I love Antigone. I loved it when my performing arts school did a slightly modernized version when I was a senior. I loved it when I did a presentation on it for an English class later that year. And I love it now as I write my senior capstone on Funeral Rites in Ancient Greece. What I also love is the utterly brilliant way in which Kamila Shamsie retells the classic myth of Oedipus’ daughter in her novel Home Fire.
The core of Sophocles’ play is about what it means to be a citizen and the struggle one faces when written law and divine law contradict each other. Shamsie nails this theme through the intricacies with which she weaves her narrative, shifting from perspective to perspective. Each of Shamsie’s characters represent the main players in Antigone, but each are additionally of Muslim descent. The ways in which each of these characters relate to their Muslim identity are all very different and these feelings are closely intertwined with the character’s feelings regarding their own citizenship.
Parvaiz becoming a victim of the homegrown terrorist movement in Britain is a perfect translation for the character of Polyneices. There was no natural way in which a novel set in contemporary Britain could include the refusal of a political figure to have a body buried, but a boy who fled his own country to join terrorists and ended up desperately wishing to come home...that does not sound so incredibly unfamiliar. In today’s political climate, with stories like that of Shamima Begum--the girl who left Britain to join ISIS as a 15-year-old only to desperately try to return to the country three years later to give birth--in the news cycle, it is a tale that holds a very grim realism. The modernization of this myth is a reminder that these characters are archetypes and will constantly exist again and again throughout history. Sophocles was contending with these ideas in the 400s (BCE) and in 2019 we see the death of Shamima Begum’s infant son because she wasn’t allowed to return to Britain. How many Antigones must bury their brother before prejudices of citizenship no longer demand it?
R.O. Kwon’s decision to use the character Will as her primary narrator for her novel The Incendiaries changes the context of the novel entirely. Throughout the course of the novel, Will narrates a story that is not even his own, leaving the reader to question the legitimacy of what he is saying. How much does Will really know about what Phoebe is going through? How much of what he tells the audience is purposely misleading, how much is mistakenly inaccurate? Early on in the novel Will claims that what he tells the reader is up to his memory, saying “it’s possible these are just the details I’ve saved,” already taking the blame off of himself should any of these things he says be untrue or misrepresented.
There is something that I find historically pleasing about Kwon’s choice of narrator. How often have men been the ones to tell a woman’s story? Having this thought in the back of my mind creates a deeper meaning for me when contemplating the truth behind the things Will tells us. Will often takes Phoebe’s agency away from her in his telling, saying that she is brainwashed and is acting under the orders of a cult leader. While Phoebe is clearly a target of a cult wishing to recruit her, we still have to ask ourselves whether the events that unfold in the novel are due to choices she makes independently or under the influence of Jejah.
However, due to the possible brainwashing of Jejah, could Phoebe herself have been a more reliable narrator? It is impossible to know how credible Phoebe’s narration would truly be when what we know of her is mainly just from how Will describes her through his idealized version of her. He tells us of the Phoebe that exists in his mind, not the Phoebe that exists in the world.