July 01, 2016

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Making hard questions personal and familiar

Interview by
Ausma Zehanat Khan follows up last year's debut, The Unquiet Dead, with the story of another charged case for Detective Esa Khattak and his partner, Rachel Getty, to investigate. We spoke with Khan about The Language of Secrets, a stunning tale of terrorism, Islamophobia and “Us vs. Them” in Canada.
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Once again you focus your crime fiction on events in the news that concern Muslims worldwide—this time, present-day Islamophobia and the war on terrorism. In what ways does the novel medium allow for you to best explore these issues?
I think the value of using the novel as a medium to write about jihadism and Islamophobia is that it allowed me to explore all points of view without judgment. I was attempting to tell this story with more nuance than the typically black-and-white constructions of “Us vs. Them” that we often see.

In these constructions, “we” are always superior and on the side of right, while “their” actions are brutally senseless. But when you’re writing a novel and creating characters who have these different sides to them, it allows for the humanization of those whose humanity we aren’t prepared to accept. And it also allows for an examination of a problem that’s occupied me a great deal of late, which is guilt by association. With a character like Esa Khattak, how dogmatically can one cling to the idea that Islam and terrorism are synonymous? Everything about Esa flies in the face of that. So in a way, the novel form allows us to examine our judgments and preconceptions.

“When you’re writing a novel and creating characters who have these different sides to them, it allows for the humanization of those whose humanity we aren’t prepared to accept.”

One element of the story is based on the foiled 2006 plot to blow up Canadian Parliament. Why did you decide to reference this real event?
When the news of the plot became public, it was painful to realize that jihadist ideology could be exported anywhere. There are disenfranchised individuals vulnerable to ideological predators even in places as welcoming and inclusive as Toronto. I wanted to explore how individuals could arrive at a place where they would accept violence in the name of faith, given those circumstances. What were they running from or to, and did they really see salvation in it? Putting Esa Khattak in charge of the investigation was a way of making those questions personal and familiar.

What do you admire most about Esa Khattak? About Rachel Getty?
I admire Esa for being a man who knows who he is and what he stands for, without believing himself superior to anyone else. He’s open to the world, and he finds beauty and value in diversity—he’s willing to question himself, and he confesses his doubts without shame. People who think in ideologically rigid terms are either terrifying or deadly dull—Esa is neither: His faith has taught him to reserve judgment in pursuit of a deeper understanding.

With Rachel, I admire her compassion, and her confidence in her skills as a police officer. She’s a flawed person, but she’s grown from the challenges she’s faced, and she has a great deal of natural courage because of her compassion. The idea that only hard, cold logic can lead you to the truth is absolutely foreign to Rachel, who tends to lead with her heart, and I think that’s what makes her interesting as a character.

What was most personal about this novel for you? What was the furthest away from yourself?
The first few pages of Chapter 15 describe Esa’s thoughts as he wrestles with the question of what it means to be Muslim in a world that’s largely hostile to Muslim identity. That’s very personal to me, particularly in the years since the September 11th attacks, where we’re consistently seeing political debates framed in terms of “Islam vs. the West.” As a Muslim born and raised in the West, and of the West, I find identity has become increasingly difficult to navigate. I often hear my entire community described in terms that are nightmarishly exaggerated and untrue. I was able to have Esa reflect on that, and search for his footing from firsthand knowledge.

Furthest away from myself? The family relationships for both Esa and Rachel are quite dysfunctional, whereas I come from a large, close-knit family where my siblings are my closest friends in the world, and my parents are my enduring role models. We’re always in each other’s business, and I’ve come to the conclusion we like it that way.

What mysteries and thrillers do you think everyone must read?
For psychological suspense and incredibly impressive plot construction, Reginald Hill’s pair of novels: Dialogues of the Dead and Death’s Jest-Book. For unvarnished kindness and fantastic immersion in the history of Quebec, Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead. For place and atmosphere, Peter May’s The Blackhouse, is a heartbreaking book set in the Scottish Hebrides. And for a series that steadily probes, ponders and grows, anything in the Duncan Kincaid-Gemma James series by Deborah Crombie, though Dreaming of the Bones is an old and dear favorite. For a character I wish was my best friend, Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce who stars in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

What do you love most about writing thrillers?
The chance to tell stories that don’t often see the light of day. My books are centered around contemporary human rights issues. To have the opportunity to shape suspenseful stories where the reader has to know what’s coming next, in the context of these issues, is a great gift.

What’s next?
I’m currently at work on my third Khattak-Getty novel which is partially set in Iran, and centers on the story of an Iranian political prisoner. And I’m deeply immersed in my new fantasy series about a female warrior-scholar who must reclaim a sacred text to save her people from enslavement. The Bloodprint, the first book in the series, will be published by Harper Voyager in Fall 2017. In the meantime, I’ll leap at any opportunity to travel in the name of research!


Author photo credit Alan Klehr.

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The Language of Secrets

The Language of Secrets

By Ausma Zehanat Khan
ISBN 9781250055125

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