Writers & Company

Fatima Bhutto on her powerful and tragic political family and the lure of extremism for the young

The Pakistani journalist and writer spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about her novel The Runaways and her family’s painful legacy.
Fatima Bhutto is a Pakistani journalist and novelist. (Pankaj Mishra)

Pakistani journalist and novelist Fatima Bhutto was born into a political dynasty haunted by tragedy. 

She is the granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister who was arrested and executed in the 1970s; and the niece of Benazir Bhutto, who twice served as prime minister before being assassinated in 2007. 

Fatima's father, Murtaza Bhutto — also a politician — was murdered in 1996 when Fatima was 14 years old, while her aunt Benazir Bhutto was in power. He is the focus of Fatima's 2010 memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, a compelling family history and moving tribute to her father, as well as an exploration of power, accountability and corruption. 

Fatima Bhutto is the author of two novels and a new book of nonfiction, New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop. Her latest novel, The Runaways, is an unflinching tale of the seductions of Islamic radicalization, revolving around three young people of South Asian origin who travel to Iraq to join an extremist organization. 

She spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about The Runaways and her family's painful legacy.

A tale of two Pakistans

"My grandfather's Pakistan was a Pakistan that had just entered into the promise of democracy, into the spring of democracy. It was a country young and full of hope, and full of awareness of the violence that it had been born into and still lived in. But it was a country engaging with its people. Of course, it got things wrong. But the possibilities were endless. Whereas the Pakistan I know, and the Pakistan I was born into, is one of dictatorship. It's one of corruption. It's one of endemic incompetence when it comes to the government. It doesn't feel like a place of endless promise or endless hope.

What is hopeful and what still has promise is the Pakistani people, who are incredibly hard working, incredibly tough. This is a country of survivors.

"What is hopeful and what still has promise is the Pakistani people, who are incredibly hard working, incredibly tough. This is a country of survivors. But the country itself feels damaged and not for any fault of its own. It's just been crippled by everyone who has mismanaged it." 

The Bhutto family — Shahnawaz, Benazir, Murtaza, Sanam, Nusrat and Zulfikar — in Northern Pakistan in one of the last family photographs taken. (Submitted by Bold Type Books)

A political legacy

"When you engage in politics in our parts of the world — I don't just mean Pakistan, I mean India, I mean Bangladesh, I mean Afghanistan — I think you do that knowing that you may be called upon to to give up everything. Your life, your family, your freedom. You do it with that duty, with that responsibility and that sacrifice in mind. 

"Until I was writing Songs of Blood and Sword, which is the story of my father's life and of his assassination, it had never really occurred to me that my father might have had a life other than politics. He was a profoundly political person, he breathed and lived politics.

When you lose somebody so violently, I think it's a natural instinct to want to change the system that killed them.

"But when I started to research his life and speak to people who knew him as a college student or a high school student, it struck me that had his family not suffered this incredible blow, had the country not been plunged into the most brutal dictatorship it's ever seen, I wonder if he might have been something different. He loved to write. He loved to read. He was very funny. And his life kind of ended as a young man. At 25, to lose your father, I think it fractures you. 

"My father adored his father. He loved his father deeply. I don't think he took his father's instruction to avenge his death as a burden. Had his father not commanded him, it might have still been in his head. I was 14 when my father was murdered, and that idea was in my mind. When you lose somebody so violently, it's a natural instinct to want to change the system that killed them."

A daughter's promise

"It was the last promise I made to my father before he was killed, just in the days before it happened. He was murdered two days after his birthday. He had just turned 42. We were sitting and talking, late at night. I was asking him different things: Do you regret your life? Are you happy with your life? He was in a somber and reflective mood. I said to him at some point, 'You have to write your autobiography. You must put this down.' And he said, 'Oh, no. You do it for me. When I'm gone. You do it when I'm gone.' That always hung there in the back of my mind, that this was something I had to do for my father.

If I had been silent, then that sends a message: that you can do what you like. Because of fear, we won't say anything.

"It was something that bothered me because I was afraid to do it. I didn't want to do it wrong. I wanted to do it justice. But I never felt that I was ready. Then the day came where my aunt had been killed, in 2007, and her husband looked like he was going to come into power. I understood that if that happened, they were going to erase things. I knew if I didn't get this material now, I'd never get it. It would be gone. And so I had no choice. I had to start the book.

"I think it would have been more dangerous to be quiet. If I had been silent, then that sends a message: that you can do what you like. Because of fear, we won't say anything. It just wasn't an option." 

The Other Bhutto

The National

12 years agoVideo
Fatima Bhutto is part of Pakistan's political dynasty, but the outspoken columnist's criticism of the government has put her at odds with them and others 6:53

A father's gift

"He was a teacher, he was a guide and he was a friend. He raised me with this sense of fun, even as we were in exile, even as the world around us was dangerous. I was three when my uncle was killed and I knew that anything could happen to you at any point. My father insisted on joy and on celebration and on learning and on togetherness. I think it's the only way I've survived until now. My father gave me a vision for the world that was beautiful. 

"He raised me to be questioning, to be confident of the right to question, to look for hidden things and also to believe that I had a right to a voice, which is not something girls are told very often — anywhere. I am eternally grateful to him for those gifts.

My father gave me a vision for the world that was beautiful.

"I wouldn't be a writer if it wasn't for my father. I wouldn't have the confidence to do any of what is required to be a writer had it not been for my father.

"My life has taught me to be open. When you live through the things that I've lived through, it's exhausting to carry around anger and bitterness. Of course, one is human, so one does carry it for a little while. But I'm always happy to put that down. I prefer to see life for its joyous possibilities, for its possibilities of communion and compassion and friendship."

Fatima Bhutto with her father when she was a young girl. (Submitted by Bold Type Books)

Hope for the future

"I am always impressed and heartened by how I see young people responding to the world we live in. One of the things that causes me great pride and hope for Pakistan is the fact that we are not a generation of Pakistanis that believes the fantasy of nationalism. We are critical of what we need to be critical about. We are not living lives of comfort in a fantasy. I think a lot of people around the world buy the fantasy, they take the pill and they believe what their governments tell them they are. 

We're well prepared as Pakistanis for this moment because we question everything.

"Pakistanis don't believe that. We know there's so much to question and there is much to confront. I think that's a very brave thing. I think it's a necessary thing to be critical, especially in the time we live in, where there's so much ugliness and so many lies. We're well prepared as Pakistanis for this moment because we question everything."

Fatima Bhutto's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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