Fatima Bhutto: “You have to understand how much pain someone must be in to go to war against the world”

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How far would you run to escape your life?’. So asks the back cover of ‘The Runaways’, the second novel by Fatima Bhutto. In answer to the same question, posed in a 2018 interview with the South China Morning Post, the writer mused “I don’t think you ever really get to run away. You get to see things from different angles, but you still battle them.” It’s a thoughtful response that encapsulates the complexity that lies behind ‘The Runaways’, a searing piece of work examining the layers of anxiety, dislocation and marginalisation that lead to radicalisation.

Born into a political dynasty (she’s the granddaughter and niece of two prime ministers of Pakistan, and the daughter of Murtaza Bhutto, assassinated when Fatima was 14 years old), Fatima is well qualified to write about systemic violence. However, ‘The Runaways is less interested in the fighting in the Iraqi desert, focusing instead on the emotional turmoil of the novel’s three protagonists: Anita Rose, who lives in a slum in Karachi, Monty, from a wealthy family across town, and Sunny, the son of an Indian immigrant living in Portsmouth. Beginning in 2016, the novel moves seamlessly between characters and cities, exploring how their lives shift and intertwine in the face of class, prejudice, and love.

Although reviews have characterised the novel as a fearless critique of inequality, speaking at The Conduit, Fatima clarified that she views ‘The Runaways’ first and foremost as a book about the social media age. “The biggest shock of my research was the discovery that these young jihadis were like millennials everywhere”, she said. “They don’t want privacy – they want to go viral.”

Despite admitting to being an active social media user herself, Fatima worries about its impact, particularly on younger generations. “We vouch the telling of our lives to these platforms and so naturally that gives them a huge amount of power. It changes how we perceive ourselves, how we tell stories about ourselves, and how we position ourselves in the journey of our life. Social media is a medium waiting to be weaponised, whether that’s by radicals or by the beauty industry.”

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When it comes to social media usage, it’s not so much the rise of radicalism or our waning self-esteem that most concerns Fatima, but something even more primal: the erasure of compassion. “[Compassion] is a slow-developing skill that requires human contact, but you don’t have that with social media – you can say whatever you want, and you don’t see how the other person is affected. So, I don’t think we have to destroy social media completely, but we do have to destroy how we use it.”

Despite her serious words, the use of social media in ‘The Runaways’ is responsible for much of the novel’s humour. Did she deliberately write this as a tragi-comic text? Fatima laughs in response to the question. “You know, I actually had to take out a lot of the humour as at one point there were so many jokes it started to feel like a satire! But it was very natural to put in lighter moments. So much of our survival in the world is through humour.” Not to mention how it helps the reader to feel closer to the characters. She agrees earnestly. “You know, for me, one of the myths of the story of radicalism is that it’s confined to certain stories or cultures – it’s not. So many people are vulnerable to it because it’s so widespread and borderless. It’s dangerous to think you’re immune.”

One of the novels’ core tenets is the exploration of machismo and patriarchy, with both Sunny and Monty struggling to embody an impossible masculine ideal. This idea of battling against a binary identity, says Fatima, was inspired by the current climate. “I think it’s a really fascinating moment for everyone right now. Identity is so fraught; confusion and conflict are everywhere. I wondered, what does it mean to be growing up as a man in a world that’s changing so quickly?” This is mirrored in the treatment of the novel’s female characters; while the men grapple inwardly for self-control, ‘The Runaways’ depicts the specific experience of powerlessness that drives women to turn to Daesh, in an attempt to recover their own stories.

It’s this sense of powerlessness and abandonment that Fatima feels is at the heart of radicalisation. “If people feel they have no voice in their community, no chance of a dignified life, they will turn to anyone who offers them that.” She alludes to the media treatment of Shamima Begum, recently stripped of her UK citizenship after travelling from East London to join the Islamic State at the age of 15. “You have to understand how much pain someone has to be in to go to war against the world. We refuse to consider people as human beings who might be worthy of redemption.”

Despite rave reviews in the UK, ‘The Runaways’ is struggling to find a US publisher due to concerns about the controversial subject matter. What’s her take on this self-imposed censorship? “It’s interesting because I really did drink the Kool-Aid and assume that the US was a place that welcomed a collision of ideas and gave the space to engage with them. But I also know that this is such an uncomfortable subject and I’m not altogether surprised.” She sighs, before continuing. “It has become easier to shut down discourse and it’s happening on a widespread level. It’s one of the sad things about our current age, as I think for a long time, we had the freedom to engage in uncomfortable conversations. Now that space has narrowed considerably.”

Before the conversation draws to a close, we ask Fatima to reflect on one call to action for The Conduit community. What would she want readers to take away from ‘The Runaways’?

“We have to be alert to how heartless our language and politics have become. I think compassion is missing in so much, especially in the way we talk about things that disturb us or frighten us. We have to start asking why people do the things we do. We have to have compassion not only for the victims but also the perpetrators.”

Fatima was in conversation with broadcaster and journalist Georgina Godwin at The Conduit in May.

‘The Runaways’ is available to purchase at Waterstones or all good bookshops.

Cover photo: Allegra Donn