Author Interview: Ausma Zehanat Khan

By Abeer Yusef
Fair Play - Ali Kazimi

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When asked to introduce herself, Ausma Zehanat Khan is as humble as humble gets – she simply wants to be referred to as "a British-born Canadian writer of South Asian origin/ancestry, who now lives in the United States". Rather modest for a woman of many talents, chief among which are her achievements as former editor for Muslim Girl magazine – which began in 2007 giving voice to young Muslim women, as well as her background practicing immigration law in Toronto. As if that weren't enough, Ausma also holds a PhD in international human rights law specifically looking at military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans, which even led her to teaching the subject for a spell at Northwestern University.

Ausma Zehanat Khan author photo
Image: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Image Credit: Alan Klehr

These days she keeps a lower profile as the writer of a highly successful mystery fiction series, about a crime-fighting desi Canadian detective, Esa Khattak, along with his sidekick Rachel Getty, as they take upon the world figuring out high-level mysteries, often moored in real-life historical events. Their latest escapade? Ausma's latest book, A Dangerous Crossing, the fourth installation of the series which leads the pair to Greece as they get to the heart of the Syrian refugee crisis and uncover how much deeper, and darker, the human rights issues and—secrets—are.

I recently had the chance to speak with Ausma about the new book, her role as a South-Asian Muslim author grappling with multiple identities and how that informs her writing, her thoughts on the recently departed Asma Jahangir and even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Who do you write for?

At one level, I write for the broadest audience possible because I want my stories to be read. But at a more intimate level, I write for myself and for the communities I come from who don't often see themselves represented in contemporary fiction in ways that are positive or authentic.

Where did the idea for mystery fiction and Inspector Khattak come from?

I'm a lifelong fan of mystery fiction, and I love solving puzzles of any kind. With mysteries, the real puzzle is why we are compelled to undertake certain actions—the things that motivate our darkest actions interest me as a writer, and I think those actions provide a great deal of complexity to wrestle with.

With Esa, I knew I wanted to create a character who was compelling and charismatic and deeply layered, and I wanted him to be someone I knew—someone whose language and history and convictions were as familiar to me as my own. So I drew him from my own history and background, even from my own ethnicity as a Pathan, and then I began to imagine him as a person in his own right.

What compels you to write?

First, as a lifelong writer, I simply the love art of it. It's challenging, it requires discipline and imagination, and putting those skills to use is immensely rewarding for me. But at a deeper level, I write because I have something to say, and because I think communities like mine are so often spoken about, but rarely have the opportunity to speak for themselves. I view my work as a speaking up…and as a speaking back…a counter-narrative against the poison we've been forced to swallow for so long.

You wrote your first ever book, The Unquiet Dead, as a way to bear witness to the horrific crimes in Bosnia. Your academic background is also on the Balkans and international human rights law with regard to war crimes in the region. You must have come across some pretty grisly stuff in this work – how do you manage to keep writing on such difficult, complex issues which don't have conventional happy endings and can be quite difficult to stomach [even as I understand you pored through material on the Syrian refugee crisis for your latest]?

I have a background in international human rights law and I keep my reading in the field current, so the material I tackle is something I have some familiarity with, as dark as it may be. And writing about these issues through the veil of characterization does provide some distance. I write about these issues because they matter to me. I try to bear witness in some way. And I hope my audience will be moved to action, or a deeper understanding, or perhaps greater empathy and compassion, through the stories I tell. In the end though, it's important to state that it's not the witness who matters—it's those who've endured the abuses I describe.

How much research and work goes into a book? I can't imagine writing about Iran (as you did with Among the Ruins) and its complicated history is research you can accomplish with a few Google searches.

The short answer is: a lot! I read extensively about the subject first, then I do my fair share of Google searches, which usually includes looking at lots of video and photography. But I also conduct as many personal interviews with people who are informed about the subject as I can, so I can approach my story from many different angles—this can range from discussing surveillance tactics in Iran to asking what a garden in Shiraz might smell like. I like to put in six months of reading on a subject before I write about it, but sometimes, as in The Language of Secrets, the things that inform the story, are ideas and experiences I've been accumulating all my life.

At the end of each edition of the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series, you have a little section dedicated to both further reading and a clarification as to real life events, and what elements you chose to fictionalise. Why was adding that important to you?

When you're writing about human rights abuses, it is absolutely critical to be as accurate as possible, so as to not give ammunition to those who deny that crimes like these are taking place. So that's why I try to be clear about what's fact and what's fiction in my books. I also like to recommend resources that helped enlighten me because I hope they'll enlighten others.

Geographies matter a lot to you – and different places around the world feature very heavily in your work, I'm sure as a result of your own upbringing. Why did it matter to base Esa and Rachel in Toronto?

I've moved around a lot over the course of my life, and though I've loved everywhere new I've lived, I've never been able to shake that sense of longing for the places I've left behind. But Toronto is where I've lived the longest and where I was able to put down roots—in some ways it's a city that holds all those other places together—it's vibrant and beautiful and deeply multicultural and it's somewhere I always feel at home. It's that kind of city that could produce characters like Esa and Rachel—they're both comfortable in who they are, and they're just as comfortable with everyone else they meet.

Where do you derive your sense of place from?

I'm not certain I know how to answer that question. I'm shaped by a longing for the past, for histories and connections that I can't directly claim but which matter to me as part of my ancestry, my parents' journeys, my own personal faith, and my sense of belonging to many places in this world. It won't come as a surprise to anyone who's read my work that I think of borders and nationality differently than most people do. It's not easy to fit myself into a category, and I think that's true for many in this globalized world.

What I think we have in common is the experience of what things have been like for Muslims in Canada and the United States since the 9/11 attacks. Though our lives may seem undisturbed on the surface, we're absorbing that undercurrent of hostility and distrust, and in some cases, of outright hate, on a daily if not hourly basis.

What's the most frustrating critique you've received of your work? How did that shape you or form a response in you?

This was such a great question to get because usually I accept all forms of critique, and embrace it as a very natural part of my work. But as I struggle to articulate the worlds contained in my books, I occasionally hear the criticism that "this isn't how people speak" or "this use of language isn't consistent throughout." But when you come from a background like mine, where a number of different languages are spoken in the home, and where you're raised to venerate an oral tradition that is deeply resonant and poetic, these are rhythms of speech that you actually hear all the time. So in The Language of Secrets, for example, that's the kind of speech that was very natural to put in the mouth of a character like Hassan Ashkouri. His declamations were reminiscent of Nasser's style of oratory, or in part like many of the jihadist tracts I had read for my research. So to me, that kind of critique about how I've used language speaks to a narrowness of experience that shuts these histories out.

With The Bloodprint—I wrote about a world shaped by cultural exchange where language is in the constant process of transformation. But I also shaped the language of the book with little nods to the West. Again, to me, this type of exchange is quite natural, so critiques that insist on one or the other or on narrow categories of being result in a kind of erasure that is painful to someone like me. To be fair, though, I did something a little unusual with The Bloodprint, something I did just for me—taking a word like "Farhang," for example, and tweaking it into "The Far Range"—with the same nuances of meaning shaping both.

What's a particularly compelling reaction you've received to your writing that's stuck with you?

To this day, it would be responses to The Unquiet Dead from survivors of the Bosnian genocide. I'm completely humbled when someone tells me that they thought my story was an accurate reflection of a moment of extraordinary suffering.

A particular characteristic I've noticed about Esa Khattak time and again is that he constantly looks inward, incredibly reflective and aware of how his actions are being perceived by a white majority society – the police community, government agencies, Canadians, etc – simply because he is brown, Muslim and the burden of the identity in a post 9/11 world. In fact, there are many times in the series when he has borne the brunt of it because of that precise reason. Where does this come from, and is this a reflection of you, Ausma, or something seated deeper in the conscious of contemporary Muslims living in the West?

I love that you perceived all of that in Esa because it's a difficult thing to communicate. Of course, I'm only one voice speaking up about the experiences of a diverse community, and each of our perspectives is bound to be quite different. What I think we have in common is the experience of what things have been like for Muslims in Canada and the United States since the 9/11 attacks. Though our lives may seem undisturbed on the surface, we're absorbing that undercurrent of hostility and distrust, and in some cases, of outright hate, on a daily if not hourly basis. If you track anti-Muslim hate crimes as I do, or if you watch the news or venture online, you can't escape these realities. Particularly as it's now also a deeply disturbing part of political discourse that has filtered down into our lives. So I deal with it through a process of inward reflection and outward exploration—by immersing myself in these realities and then challenging them—the same realities that Esa has to deal with for his characterization to ring true.

Your latest work, A Dangerous Crossing, is a fictionalisation of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and the things we're probably not seeing happen at the borders and beyond. How does the idea for a narrative form in your mind given that the books are always a response to a real, historical event?

For me, I think that's the point. To shed light on the things that are happening around us, in a way I believe fiction is uniquely suited to do. I always know the themes I want to write about—the more I read about a specific subject, the easier it becomes to find a story that speaks to those themes. But it is a challenge to keep my knowledge up to date while a crisis is still unfolding, and to then bring that into my story.

You don't end the book with a nice resolution to the Syrian refugee crisis, putting it in the past. I have two questions to that end – one, why didn't you put a nice pretty bow on the issue and ‘resolve' it, and second, at the time of writing the book, was there a part of you that wished that by the time the book should come out, we'd be closer to some kind of end to this horrific story?

I didn't resolve it because the crisis hasn't ended; as we're seeing with the bombing of Ghouta this week, the war is only getting worse. Assad and Putin are committing war crimes on an indescribable scale, in full view of the international community, and they're doing so with impunity. It would have been fundamentally unjust to describe any form of resolution in A Dangerous Crossing, when these are the facts on the ground. Of course, I desperately wish for an end to the mass murder and displacement of the Syrian people, but as I write in the Author's Note in the book, any solution that leaves Assad in power, is no long-term solution at all.

Assad and Putin are committing war crimes on an indescribable scale, in full view of the international community, and they're doing so with impunity.

You wrote an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail, not long after the US elections about the need for Muslim writers to rehumanise themselves, to come together and tackle Othering, and the keen responsibility you personally feel to essay the reality of Muslims, not to essentialise them and put them into tiny little boxes – especially as some of your readers claim you're the only Muslim they've ever come across. Why is it your burden and responsibility to bear to show Muslims as humans deserving of humanity [and not of those who choose to see us that way, to try and educate themselves]?

I hope I didn't speak for others, and only for myself, but yes, definitely this is a task I'm engaged in, and that I'm finding necessary given our current realities. I would love it if it wasn't necessary, but if I didn't speak up against the injustices of the world, if I didn't engage with the issues that affect not only my life but the lives of others, I wouldn't be living out my values. That's at a personal level. At a societal or political level, this constant negative rhetoric about Muslims and Islam isn't happenstance or accidental: it's deliberate, it's well-funded, it's following a trajectory, and there's an endgame in mind. So as a matter of protecting my own civil rights, it's vital that I engage, and do my part to fight back. If others take the trouble to educate themselves in the process, I count that as a blessing.

In the opinion piece you talked about the impact of the elections and the subsequent rise of even more racism and xenophobia. I'd like to know – how did you deal with it personally, and how did you recover from initially receiving the news that Americans decided to vote in favour of something so heart-breaking?

The most important thing for me was to be well-informed about specific changes in legislation or policy, and to monitor the types and numbers of hate crimes that are taking place. Secondly, I increased my number of speaking engagements so that I could use the platform I have, to speak back to many of these issues. I think I was most shocked by the knowledge that the county I live in voted overwhelmingly for what the current administration represents. So I finalized my citizenship application and registered to vote. I know everyone is feeling dispirited and anxious and worn down by the impact of this administration's policies, but I hope we're also feeling energized and committed to making a change.

As I'm sure you know, Asma Jahangir, a champion of the people and a hero to many who didn't have their own voice, recently passed. Who are some heroes you have admired that we should know about?

Asma Jahangir was one of my heroes, as well. What an immensely courageous woman she was, and I hope her legacy will be that her work in Pakistan will be taken up by new generations. But in addition to Asma, Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Laureate from Iran is a human rights lawyer and one of my heroes. Malala Yousafzai is one of my heroes, for everything she does on behalf of the education of girls, and for her rare courage in facing down the Taliban. And I also tremendously admired Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and activist who was assassinated, and who so courageously took on Russia's abuses in Chechnya. I have many people I look up to who work in the fields of journalism and human rights.

Esa I understand is modelled on the men in your family – looks like your brother, behaves to a degree as your father. Why did you choose to make the protagonist a man? Why not a crime-fighting badass female Muslim detective with a male sidekick?

I always wanted to write a handsome, brooding detective, so Esa announced himself to me as someone who could carry on that tradition in a rather unexpected way—by which I mean it's rare to find someone like Esa in the genre, rarer still that he should be presented as someone who is principled or likable or desirable. And Esa's life is filled with strong, dynamic Muslim women, so I think that balances him out.

Do you feel a burden to represent Esa in a particular way when writing him because of who's reading about him – and to show Muslims in a positive, ‘moderate', ‘good' light? Are there aspects of his personality you've struggled to write for fear of a non-Muslim reader reading him and making an assumption about Muslims in general?

I don't view writing any of my characters as a burden—I really love writing them, and uncovering their depths, but of course I do take extra care with Esa. I do this because for the audience who engages with him, he's carrying the entire weight of a hostile discourse about Muslims on his shoulders, and I know that all his actions are interpreted in that light. That's why it's so critical for me to go deep into his interiority and let himself speak for himself just as the very personable, dynamic, compassionate man he is.

In writing Esa as I've written him, I'm also speaking up against the way Muslim men are portrayed in popular culture: as if they're without humour, or compassion, or the ability to love and respect the women in their lives. These are the kinds of assumptions that infuriate me—they're incredibly facile and demeaning and bigoted, and they erase the experiences of entire communities as if we can't speak for ourselves. So with Esa, I was trying to write a man who reflects the men I see around me, the men who've been such a fundamental part of my life, and I wanted to put the power of his decency in his hands.

In writing Esa as I've written him, I'm also speaking up against the way Muslim men are portrayed in popular culture: as if they're without humour, or compassion, or the ability to love and respect the women in their lives. These are the kinds of assumptions that infuriate me—they're incredibly facile and demeaning and bigoted, and they erase the experiences of entire communities

I have to be honest, your work and the way you write has had a deep impact on me – growing up South Asian in different parts of the world with an avid interest in reading, I never imagined I'd ever get to read a book with a Muslim crime-fighting protagonist who quotes Faiz Ahmed Faiz, or a book that has references to Fazail-e-Amaal. How do you manage to fuse poetry, music and all these beautiful complications together for a reader who may or may not be exposed to these parts of our identity?

Thank you so much for that! I hadn't seen a character like Esa either, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write him, and to flesh out all those things in his history and background that shape him into who he is. I think identity is complex and layered and rich, and particularly so in his case. As one inheritor of the infinite beauty of the Islamic civilization and its incredibly rich expression over time, I've been absorbing these different influences all my life, and in the end I made a gift of them to Esa.

What's next for Esa?

Next, Esa and Rachel will be asked to lend their support to an investigation into a mosque shooting in Quebec. The books have been heading to this climax: what is the inevitable climax of such deliberately cultivated hate? And what will two characters like Esa and Rachel do when confronted with the deadliest possible expression of this hate? Like all my books, this one is about identity and belonging, privilege and exclusion.

You know a lot of languages – are you ever frustrated when you try to bring some prose from Urdu or Arabic into English, only to find that the emotion or translation doesn't exist? How do you go around that?

Truthfully, I'm not really wholly fluent in any language except English. My next best language is Urdu, with very minor sprinklings of Punjabi and Farsi and Pashto, and like most people of South Asian background, I read classical Arabic fluently and recognize the Arabic words that appear in the Urdu language. But I always find that there are certain words and expressions that can't be expressed with entirely the same meaning in a different language. For example, in A Dangerous Crossing, I refer to the Urdu word "judai". I translated it as "separation", but that really doesn't capture it, does it? I think I find these slippages—or absences—more magical than frustrating—and I love the cross-pollination of languages, and the way that the same word can take on a new meaning in another tongue. My husband speaks Farsi, so I sometimes discover that a Persian word we use commonly in Urdu has been abandoned as a classical or outdated word in Farsi. And that is fascinating—and beautiful in its own right.

You've grown up in so many parts of the world, with such a rich diversity of experiences and backgrounds. Was that ever difficult to deal with as a young person growing up? How has that figured in your writing?

You may have noticed that a vein of sadness permeates my work, and though I love to explore new places, I've always been a little sad about everything I've left behind. But I wouldn't change any of those experiences because I think they made me more resilient, more open to the world, and they forced me to think about identity in more complex and challenging ways. Moving around wasn't difficult to face when I was young because I have three siblings who were transported right along with me as my instant best friends. They were and are my home. But that sense of impermanence that comes from moving so much also factors into Esa's life, and he too suffers from a penchant for nostalgia.

Let's talk failure. You're the very definition of success – producing magical books, it seems out of thin air, having the series being optioned as a TV series, another coming out shortly for young readers on Ramadhan and many more wonderful things I'm sure. How has failure shaped you as a writer, and perhaps as a person?

That's so kind of you to say, but believe me, it's not out of thin air, these books are produced by periods of intense struggle. I try a lot of things that don't work, and even the things I succeed at, I sometimes look back at and second-guess. I've had manuscripts and stories rejected, and I've wandered down some blind alleys in my career. Failure hurts and it can be debilitating, but it can also deepen your empathy for others, and that's something that's at the heart of all my books.

What are five books that should be essential reading for everyone?

Hmmm. I don't think any book is essential for everyone—we read what speaks to each of us individually, I find. But books that I particularly love are:

Samarkand – Amin Maalouf

Bel Canto – Ann Patchett

Dreams of Trespass – Fatima Mernissi

Memory for Forgetfulness – Mahmoud Darwish

Anita and Me – Meera Syal

What's your favourite word?

Serendipity. It seems to govern my life.

Abeer Yusuf
Abeer Yusuf is a journalist, media professional, writer, avid book-reader and interested in all things coloured yellow.
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