Ausma Zehanat Khan on giving diverse Muslim characters a voice
It can be hard to stand out in the crowded field of mystery series, but Ausma Zehanat Khan has managed to do just that with skillful plotting and a truly intriguing detective. His name is Esa Khattak, and he's a Muslim man charged with heading up a community police unit that deals with cases that are "minority sensitive." His deeply held beliefs about both policing and his own faith sometimes come into conflict. In The Language of Secrets, the second book in the series, he finds himself investigating a murder that took place in a terrorist training camp in Algonquin Park, Ontario.
Ausma Zehanat Khan grew up in Toronto and now lives in Denver, Colorado. She's a former law professor and former editor-in-chief of Muslim Girl magazine. She spoke to The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers from Denver.
WHY SHE'S PASSIONATE ABOUT GIVING MUSLIM CHARACTERS A VOICE
There are many different perspectives on events in the world, and events in the Muslim world have diversity and complexity and nuance. Western media usually uses these events to speak to, for or about Muslims — you don't often see Muslims speaking for or about themselves, which leads to a very incomplete picture. I come from a practicing Muslim family and have been involved in activism from a very young age, through my student life and my work in human rights. It's been a thread of continuity in my life, and it's important to me that I get to speak for myself. I certainly don't represent all Muslims and I can't claim to, but I don't like to be spoken for when I have an insider perspective, and I've seen a culture and a faith and a tradition that is so rich and so beautiful and so complex, with so much positivity to it, but all this is very unrepresented, or misrepresented. It's important to me that these characters have agency and have the voice to speak for themselves and represent a wide range of perspectives.
ON A DETECTIVE WHO STRUGGLES WITH MORALITY AND PERCEPTION
Internally, [Esa Khattak] has a strong sense of who he is, what he believes, what he stands for. Externally, he realizes that in some way he's always performing for one community or the other, whether it's law enforcement or whether it's minority communities. It's a fine line that he's walking all the time because he's always trying to do what's ethically right. He's trying to serve the law, but he's also trying to serve communities that are are sometimes misrepresented. For him, it's an ongoing and daily challenge.
WHY SHE FOCUSES ON CONFLICT
When you're writing a novel, you want to bring out those conflicts and dramatic elements. The [Muslim] people that I interviewed who worked in law enforcement and the criminal justice system actually told me that most of their interactions were very positive, and that they were just taken as fellow Canadians and didn't feel singled out or discriminated against. But there are always those moments and those interactions where you are singled out or you are implicated just by virtue of subscribing to the Muslim faith. That's some of the tension that I wanted to explore. I don't by any means generalize it or assume that most people hold prejudicial views, but that's also not to discount it when and where they do exist.
Ausma Zehanat Khan's comments have been edited and condensed.