Burnt Shadows

Burnt Shadows (2009) by Kamila Shamsie


Professor Greg Forter, Department of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina.

In an extraordinary article for Guernica magazine, published in February 2012, Kamila Shamsie reflected on the genesis of her (even more extraordinary!) novel Burnt Shadows (2009). The essay begins by describing how the thought of an atom bomb falling on Nagasaki came to her in the space between writing projects and seemed at first a source of trouble. It interfered with her creative process, stymied her search for “an image [rather than a thought] from which a [new] novel [might] emerge.” She could not get the thought out of her head, however, despite the trouble it seemed to be causing. And gradually, the trouble proved fruitful. The thought that had taken up residence inside her became the occasion for Shamsie to explore a historical disaster about which she knew little. It led her, among other things, to read a nonfiction book by John Hersey called Hiroshima (1946), which traces the story of six hibakusha (bomb survivors) in the city named by the book’s title. In Hersey’s book, and much to her surprise, Shamsie came upon her “originating image.”

The image emerged in Shamsie’s mind in response to a passage where Hersey describes the effects of the bomb on human flesh: “On some undressed bodies,” he writes, “the burns had made patterns of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos.” Descriptions like this one occur throughout Hiroshima and are at once harrowing and deeply affecting. Hersey neither exaggerates nor moralizes; he does not introduce metaphors to intensify the effect of his prose, nor does he lace the description with commentary that tells us how to respond to these events. The combination of almost clinical detachment with a refusal of explicit judgment and metaphor makes his prose especially able to “hear” and bear witness to the suffering of others. Shamsie’s account of reading the quoted sentence is therefore worth quoting at some length:

In my memory, the moment I read that line an image came of a woman facing away from me, three bird-shaped burns on her bare back from the pattern of the kimono she was wearing at the moment the bomb fell…. Hersey had given me my originating image, and very quickly it started to exert a magnetic force, tugging at other images and ideas and elements of plot and character until a tiny universe was wheeling around it, impossible to ignore. Eventually it went on to become my fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, which started in Nagasaki in 1945 and ended with a man on his way to Guantánamo in 2002.

The passage provides an unusually acute depiction of Shamsie’s creative process. It draws our attention to the complex relation between thinking and imagining—conceptualizing and creating—in that process. Shamsie begins by feeling distracted by thought, diverted from the imaginative act by the nagging intrusion of thoughts about history. But that intrusion turns out to provoke an astonishing act of creative vision. Shamsie’s imagination is fired by the actual, by the thinking about history that seemed at first a block to her creativity but is in the end drawn into and magnetized by the creative imagination. This process gestates an entire universe—a fictional world—whose “imagistic” and metaphorical forms reveal dimensions of history and power that reportage alone can never show us.

Shamsie’s account of the creative process is only part of what makes her essay valuable for thinking about Burnt Shadows. Just as significant is how the essay describes the novel’s affiliations with other contemporary writings. Burnt Shadows is, of course, a “9/11 novel”—it’s a book composed in the aftermath of those attacks and concerned with their world-historical significance. It begins with Hiroko Tanaka receiving those bird-shaped atomic wounds at Nagasaki in 1945 and ends with her son, Raza, being secreted away to Guantánamo in 2002. The purpose of bookending the plot in this way is to suggest that there is a deep, structural relationship between the two events. You cannot understand 9/11 (or Guantánamo) without seeing it as part of the history of U.S. world-hegemony inaugurated by the Bomb.

The Guernica article is, meanwhile, entitled “The Storytellers of Empire”; its central point is the insularity and parochialism of so much U.S. fiction written in response to the 9/11 attacks. While nonfiction writers concerned with 9/11 have probed the history of U.S. foreign policy to answer the question, “why do they hate us?,” fiction writers have tended instead to focus on “9/11 the day itself, in New York.” These writers treat the attacks as something that defies historical or even narrative explanation: they depict it as “a traumatic event as ahistorical as an earthquake.” Their fictions seek less to situate 9/11 in history than to stress the inexplicable pain and bewilderment caused to Americans by those attacks. “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t,” Shamsie concludes. “The unmanned drone hovering over Pakistan, controlled by someone in Langley, is an apt metaphor for America’s imaginative engagement with my nation.”

Burnt Shadows is a dazzling fictional rebuke to this state of affairs. Like her book’s originating image, the entirety of Shamsie’s novel is animated by the interplay between knowing and imagining—between historical knowledge and the historical imagination. It aims at nothing less than a systemic account of the historical forces that link a series of seemingly disparate events and processes: the transition from British colonialism to American neo-imperialism; the apocalyptic consolidation of U.S. power through the dropping of two atom bombs; the Cold War and the proxy (hot) war in Afghanistan through which the U.S. defended its global hegemony; the CIA’s fostering of radical Islam among the fighters recruited for that war; the attacks on the World Trade Center and Washington, DC on September 11, 2001; and the subsequent War on Terror that destroyed and distorted so much in the name of national security and an ongoing state of exception.

Readers will know that Shamsie routes this history through the bodies and psyches of two families across three generations: the Tanaka-Ashrafs and the Burton-Weisses. This routing is a way of concretizing history, of enacting it not in the abstract, but by grounding it in the most intimate reaches of persons and families and their ongoing interrelations. It is also a way of embodying the power dynamics that shape historical violence along racial-national lines. The Tanaka-Ashrafs (Hiroko, Sajjad, and Raza) hail originally from Japan and the Indian subcontinent; the Burton-Weisses (Illse, James, their son Harry, and his daughter Kim) are German, English, and (once Harry becomes a citizen) American. Each of the book’s main sections details a calamity that befalls the first of these family units, the racially “other” Tanaka-Ashrafs. Hiroko survives the bomb at Nagasaki but loses her fiancé, her father, and her homeland. Sajjad is forced to repatriate from Delhi to Pakistan in the wake of Indian Partition. Raza is seduced into joining a mujahadin camp in Pakistan, and his father, Sajjad, is shot dead while searching for him, mistaken for a CIA agent. Raza himself is later recruited into the world of U.S. military contractors, then denounced and detained and disappeared because his “racial” origins render his loyalties intrinsically suspect in the age of the PATRIOT Act.

In each of these cases, the calamity is an effect of the large-scale, sociohistorical forces called colonialism and neo-imperialism. But with the exception of the atom bomb, the proximate cause in each case is a member of the Burton-Weiss clan. It’s James Burton who browbeats Sajjad into spending his honeymoon in Istanbul during the crucial months of 1947 when Pakistan is partitioned off from India. The man who shoots Sajjad is Harry Burton’s driver in Karachi—a lower-level operative of the Pakistani intelligence service, whom Sajjad only meets because Harry suddenly reenters his life after years of separation. And Raza, finally, is betrayed (inadvertently) to American authorities by Harry’s daughter Kim, in a sequence that reveals how even the most well-intentioned, liberal-minded of Americans often retains a set of unquestioned assumptions that permit them to remain “innocent” of the racist violence committed in their name.

The issue of human rights pertains especially to this latter dynamic. In its depictions of how history’s victors inflict injuries on those they dispossess, Burnt Shadows can be read as chronicling the serial violation of such rights: Hiroko’s right to security and (though the UN Declaration does not name this) bodily integrity; Sajjad’s right to life itself; and Raza’s rights to liberty and to freedom from torture and degrading treatment. Nevertheless, it should be stressed that the novel’s main concern is less with human rights per se than with what the political philosopher Hannah Arendt has called “the right to have rights.” Arendt asked an important but little noticed (until recently) question in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: if we are indeed endowed with certain basic rights by virtue of being human, how is it that those who have been reduced to their bare humanity by losing their citizenship, being forced into exile, becoming refugees, and so forth—how is it that such stateless people have historically lost any recourse to rights rather than had their rights affirmed? Where does the right to have rights come from if rights themselves require for their enactment something in addition to just being “human”—a nation or some other legally binding collectivity?

Burnt Shadows does not so much answer these questions as invite us to ponder and probe them. In the interest of encouraging that process, I’d like to conclude by suggesting that the questions can be fruitfully approached by passing them through three of the novel’s other main concerns:

  1. Uprootedness, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism
  2. Languages and the possibilities of translation
  3. The eroticized body

The presentation on June 15th will focus on these topics and—especially—on how they inflect the novel’s treatment of human rights and the right to have rights.


Operating on the global level, Burnt Shadows engages with aspects of history surrounding the displacement of individuals in the event of warfare. Spanning over sixty years, the novel covers various historical events, starting with the Bombing of Nagasaki in Japan and culminating with the September 11th attacks. Between this period of time, the novel engages further with the Partition of India and the growing tensions surrounding the nation’s Independence.

Through Hiroko’s narrative, the novel focuses on the immediate effects as well as the aftermath of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War II. The release of Fat Man over Nagasaki was an unprovoked tactic that decimated an entire city and killed or injured a large percentage of the population (the exact number has been debated for years). Speaking in 2016, at the Hiroshima Peace Cultural Foundation about the effects of war and the displacement of Nagasaki as well as Hiroshima inhabitants in the wake of the bombings, the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi stated that, “This city knows about the fear of war, and about the plight of people for whom there is no safety – no safety, anywhere”.

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Afghanistan has a long history of conflict stemming from political as well as religious discord. Despite the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty of 1978, tensions between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union failed to be quelled. Following this, the Soviet Union advanced into Kabul and took over the government. The Soviet advancement fuelled a war between the USSR and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against the local, guerrilla Mujahadin (Arabic for “those who wage jihad – holy war”), supported by the United States through such programs as the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Operation Cyclone.

It was finally under the leadership of Mikhael Gorbachev in 1988 that the Soviets started withdrawing from Afghanistan. The aftermath of the Soviet Invasion was partly what led to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, as well as the rise of Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in the Middle East. From then on, the terms Mujahadin as well as jihad and radicalisation, have been linked to the ongoing global war on terror. The insurgence of such groups as al-Qaeda and the Taliban brought awareness to terrorism globally, as a number of European powers joined the U.S. military tactics in the Middle East, in an attempt to subdue the al-Qaeda and the Taliban groups present.

Although it began in Afghanistan in 2001, this new war spread out into Iraq in an invasion that resulted in a series of retaliatory responses, such as the 2004 bombings in Madrid as well as in London, in 2005. From nuclear bombings to colonialism and terrorism, Burnt Shadows’ engagement with the various proxies within these turbulent conflicts shows how involved, the different national forces are in the crises. However, even though the major global powers such as the U.S. and the United Kingdom have declared a desired end to the war on terror, there appears to be no end in sight. The need for resolution becomes even more urgent when considering the lives of the civilians and refugees caught in the crossfire such as Burnt Shadows’ Hiroko and Raz.

Human Rights

Nuclear Fallout – Nagasaki

2020 marked 75 years since the decision by the United States to drop the world’s first atomic weapons on two Japanese cities—Hiroshima first, on Aug. 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later. The two bombings killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians. For the survivors of those ruined cities, the coming of the bomb was a personal event before it was a global one. Many still suffer from debilitating diseases and stigmatization to this day. As of 2018, the average age of hibakusha – or atomic bomb survivors – was 81.41. Hiroko’s age and displacement raises the question of how to inform future generation of the human dimension of that horror. The prominent hibakusha activist survivors continue to plea for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The hibakushas had a role in the establishment and the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which was adopted in 2017.

This video from The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). It depicts Setsuko Thurlow, a hibakusha and lifelong activist for the elimination of nuclear weapons:

Today, photographer Haruka Sakaguchi seeks out those individuals that can still tell the world what it looks like when human beings find new and terrible ways to destroy one another. can still be heard by using an artistic approach to reach a global audience. His project, After The Bomb – Survivors Of The Atomic Blasts In Hiroshima And Nagasaki Share Their Stories, asking them to give a testimony about what they lived through and to write a message to future generations. As the anniversaries of the bombings approach once again, you can engage with a selection of their work.

Afghan refugees and displacement

In Burnt Shadows, the young refugee Abdullah expounds on Afghanistan’s history of war, foreign invasion, and displacement. As discussed above, the Soviet-Afghan War, which officially lasted from 1979-1989, resulted in the death of a huge number of Afghans as well as a substantial number of refugees. As is mentioned in Burnt Shadows, ethnic Hazaras were heavily displaced and persecuted. The character Raza takes on this identity to gain sympathy. Hazaras have always lived on the edge of economic survival in Afghanistan. The recent persecution of Hazaras was not instigated by the Taliban but had existed for centuries – during which Hazaras were driven out of their lands, sold as slaves, and were deprived of access to the essential services otherwise available to most of the population. The main factors in Hazaras’ continued persecution are their Shi’a religious faith, their distinctive ethnic origins, as well as their having separate economic and political roots. You can access a more detailed history and contemporary conflicts here.

The growing instability within the country led to a first wave of Afghan migration. By 1979, an estimated 1 million Afghans reached Pakistan, with a total of 3.3 million reaching Pakistan as well as Iran by 1980. There were also many Afghans seeking for asylum in Europe, the US and Australia. As of 2018, the UN Refugee Agency recorded an estimated 2.5 million registered refugees registered from Afghanistan. Afghan refugees continue to represent one of the world’s largest refugee populations. Over the past four decades, many have been permanently forced from their homes. While some have been able to return temporarily, many of their lives have upended by fresh eruptions of conflict and violence – either to be displaced elsewhere in the country, or to become refugees yet again. There are refugee camps where successive Afghan generations have lived, long forming part of the local fabric of society, and yet they have been denied their rights, demonized, and constantly threatened with deportation. In 2019, Amnesty International showcased the current scale of forced deportation primarily in Europe.

Ethnic and religious profiling (pre/post 9/11)

Professor Greg Forter refers to Burnt Shadows as a “9/11 novel”, as he talks about the subsequent War on Terror. You can look at our previous work on ethnic profiling following 9/11 on our Kindness of Enemies page here.