Q & A #61 – Ausma Zehanat Khan, “A Dangerous Crossing”

The Unquiet Dead debuted in late 2016 and, with it, Ausma Zehanat Khan introduced readers to a pair of unusual detectives in Toronto who focus on culturally sensitive cases and vulnerable communities.

Esa Khattak is a Muslim. He is keen on solving cases but he is also on a long, inward quest. Rachel Getty is, well, Canadian and youthful. She digs hockey.

The first book dealt with a long trail of misery following the genocide of Srebrenica. The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly and The Washington Post all raved.

Three more titles followed, including A Dangerous Crossing (launching next week). In all four books, Khan let Khattak and Getty explore cases drawn from international tensions. Among the Ruins found Khattak in Iran. A Dangerous Crossing focuses on Greece and travels all over Europe and into Turkey. Readers have watched Khattak explore his core beliefs and they watched the space between Getty and Khattak grow and change shape.

A full review of A Dangerous Crossing follows but Ausma, who has been here before, was kind enough to answers some questions (by e-mail) again.

Note: The Khattak/Getty mystery series has been optioned for television by Lionsgate. Ausma is also the author of a fantasy series for Harper Voyager. The Bloodprint, Book One of the Khorasan Archives was published in October 2017.

Ausma holds a Ph.D. in international human rights law with a specialization in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. A British-born Canadian and former adjunct law professor, she now lives in Colorado with her husband.

Ausma will be at The Tattered Cover (Colfax) on Thursday, Feb. 15 at 7 pm for the launch of A Dangerous Crossing.

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Question: When you started writing Esa Khattak, did you have an idea of what kinds of issues and situations you would ask him to face? Did you have an idea how far he would travel—both internally and around the world?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Yes, definitely. I’ve been thinking about books I wanted to write long before I began to write them. I’ve had a varied career but it’s been focused on some consistent themes: the exploration of identity, alienation, and belonging—and how those things might be weaponized. I knew what I wanted to do with a character like Esa in terms of his internal journey as a man of faith in a world that is hostile to his identity. He begins from this place of being very sure of himself, but as the series progresses, he finds his convictions challenged at every turn, and has to struggle to figure out a way to reconcile the different sides of himself. Based on my own background and my academic research, I knew there were a range of global issues and human rights crises that I wanted to examine in these books, and Esa’s perspective was a natural fit for exploring these issues.

Question: Rachel started out relatively green in your first two books, but she’s grown quite a bit. What was it like to write about her reactions to what she experiences in A Dangerous Crossing?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I love seeing Rachel come into her own and grow in confidence, it’s the natural progression of her journey as a police officer, and as a woman. Many of us know very little about what day to day life is like for refugees in camps like Moria or Kara Tepe, so Rachel having to respond and react to those realities provided an entry point into that story. I’d interviewed volunteers and read several volunteer blogs to document what that experience is like. To move from not knowing to be immersed in firsthand knowledge, and to have all your assumptions challenged, takes not only compassion but grit. And no one is more suited to that than Rachel.

Question: Is it easier to write Rachel’s scenes? Or, Esa’s? Did you start planning or figuring out romantic entanglements at the outset of the series? Are you surprised how things have turned out for each of them?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: It is always easier to write Rachel’s scenes because Rachel is a character who’s allowed to be herself and have her experiences, and to falter or grow without constraint. Writing Esa is more challenging because like all Muslims in the public eye, he has to do more than exist as a character. He has to carry the weight of a dangerous and hostile discourse about Muslims on his shoulders, so when I write his scenes I’m conscious of how his actions may be interpreted, and what he needs to be able to convey about his own humanity. I spend a lot of time on that and take a lot of care with it because I view it as a kind of speaking back.

In terms of romantic entanglements, I had a general sense of what I wanted to happen with Rachel and Esa right from the beginning of the series, but it hasn’t turned out exactly how I planned. I expected certain things for Rachel and Nathan Clare to happen in A Dangerous Crossing, following on from the relationship I established in earlier books. But by the time I was able to put my master plan in action, Rachel and Nate took the reins right out of my hands and confounded all my plans. With Esa, I wanted to ground him in his own history and community, so a very important part of that was to decide whom (who?) he might love and why. I suggested otherwise in The Unquiet Dead—that history and community might not be as important when weighed against his feelings for a certain woman, but by this latest book, he’s back where I expected him to be. Where he needs to be to stay true to his own beliefs. But that doesn’t mean I have any intention of making things easy for him. He’s going to fall and fall again.

Question: How did you research so many foreign locations—Calais, Athens, Lesvos, The Netherlands, Cesme, etc?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: It was mainly a lot of reading: travelogues, human rights reports, even a useful little article on the weather and sheep-farming on Lesvos. In some cases I conducted interviews with people who had firsthand knowledge of the camps on Lesvos. And there was quite a bit of documentary-watching, plus prior travel to parts of Europe and Turkey. One of the things that has been incredibly helpful with research is the amount of photography and video online: it helps me assess the nuances of specific locations.

Question: Why do you think the Syrian refugee crisis ebbs and flows here as a news story? It’s ongoing. It’s happening today. Right now. Tensions haven’t eased in years. Cities being destroyed, etc. Is this just a chronic, forever battle or something that will eventually be resolved? What’s it going to take to bring Assad down and to bring stability back to Syria?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: When fighting erupts in Syria, and a new flow of refugees is created, that makes the news. But most of the major fighting in Syria is over. The conflict has produced more than five million refugees—the worst refugee crisis of the past twenty-five years. In the last rebel-held province of Idlib, Assad has launched a new offensive that may produce a new flow of refugees.

As for the future of Syria, there can be no stability or genuine peace as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power. The Assad family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for nearly half a century. The Assad regime is responsible for the vast majority of the atrocities that have been committed during the current conflict, resulting in a death toll of approximately half a million people. The foremost issue deterring a resolution in Syria is that the international community has refused to confront Russia and Iran, the two key players who have shaped the course of the conflict. Over the course of the past seven years, Russia cast eleven votes at the Security Council that blocked international action on Syria. Unless this changes, Syria will continue to be ruled by the Assad family, and most refugees will be unable to return. The forces of radical extremism are among the biggest beneficiaries of this state of affairs—a factor that will contribute to the region’s instability for decades to come.

Question: Without giving anything away, A Dangerous Crossing looks at all the different layers and motivations for how people in crisis can be exploited. Did you know your antagonists going in? Or did events and motives unfold as you wrote the story?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I follow developments in international criminal law, so I knew exactly what I wanted to write about: the question of how massive human rights violations continue to be committed with impunity. It’s that space between impunity and the pursuit of justice that I’m interested in examining, so writ large, I knew I would be writing about who is responsible for the destruction of Syria, and what the nature of that destruction is. For a full year I focused my research on the human rights crisis in Syria, and as I read in that area, I was able to put the pieces of a much larger puzzle into place. The book was about the Assad regime’s oppression of the Syrian people, but then it spiraled out into a discovery of all the others who opportunistically prey upon the vulnerable and displaced. Some things were so shocking for me to read, in terms of dangers that refugees are exposed to, that it was absolutely vital that they become part of the story.

Question: A Dangerous Crossing deals with, among many issues, the ‘disproportionate burden’ issue—how countries negotiate and decide how many refugees they can take in. If you were benevolent dictator of the world, how would you resolve this? How do you address the roots of the crisis? The United States’ non-interventionist approach, as you write in the author’s note, cedes control of the crisis to Russia and Iran, which is not a path to resolution. What to do?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: As defined by the Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person with a well-founded fear of persecution, based on certain discrete criteria. So I wonder if we had substantive public education about how these criteria have been met in the case of Syrian refugees, we might see a greater willingness to resettle them. There’s a significant gap between the perception and reality of which nations host most of the world’s refugees. The the top five refugee-hosting countries are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, and Ethiopia. Germany is the only Western nation to make the top ten. So that disproportionate burden actually falls upon some of the world’s poorest countries, when it should be allocated more reasonably between all the signatories to the Refugee Convention, so that treaty obligations are met.

We’ve talked about the root causes of instability as directly related to refugee flows. While the crisis is complex and military intervention could lead to greater instability, there are a number of steps that merit consideration. First, the Russian and Iranian position in Syria could be challenged. That would require a commitment to establish a safe zone within Syria, and a no-fly zone over Syria, allowing moderate opposition groups to establish an alternative to Assad’s rule. Tipping the balance of power in Syria could lead to serious negotiations. In 2013 and 2015, Assad was close to being toppled. The Russian and Iranian foreign ministries acknowledged this, and in turn stepped up their intervention to rescue the regime from imminent collapse. If things were to change, a plan for the day after would also be needed, one that would encompass security, stabilization, reconstruction and national reconciliation. To be successful, any such plan would require the full participation and support of the Syrian people, in tandem with global leadership on a scale equipped to recognize and respond to the realities on the ground. As you can see, there is no easy prescription for success.

Question: How do you switch back and forth from writing a fantasy series to writing mysteries?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: When I write about human rights issues in my mysteries, it’s critical that I write from a solid foundation of knowledge, and that I neither overstate nor understate the magnitude of the crisis I’m writing about. So my research is more extensive, and I check and re-check the accuracy of my facts. I try to provide a range of perspectives on an issue, without creating a false equivalency. Genocide and war crimes should never lend themselves to false narratives that fly in the face of the evidence. I’m thinking particularly of the material I had to tackle while writing The Unquiet Dead. And again with A Dangerous Crossing. I begin from the premise that there is no ideology that can justify the violation of human rights. But you’d be surprised by how many people take issue with that premise.

So writing my fantasy series is much easier for me. I come to those books almost with a sense of relief. There’s more narrative space to be inventive, and I’m able to indulge my curiosity about the world without quite as many constraints.

Question: What’s next for Esa and Rachel? And for the fantasy series?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: Next up, Esa and Rachel return to Canada, where they’re asked to lend their support to an investigation into a mosque shooting in Quebec. I’ve been slowly unraveling this theme in the series through Esa’s eyes: what is like to be a Muslim in the West today? What realities does he confront as part of his daily existence? Does Esa believe that battle lines have been drawn? The fifth book in the series brings these issues out into the open to force Esa to a moment of reckoning. Rachel’s reckoning is more personal: is she going to go after what she wants—personally and professionally? Does she believe that she’s worthy of happiness? What might that look like for her? Strangely enough, this has been the easiest book in the series for me to write.

And Book Two of the Khorasan Archives—The Black Khan—will be out in fall of 2018. I’ll tease it a little: expect smoldering romance and an epic battle where women are at the forefront of the charge.

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Ausma Zehanat Khan’s website.

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REVIEW:

In Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty dug into the genocide at Srebrenica to get to the root of a stunning murder in Toronto, where they are based. In The Language of Secrets, the pair infiltrated a terrorist cell brewing up wicked plans within a mosque. In Among the Ruins, a personal trip to Iran put Khattak smack into the middle of a decades-old murder that peeled back the cloak of history, particularly the deadly prison system.

Given the track record of this compelling duo, it’s no surprise to find them embroiled in the Syrian refugee crisis in the latest entry, A Dangerous Crossing, a story that stretches to Turkey, Greece, The Netherlands, and France.

Inspector Khattak and Sergeant Getty are given the task of finding Audrey, a woman who has vanished from a Greek island. Audrey was working for an NGO, helping to implement Canada’s efforts to resettle Syrian refugees. The missing woman’s brother is a childhood friend of Esa’s. The missing woman is not only implicated in a double murder, but any hint of violence and controversy could take its toll on Canadian political leadership, unless the truth of her disappearance is uncovered.

As with all three previous books, there’s a steady undercurrent of emotions between Khattak and Getty. But to add to the tension here, Khan brings back Sehr Ghilzai, a former prosecutor first introduced in The Language of Secrets, to tempt Khattak out of his devout, often inscrutable shell.

Khattak’s serene Muslim faith gives the entire series a unique flavor. Getty is more carefree, less burdened by the world—but no less dogged or sincere.

After a few set-up scenes in Toronto, we’re off to Athens and eyewitness accounts of the inhumanity, the camps at Kara Tepe on the island of Lesvos and cinematic scenes on cold beaches at night as waves of (literally) huddled masses of refugees wait by campfires, hungry and wondering what’s next. Rachel, ever empathetic and smart enough to know what she doesn’t know, is the one to loan her coat to a shivering little boy.

Rachel’s reactions to what she sees are visceral.

“As she watched at the girls playing in the mud, her despair was overcome by self-contempt. Each person in this camp could likely tell a story more painful than her own … The temperature had dropped and the water was cold, the pristine shoreline marred by detritus on the beach: black flotation devices resembling rubber tires, stacks of orange life jackets, the occasional dinghy that would never float again, odd bits of clothing, mismatched shoes, a single sock.”

Esa, meanwhile, contemplates the tragedy within the context of his faith, the Muslim concept of ummah (community). “It was instinctive to him as a man of his faith to be deeply concerned about the ummah. He thought of the cruelty that characterized the abuse of dissidents in Iran. He knew the situation in Syria was worse on a scale that defied imagination—of a nature to wring tears from a statue of the Madonna.”

How can Esa reconcile what it feels like to be proud of his faith, proud of his beliefs, proud of his heritage—and know that many horrors were being meted out in the name of the same community?

How can Esa justify the well-funded search for one privileged Canadian, a woman with connections and resources, when so many souls are being set adrift, instantly homeless, into a cruel world?

Esa’s struggles are internal—and he keeps them, for the most part, to himself. “These were scales Esa had been weighing all his life, an actuary of the dead and disposable.” (What a great line.)

The story is driven by the puzzle of deciphering Audrey’s last communications with her brother—and her actions. Why had Audrey risked a trip to the Turkey-Syria border? Why had she taken two children with her?

All around them as they work are the vast sea of needy refugees and the many ways they can be exploited. Khattak and Getty’s work shows how nations find a way to justify dusting their hands as if nothing is going on. There is, as Esa notes, plenty of blame to go around.

A Dangerous Crossing is driven by mystery, but it’s also poignant and complex. As her team bounces from country to country, digging into documents and confronting power, Khan does not shy from intricate global politics. A Dangerous Crossing is another gripping Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty Mystery brewed from the depths of mankind’s capacity for brutal inhumanity to others.

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Previously reviewed:

The Language of Secrets

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Unquiet Dead

(This post also includes an earlier Q & A)

 

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