoring “helping someone hear the heartbeat of a place” while Karim prefers “to know what the name of the road connecting Gizri to Zamzama is, and how many people have died there in the last year,” thus blending tradition, memory, and current geopolitical realities (180; see Mallot 266). Both approaches leave out important information, and Karim accuses Raheen of refusing to consider the implications of the big story, both as it concerns their relation to Karachi and to their own families:

[Karim’s] grip closed on mine so tightly I almost cried out. ‘You want to hear the heartbeat of a place? Do you know how hard your heart beats when you’re lost? Do you know what it is to wander out of the comfort of your own streets and your own stories?’ He drew a deep breath. ‘Which stories do you want me to pay attention to? Or, more to the point, which stories have you deliberately turned away from, Ra, and why?’ I pulled away from him. There was a memory beginning to resurface, but my heart was beating so loud, so fast, telling me to keep it away. (181)

  • 6  Later in the Cilano interview, Shamsie explains the rationale for Raheen’s temporary emigration, b (...)

11Although she’s been on the east coast of the USA for several years while attending university, Raheen has never made the trip to Boston to see her Aunt Maheen, who had emigrated and re-married after Ali left her; she finally does so, and as a result will begin to learn some of those stories she’d been afraid of, trying to keep away, especially as concerns her father and his role in the fiancée swap during the civil war, and more importantly, why that continues to matter a generation later in an attempt to determine “where loyalties should lie” in this confusing context of multiple truths and inherited traumatic history (214)6. Aunt Maheen welcomes Raheen without hesitation; in her apartment, Raheen notices a photo which includes her father, and wonders: “How could she ever think back to what he said to Shafiq and not tear up this photograph?” (305). Raheen learns that in fact they speak to each other by telephone regularly, and that she bears no grudge, seeing the situation in its historical context, proving her point by showing Raheen the letter written by her father at the time (306-310). In that letter, Raheen learns that her father understands very clearly the psychological trauma which has occurred, both on the national level (not to mention the level of Karachi) and on their families, and that he intends to tell the whole story to his daughter, as a means of working through and overcoming the intergenerational “canker” which father and daughter share:

What happens when you work so hard to forget a horror that you also forget that you have forgotten it? It doesn’t disappear – the canker turns inwards and mutates into something else. In this city that we both love and claim – even though our families’ histories lie elsewhere – what will the canker become? […] We act as though history can be erased. Who can blame us? The cost of remembering may break our wilted spirits. But if we allow for erasure we tell ourselves that things can be forgotten, put in the dustbin. We tell ourselves it is possible to have acts without consequences. […] I will tell my daughter what I have done – when she is old enough to grasp how unforgivable it was. When she is old enough to look within and around, and understand the canker. (312-313)

12Like an old photograph, the letter gives Raheen access to an unremembered experience – she wasn’t yet born – which nevertheless continues to haunt her (see Baer 7). Her father’s description of the canker shows that he understands – and has understood from the beginning – that traumatic experience must not be hidden away, but dealt with on both the public and the personal levels, from one generation to the next. Karachi is still violent – Raheen sees “pools of strangers’ blood spread across maps … pools around my feet” (341) – but she has learned that although she can’t change the situation, “now it felt like an abomination to pretend to live outside it” (317); like her father, Raheen is stepping into history, looking the country “straight in the eye” (280). The everyday violence has become familiar – as it had in ’71 – although the stories of the civil war are no longer impersonal, no longer “personal in a way that excluded everything and everyone who was not part of that four-line story about the war days that we tell over tea and biscuits” (311). Karim’s solution to mapping the soul of Karachi is an interactive Internet map, with links to stories, dialects and close-up shots to include much more of the historical, cultural and political “palimpsest” that is Karachi (143), thus responding to Raheen’s question: “What happens to all those streets that hold no stories for us? Do we simply stay away from them?” (337; 331). Mapping has become the tracing of an itinerary, proposing multiple stories and ways of going from A to B, including a nuanced understanding of the past and its traumas to better apprehend the current situation and better prepare the foundations for diverse future possibilities. “’Follow me,’ Raheen says to Karim, ‘I know the way’” (343), and indeed she does, on a voyage toward Karachi’s future, an aggregate history composed of individual stories, an itinerary which cannot be traced in advance and hence may hold the most potential.

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Belsey, Catherine. Culture and the Real. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

Cilano, Cara. “’In a World of Consequences’: An Interview with Kamila Shamsie.” Kunapipi: Journal of Postcolonial Writing. 2007: (29) 1: 150-162.

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1  Kathleen M. Kirby reminds us that the notion of “time-space compression” comes from David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity. Kirby goes on to cite Doreen Massey: “The ways in which people are inserted into and placed within this ‘time-space compression’ are highly complicated and extremely varied [and very much derived from their sex, race, ethnicity, nation, and economic means].” See Kirby 57, as well as Massey 62, “Power-Geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place.” Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Change. Futures: New Perspectives for Cultural Analysis Series. Ed. John Bird et al. New York: Routledge, 1993. 59-69.

2 Katja Sarkowsky, discussing Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, expands the notion of itinerary to be more than simply the route taken to go from one place to another: “The itinerary is doubled: it is performed by both the narrative voice and by the reader, either mentally or actually with a finger on a map. Map and itinerary are not at the opposite poles of experience, as de Certeau has it, but the itinerary retakes the territory the map has supposedly frozen in time and space: […] the ‘map-itinerary’ not only serves the reader as orientation, but the narrative map addresses its own indeterminacies, the struggle for borders and territory. It thereby catapults the reader directly into the close relationship between maps and colonial history, between space and time, into the historicity of spatial arrangements” (328).

3 In an interview with Cara Cilano, Kamila Shamsie remarks on the particularly skewed nature of historical narrative under military dictatorship and widespread censorship: “We used to open the morning newspaper and see how ‘official histories’ are being written, but you know they’re fiction. It’s also interesting when you grow up so close to Partition. […] If I [had been Indian rather than Pakistani], I know I would view things very differently. I was aware, even as a young child, that there is no such thing as the fixed truth of what happened” (151).

4 In an article on recent Karachi violence, Jane Perlez, writing in the International Herald Tribune in November 2010, sheds some light on the evolving “immigrant” situation: “Karachi has long been dominated by ethnic Mohajirs, Urdu-speaking people who left India at partition and who have been represented politically by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, commonly known as the M.Q.M. […] The latest challenge to the M.Q.M.’s hold is the influx of Pashtuns who have fled the war [on the Afghan border] to seek work and shelter in Karachi slums. Though the Pashtuns number some five million here now, they remain politically underrepresented, and the frustration of the newcomers have increasingly been channeled into violent retribution by the Aswami National Party” (4).

5 Jeffrey C. Alexander places this “identity discomfort” into a context of cultural representation: “Events are one thing, representations of these events quite another. Trauma is not the result of a group experiencing pain. It is a result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity.” See “Toward a Theory of Cultural Trauma.” Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 1-30.

6  Later in the Cilano interview, Shamsie explains the rationale for Raheen’s temporary emigration, beyond the “sociological fact” of her upper-middle class status: “I did want to have it be a way for her to have a stronger sense of Karachi as this place that she misses and loves, particularly because she’s away when all the violence is going on. I think it strengthens her sense of being tied to the place. As she’s in this university world, where everything is sort of bucolic and idyllic around her, she’s away from this other world in which things are completely falling apart. She knows that this second world really is her world. Being away at university serves that function, to make her feel more strongly that she needs to go back.” (155).

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David Waterman, « Kamila Shamsie’s Kartography and the Itinerary of Cultural Identity: Mapping Traumatic Experience within the “Canker” of History Keep moving, it’s not our destination, yet…♦ Faiz Ahmed Faiz », Sillages critiques [En ligne], 19 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2015, consulté le 27 avril 2017. URL :

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David Waterman

David Waterman is Professor of English in the Applied Foreign Languages Department at the Université de La Rochelle, France and Director of the Department of Applied Foreign Languages. His publications include Where Worlds Collide: Pakistani Fiction in the New Millennium (Oxford UP, 2015), Disordered Bodies and Disrupted Borders: Representations of Resistance in Modern British Literature (University Press of America, 1999), Le miroir de la société: la violence institutionnelle chez Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing et Pat Barker (Longo Editore Ravenna, 2003), Identity in Doris Lessing’s Space Fiction (Cambria Press, 2006), and Pat Barker and the Mediation of Social Reality (Cambria Press, 2009). He is currently working on Pakistani literature and history, and has served as an Associate Editor for the online journal Pakistaniaat.David Waterman est Professeur d’anglais en LEA à l’Université de La Rochelle ainsi que directeur du département LEA. Il a notamment publié Where Worlds Collide: Pakistani Fiction in the New Millennium (Oxford UP, 2015), Disordered Bodies and Disrupted Borders: Representations of Resistance in Modern British Literature (University Press of America, 1999), Le miroir de la société: la violence institutionnelle chez Anthony Burgess, Doris Lessing et Pat Barker (Longo Editore Ravenna, 2003), Identity in Doris Lessing’s Space Fiction (Cambria Press, 2006), et Pat Barker and the Mediation of Social Reality (Cambria Press, 2009). Il travaille actuellement sur la littérature et l’histoire pakistanaises, et s’est associé à la revue électronique Pakistaniaat.

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