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The Sirens of Suspense

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An Anthony Award-nominated website on all things mystery.

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ABOUT AUSMA:

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AUSMA ZEHANAT KHAN holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She is a former adjunct law professor and was Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine, the first magazine targeted to young Muslim women. A British-born Canadian, Khan now lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband. THE UNQUIET DEAD is her first novel.

 

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AUSMA KHAN: item1b
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As an international human rights lawyer, you have extensively focused on the Balkans. What made you choose to focus on this conflict again, this time for your novel, THE UNQUIET DEAD? Can you tell us a little bit about the story?

The war in Bosnia has never really left me—perhaps because it occurred at a time when I was studying international law, perhaps because it was incomprehensible that genocide could take place in the public view over such a slow and measured period of time. It always felt like something could be done to end things, something bold and morally courageous, which was, in fact,  how the war did end—with the NATO intervention. I didn’t think the story was over when I completed my studies. I knew people would continue to suffer the after-effects of that war for generations to come. That’s what I wanted to explore: not just the war itself, but what happens in the aftermath. In THE UNQUIET DEAD, a Canadian Muslim detective and his partner find themselves facing exactly this set of circumstances when they investigate the murder of a Bosnian Serb war criminal. Twenty years later, his crimes have followed him to a new country where we can see the darkness and ruin of the ripple effects.

 

Having spent much of your professional career focused on Bosnia, was writing about it in this form a cathartic experience?

It absolutely was. You can’t work through war crimes testimony and human rights reports so closely without damaging something inside yourself. There are stories and images that never disappear from your consciousness because of the wound they inflict. And I think all human beings have an instinctive desire for justice. I wanted to write a mystery that would keep my readers engaged with what I hope is a very human story, and I thought they would recognize that same desire for justice within themselves.

 

Throughout your career you’ve been an advocate and an activist, including founding Muslim Girl, the first magazine for young Muslim women. What inspired you to write a novel? Did you have an eye to heightening awareness of issues when writing?

Like most writers, I’ve been writing since I was very young, experimenting with poems, short stories, songs, plays, and plenty of op-eds and letters to the editor. I think you write when you have something to say, when you want your voice to be heard, or when you don’t recognize the images of yourself, your culture or your religious community that dominate the popular discourse. You feel spoken to, spoken about and spoken for—your own authentic voice rarely has the chance to participate in or lead the conversation. For me, writing has to be about something, it has to contribute something, it has to challenge our assumptions, and re-define the status quo. In some small way, it should make the world better. I hope that’s been the thread of continuity in my work.  

 

Your background has involved various types of writing. Do you feel your legal research and magazine experience was an advantage or disadvantage when you started writing THE UNQUIET DEAD? 

It was definitely an advantage because the bones of the story came from my Ph.D. research. And when you’re telling a story like this, accuracy is essential. Years ago, I spent months in a small human rights library in Ottawa reading statements coming out of Bosnia, and would tell myself—these read like a kind of poetry. One day I’ll write a novel that opens with the sentence, ‘On Tuesday, there will be no bread in Sarajevo.’ It was a stark statement made before the UN Security Council, but I recognized its lyrical power instantly. My tenure at Muslim Girl magazine gave me confidence in my own voice. It also gave me the opportunity to meet so many different people, which resulted in the beautiful certainty that in our core values and our desire for decency and goodness in this world, we are all the same. 

 

What’s coming next for you?

I’m nearly finished the second book featuring detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, which is tentatively titled ‘A Treason of the Blood.’ Esa and Rachel explore the murder of a man linked to a terrorist cell, taking on the national media and the government, in the process. The detectives wrestle with the question of whether the man’s murder was personal or political. And what happens when it’s both..

 

 

 

 

 

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COMMENT ON THE INTERVIEW by using the Comments box further down on this page, or on our Facebook page and be entered to win a copy of THE UNQUIET DEAD! (U.S. entrants only.)

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QUICKIES WITH AUSMA:

Book she wishes she could read again for the first time: SAMARKAND by Amin Maalouf—a journey, a lesson, a longing, and a beautifully humane invocation of the past.

What she's reading now: THE PARIS WINTER by Imogen Robertson, and STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel.

Period in history she'd like to visit: The Blitz in London during the Second World War because I'm amazed by the courage, resilience and common purpose of the British people during a struggle that required so much discipline and sacrifice.

Favorite independent bookstore: I love the Tattered Cover, my local bookstore in Denver. It has the perfect ambience for browsing, reading and dozing. I also do a lot of writing there.

Her greatest fear: Losing someone I love.

Favorite online resource: Jungle Red Writers is great fun with these seven, phenomenally talented women who write mysteries.

Her writing ambience: I sit at my desk with a view of the Rocky Mountains, with a cup of tea at my side and my phone turned off, with several notebooks and a calendar at hand, and write for six hours every day.

Favorite sentence she's ever written:"She glanced pointedly at the tasbih on Khattak's wrist, a gesture that struck at him, collapsing his fluid identities inward like a lightning strke: one a symbol of thousands of the unquiet dead, the other the mark of their murderers."

Who she'd like to see play her protagonist(s) onscreen: I wish there were more well-known actors who share my detective's ethnic background, but in lieu of that, how about the brooding Christian Bale as Esa Khattak, and the magnificent Billie Piper as Rachel Getty? I loved Billie as Rose on Dr. Who—she is so tough, smart and vulnerable, and she looks like she could play hockey.

If she could invite four people to a dinner party: J.K. Rowling, Hilary Clinton (I'm in awe of her intellect), Malala Yousafzai, and CNN journalist Arwa Damon, who's done such fearless reporting from the Middle East.