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Storytelling & Social Justice, Ausma Zehanat Khan

Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of the award-winning Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty mystery series, which begins with The Unquiet Dead, as well as the author of the critically acclaimed Khorasan Archives fantasy series. Her new crime series featuring Detective Inaya Rahman debuts with Blackwater Falls this November. Khan is also a contributor to the anthologies Private Investigations, Sword Stone Table, and The Perfect Crime, and the former Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine.

We talk to Ausma about writing literary fiction, social justice, belonging and cultural heritage.

Who do you write for and what compels you to write?

First, I write for myself on themes and subjects that I find interesting largely because I believe I have something to say, and what I have to say comes out shaped as these different stories. Secondly, I write for the communities I come from and to some small degree represent, as one of many voices. I write for South Asians, for members of the Muslim ummah, for people who share my background and heritage, but I also want to be read by the widest audience possible so that my stories can reach people and enhance our capacity for mutual understanding and compassion. I’m compelled to write by my fierce interest in human rights, in Islam and Islamic history, and by my sense that as a devout Muslim woman from a heritage that encompasses both the East and the West, however you choose to define those terms, my voice is unique and the insights I have to offer through my novels are part of my commitment to justice.

Do you find that your academic and legal background helped prepare you for writing fiction? Have you always been interested in writing fiction?

I’ve been a lifelong reader and writer of fiction, and I was always dedicated to the written word, both with fiction and nonfiction. I’ve written every type of fiction, I experimented with novels as far back as my early teens, and I think that process of working through poems, plays, short stories, songs, journal articles, newspaper articles, even musicals, was all part of the process of learning how to write effectively. That translated well to my legal career and vice versa. Both involve serious amounts of writing and reading, and both train you to look for a narrative thread, to put a story or a puzzle together persuasively. I think what’s influenced my writing most, apart from my parents’ teachings about the Qur’an and Islamic history, is the fact that I studied human rights law. Those are the kinds of issues that keep me deeply invested and greatly influenced my Khattak/Getty crime series, where each of the five novels in the series, plus the novella, A Death in Sarajevo, are effectively human rights stories. I’ve always been a passionate advocate for our common humanity, but in writing novels I learned a different form of advocacy.

The subject of your Ph.D. dissertation was the primary inspiration for your book Unquiet Dead. Can you tell us more about that?

My Ph.D. dissertation was also titled The Unquiet Dead, and it was a dissertation about military intervention for human protection purposes, under right authority and with right intention, with the fall of Srebrenica as my major case study. It was essentially a dissertation about how and when we enforce international human rights norms, with an emphasis on how those norms influenced the two interventions (peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention) during the Bosnian genocide. I was a young activist in law school when that genocide was taking place, when stories about concentration camps and rape camps that targeted Bosnian Muslims emerged—horrific stories that we all felt powerless to impact, except by raising awareness. It was excruciatingly painful to go through survivor testimony after the Srebrenica massacre took place. It made me question the entire international human rights regime, when war criminals act with impunity and that impunity continues to breed violence and instability. Look at the Balkans today—twenty-five years of genocide denialism has resulted in a denialist mayor of Srebrenica. When crimes of such magnitude, as we see in Syria today, go unpunished or undeterred, we simply lay the groundwork for the cycle to repeat. You can see this is a subject I never tire of.

Thus, many years later, I took the research I did alone in quiet libraries, going through Security Council statements that weren’t on the Internet yet, and I realized that I had more I wanted to say beyond the argument I made in my dissertation. I wanted to write characters based on survivor testimony who could intimately reflect what it means to be dehumanized to such an extent. And I felt that there were very tangible connections between hate-fueled propaganda in the former Yugoslavia and entrenched Islamophobia in Europe and America today. I thought The Unquiet Dead could be an intimate, human novel that attempted to grapple with these questions.

How long did it take you to write your first book?

In terms of educating myself and reflecting on the theme of justice, most of my adult life was preparation for writing The Unquiet Dead. The actual writing process was a further six months of bringing my research up to date, six months of writing, then another year of revising.

What makes your stories relatable?

Well, thank you for thinking that they are. I hope they’re relatable because they examine very human questions through the eyes of human characters with frailties of their own, including fear, resentment and self-doubt. My deeply political novels like Among the Ruins and A Dangerous Crossing try to provide many different points of view, leaving the final judgment up to the reader. Even in The Unquiet Dead, it’s up to the reader to decide if justice has been served or not. So you see this detective Esa Khattak, a South Asian Muslim trying to be good at his job, while managing a very tricky relationship with his younger sister who wants no part of his authority. Or you see my female detective, Rachel Getty, grappling with how to recognize love in her life when she comes from a home that taught her almost nothing about love. People aren’t crime-solving machines. They have weaknesses and dreams and hopes like we all do, and that’s what I think my readers most relate to.

Does your own identity influence your fiction?

Yes. I want to write characters from backgrounds like mine, with histories and languages and uprootedness and complexities like my own. There’s been so little of that in fiction, let alone crime fiction, that I wanted characters and stories I could relate to, where I could recognize myself. And because I see that identity as beautiful and layered and nuanced, I wanted to write stories and characters that brought that beauty to life—demystifying Muslims and reducing the irrational fear that so many people have about us. If you’ve ever watched shows like 24 or Homeland, or their imitators, you can see the huge gap between perception and reality, and as a community, we’ve suffered greatly from those misperceptions. So, I think of my novels as a counternarrative rooted in deeply personal knowledge and authenticity. It’s up to my readers to judge how successful I’ve been at that.

Did you have any interesting experiences where you were researching your books, or going through the publishing process?

I wrote Among the Ruins about Iran, and A Dangerous Crossing about Syria, back to back, and those two years of my life I was steeped in torture reports and survivor testimony from refugees and political prisoners, doing dozens of interviews with people affected by human rights catastrophes in the Middle East. I wasn’t myself during those two years. I was completely immersed in human misery, and it was hard to find bits of hope to grasp at—except that the realities I was writing about, the indomitable people who experienced those realities, they reminded me of a truth I’ve come to accept: there’s this remarkable intersection between human suffering and human decency. If you can’t bear the first, you need to seek out proof of the second. It puts your own life in perspective and reminds you of your responsibilities as a member of the human race.

How does your process vary when writing fantasy rather than mystery?

Because my crime novels center on human rights atrocities, my research for those novels has to be exhaustively fact-checked and thorough. To do less would be to take away from the seriousness of the subjects I write about. With fantasy, I have more freedom. I read just as much, usually about history and geography and long-dead empires, but I don’t have to make things conform to our current reality. I can take imaginative liberties in a way that’s quite freeing.

I also often say that my crime novels look outward to Muslim communities in the West, and that in many ways those novels are focused on the Western gaze. With The Khorasan Archives, I was interrogating Islamic history and tradition, through the lens of my ethnicity as a Pashtun Muslim woman, a space that made self-critique possible, and maybe even dangerous. I wasn’t worried at all about the audience who might be unfamiliar with the history and languages I drew upon in that series—I knew what I wanted to say, and I wrote for inheritors of the Islamic tradition who would understand the story at its heart.

Do you ever find yourself grieving characters once their story is complete?

All the time. The Black Khan and his general Arsalan need another book. The Assassin from The Blue Eye needs his own book, and I miss Esa and Rachel like they were my own family. I have at least three more books I would have loved to write for Esa and Rachel. I still haven’t answered the question of who has been stalking Esa throughout his distinguished career. Ah well!

Can you tell us about your latest release Blackwater Falls. What is it about?

Like so many of us, I’ve been deeply engaged by the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the nation, and by issues like the Muslim ban, and the stirring up of racial hatred against Latin Americans (Latinx) and the undocumented. The years of the Trump presidency shone a light on issues that have been simmering under the surface for years, if not decades, like police brutality and criminal justice reform. As a crime novelist, you can’t rely on the trope of “cop as good guy” – you have to question it, turn it on its head or you’re not doing your job.

At the same time, during the rise of global populism and the resurfacing of white supremacist ideologies, I witnessed amazing grassroots work being done across vulnerable communities, who were building bonds of solidarity, recognizing each other as one human family, despite our distinct experiences. So I wanted to write a crime series that reflected that hopeful, yearning, radiant spirit of solidarity—to focus on the strength of will and sacrifice needed to fight the good fight. Thematically, at least, that’s what I was after.

But first and foremost, Blackwater Falls is a series about three female investigators who deal with police corruption and police brutality as they investigate the over-policing of targeted communities. Detectives Inaya Rahman and Catalina Hernandez and civil rights attorney Areesha Adam are a powerful trio intent on police reform, if such reform is possible. And all the way through, they’re questioning who the good guys really are, and whether they even exist. It’s a series about the charged racial tensions of our times, about power and powerlessness, about womanhood and solidarity—and what justice truly means when power is never in your hands. In the first novel in the series, the three women investigate the disappearance of vulnerable girls in a town with a questionable sheriff, and the murder of a teenage refugee. I hope that long intro hooks you!

Through your writing you give voice to Muslim histories and stories, why did you choose to do this?

Being a Muslim woman is who I am and what matters most to me, so writing that reflects that reality is the most authentic and meaningful version of myself. It’s also a means of speaking back against so much disinformation, both innocent and malicious, and of insisting on space for our neglected or distorted histories. For many of us, it’s an uphill battle that takes place against a wild cacophony of prejudice, but it’s the only one that’s worthwhile, to me.

Geographies matter a lot to you – and different places around the world feature very heavily in your work. Where do you derive your sense of place from?

I think because I’ve been so uprooted, and moved so many times to so many different places, and still hold four different passports, for me, home is family. Wherever my family is, that’s my home, so my home is—by great blessing and privilege—all over the world. I also feel deeply connected to my parents’ heritage—historic ties to Afghanistan, a birthplace of India, being rooted in Pakistan after Partition, then immigrating first to England, and subsequently Canada. I myself immigrated with my husband to the United States, and I still have a pang of longing for every place I’ve left behind, no matter how briefly I lived there.

But a sense of place is something else, and I say this through the lens of the immense privilege of having the freedom and resources to travel. My parents taught me from a young age that I wasn’t just a person in this moment and at a specific place. I was connected to every other inheritor of the Islamic tradition, every member of the ummah, everyone who believed in freedom of religion, and respect for each other’s humanity. So I belong to Arabia, to Malaysia, to Turkey, to Iran—to anywhere that our tradition flourished, not just to Uttar Pradesh, India or Peshawar or Gujranwala, Pakistan. Mecca and Medina are mine, just as Jerusalem is mine. Not in the sense of raising a flag or claiming a territory, but rather in the sense of having a vocabulary of faith in common, no matter how differently that faith may be expressed. I’m not comfortable with harshly or falsely drawn borders, particularly when their main intent is to shut out or dehumanize others. That’s why my writing has quite a bit to say about nationalisms, and questions what home truly means.

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

I’m still incredibly humbled when I hear from survivors of the Bosnian genocide who tell me they found The Unquiet Dead to be an accurate reflection of a period of immense suffering.

And when young Muslim women say that I did anything at all to open the door for them—what could be more meaningful than to do something for your community, or to recognize the talents of amazing writers like Melati Lum or Nafiza Azad or Leila Sabreen or Nevien Shaabneh? I have a list that’s so long I made an Index!

What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

This is a controversial choice today, but I read Frank Herbert’s Dune first when I was thirteen. To me, it rendered the Islamic tradition magical, knowable and of vast significance. It made me feel seen, and it treated Islamic history with immense respect even as it usurped it. Craft-wise, I also learned a great deal about character development, and complexity of plot from it. Certain scenes in the novel still make me ache. And as adult, of course, I wrestle with issues of appropriation and the theme of the conquest and colonization of a desert people.

Formerly, you served as Editor in Chief of Muslim Girl magazine. This magazine re-shaped the conversation about Muslim women in North America. How did it feel creating such a revolutionary moment and did you expect it to receive the attention it did?

It was an amazing moment not just for me, but for a whole team of Muslim women writers, artists, photographers, and of course, the women we featured. The journalist Tabassum Siddiqui was our managing editor. Writers and journalists like Naheed Mustafa, Noor Javed and Aisha C. Saeed were regular contributors so it was credible to have women like that shaping and telling stories that were about Muslim girls and women in North America. Our readers and contributors were a huge part of that movement and it’s been incredibly uplifting to see the wonderful careers they’ve since gone on to make for themselves. Initially, I thought MGM would only be of interest to a niche audience, but we were received with so much enthusiasm from press around the globe, two documentaries were made on the magazine, and we also did a lot of work with girls’ organizations, interfaith groups, and libraries, schools and universities. We were groundbreaking at the time, back in 2006, but I’m very proud to say that since then Muslim women have gone on to make incredible contributions to media, the humanities and the arts.

How can storytelling develop Islamic art, heritage and culture for the future?

I have a lot of ideas. One, we need a Muslim Writers Festival that recurs annually, to help the work of Muslim writers reach a broader audience. Two, we need to develop our own studios and publishing houses or imprints and we need professionals on the other side of these industries, not just creatives, who can advocate for the worth of our stories and see that they receive the marketing budgets that will help those stories take flight. We need community grants and scholarships to develop our young talent, along with mentoring programs. We also need diverse voices at every stage of a project, as well as a plurality of perspectives to develop that heritage fully and honestly. Some of these initiatives have already taken place, but we need support from our own communities. Muslims are so generous when it comes to supporting relief efforts and the vulnerable, but we haven’t yet come to appreciate the value of endowing the arts and humanities. I’m hopeful that we’re making progress, Insha’Allah. I’m happy to include a link to the Index of Muslim Writers, which is a project developed by my niece, Summer Shaikh, and myself, that’s just beginning to flourish.

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