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Since publishing her first book at the tender age of 15, Fatima Bhutto — whose grandfather and aunt both served as Pakistani prime ministers — has become a prolific, versatile chronicler of modern life, equally adept at fiction, non-fiction, and memoir. Her most recent book, New Kings of the World: Dispatches From Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop, explores the rising global impact of Asian pop culture. She recently spoke to Asia Society’s Matt Schiavenza.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you've been up to over the last several months?
It’s been an unusual experience! My book The Runaways came out in paperback in England just at the start of the lockdown, and it came out in the United States in August. That kind of bookended the whole thing for me in a weird way, because I should have been on the road and I should have been out on tour. And instead, I haven’t been. I’ve been in a strange state of limbo, where I just finished a book and haven’t started a new one yet.
I’ve used the pandemic to do small things, little projects that I didn’t do when I was busy working on books. I did little pieces of writing, some speeches, and, really, just reading a lot.
How have you been managing the anxiety, uncertainty, and various emotions that this period has engendered? How has it shaped your creative process?
The pandemic has been a great reminder of how we control absolutely nothing. We walk around imagining ourselves to be these powerful beings. But, of course, we are really just specks of dust. And so all we can do is rejoice in every moment and celebrate every possible good fortune that we have because no one really knows what will happen from moment to moment.
In terms of creativity, I’ve found it disturbing, I have to say. I think everyone expects that all writers will just be in their element during a global lockdown because finally, everyone has time and space. But the thing I missed very much was the world. I draw a lot of sustenance and energy from people, from strangers, from travel, from movement. And I missed that very much, especially in the early phase where we were really locked down and all human interaction became fraught and frightening. I've tried to observe my own reaction to it since I've been cut off from other things. But I think it's probably too early to say how my work has been affected by it.
What do you see as the role of artists, writers, painters, musicians, etc., in a time of global crisis? Do you think artists have a social responsibility to lift people’s spirits?
No. I think the role of the artist is always to sift — to be an observer, as true an observer as they can be, of the world around them. With the global pandemic, suddenly the world around them is not just their own small, intimate world — it becomes The World, in capital letters.
I don’t see it as a big burden. I think it’s a big exercise, a big task. But it’s an important one, at the same time.
I’m interested not just in what writers make of the larger situation, but also in the minutiae — the flicker of tension between families, the fear and uncertainty. I'm more curious about those ordinary moments and how writers will capture them and how they look at them. But I'm also slightly panicked about pandemic literature.
What panics you about it?
Because it will be overwhelming to have to live through the pandemic, and then to have to watch it, hear it, listen to it, and read it. I think we’ve all gone through a peak of pandemic obsession, where we all just collated news, stories, and evidence. And with all writing, the best writing is always what the writer has spent a lot of time and thought on. So I guess I'm panicked about the fact that we're going to have a rash of books about the pandemic. I’d be very happy to wait a year for a really good one. I say this as a reader who wants to know what a sustained examination of this period will look like. I’m less interested in reading, say, a daily diary of this time period.
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When we look back on this period in the future, what do you think its legacy will be?
Well, I think it's hard to say what the legacy will be 50 years from now. What occurred to me, in the beginning, was, as we isolated ourselves and removed physical contact from our daily life, was how much kinder we'd have to be with our language. We‘d lose those cues like smiling at people or holding a door open for someone or petting a dog. We're going to have to convey warmth, friendship, solidarity, and congeniality with language, and we're going to have to be somewhat better doing it than we have been.
The question that interested me is whether we have it in us to expand this language of kindness and friendship and openness — or whether we will lose that? That’s something I felt a little bit taken by.
In the long term, I wonder if we’ll just forget about all this the moment it’s over. Of course, I say this optimistically — maybe the pandemic never ends! But I think we have a great capacity for amnesia. I wonder if we will remember all these terrible lessons we had to learn, such as our responsibility for destroying the environment. I slightly suspect that when it’s over, we’ll forget all the lessons we’ve learned.
Speaking of the environment: Coronavirus can be seen as a prelude to what could be an even greater crisis — climate change. How do you think climate change will shape global culture?
What I find curious is that we’re a species obsessed with the idea of progress. And yet we have so utterly failed to examine the way in which we're going to destroy everything. I think that I think this pandemic has forced a lot of people — and I include myself in this — who were otherwise not really thinking much about climate change to sit up and look at it a little more seriously at it. But I’m not sure we’re doing it as urgently as we ought to be. There’s a new book called Decoding the World. It’s written by two biotech venture capitalists, but they talk about climate change. And one of the things that they say that really struck me as fascinating is that while bats carry thousands of viruses, since they’re the only mammals that fly they have these incredible repair mechanisms within their DNA that allow them to carry these virus loads and yet not be damaged by them. And the thing that damages their repair mechanisms is when they're put under stress, and one of the things that causes immense stress is loss of habitat. And that's something I feel we should be talking about every single day because we’ve shown we can't even handle one of those viruses. What are we going to do with the next 4,000?
So we have to think about these things really urgently. And I think literature is doing a good job of that. But I'm not sure that pop culture is, to be honest. You know, it takes days — maybe even weeks — of your life to read a book. But you watch a film in two hours. And I can't think of a great film on climate change. I can't think of a great miniseries about it or a great children's book. And it’s urgent we bring these stories out in accessible ways.