Interview with Ausma Zehanat Khan and "A Dangerous Crossing"

An Interview with author Ausma Zehanat Khan about her new book, A Dangerous Crossing.

The first thing Esa noticed as he looked down the length of the trough was a concrete barrier painted over with slogans that read like cries of despair: no borders, no borders, no borders, the prayer of the stateless.

A Dangerous Crossing, page 175

I meditated for a week after reading A Dangerous Crossing by Ausma Zehanat Khan. Reading about an on-going crisis differs from inspecting the aftermath, as was the case with the previous novels centering on the Bosnian War and Genocide. A Dangerous Crossing leaves you saddled with a sense of contemplation and of urgency. Yet, somehow, you are not hopeless.

A Dangerous Crossing is another installment in the Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty crime series. Esa and Rachel travel to Syrian refugee camps in Greece to track down a missing NGO volunteer, Esa's friend's sister. Thus begins their journey in the Mediterranean and Europe, searching for answers amid the refugee crisis.

There is no better author to handle this material than Ausma, who expounds on the nuances without overloading the reader. While Syrian refugees are the center of the narrative, the reader cannot escape the shadow of displacement among other groups. Complications related to immigration, asylum, abduction, defection, and the perilous escape from a brutal dictatorship.

I am very grateful to Ausma for giving this interview, and I cannot speak highly enough for her work. If you have not picked up her work yet, now is the time to do so. If you aren't convinced, keep reading.

About A Dangerous Crossing

Syria has an extensive literary tradition. Deciding on one to use must have been difficult. How did you chose to allude to Nizar Qabbani? Where you considering any other poets?

I chose Qabbani because I knew his work best, and also because of the two sides to his poetry – the personal and the political, and how closely they’re interlinked. I discovered him as a poet in my twenties, and my husband once gave me a volume of his love poems as a gift. I had considered Adonis, as well, but given that I featured his work so heavily in The Language of Secrets, I thought the poetry of Qabbani would be more evocative in this case.

How do you cope with writing about difficult topics such as the Syrian crisis and the Bosnian war without becoming fatalistic? (I find it amazing on so many levels that you can imbue a sense of hope and healing amid the chaos.)

I feel despair all the time, some of which I channel into my detective Esa Khattak, but as a person of faith, I can’t remain in that state. I believe in something greater and in a calling to account. And I reclaim my hope when I see the efforts of so many individuals and organizations who stand up against genocide or massive human rights violations. I’m thinking of groups like the White Helmets, or the women’s organizations that sprang up to work with rape survivors in Bosnia. And of the refugees I’ve interviewed who’ve had the courage to forge ahead and demand justice despite the horrors they’ve experienced. If they haven’t lost hope, I certainly can’t.

After reading your book, what agency can recommend for readers to support Syrian refugees?

Ausma on Writing

I absolutely love your dialogue and how you express tension with and without it. What is your process for writing highly emotional scenes?

Thank you so much for that, Eliza! When you’re immersed in the research that forms the backbone of a book like ‘A Dangerous Crossing’, that material is highly emotional. The destruction of lives, cities, hopes, the enormous cruelty of the war in Syria, and the endless depredations that refugees are forced to suffer…you can’t help but be deeply moved and angered when you read about it, so that filters through in my writing. I want my readers to experience that same range of emotions, so I try to render my research faithfully in my books. And I try to stay as close to the real voices of my story as possible because I think we feel most moved when we recognize the authenticity of real experience.

When traveling for your writing, what kinds of notes do you take for reference? How do you organize that immersive experience into something you can use for a story?

The first thing is simply to experience the place that I’m in – to take a step back and take it in so that I can find a way to connect with it. To observe the places and people around me. Then I take a lot of photographs for depth of perspective. And I’ll read the local press and try to engage with as many people as possible to get a flavor for language and for how people express themselves. I won’t ask intrusive or painful questions unless someone has agreed to be interviewed with full knowledge of why they’re being interviewed. And of course, like any writer, I’ll scribble down the little things that strike me – the things that add truth and color to a moment I want to depict.

In your interview with Mark Stevens of Don't Need a Diagram, you repeatedly mentioned how much more difficult it was to write Esa, because you had to consider how his actions would be interpreted. Misconceptions about Muslims, as well as Islamophobia, are still unfortunately common in North America and Europe. Slowly, we are seeing Muslims make head way in news, television, film, books, and numerous other career paths in the West. What can non-Muslim readers and writers do to help normalize Muslim characters and boost Muslim authors?

Instead of taking a dangerous and hostile narrative about an entire group of people at face value, it’s important to challenge our own assumptions and to think critically. What lies behind our assumptions? What effect do those assumptions have on the ability of a group of people to exist without harm in our shared society? So, to that end, anything we can do to educate ourselves – whether it’s reading widely, and I could suggest a book like Khaled Beydoun’s American Islamophobia – or flipping to a different TV or radio news station than the one we typically listen to, or by opening up a space for those voices to speak for themselves and be heard – all of those actions can transform a society for the better. No democracy ever suffered from having a well-informed citizenry. And literature has a role to play here because it greatly enhances our capacity for empathy. So, the short answer would be to think critically and to open ourselves up to learning from a plurality voices.

If you could only gift one book to a friend, which would it be?

This choice was far too difficult! It would be a toss-up between these ones:

Ausma Khan writes not only mystery, but fantasy and middle grade non-fiction. You can read Bloodprint, the first installment in the Khorasan Archives today in print and as an e-book. You can also buy her middle grade book, Ramadan.

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