interviews / Q&A's

Ausma Zehanat Khan: The Literary Lounge Q&A



Today, we’re delighted to welcome to the Literary Lounge acclaimed writer AUSMA ZEHANAT KHAN, creator of the award-winning Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty series. Ausma holds a doctorate in international human rights law and each book highlights a different global human rights issue. No Place of Refuge, the fourth book featuring this Toronto-based duo, is published by No Exit Press in the UK. It deals with the Syrian refugee crisis. In addition, Ausma has also penned a fantasy series, the Khorasan Archives.


LS: Welcome Ausma, thanks so much for spending time with us today.

You have a background in human rights law and you were an adjunct law professor, what made you start writing? Is it something you have always done? If so, who were your influences?

AZK:   Thank you so much for having me, and asking me such fascinating and challenging questions! To begin with, I’ve been writing in some form or another since I was a child. I was particularly interested in journalism, and for two years I was the editor of my high school paper, as well as contributing articles to the local paper before I went on to found a literary journal at my school. And then throughout my life, I’ve been writing news articles, plays, poems, songs, short stories, nonfiction essays and abandoned novels. Writing is a compulsion for me, partly because I was a child who loved to read who then grew into an adult who loves to read. Storytelling has always seemed magical to me.

In crime writing, I’ve long been an admirer of Ngaio Marsh, Elizabeth George, Reginald Hill, and Louise Penny, just to name a few. But in general fiction, I read more diversely and have been influenced by writers like Amin Maalouf (a master storyteller who leaves me in awe), Assia Djebar, Mahmoud Darwish, Meera Syal, Arundhati Roy, and many others.


LS: You were the editor of Muslim Girl. What did you hope to achieve? And did you?

AZK: I was concurrently teaching law as an adjunct professor, while helming the magazine for a while, but essentially working with the thoughtful, generous and creative team behind Muslim Girl was a life-changing opportunity—one that was too good to pass up. One, it gave me a chance to return to writing in a professional capacity. And two, it was the chance to tell stories about the lived realities of Muslim women and girls in North America, in our own voices, from our own perspectives. To be able to highlight the incredible diversity and pluralism of North American Muslim communities was such a privilege, and such a hope-filled experience. Our communities are so often spoken for, with such damaging stereotypes projected onto Muslim women and girls in particular, that it gave me an incredible sense of freedom to deconstruct those stereotypes simply by sharing our authentic experiences. Mainly, the magazine was designed to celebrate and inspire girls from our communities. But it was also a speaking back … a speaking up. And we were able to include serious human rights issues as part of the magazine’s focus. But I want to stress that this was a team effort, led by an amazing publishing company, with nearly all our stories written by Muslim women journalists, and with several features written by Muslim girls. I wish that the magazine was still in publication today because in a climate that’s proved quite hostile to Muslim identity, we need it more than ever.

LS: That’s so true.


LS: Your books, in particular the Khattak–Getty series, deal with very weighty and, some might say, controversial subjects, such as refugees, identity, human rights abuses, terrorism, misogyny, Islamophobia, genocide – subjects that many others steer well clear of. Was this the plan from the beginning? Do you think that many of the more negative problems we are facing today are based on people’s ignorance?

AZK: Yes, I did know that I wanted to continue the work I’ve been doing through other channels, and that I wanted my books to be about subjects that matter to me. I wanted to utilize my background in human rights to write about issues that I think many of us remain unaware of, or perhaps only read about through a single dehumanizing lens.

Fiction can provide a unique entry point to issues that might otherwise seem too overwhelming to grasp—some human rights crises are so weighty that you find yourself numbed by the sheer scale of them, wondering how you can possibly engage. For me, the way to do that has been through writing these deeply personal, very human stories about characters that I hope my readers come to care for. I think at the person-to-person level, our capacity for empathy is infinite. And I can’t tell you how often readers of my stories have written me to say that they simply didn’t know about the scale of the Bosnian genocide, or the terrible dangers faced by Syrian refugees. I don’t try to make up anyone’s mind—my characters offer a range of perspectives on these issues, and then it’s up to my readers to decide what they’ll take away from my books. But on the whole, the response has left me very hopeful.


LS: Your books and characters have very detailed back stories. How much research do you have to do before you start?

AZK: I prefer to do extensive research upfront. Not as much on the characters, because I’ve been thinking about Esa and Rachel for a long time, and they somehow came into their own in my mind. By the time I wrote the first book, I knew who they were, though they continue to grow in ways that often surprise or delight me.

So my research focuses mainly on the themes or issues I want to write about, and in the course of that research I’ll find all these smaller incidents that suggest what the story should include—voices I want to highlight, intriguing facts I’d never come across before. For a book like No Place of Refuge, I did six months of very focused research on the war in Syria and the Syrian refugee crisis, though I’ve been following human rights reporting on Syria for years. I initially thought I would be writing only about the refugee crisis, but I quickly realized the crisis was inseparable from the human rights atrocities carried out by the Assad regime. So from that intensive period of research, the arc of the story became very clear. The next part of my process is to write a very detailed running scene outline, and then write according to that outline, though there are always diversions and new tangents that I want to follow. And sometimes Esa and Rachel simply refuse to cooperate with my plans.


LS: The Khattak–Getty books are called mysteries on their jackets. This seems quite a soft-focus description for what are essentially hard-hitting books, dealing with complicated subjects. Is this how you would describe them?

AZK:Each of the books is definitely a mystery at its core: someone gets killed, there’s a variety of clues, a range of suspects, and some measure of justice allotted at the end, though in each book what justice looks like is quite different. But I think crime fiction in general is moving beyond the structure I’ve just outlined. Whatever sub-genre crime writers write in, many of them are thinking globally or are concerned with serious social justice issues at a local level. And crime novels now are often very character-driven rather than only plot-driven. So if I had to describe what I’m doing in particular, I would call my books crime novels with a human rights focus.


LS: Esa Khattak is in many ways a true Renaissance man, is he inspired by anyone you know? Did you ever consider making him female?

AZK:I did not consider making Esa Khattak a woman at any point, primarily because I wanted to write a handsome brooding detective in line with all the troubled detectives I’ve been drawn to in fiction. I thought to myself—there’s a reason why this trope is so popular! But on a more serious note, Esa is a Canadian Muslim of South Asian background, born and raised in the West. His parents are from Pakistan, and they’re ethnic Pashtuns/Pathans. So that part of him is closely aligned to my own background because I wanted to reflect the men I know and the communities I’ve grown up in as something I recognize as authentic, compared to how someone like Esa is typically portrayed in popular culture. The Muslim male of contemporary political discourse and popular culture is a reviled and often demonized figure. That’s something that hurts me deeply at a personal level because it flies in the face of everything I know to be true. So I wrote this character who looks quite a bit like my brothers, whose quiet dignity and pride are reminiscent of my father, and whose values drive him to act in honourable and ethical ways that are deeply familiar to me from the communities I was raised in—and from the life I’ve lived with my husband. Esa’s language skills, his love of poetry and literature all come from my own very literary family.


LS: Esa is a man of faith and starts off seemingly very certain of that faith. The subsequent books seem to challenge some of his viewpoints and make him question himself and his relationship to certain aspects of Islam. How much are his views based on your own, if at all? How has he evolved as a character?

AZK: I’d say that Esa’s views reflect a balance I’ve drawn between myself and who Esa has evolved to be on his own merits. Esa is not at all dogmatic about faith, and neither am I. He is open to the world, to other points of view, and he has an instinctive appreciation of diversity. I was a Pakistani kid who was born in England, and who then grew up on the Canadian prairies. One of the first things I learned on the prairies was that diversity was not only tolerated, it was welcomed. That gave me a very secure sense of myself that Esa shares, further influenced by the fact that Esa is exactly the kind of man that a multicultural city like Toronto (where I later spent a significant part of my life) would produce.

Regarding Esa’s uncertainty about his faith as he evolves as a character, I think all people of faith have doubts, especially when they’re forced to confront the evils of this world. And narratively, that’s rich material for me to force Esa to confront. To see whether the foundations of who he is can be shaken—and what it would take to shake them. When confronting the extremities of the Syrian refugee crisis, I think it only makes Esa human to demand of a God he believes in, “How could you let this happen?”

I’ve always believed that there is no such thing as perfection or purity in faith. So Esa strives to live a life without internal contradictions, and quite simply he fails, because that’s not true of any of us. We all have our intriguing inconsistencies and personal failings, and what I’m trying to do with Esa is make him accept that, and to be as forgiving with himself as he is with others. Having said that, Esa’s identity is very much grounded in his faith, and it’s quite clear that he derives his ethical compass from it—which is another way of speaking back.


LS: Rachel provides a great counterbalance to Esa. It almost seems as if the more uncertain he becomes, the more Rachel’s identity as a woman and as a police officer emerges. Do you inform Rachel’s character at all? Did you ever consider making her Muslim, too?

AZK: I think Rachel is quite different from me. I come from a large, loving family where there’s no such thing as privacy, and where you’re never left on your own to falter and fail. Poor Rachel has it much harder than I do. She’s a character I love to write because she’s so complicated and comes from such a dysfunctional family background, yet her defining characteristic is her capacity for empathy. It’s immensely rewarding to write a character like Rachel—who is so competent at her job, yet so hampered by uncertainty and awkwardness when it comes to her personal interactions. At the beginning of the series, she lacked confidence in herself, and was suspicious and mistrustful of her colleagues—particularly of Esa. She was prickly and defensive, but through the course of this carefully evolving partnership with Esa, which is defined by mutual respect and sensitivity—she’s come into her own. Just as she’s given Esa support when he needed it, she’s gained strength herself. And like Esa, she’s learned to be kinder to herself, to not judge herself harshly for failings that her family has projected onto her.

I enjoy grounding Rachel in her Canadianness, where hockey is part of the national ethos. I don’t play hockey myself (though I love ice skating), but some of my nephews and nieces do, so I had access to some great resources when it came to forming Rachel’s enthusiasms.

I also wanted her to serve as a foil to Esa—to be as different from him as possible in terms of her identity, her social class, family background, and so on. She acts almost as an interpreter of Esa for an audience who may not be familiar with a man of his background. And yet, Rachel is also just herself—insistent on her reality as a separate character.


LS: Poetry is prominent in the books, particularly the early ones. What made you decide on the poets that you have?  Did you include them to give your readers a greater understanding of the historic importance, depth and beauty of Islamic culture? As an alternative to the stereotypes so often depicted by the right-wing and mainstream press?

AZK: I’m afraid this answer is going to be quite long because these questions are complex! When I was quite young, my parents used to host poetry evenings called “mushairahs”, where poets of some fame would be invited to our home to recite poetry to the vibrant and enthusiastic reception of their audience. These evenings seemed magical to me—they had their own rituals in which everyone participated, and they would go on until the early hours of the morning. The idea that the written word was such a source of celebration, and that poets were to be honoured made a lasting impression on me, even when I didn’t have the language skills or the sophistication to appreciate the poetry itself.

Poetry was also an integral part of the different Muslim communities I interacted with. I’ve never met a Pakistani, Arab or Iranian of my parents’ generation, for example, who cannot quote copious amounts of Urdu, Arabic or Persian poetry from memory. My father had a proverb for every occasion, and an excellent memory for attributing the source. So the poets that I was exposed to an early age made a significant impression on me—almost more for the sense of community and belonging they inspired than for the actual poetry. And then later I began to read poetry in translation, and was particularly moved by poetry that connected me to the ummah—the global Muslim community. I recognized myself in those poems. So I chose some of the poetry in my books to honour my own roots, and I chose some of it because it connects me to the Islamic civilization, which is at its heart, a civilization of the word.

That part of my storytelling is essentially an expression of self. But it’s also true that my writing serves as a counterpoint to the ugliness projected onto my heritage—whether it’s by right-wing media that openly demonizes my community, or mainstream media that frequently falls into the traps of Orientalism, or by internal fringe elements who promote a culture of ugliness. So much of what constitutes the conventional wisdom about the Islamic and/or Arab worlds is filtered through individuals who don’t speak any of the regional languages, who have rarely if ever visited these parts of the world, and who are strikingly unaware of the cultural production of the people of these regions. I asked myself why these voices should speak for me or for the communities I come from when nearly everything they project onto me reveals their contempt and ignorance? So through the course of my work, I try to undo the damage that continues to be done—the damage that provides such fertile ground for misunderstanding and hate.

If you will indulge me, I’m going to be quite specific about what I’ve done. In The Unquiet Dead, I highlight the era of co-existence between Christians, Muslims and Jews in Andalusia, and the cultural production of ringsongs in Hebrew, Arabic and Romance, with particular reference to The Neck Ring of the Dove. And I link the period of co-existence known as Convivencia to the era of the Bosnian enlightenment before the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In The Language of Secrets, I describe the personal costs of the destruction of Iraq from the perspective of those who experience it (which is rare), then juxtapose that with the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Agha Shahid Ali, Nazik al Malaika and of course, the great Syrian poet, Adonis. I also reference Ghassan Kanafani’s famous Palestinian novel, Men in the Sun. In Among the Ruins, I delve into the long history of Iran’s experiments with democracy, and I try to capture the significance of the social scientist Ali Shariati’s beautifully humane writing, particularly On the Plight of Oppressed People. I include the poets Rumi and Hafiz as part of the sensibility of my writing, and I resurrect the architectural glory of monuments such as the Pink Mosque of Shiraz. And finally, in No Place of Refuge, I invoke the poetry of the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani—for whom the personal and political were so intertwined as to be inseparable. His poems provided so many resonant echoes for the Syrian uprising, the fall of Aleppo and the story I tell of a country still in crisis.

The only way I know to speak back to a culture of ugliness is to draw from a culture of beauty, and I hope my work is able to reflect that.


LS: You’ve said that music is important to you and, again, it features in the books. What were you listening to when you wrote No Place of Refuge?

AZK: I tend to listen to a lot of painful piano music because it stimulates the same quality in my writing. I played Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor quite often, and also Op. 9 No. 2, though the latter is more hopeful than most of the music I listen to. Albinoni’s Adagio is a staple for every book I embark upon because I associate it with the siege of Sarajevo, which has such deep emotional resonance for me. And I listened to music played by the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, and the National Symphony such as Old Damascus and Rhapsody for Qanoun. Plus when I studied abroad in the Middle East, my friends there made me a recording of popular Arabic folk songs, and I played that frequently as well.


LS: You deal with racism and hatred head-on in your books. Do you think we live in a world in which racial hatred and targeting of the Other are now part of mainstream culture? If so, how much do you think this is a result of media manipulation or a misappropriation of information? Is your writing and its focus your way of trying to redress the balance?

AZK: To answer your first question, yes. Once racial hatred and Othering are given top-down sanction, it empowers other segments of society to follow along. Those segments—whether they’re racist groups or right-wing media or just one’s fellow citizens who may be susceptible to manipulation or misinformation—begin to feel emboldened and powerful, as if racism is a currency that can now be spent with impunity. A great deal of radicalization has taken place online, which is a sphere where hate proliferates unchecked, and that’s bled over into real life.

I don’t know if my writing can redress the sheer magnitude of what I’m seeing, but it’s important to me to record the incremental nature of hate, and to express the impact it has on targeted communities. People often wonder how an entire society fell under the sway of a fascist ideology in Nazi Germany, for example. What I’m trying to illuminate is that we don’t see the end of the road at the beginning.


LS: You are a British-born Canadian of South Asian descent who now lives in Trump’s America. Has your experience been largely positive? What informed your decision to move to the States?

AZK: I’m torn when it comes to answering this question because my experiences in the United States feel somewhat surreal. My husband and I moved here for work nearly fifteen years ago, and in the beginning, it was very much like living in Canada. I am a light-skinned South Asian woman who isn’t visibly identifiable as Muslim so I don’t experience overt racism either as a South Asian or as a Muslim. My colleagues and friends, my readers and the audiences I interact with—most of those experiences are and have been positive and hopeful for me. But at the same time, there is a pervasive undercurrent of anti-Muslim animus in American society that can’t be overlooked, and that continually seeps into my life: through my online interactions, through offensive and troubling comments made at my talks, through the experiences of members of my community or of my own family. And also in the course of comments made in my presence by people who haven’t realized that I’m the Other they despise. And all this is to say nothing of the overarching political climate.

So at a human level, there’s always reason for optimism and hope, and for feeling supported and seen. But no Muslim in the United States can remain immune to the effects of dehumanizing political rhetoric or right-wing media commentary, or of the hate they embolden.

One way that this negativity affects me is that travel is a constant source of tension for me, and it feels as though much of my identity has been suppressed or minimized to allow me to navigate my environment with less difficulty. But when I consider the horrors that Latin communities in the US are facing on the same issues of identity, mobility and belonging, it becomes clear what a relatively privileged position I occupy. And that’s what I’m trying to write about—this weight that can’t be quantified, this sense of suppression and struggle, and marginalization and division, and of just being outside. So I hope my books will help foster a deeper understanding and a deeper sense of empathy not just for my community, but for all vulnerable communities.


LS: You also write fantasy and your Khorasan Archives’ novels have been extremely well received. Many of the themes are similar to those in focused on in your crime books. Does fantasy give you more freedom as a writer to explore these issues? What is its attraction as a genre for you?

AZK: Thank you so much for these kind words! I’ve been a lifelong reader of science fiction and fantasy, and the genre has always captivated me. But I look at my crime novels and fantasy novels almost as opposites: the crime novels look outward to explore tensions between different communities in the West. My fantasy novels are inspired by Islamic history and the richly plural cultures of Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. Writing the Khorasan Archives was a chance for me to look inward, to be self-critical and more reflective about my origins. It gave me the opportunity to examine the different threads that connect me to the monumental achievements of a civilization that now seems mired in crisis and decline. By delving into my cultural and religious heritage, I was able to interrogate some of the reasons for that crisis and decline—while hopefully writing a series rich in historical and cultural detail, derived from worlds we’re only beginning to see in fantasy.

My crime and fantasy series have two things in common though: they both focus on the violation of human rights, and they both affirm pluralism and diversity in a world that insists on the opposite.


LS: How does your writing fit in with your other work/interests?

AZK: I have a structured routine, which I need, because I have so many other calls on my time. When I’m not in a research phase, I write five days a week, Monday to Friday, roughly from 10 am to 5 pm. The time that’s left over is divided between community work, family commitments, and book promotion and publicity, plus the urgent need to stay up-to-date on reading in my field. I usually write in my home office, but lately I’ve taken to working at the public library to limit the number of distractions I face. When I’m on deadline, I also have to give up my weekends, which are usually devoted to family, and to gaining the space to think new thoughts and imagine new books. I can also write anywhere at any time if something comes to me.


LS: What are you working on at the moment?

AZK: I’m currently working on the manuscript for the final book in the Khorasan Archives series, which is due in October. (Yes, pray for me!) I’m hoping the future holds the opportunity to branch out and try new things. I’ve begun to flesh out several projects: a standalone crime novel, a collection of nonfiction essays, a work of literary fiction about our current times, and possibly a deeper dive into the world of the Khorasan Archives. And a long-standing dream of mine is to write a novel that explores the grave human rights situation in Kashmir. Beyond that, I’m interested in venturing into film and tv, particularly when it comes to Esa and Rachel, but let’s see what the future brings.


LS: Thank you so much, Ausma. It’s been a pleasure.

We wish you every success with all of your books, particularly No Place of Refuge.


No Place of Refuge | Ausma Zehanat Khan | paperback original | No Exit | £8.99 | 22 August 2019

See also: Review to come

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Music: To hear Chopin’s Nocturnes; Albioni’s beautiful Adagio; Rhapsody for Qanoun

Acknowledgements:  Many thanks to the author for such thoughtful answers. Photo by Eftekhar Hashemi: Ausma Zehanat Khan at Ben McNally Bookstore, Toronto, The Unquiet Dead launch. Thank you also to Anne Cater, as always, and to the publisher for sending a review copy and jacket image.


Also of interest:By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Yvonne Battle-Fenton’s Rememembered‘;‘Permission by Saskia Vogel‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, Dialogue’s brilliant debut; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’;RW Kwon’s The Incendiaries’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir‘; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).


Select Q&As/interviews: ‘Mary Balogh‘; ‘Louise Voss’; ‘Lilja Sigurðardóttir’; ’Tom Cox’; ‘Vanda Symon; ‘Gunnar Staalesen’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist

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