Best of Friends
Best of Friends
Zahra and Maryam have been best friends since childhood in Pakistan, even though – or maybe because – they are unalike in nearly every way. Yet they never speak of the differences in their backgrounds or their values, not even after the fateful night when a moment of adolescent impulse upends their plans for the future.
Three decades later, Zahra and Maryam have grown into powerful women who have each cut a distinctive path in the UK. But when two troubling figures from their past resurface, they must finally confront those differences – and find out whether their friendship can survive.
From the author of Home Fire, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this brilliant study of the friendship between two whipsmart Pakistani friends begins in a politically sinister but vibrant and cricket-obsessed Karachi and ends in modern-day London, where they can read warning signs perhaps better than anyone.
With its depth of relationships and great sweep in place and time, this feels like a story you’ve wanted to tell for a long time. How and when did you turn it into a novel?
I’ve long had a vague notion that I would one day like to write a novel that has friendship as its central relationship, but that vague notion only started to acquire shape in 2016 – between Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US I was hearing an increasing number of people talk about a fracturing of old relationships around different political views. Of course, bitter arguments about different political views aren’t primarily about what’s happening in government; they’re about the different ways in which people see the world, the values they hold, and in many cases it’s about the faultlines that already exist in relationships, which are suddenly no longer possible to tiptoe around.
So I started to think about two girls who became friends in childhood – at a point in time when their characters are just beginning to take shape, and friendship can grow from a shared love for hopscotch. By the time they’re adult women they are very different people, and probably wouldn’t have much time for each other if they’d met for the first time past the age of 18 – but because they’ve always been friends they continue to love and rely on each other. I wanted to see what would happen if I made it impossible for them to ignore the vast gulf in their ways of seeing the world and their relationship to power and their own shared history.
Some people retain enduring childhood friendships into adulthood; for others they are rare. What do you think marks out these friendships, and are they easier to maintain in an age of social media and, for some, growing incomes?
Speaking for myself, my adult friendships are drawn from a pool of people who broadly inhabit the same professional sphere as me and have fairly similar political views; that isn’t true of my childhood friends for the simple reason that we became friends before we had professions or political views. The glue that holds us together is the friendship itself – we’ve known each other so long; we can see the teenager in the middle-aged adult; we know the roles we played in the families in which we grew up, etc. And we laugh together in a way that recalls adolescent laughter – over the top, unrestrained, out of proportion to the thing that’s amusing us.
Many of my friends and I now live in different countries, and it’s certainly easier to know what’s going on in each other’s lives because of social media (it’s WhatsApp that primarily connects us – I’m on a group with ten school friends, and we chat almost daily). But I suspect we could go for long stretches of time without being in touch and still pick up our friendship where we left off.
Income is a trickier one – if two friends are in very different economic situations it requires some sensitivity to navigate the gulf in lifestyles and expectations.
An incident when they are 14 crystallises what they call “girlfear”for Maryam and Zahra, and changes their lives fundamentally. Do you have any optimism that one day girlfear might end?
Girlfear – the particular sense of physical vulnerability that girls learn very early in life – is going to be with us as long as we live in patriarchal societies. Do I have optimism that patriarchy will end? There was a time when I would have said, we can’t see what the world will look like hundreds of years from now so why shouldn’t we imagine a version of things that is in every way better to what we have now – but these days given the climate catastrophe it’s hard to talk so blithely about hundreds of years from now.
Some readers might have expected a book with this setting to have more religion in it. Did you consciously do this to clear space for more analysis of class and gender, or was it more that this is naturally how the story fell into place?
I do find that readers are usually pretty open to accepting the world you present to them in a novel, if you do it convincingly enough, particularly if they’re aware it’s a world you know and they don’t. I suppose there might be readers who think nothing happens in Pakistan without religion being an integral part of events, but that false notion wasn’t in any way in my mind when I wrote.
Zahra’s father, a journalist and cricket expert, is leaned on in the late 1980s to publicly praise the dictator General Zia for his role in convincing Imran Khan to come out of retirement and lead the Pakistan cricket team. What would her father have made of Imran Khan’s trajectory from cricket through to ex-prime minister since then?
I think he would have said, with great sorrow, that he would rather that Pakistan had lost the 1992 World Cup than have the victory launch the team captain on a path to populist rule.
Zahra warns in 2019 that the UK was becoming complacent about its democracy, and noted alarm bells about authoritarianism. What would she have made of Liz Truss’s new government?
She would have looked at the headlines about Suella Braverman being tougher on migrants than Priti Patel and screamed into her pillow. Then she’d have rolled up her sleeves to continue fighting.
You’re professor of creative writing at Manchester University. As a former creative writing student yourself how do you see that role?
I wrote my first published novel while I was an MFA student, and I know how invaluable that space was in terms of giving me structure, and how much I owe to fellow students who were really smart readers and happy to discuss my work even outside the formal settings of a classroom. So a large part of my role is in helping to foster an atmosphere of honesty and respect between students in the workshop. And of course, I would hope that having been a writer for many years means I have a few things to say that can be useful to students who are starting off. As my first professor of creative writing, Agha Shahid Ali, said to me: “When you teach creative writing you can help students with shortcuts to a place they might have taken a long time to reach on their own.”