Ausma Zehanat Khan on Writing Realistic Muslim Characters, Speaking Publicly and Hope
Ausma Zehanat Khan is like many authors we love, not only an author, but also a multi-hypenate career woman. Her latest, Among the Ruins, is out next week, and we spoke with her about her characters, her career and on the importance of speaking out.
You have a PhD in human rights law, edited the brilliant Muslim Girl magazine, have taught international human rights law, and practiced immigration law. What was it like going from a career path that was all about other people to writing a novel, a largely solitary activity?
Thank you for that lovely nod to [Muslim Girl magazine]! I’m a social person who comes from a huge family and community, so I do find spending so much time alone difficult. And by the time a book I’ve written is out in the world and I’m able to hear the response to it, I’ve moved on to another place, another book. But when I hear back from readers, I realize that these quiet stories that speak to current events or human rights issues do affect change in small, meaningful ways. They reach a different audience than other work I’ve done, and I hope they add something useful to our current discourse.
With your protagonist Khattak, his religion and role in the Muslim and Middle Eastern communities is prevalent, but it’s not the focal point of his character. We see him, throughout the course of the three novels you’ve written so far, as, yes, a devout Muslim, but also as a fierce, hardworking officer of the law; a kind, compassionate friend; and a desirable love interest for multiple women. For a lot of readers, this is the first time they’re seeing a character like Khattak. What does it mean to you to potentially be the first person to expose people to a character like Khattak?
First, let me say how glad I am that Khattak comes across that way. And though this is an excellent question, it’s a difficult one to answer. Most of my life, there’s been this void, where I haven’t seen people like myself, people from the communities I grew up in, represented in ways that seem authentic or familiar. Misrepresentation can do a great deal of harm and that’s why we’re seeing this push for greater diversity and authenticity in fiction, and in film and television. If people are seeing Khattak as someone relatable and human, with faults and graces like everyone else, that means a great deal to me. I couldn’t ask for anything better than to do work that is humanizing.
Right now we’re unfortunately living in a country that suffers a great deal from Islamophobia. Yet your books have been reader favorites. Do you think literature — especially mainstream genre fiction — can help people overcome their fear of their neighbors?
I do believe that, and I think that’s part of the important work of being a writer: building bridges, tearing down walls, challenging readers to see the world in new ways, and to, hopefully, come some distance to recognizing a common humanity. When you’re in the head of a character like Esa Khattak, the unfamiliar becomes familiar, and a little bit of empathy for the Other can erode or diminish fear. I think knowledge in any form is valuable and potentially healing.
As a Muslim woman, what is it like to have become a bit of a public figure in this time?
It’s an important responsibility and it isn’t one I take lightly. Of course, I can’t speak for an entire faith community — I’m just one voice among many — but in this present climate, every one of our voices counts. I do a lot of public speaking and try to remain politically active, and that can be burdensome at times; if you haven’t experienced this guilt-by-association mentality that’s so pervasive in our current culture, it may be difficult to appreciate how it wears you down. Every single day I read of an incident or hear from a member of my community — a mosque burning down, a woman having a scarf ripped from her head, people being beaten or otherwise harmed, or the slurs and name-calling our kids face at school. The political culture at this moment is quite frightening. As a Muslim woman who’s been in the public eye for some time, I have to put my best foot forward and appear calm and well-spoken and willing to hear all points of view, no matter how I’m feeling inside: angry, frightened, hopeless, worried, full of self-doubt … are these incidents and is this discourse adding up to something much worse or am I taking things out of context? And some of the points of view I hear are from white supremacists who insist on the supremacy of their humanity while entirely discounting mine. If you engage on these issues at all on social media, for example, the blowback is out of all proportion.
So how does that impact how I do my work? It makes me realize the urgency of it, the necessity of keeping at it, of speaking and writing with openness and honesty, of providing a painstaking counter-narrative to the ready antagonism that confronts all Muslims in the public eye. From the feedback I get from readers and through my talks, the one thing I consistently hear is how little people know about people like me or my Muslim characters. And there’s been a cynical manipulation by those in positions of power of that general lack of information, a virulently negative discourse that has fomented hate and fear. That’s what I confront whenever I sit down to write.
There’s a huge sense of hope in your writing. As your characters grow and change, and face new situations, there’s a feeling that things are changing in their world, that slowly but surely the world they live in is becoming a safer, more accepting place. Do you feel that sense of hope for the world we live in, too?
Though this is a fundamentally unjust and unequal world, I mainly see people’s goodness. I have never read of an appalling human rights abuse without also seeing that spark of decency, or the impulse to fight for justice, no matter how improbable the odds. So those kinds of things make me hopeful. But I will say I feel more hopeful for the characters in my books than I do for the vastly diverse global Muslim community at this moment. In the West, there’s a rising tide of xenophobia that is slowly being codified into law — and in too many Muslim-majority nations, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia, we’re seeing war and state failure, or the widespread repression of civil society and human rights. When I look at the Freedom House index of how few of these nations are ranked as “free,” I’m engulfed by despair. At an individual level, of course I believe we can live together, with mutual respect and tolerance. At the state and sub-state levels, the picture is far more troubling.
For readers who are new to your writing, what do you hope they get out of your stories — other than a great mystery?
A realization that no matter how different how our histories, experiences and perspectives may be, there is much more of value that we hold in common, and therefore, much less to fear from our differences. And that’s a reason to be hopeful.
To hear more from Ausma Zehanat Khan, check out the rest of her interview on the RT VIP Salon! If you'd like to subscribe to the Salon, we've got ya covered. And you can grab your copy of Among the Ruins from one of these retailers: Amazon | B&N | Kobo | iBooks | Indiebound.