Canadian author Ausma Khan on writing, multiculturalism, and the fine line between being reflective and critical

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s first book, ‘The Unquiet Dead’ was has won multiple awards. Her second in the series is ‘The Language of Secrets,’ was released last year. Both books are built around a second-generation Muslim Canadian detective called Esa Khattak, and his partner Rachel Getty. In ‘The Language of Secrets’, the detectives investigate a terrorist cell planning a deadly attack in Toronto. She talked to Golda Arthur about her work. (First published October 2016).

GA: I went into this thinking this is a book about Muslims in Canada, that’s the mindset I
started with. But it’s clear in the very first chapter that actually this is a page-turner
crime novel about people solving crimes.

AK: Yes that’s a big part of it, that’s my favorite genre to read, I’m a lifelong reader of
mystery fiction. What I think attracts me to mysteries is that they’re really just a puzzle
and I love solving puzzles. So in mystery genres, especially in contemporary mystery
fiction, it’s all about character, the real puzzle is human motivation. Why do
people do what they do, what are they trying to get out of it, that’s great territory for
writing.

GA: This is the story of a bomb plot in Canada: tell me how you wrote about this
against a Canadian background. AK: I write about Canada and specifically Toronto because everything else is unfamiliar and I have to do a lot of research on it.
Toronto is what I know. That’s my place of comfort, it’s the city that I love, I
think it’s so vibrant and multicultural like London and New York. So I situate my novels there but conversely this is based on a real bomb plot that took place in 2006 and that was foiled. So as a Canadian Muslim, that was really fascinating to me and it was really difficult to believe. If you were born here and grew up here, what on earth could attract you out of this, to that jihadist ideology? I honestly couldn’t understand it but I could imagine that these jihadists and I had many similar life experiences. The same community experiences, the same student activism, the same mosque activities, Ramadan, you name it. I wanted to understand how it could have happened, how it happened, what kind of alienation they had been suffering from and try and make sense of that specifically in the Canadian context, which seemed to me at least to allow for so much self expression and comfort and ownership. So for people to get involved in this and be attracted to it they have to feel the opposite of all those things. And that’s where I wanted to go.

GA: And was that a fairly uncomfortable place to go to in order to explore this?
AK: I’ve been in some fairly uncomfortable places! I guess I’m a lifelong community
activist. I’m very much from within the tradition, love my tradition. I’m very proud of
it but I’m also very critical of it. I mean, I see all the flaws and the weaknesses, and those
are things I try and put into Khattak’s interactions with the characters and with his
own recollections back into his past. He’s thinking to himself, why didn’t I speak up more, why didn’t I challenge more. I know that that kind of rigidity of thought is there and it does need to be challenged. So yes it was uncomfortable in a way but I also think it’s also a very critical and necessary conversation to have in our communities. I think my real discomfort arises from the idea of a community that’s already so much under suspicion and feeling very vulnerable and under attack. I didn’t want my work to contribute to that. So you have to walk that careful line where you’re being reflective and critical but you’re not contributing to Islamophobia, and that’s a difficult thing to do.
GA: What’s your next project?
AK: There’s the third Khattak which is set mostly in Iran, because I wanted to write
about political prisoners in Iran. And there’s a fourth book in the series which I have not
thought that much about, but will deal with human rights issues, which I like to write
about. ‘Among the Ruins’ – the third book in the Esa Khattak series will be out in February 2017.

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