Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty are partners in the Community Policing Section of the Canadian Police, a special division that handles cases that might affect minority communities. They are surprised when they are called to a beautiful lake-side home where a man appears to have simply fallen to his death.
As the case builds, Esa and Rachel realize there is nothing simple about this crime, or about the way we deal with the past. With flashbacks to Bosnia during genocide, this book is a deep look at revenge, forgiveness, community, and family.
Ausma Zehanat Khan has created complex characters and a gritty, multi-layered mystery that spans the globe and time. A wonderful debut, this the first in a series of three mysteries with Esa and Rachel. The third novel in this series will be available February 14, 2017.
Ausma graciously agreed to answer some questions for me here at Book Club Advisor.
You’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but do you mind briefly telling my readers about the inspiration for this book?
The Unquiet Dead arose out of research I had done for my dissertation on military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. I’d studied the Bosnian genocide for many years, and I felt the tragedy of it was slipping away without any of its lessons being learned. I wanted to tell a story that reflected the criminality of the genocide, and the unimaginable loss. There’s a line in The Unquiet Dead: “how quickly the violent ideals of ultra-nationalism led to hate, how quickly hate to blood.” I think that’s a lesson for us now.
For readers outside of Canada, is there really a division in the police in Canada that works with crimes that might have racial/religious subtleties? If not, how would you feel about that being created?
Most police forces do engage in some sensitivity training and I had a read about a similar program of the RCMP’s in British Columbia, so I drew my inspiration from that. I think it’s a near-impossible mandate, walking both sides of that line: representing law enforcement to minority communities and vice versa. I suspect a great deal of the time those interests are in conflict.
Both Esa and Rachel are characters who seem to chafe in their own skin at times, within their identities and physical appearance. In what ways do you think that struggle is universal and in what ways unique to people who are seen as the other, through appearance, religion, or career choice?
A certain amount of self-doubt and the struggle to grow or to be accepted is universal, of course. But how marginalized communities experience the world is not a universal experience: that speaks more to an imbalance of power, an invisibility imposed by the powerful, and a struggle for representation (and in some cases justice), in the face of dominant narratives and structures. I don’t think I’ve written Esa as someone who is uncomfortable in his own skin, quite the opposite. I think that what’s uncomfortable is that Esa is describing his reality as he experiences it. And as a man of color who is a practicing Muslim, that reality is challenging on his best days. Rachel is fighting different battles: how to be recognized and treated as an equal in a male-dominated field, how to heal herself after the family turmoil she’s experienced. She’s been made to doubt herself; that she’s developed a certain amount of self-belief is meant to reflect her strength.
How do you think this impacts their working relationship with each other?
What they have in common is a great deal of empathy, and a natural consideration they gladly extend to each other. They both have to learn something new and unfamiliar—it makes each of them uncomfortable at times, but it means the relationship they’re slowly building is real.
How similar are you to Esa, to Rachel? Did they introduce themselves to you, or did you feel like they were parts of you that you wanted to explore?
Rachel definitely introduced herself to me. She willed herself into being in a loud, determined voice and then she kept surprising me. Esa I had been thinking about for a long time. We share certain characteristics—ethnicity, faith, and history—but he, too, became himself, quiet and determined with a spine of steel. Both these characters are braver and bolder than I could dream of being—that’s one of the great things about writing them!
As you wrote, how did you feel about the echoes and ghosts of war that live on in the people who survive? What do you think the relationship is between justice, revenge, forgiveness, and healing?
My father was a psychiatrist and one of the things he taught me was that our tragedies and our traumas never completely leave us; we may come to terms with them, we may move on from them, but they leave their imprint behind. In the case of Bosnia, I don’t think you can have meaningful forgiveness for the scale of the crimes that took place unless two key factors are in place: accountability and atonement. That means an end to genocide denial, and a frank admission of culpability, which would involve paying the price for those crimes, instead of allowing genocidaires to walk free. If that were to happen, then a painstaking, long-term effort at national reconciliation might produce some form of healing over time. But the dead are never forgotten by those who love them. As we’ve learned from the Holocaust, their voices follow us down across the years.
How do you think social support plays a part in building community and healing, with the daily micro and major aggressions Muslims and other targeted religions/ethnicities face and for those who have experienced the worst of these aggressions, ethnic cleansing?
Social support, grass roots activism, community solidarity—all those factors are important, as we’ve seen with protests in support of Black Lives Matter or against the Muslim ban. Speaking for myself, that constant negative rhetoric alongside the attempt to engage people who see you as less than human, is fatiguing and demoralizing. It can’t be good for anyone’s mental health or well-being to live with a sense of not being valued or worse, of actively being targeted. I see people doing important community work all the time, extending solidarity, building bridges… the smallest gestures to the grand. All of that work is vital, humanizing and truly uplifting. It matters and wherever I see it, I am grateful for it and deeply moved by it. And I remind myself to do my part because it takes each one of us to combat this kind of hostility and hate. The other benefit is that when you build these bridges and have an exchange of views, you become less fearful of the Other, which in turn diminishes prejudice.
How did you manage your own emotions writing something so grueling?
Writing a story automatically creates distance: you can shift your emotions on to your characters and have your characters work through them. And I continually remind myself that I am an observer, a chronicler—I’m not the one who suffered these horrors, so it’s important not to shift the focus from that truth. I will say that some of that testimony will never leave my thoughts or my heart.
On a lighter note who would you like to play Esa and Rachel for television or film? I know I pictured them distinctly as I read, and would love to know how they look walking around in your head.
There’s a very famous Pakistani actor by the name of Fawad Afzal Khan who I could imagine as a younger version of Esa Khattak. He is simply gorgeous and he’s an excellent actor, as well! And I really loved Billie Piper’s portrayal of Rose on Doctor Who, so I would vote for her. She’s tough and lively and she has so much heart.
You have two books coming out this year, Among the Ruins and The Bloodprint. What can you tell us about them? What are you working on now?
Among the Ruins is the third Khattak/Getty mystery and we see Rachel and Esa dealing with the repercussions of their last two cases as they take on a very daunting challenge in Iran: the murder of a Canadian-Iranian filmmaker. This mystery is part treasure-hunt, part travelogue and it really shines a light on human rights issues in Iran. We also see Rachel and Esa’s relationship growing deeper in this book. The Bloodprint is the first in a four-book fantasy series for Harper Voyager: in a world where women are enslaved, a female warrior-scholar named Arian is gifted with a powerful magic. She sets out on a quest to reclaim a sacred text that will deliver her people from forces that have spread darkness throughout the land of Khorasan.
And currently, I’m working on the next Khattak/Getty mystery where Rachel and Esa must search for a missing friend against the backdrop of the Syrian refugee crisis.
They sound intriguing! I look forward to reading them. Thank you again for your time!
Find out more about Ausma here:
Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of the award-winning debut novel The Unquiet Dead, the first in the Khattak/Getty mystery series. Her subsequent novels include the critically acclaimed The Language of Secrets and Among the Ruins. The Khattak/Getty mystery series has been optioned for television by Lionsgate, and Ausma is also the author of a forthcoming fantasy series for Harper Voyager. The Bloodprint, Book One of the Khorasan Archives will be 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.