Ausma Zehanat Khan is the former editor-in-chief of Muslim Girl magazine, a one-time adjunct law professor and the author of last year's The Unquiet Dead, which was praised by the New York Times as "an outstanding debut that is not easily forgotten." Her new novel, The Language of Secrets, reunites readers with Detective Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, who investigate "minority-sensitive cases" for Canada's Community Policing Section. A British-born Canadian, Khan now lives in Denver.
Why did you write your new book?
The Language of Secrets is loosely based on the events of the Toronto 18 terror plot. I couldn't fathom how young men who'd grown up in Canada could consider harming their fellow citizens based on their reading of tradition. I began to research ideological variants of jihadism, and I found a disturbing counterpoint in the near-hysterical response that equates all adherents of Islam with extremist violence. By writing through the lens of my Canadian-Muslim detective, I inverted the perspective of who normally comments on terrorism. And it gave me the unique opportunity to create a mystery where Muslim characters have agency and speak for themselves on one of the most challenging issues of our times.
Whose sentences are your favourite?
The French-Lebanese writer, Amin Maalouf. What I love most in his work is his self-effacing humour. Samarkand, The Rock of Tanios, Leo Africanus, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes – he builds entire worlds, but he does so with a keen eye for the absurdities of the human condition. In Samarkand, you have the story of Omar Khayyam, the great poet-philosopher-mathematician, Hassan Sabbah, the founder of the Assassins, and Nizam al-Mulk, the Grand Vizier of Persia – and it's told as a tale of tragic, improbable friendship, not dissimilar to any of The Real Housewives. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is at once eye-opening and heart-rending: events that moved the world become painfully dear and familiar. And Maalouf is never short of a pointed, well-timed quip.
Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through?
The Second World War in Britain, particularly during the Blitz. I'm fascinated by the idea of the British people pulling together for a common good. Ordinary citizens joining the war effort, the work at Bletchley Park, the rationing, the blackouts. I don't romanticize war, but I think it took extraordinary courage to keep the fight going while London and other cities were repeatedly bombarded. I wonder if we'd be up to that challenge today, if we'd be capable of the same discipline and sacrifice.
What's a book every 10-year-old should read?
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg is an exuberant introduction to the importance of history and the meaning of art, but its real charm lies in the inventiveness and daring of Claudia, age 12, and her younger brother James. The children run away from home to hide out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they learn to manage sibling dynamics and a budget supplemented by coins from a fountain. Once they've mastered hiding out, they dive into the mystery behind a sensational new exhibit – the sculpture of an angel. There's probably no other book for this age group that makes you feel the wonder and excitement of discovering a Michelangelo. If I ever ran away, I'd want it to be to the Met.
Which books have you re-read most in your life?
I first read Frank Herbert's Dune when I was 13, and I re-read it once a year for a number of reasons: its sophisticated, immersive world-building, its complex characters, its utterly original plot. But mainly, I was drawn to Dune because it was the first book I'd read where Islamic mythology was portrayed in Western literature with such effortless power and dignity. I recognized the book's themes at once – there was a language, a history, a set of symbols I knew intimately. The experience of reading Dune was life-affirming for me, and vast with possibility for a girl of my background who wanted to be a writer.