Ausma Zehanat Khan Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Ausma Zehanat Khan
Photo: Alan Klehr

Ausma Zehanat Khan

An interview with Ausma Zehanat Khan

Ausma Zehanat Khan explores what motivated her to shine light on the Bosnian war atrocities in her novel, The Unquiet Dead

Tell us about your new book.
The Unquiet Dead follows Canadian police officer Rachel Getty, whose stand-offish exterior hides a self-conscious, affection-starved interior, and her boss Esa Khattak, a thoughtful and charming devout Muslim, as they look into the death of Christopher Drayton, a local man who fell off a cliff. Drayton, it turns out, may have been one of the Bosnian war criminals responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995. Flashbacks from the Srebrenica massacre are woven into the mystery, until the past and present collide to reveal the truth.

What was the inspiration for your book?
The war in Bosnia, the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation, was the primary inspiration for my book, particularly the war crimes testimony that I became so intimately acquainted with. I knew that at some point I would tell a story from the perspective of the witnesses and victims of that war, because their stories continue to haunt me. My secondary inspiration has been the rise of Islamophobia in Western societies, particularly during election season when the fear of difference is a selling tactic for votes. I never forget that the war in Bosnia began with hate propaganda directed at the 'Other', and as a writer, I often wonder how far down that road any society is capable of traveling. And with a mystery, you have a chance to set characters against each other and watch the sparks fly, as you try to dig through to the truth of their motives. That process of trying to unravel the mystery is both fascinating to me, and hugely rewarding.

What kind of writing did you do before this?
I've published a short story in an anthology of South Asian women's fiction, and a chapter in the book Belonging and Banishment: Being Muslim in Canada. I'm from a minority background, both as a South Asian and as a Muslim woman. I was previously the editor of the magazine Muslim Girl, the first North American publication based on the lived realities of American Muslim women and girls. And I'm concerned about the rising tide of Islamophobia, just as I'm deeply concerned about the status of women's rights and minority rights in the Muslim world. I've been an activist in the past, but at this phase of my writing life, I'm more of an observer, and I want to create characters who speak to the dilemma that modernity poses to religion. But subtly. Because first and foremost, I want to tell a good story. Especially a mystery story—so I like to weave those things together.

How and why did you start working on this book?
I'm a lifelong writer. I wanted to commit myself to a serious project that examines the issues I find most compelling in life—namely, the intersection of human suffering and human decency. I began to see the characters in my mind trying to move on from the Bosnian war, unable to do so without justice, and the book started to take shape. I knew I wanted to write a mystery because that is what I most love to read, and also because you can hold on to your characters, shape them, and let them grow over several books. And I wrote this book because I find that so few people know the human cost of this war.

Were any of the characters in your novel inspired by real people or events?
I think of Mevludin Oric, a survivor of the Grbavici killing field, who hour after hour, lay buried under the slowly stiffening bodies of other victims, hardly able to believe he hadn't been killed outright. Mevludin's ordeal that day, along with the stories of other survivors of the executions, inspired the back-story for two of my characters. And although I've read hundreds of heart-breaking stories about Bosnia, there was something about the experience of Hasan Nuhanovic, the translator at the UN base, and his desperate attempts to keep his family on the base, that I simply could not let go of. Ultimately, Hasan Nuhanovic's family was murdered by Serb soldiers. So the UN base was a clear demarcation between survival and extinction for the Muslim men of Srebrenica. My character Damir Hasanovic is a very different kind of man than Hasan Nuhanovic, but I think Damir's fight for justice was very much inspired by Hasan's tragedy, and by Hasan's determination in the face of it.

What kind of experience has writing your book been for you?
Writing this particular book has given me a sense of closure that I haven't felt with other projects. At times I seemed to eat and breathe this book, and it would follow me into my dreams. I was able to bring many of my disparate interests into a single book, and the entire process of it was a joy. In short, it was the best year of my life.

Did you have any interesting experiences where you were researching your book, or getting it published?
Research on Bosnia has been a general occupation for the last fifteen or so years. In the early stages, I met the remarkable Chairman of the UN Commission of Experts, and many, many refugees of the war. During the Muslim Girl years, I interviewed the daughters of Srebrenica. And my family sponsored three Bosnian children up until university—so all those stories were part of my research. Getting it published still seems like a dream. I entered the manuscript into the MWA/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel competition, along with several other contests. I didn't win—but I was contacted by Elizabeth, an editor at Minotaur Books, who gave me such wonderful, constructive advice. And here I am, still pinching myself.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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