Books

Adnan Khan explores tired stereotypes and being a young Muslim in Canada in his debut novel

The Toronto journalist and writer talks about love, class and cultural identity with his debut novel.
There Has to Be a Knife is a novel by Adnan Khan. (Arsenal Pulp Press, Transatlantic Agency)

Adnan Khan is a journalist and magazine writer. Growing up in Toronto, his experiences and observations as a racialized individual of South Asian descent has informed and shaped his writing.

His debut novel There Has to Be a Knife is set in Toronto and explores toxic masculinity, race and class. When protagonist Omar Ali is informed his ex-girlfriend Anna has died, he resolves to retrieve her suicide note from her parents. Filled with grief and unable to cope, the 27-year-old line cook spirals out of control, participating in break-ins and online terrorism.

Khan was the recipient of the 2016 RBC Taylor Prize for Emerging Writer and was a reader for the CBC Nonfiction Prize in 2017. CBC Books named Khan a 2020 writer to watch.

He talked to CBC Books about how he wrote There Has to Be a Knife.

On a bus in Burma

"The initial idea for the book actually came when I was on a bus in Burma. I was taking malaria medication pills and I couldn't sleep. It was an extreme form of insomnia. I started thinking about the actual physical condition of sleep and sleeping. We don't know why we sleep, just that we need to. Six months after that, the Boston bombing happened. 

I started thinking about what type of person a terrorist might actually be — and what it would be like to be that stereotype — and then humanize it.- Adnan Khan

"Before they knew who they were, there were media reports that it was dark-skinned male individuals. I found that to be an interesting stereotype and concept. I started thinking about what type of person a terrorist might actually be — and what it would be like to be that stereotype — and then humanize it.

"I started the first draft while backpacking in India — and then revised it while writing in a Toronto library."

What it means to be brown

"There's something interesting about stereotypes. They say so much about our culture. I wanted to push into them through the characters and evoke some of those feelings. Then by undercutting them it is a formal choice to make that stereotype come to light while trying to add a bit of humanity.

There's something really interesting about stereotypes. They say so much about our culture.- Adnan Khan

"I was curious to explore the flexibility within that concept of being a 'brown' person. The stereotype (of all dark-skinned individuals being terrorists, et cetera) limits how an individual can express themselves in moral and ethically ways. When you're viewed through certain prisms — be it a young man, a young brown man or a young Muslim man — and you start piling on those sort of intersections on individuals, it can be hard to express individuality when you have to engage with that wider context.

"When you start telling people of colour that there are conditions that they have to fulfil in order to sort of make the dominant culture feel good about how they are viewed, you're really limiting a person. I was curious to explore that and see how I could push it — and how I could bring in different renditions of what it meant to be a brown Canadian person who's living today." 

Conversation piece

"I don't want to guide anyone's reading of the themes in There Has to Be a Knife. While it's not necessarily frustrating that I have to unpack these issues and stereotypes for a wider audience, I am aware of what world I live in. 

While it's not necessarily frustrating that I have to unpack these issues and stereotypes for a wider audience, I am aware of what world I live in.- Adnan Khan

"In writing the novel, I didn't want to make a statement; I just wanted to question things. My own identity, as a young male of Indian descent, obviously affects the way other people perceive me, which affects the way I perceive our world.

"I'm curious about that interaction. That exchange between a person and their wider world." 

Adnan Khan's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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