Ausma Zehanat Khan first appeared on our radar with her crime fiction debut, The Unquiet Dead, introducing the handsome Esa Khattak and the sporty Rachel Getty. The two are partners in a special Canadian community policing unit dedicated to sensitive cases involving minority communities. In The Unquiet Dead, they tackle a case involving war criminals, Balkan ghosts, and the intersection of private and public suffering. In The Language of Secrets, Khattak and Getty go undercover in a a mosque controlled by a charismatic leader suspected of planning a violent attack – and engaged to Khattak’s sister. In Khan’s third novel to feature the duo, Among the Ruins, Khattak just wants to enjoy a nice vacation in Iran, but gets recruited by the Canadian secret service to look into the untimely death of a Canadian citizen and activist filmmaker. Ausma was kind enough to let us ask her a few questions about the series.
- Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
“I have this set of stories I want to tell based on my background in human rights law and my continuing commitment to human rights issues. It’s important to me personally because these are stories that rarely see the light, or that when they do, they’re depicted through a perspective that I don’t recognize as authentic.”
Molly Odintz: Rachel Getty is my favorite contemporary sidekick – she’s practical, sporty, and is always game to help Esa Khattak both with his assigned work and his efforts to outwit his superiors. She seems to be the average joe of the novel, intended to balance out Esa Khattak’s impressively erudite mind. Is she a Watson, to Esa’s Sherlock? Tell us about the dynamics between Rachel and Esa.
Ausma Zehanat Khan: That’s such a lovely compliment, thank you! Rachel is definitely Esa’s counterpoint, and her story is as important to the books as Esa’s is. I try to have these characters draw each other out, and to serve as foils for each other—I think Rachel is braver than Esa when it comes to personal conflicts and entanglements. She doesn’t always get things right, but she’s much more willing to take chances than he is, though both characters will continue to develop as they grow closer over time. I see Rachel as quite independent of Esa, and as an equal contributor to their crime-solving efforts. I think she also helps interpret Esa and humanize him to my readers.
MO: Each of your novels begins with a murder, but quickly expands its scope to include international concerns, especially about human rights abuses. How has your work made its way into your writing?
AZK: I have this set of stories I want to tell based on my background in human rights law and my continuing commitment to human rights issues. It’s important to me personally because these are stories that rarely see the light, or that when they do, they’re depicted through a perspective that I don’t recognize as authentic. So in The Unquiet Dead, I examine the costs of the Bosnian genocide and the ongoing legacy of genocide denial. In The Language of Secrets, I invert the perspective of who gets to comment on terrorism and try to provide some historical context instead of the facile interpretations that are routinely presented to us. In Among the Ruins, I take on the egregious human rights record of the Iranian regime, without denying the agency of the Iranian people, or the beauty and sophistication of Iran’s history, culture and civilization. I talk about these issues through the lens of crime fiction because I think it makes painful and complex realities easier for us to look at—and somehow more personal.
MO: Your series started off presenting Canada as more tolerant than the US – your main character’s work is dedicated to solving cases involving minority communities with sensitivity. Yet in The Language of Secrets, Esa Khattak is manipulated into going undercover in what the Canadian government believes to be a group planning a violent attack, volunteered by others rather than volunteering himself. In the third book in the series, Among The Ruins, Esa is recruited by the Canadian Secret Service for a dangerous international mission, then pursues that mission to the point of endangering himself. Is Esa using his position to represent his community’s interests, or being used himself by his superiors to control his community? Or both?
AZK: This is a difficult question to answer, I must admit. In recent months, I’ve grown to worry that Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism could be undermined by voices on the extreme right should there be a change in government. At the moment, I can only say that Canada’s political leadership has worked hard to set a tone of inclusiveness and mutual respect, and that divisive, hateful rhetoric has not penetrated Canadian society from the top-down. I am very conscious that that could change and that it takes constant engagement by a broad spectrum of citizens and communities to ensure the rights and freedoms of all Canadians. There are definitely areas of weakness and vulnerability that are open to exploitation that I worry about. And I try to communicate those areas of weakness and vulnerability in my books by showing that Esa is vulnerable to those pressures. It’s very much part of Esa’s job to make sure that his community, and other minority communities, are treated fairly by law enforcement, but I have set him up with this impossible mandate where these two sets of interests don’t necessarily coincide. How minority communities experience policing and how they are targeted by certain kinds of policing is a continuous story I’m interested in exploring in these books.
MO: Among the Ruins is the first in your series to go outside North America – Khattak goes on vacation in Iran, yet quickly finds himself embroiled in local politics and recruited by secret agents to discover the reason behind a prominent Canadian-Muslim documentarian. What drew you to the Iranian setting? Were there any challenges in your research?
AZK: I’m fascinated by the complexity and sophistication of Iran’s history and culture—I’m married into an Iranian family, so I’ve been richly immersed in Persian culture. And there has been a long exchange between Iran/Persia and the Indian subcontinent, which is where my family is from, that influences the languages I speak and the customs I’ve been exposed to. I wanted to tell a story that drew on these influences in my life.
I’m also troubled by the way we speak about Iran. We view Iran through the lens of Western interests, a lens that disregards our problematic interventions in the region, so I wanted to explore Iran through a different lens—the lens of someone like Esa who values its history, its rich traditions, its stunning civilizational accomplishments. Normally, I would have loved to travel to Iran to do research on the book but because my husband is a well-known critic of the regime, and because my book is so critical of human rights abuses within Iran, I had to rely on secondary sources and my own memories of a childhood trip to Iran.
“It’s very much part of Esa’s job to make sure that his community, and other minority communities, are treated fairly by law enforcement, but I have set him up with this impossible mandate where these two sets of interests don’t necessarily coincide. How minority communities experience policing and how they are targeted by certain kinds of policing is a continuous story I’m interested in exploring in these books.”
MO: While most of Among the Ruins is told from Esa and Rachel’s alternating perspectives, you sprinkled in some intense interludes describing (in first person) a political prisoner’s experiences of torture and confinement. What went into those passages? They were incredibly moving.
AZK: Thank you so much for saying so. After Iran’s stolen election of June 2009, there was a severe crackdown against protesters by the regime and a short while after that, human rights reports began to emerge about the nature of that crackdown. There are also several political prisoner accounts that have been published, so I read many of those firsthand accounts and the human rights reports to try and capture the reality of what happens to political prisoners once they disappear inside Iran’s prisons—and particularly what happened at that moment after the election. My character’s experience is a composite experience of abuses that actually took place. I also interviewed several Iranians about their direct experience of the protests and the arrests to get a better sense of how visceral and frightening those events were. Little details like the use of the Sonata were gained from these interviews.
MO: In an interview with Brian Bethune for MacLean’s, you highlight the stark difference between Canada and the US in terms of the level of harassment and climate of fear Muslims face in each nation. This interview ran on February 2nd, 2016. What are some of your thoughts, post-election?
AZK: I’ve mentioned that there are also things to worry about in Canada, the difference being that for the moment, the anti-Islam/ anti-Muslim rhetoric isn’t state-sanctioned, and that hate crimes and hateful rhetoric are neither sanctioned by the Canadian government nor tolerated. For Muslim communities in the United States, this is a frightening moment—the future is filled with uncertainty, there’s been a spike in hate crimes against Muslim women, against our mosques, there are all kinds of incursions against our civil liberties, and there’s the sense after the Muslim ban that there’s the potential for things to escalate quickly and become much worse. I live my life differently now, more cautiously, more self-protectively, and I engage in self-censorship which is difficult for someone who’s used to being outspoken about human rights, and who writes the kind of books that I write. Having said that, I continue to give talks and meet with book clubs and other groups, and each of those encounters allows me to meet amazing Americans who are as appalled by the current political climate as I am, and who are active in their own communities on a host of similar issues. I think we’re all conscious that we’re seeing the erosion of democratic norms and that civil liberties are not something that any community should take for granted.
MO: Esa Khattak is talented, attractive, and generally an exceptional human being – yet you provide him with enough faults, challenges, and bumps in the road to keep him out of too-good-too-believe. What has reader response been like with the character? Do you get lots of love letters addressed to him from adoring fans?
AZK: I think I can safely—and gratefully—say that my readers are extremely fond of Esa, and that he definitely gets his share of fan mail! He has his admirers, and my friends have all claimed him for themselves, which I find so funny. Esa is a joy to write but he’s also a tough nut to crack! In the fourth book in the series, I’m trying to open him up more.
MO: Crime fiction, more than other genres, seems to lend itself either to defending or demonizing the other. Your series falls firmly in the responsible representation category, but there’s plenty of airport paperbacks and military thrillers out there ready to reinforce stereotype rather than challenge it. What different directions (if any) would you like to see the genre go in the future?
AZK: This is a great question. I don’t challenge anyone’s right to write the stories they think are valuable and important, but I’m fatigued by the way stories of the Muslim bad guy are presented. They lack depth or context, they’re binary, and they seem to have a shallow understanding of language, culture, politics, religion or history—and the complex relationship between all these different factors. So I think if the demand for these kinds of stories continues, it would be great to shift the lens of who’s commenting and to delve deeper to tell a richer, more complicated story that doesn’t resolve into us vs. them, but examines the impact of our actions and policies on a region that we seem to project both our fears and our conquering myths onto. I think it would be a thing of beauty to try and understand the hopes and aspirations of the “Other”, and to realize they’re no different from our own.
You can find copies of Among The Ruins on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.