Ausma Zehanat Khan on bearing witness in her fiction
With a PhD in international human rights law, crime writer Ausma Zehanat Khan tackles difficult topics in her acclaimed books — the latest of which is Among the Ruins — such as war crimes and international terrorism.
Below, Ausma Zehanat Khan answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Ian Brown asks, "What was the lowest point in the writing of your latest project? And the highest?"
My latest book, Among the Ruins, is about political prisoners in Iran, so I had to read numerous human rights accounts on the treatment of prisoners at Evin and Kahrizak prisons. These kinds of reports are very difficult to read and they are impossible to erase from memory. The highest point is that while I was writing the book, a Canadian-Iranian prisoner of conscience was actually released by the Iranian regime and returned home safely. That gave me a reason to feel hopeful again.
2. Susan Juby asks, "What was the most memorable, good or bad, reader comment you ever received? How did you respond?"
Recently I received an email from Australia, from a gentleman married to a survivor of the Bosnian genocide. He wrote to tell me what he thought of my first book, The Unquiet Dead, which is about the war in Bosnia. He called it "a conscious, shaking call against violence, in defense of justice," and his account of his wife's suffering broke my heart. The Unquiet Dead was my attempt to bear witness, so hearing from survivors is humbling in a way I can't begin to describe.
3. Vincent Lam asks, "Does your personal relationship with your characters change over the course of writing a book? If so, how?"
Over the course of several books now, I've grown very close to my detectives. I think I know them much better than I did at the beginning. I'm more in sync with my female detective, Rachel Getty, while Esa Khattak can be a frustrating puzzle who makes me struggle to unlock his secrets. But they both do things that still surprise me.
4. Kate Pullinger asks, "What relationship does your writing have to your own childhood, both in terms of where you grew up as well as whether or not you were a happy child?"
My childhood took place in England and Saskatchewan, so one effect is that my spelling and vocabulary are quite confused. I do have a strong sense of place, I've loved everywhere I've ever lived and I try to put that spirit in my books. The fact that I grew up on the Canadian Prairies infuses Rachel's sensibility, in particular. And in England and Canada, I was delivered early on to the warm embrace of the public library. Growing up with books (and with three siblings) made for the happiest of childhoods. I was a reader and a writer from my earliest days, I once won third place in a Royal Canadian Legion contest entitled "Why I Am Proud to Be Canadian."
5. Pasha Malla asks, "Flannery O'Connor: 'All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality.' Where do your 'reaches of reality' extend to?"
I'm going to interpret this question in a literal sense. My reaches of reality encompass not only my family's migratory experiences — India, Pakistan, England, Canada, the United States — but also the places I'm linked to by heritage, history and the sweeping reaches of the Islamic civilization. So I feel as connected to a poet's grave in ancient Persia as I do to the cave of Hira in Arabia, or to whatever lost reaches of Afghanistan my ancestors once hailed from, as I do to Weyburn, Saskatchewan or Ajax, Ontario or the corner of Colorado where I currently live. I'm an internationalist by philosophy and my imagination, at least, is not bound by borders or walls.
6. Alan Bradley asks, "Does the act of writing ever have a physical effect on you? If so, describe it."
I get lost in the experience when I'm writing. I feel whatever my characters feel: pain, joy, love, loss, delight, wonder. When I'm writing something painful, I frown at my screen for hours and usually don't sleep well that night. Then, of course, there's the sick terror of a looming deadline or the quiet sense of satisfaction when you finally believe you've written the book you wanted to write.
7. Karen Solie asks, "What do you do for fun? If you think writing is fun, what else do you do?"
I love to travel and every chance I get I'm trying to be somewhere else, to explore old monuments and other ways of living, being and seeing. The world seems so vast, yet also so close and intimate. I once read a stunning history of Andalusia in the courtyard of the grand mosque of Córdoba — that is my idea of perfect happiness.
8. Jane Urquhart asks, "What would you do if someone offered to adapt your latest book for musical comedy (with an emphasis on the word comedy)?"
First, I would laugh really hard. My books tackle these dark, almost hopeless, human rights themes, so it would be something of a stretch to turn them into musical comedy. Having said that, I love musical theatre and I could see Rachel and some of my other characters doing a fine line in comedy. I would probably ask if I could join the project so I could try my hand at writing a musical!