“There’s a single narrative about radicalism in the west, that it’s about religion — I don’t think that’s true,” Fatima Bhutto Tells What We Seee. “I think radicalism is incredibly complex — and that it’s born out of pain.” Her second novel, The Runaways, delves into this topic head-on. Its deep interrogation and multi-faceted portrayal of radicalisation is such a contrast to the reductive, linear version that is so often portrayed in the western media. “I think that, in the west at least, there’s almost minimal understanding of radicalism — and a zero percent understanding of the radicalized,” Bhutto says. “Twenty years into the war on terror, that’s a conversation we should be having.”
It clearly is — but we’re not having it. Even with Shamima Begum, the UK teenager who joined ISIS before wanting to return to the UK, making headlines, it’s something that we refuse to question further, a group who we refuse to listen to and learn from. “It’s convenient — it absolves the west of its creation of radicalism. Not just the war on terror, but their inability to absorb and include and nurture people from other countries,” Bhutto explains. “ISIS was born directly out of western interventionism in Iraq — but the west doesn’t want to look in the mirror.” Human rights scholars already study the rhetoric of the war on terror, the simplistic good-and-evil dichotomy that’s often presented and the damage that it does. But Bhutto takes another approach. In her novel, she humanizes the issue in the most universal way — through coming of age stories. With this vehicle, the often abstract and foreign-seeming issue of radicalisation is grounded in something utterly relatable — being a vulnerable teenager searching for meaning and acceptance.
Something We Can All Connect To
The Runaways focuses on the lives of three characters, Anita Rose, Monty, and Sunny, living through very different lives from Karachi to Portsmouth. They each earn your sympathies and, sometimes, your distrust, as you delve deeper into their stories. This ambivalence, this slight uneasiness at times, never takes away from the empathy that is strung through line after line. “It happened naturally, when you look at what has to happen to push you out of your home, away from your family, and send you out into that violence, turbulence, and war,” Bhutto explains. “The more I thought about what it must have felt like, how lonely, how angry you must have to be, the more I realized there was something we could all connect to. You might not connect to their experience in Karachi or choosing to run away from their home, but I think we can all connect to feeling alone, to wishing to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. And I think we’re lucky if we’re able to get out of it unscathed.”
Though looking at radicalisation and extremism might seem like a very specific, almost alien path to many, that feeling of isolation, confusion, and anger radiates through our times. “People are facing uncertain futures — whether it’s Brexit, the rise of populism, the lack of jobs — in these times, it’s a lot easier to turn a population to an external threat,” Bhutto says. Whether that’s through radicalisation and Islamic extremism or far-right politics and racism, vulnerability is open to manipulation. The confusing, convoluted quagmire that is radicalisation is something so many of us have been afraid to unravel — which makes The Runaways such a brave, refreshing book.
Doesn’t Let Me Go
“Something catches me and doesn’t let me go until I stop to think about it or write about it,” Bhutto explains. For her, The Runaways sparked years ago, from a very specific source. “I started writing it almost five years ago, in the middle of the migration crisis of Europe — I like to remind people that this is a crisis for the migrants, the people with their belongings on their backs, who have lost their families and homes. I was hurt by how I heard it spoken about.”
Bhutto’s new novel will move you with its profound wisdom and sharp grasp of our turbulent times. – Elif Shafak
From there, the themes and topics were clear — but choosing to delve so deeply into three lives was a much more complicated process. “In one sense, the novel was really easy, to start with — I wrote it in a kind of fever,” she says. “It was all happening around me, it was all happening in real time. It was in everything I was thinking about, reading about, and watching. I wrote it in a rage almost — and then I spent the next four years rewriting. I had to go deeper and deeper and deeper and probe further.” This probing was drawn, in part, from personal experience.
“What was interesting was that some part of it was familiar to me — the experience of not being white in the world since 9/11. I think it’s an experience you share whether you’re coming from Pakistan or you’re coming from Lagos or Syria,” Bhutto explains. “You always have to explain how you’re not threatening to people, you have to prove you belong, even going through an airport is a humiliating experience. It doesn’t really matter that you’ve been educated in their schools or that you’ve lived in their country — what matters is that you’re not like them.”
The World Of Books And The World Of Politics
Though the story came from a clear catalyst — a need to address the gaping blank spot in our societal understanding of radicalisation — Bhutto didn’t have a clear audience in mind. “When I’m writing I’m not thinking about who will read it,” she explained. “You’re so close to the story yourself, you’re only thinking what’s happening on the page. I don’t really talk about it until I’m finished, even with friends.” But then, a moment came at a dinner party while she was discussing her themes and characters. It was a moment that crystallized her intentions. “A woman said to me, ‘Oh, why would you want to read about those kind of people?’ and it sort of clicked. You’re the person I want to read this. I do want you to come in anxious and afraid, because you’re the person who doesn’t know this experience and doesn’t have any understanding of how widespread or painful it is.”
As the niece of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and granddaughter of former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, many often wonder if Bhutto’s sights will be on the political in the future. But in poetry, in memoirs, and in fiction, Bhutto has been using writing to do powerful work and sees the two worlds as related. “I used to imagine that there was a larger space between the world of books and the world of politics or between political discussions and literary discussions — but in the world we live in today, that space has shrunk.” Novels like The Runaways shrink that space even further, giving the most divisive and charged of political issues a human face. Three human faces, in fact.