Open Book Society, reviewer Scott, is back this week with an all new interview. Here he chats with Ausma Zehanat Khan author of debut novel THE UNQUIET DEAD, in which they discuss the book, its characters, the research done for the story, the novel’s title, and more. Enjoy!
Scott: You seem to view the Bosnian conflict as a drastic failure on the part of the U.N. You almost take a bitter tone towards the U.N. in probably its worst hour. How do you think this failure of governments reflected on the novel?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: I do think it was a terrible failure, and it was a failure that can be quantified. The war produced a hundred thousand dead, along with the unimaginable horrors of the crimes that accompanied it—mass rape, mass murder, deportation, torture, concentration camps, genocide. When we think of the United Nations, as it relates to the war in Bosnia, we’re really discussing the actions of key members of the UN Security Council—France, Britain and the United States. And these countries insisted on deploying a peacekeeping force where there was no peace to keep, to avoid taking the very necessary action that was required from the outset of the war: a quick, decisive, limited use of force to protect a civilian population.
The Security Council also approved an arms embargo that left the people of Bosnia defenceless against the might of the Yugoslav National Army, as it worked with the Bosnian Serb Army to “ethnically cleanse” Bosnia. So you had a protection force on the ground that offered no protection, which in turn became the pretext for refusing more purposeful action. And all the while, the Security Council insisted that the Bosnian government accept the military realities on the ground, by ratifying the same peace plans that acknowledged and rewarded a genocide.
So I would be surprised if the Bosnian people didn’t feel very bitter indeed about the role the United Nations played, particularly in the fall of Srebrenica. Promised airstrikes failed to materialize, the Dutch battalion on the ground assisted the Bosnian Serb Army in its task of depopulating the safe area of its Muslim inhabitants, and Dutchbat failed to urgently report crimes as they occurred, the most telling of these being the separation and detention of the Bosnian Muslim men. This is a failure the UN roundly admits, and as such, it was essential to the story I tell in ‘The Unquiet Dead.’
Scott: The main protagonists of your story are members of the Community Policing Section based in Toronto. They are asked to consult on a case by Canada’s Department of Justice. Compared to Canadian policing, how do you think the novel would have reflected in the mirror of a post 9/11 U.S with the Department of Homeland Security and ever-increasing powers of intelligence agencies in “fighting the good fight?”
Ausma Zehanat Khan: Canada is moving in the direction of the United States, in terms of more sweeping counter-terrorism initiatives and police powers, although it’s not quite there yet. The national press and groups in civil society remain vigilant about infringements on constitutionally protected rights, so there continues to be a healthy debate in Canada about issues such as extensive surveillance and racial profiling. As ‘The Unquiet Dead’ doesn’t really touch on terrorism or issues of homeland security, it’s hard to say how such a story might play out differently in the American context. Canada prides itself on its multiculturalism and its sensitivity to minorities, so the Canadian government would have to strenuously engage those communities to justify more hard-hitting or intrusive policies. But I hope that doesn’t come to pass.
Scott: A little theory here: according to Margaret Atwood, in the British novel, characters try to break free from their familial unit with little or no success. American novels have the characteristic of having their protagonists break free from familial bonds in order to get on with their lives. In the Canadian novel, characters try to escape, temporarily do so, and wind up back at the place where they started. All of the characters in the novel seemed to follow the Canadian model. Was this intentional or just the way you see the Canadian familial unit, be it immediate as in Rachel’s case, or cultural as in the Bosnian community?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: Hmmm. I wasn’t consciously following any model—just allowing my characters the room to breathe and grow. I think with a series it’s hard to reach that conclusion because the continuing characters will continue to grow away from the place we left them in the first book. So Rachel and Esa are quite different in that respect, and I would be disappointed if they didn’t have a chance to experience that growth. But with regard to the Bosnian community, I would say that this has less to do with culture and more to do with notions of justice. Those who have not received justice are invariably trapped in the past, struggling to find a way to break free and move forward. For survivors of a war, it must be more difficult still. There’s a guilt in moving on, but I hope there’s a peace in it, also.
Scott: The research must have been phenomenal in order to have the novel come off as smoothly as it did. The information was poignant and disturbing throughout the novel. How much of your research made it into the novel and how much is still lingering to tell to the audience?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: What an insightful question! There’s a great deal of research that made it into the novel, but much more besides that had to be curtailed so as not to overwhelm the story or the mystery. When it comes to any war and its far-reaching consequences, there are thousands of stories left to tell. As just one example, however terrible the UN role in the fall of Srebrenica was, in this book, I don’t get into what happened on the day that the Bosnian Serb Army actually advanced into the safe area. Air strikes in defence of Srebrenica had been authorized—they would have halted the Serb advance and prevented the Srebrenica massacre. But how they failed to materialize in time, is a grievously compelling story of its own, that on the surface comes down to the mere bureaucracy of improperly filed paperwork and jets that had run out of fuel—whereas, underneath the surface, unproven rumors of a conspiracy between UN generals and Serb leaders, circulate to this day. I had to make some painful choices about what to keep in and what to leave out.
Scott: Rachel and Esa, seem to be perfect complements of each other. Was this intentional? The culmination of Rachel’s efforts to find her brother seem to allow her to crack the case, whereas Esa’s unwillingness to rise above the conflicts of his past make him blind to the truths that Rachel diligently pursues. Would you care to comment on this paradox?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: I needed Esa and Rachel to be foils for each other, so that each could tease out unsuspected depths in the other, but also so that my two detectives could bring something different to the investigation. Esa brings his knowledge of and sensitivity to Muslim cultures and history to the case. Rachel understands how a history of personal pain and loss might shape a person’s motivations in the present. They see things differently, but part of what I hope is the tension and dynamism of the novel, is how they try to understand the other’s point of view. Rachel’s personal enlightenment allows her to see the case clearly. As you’ve mentioned, Esa’s inability to come to terms with the past, continues to cloud his judgment in the present. I think it’s my way of saying that you have to let go of something, to discover something new.
Scott: This mystery was incredibly well-paced. In a mystery novel you have to learn how to add just enough information at any given time to whet the reader’s appetite, and just enough smoke and mirrors to displace them. How difficult was it to pace this book, keeping in mind that it had a much larger thematic goal to convey?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: The pacing of this book, particularly its more suspenseful elements, flowed naturally from the narrative for me. What I found challenging was determining the placement of the flashbacks so that they would serve to advance the story, while fitting smoothly within the overall narrative. That took several attempts, and the help of a very talented editor, to get right.
Scott: The novel reads almost like an Agatha Christie novel, with a bit of the more grittiness of the modern age. Murder on the Orient Express comes to mind almost immediately. Sherlock Holmes also appears to be an influence. Whereas Ms. Marple or Poirot seem to not have “sidekicks” (Sherlock only has a recorder of his tales), Esa does. The “sidekick” winds up putting the pieces together in the end. How much of an influence have Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie had on your work?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: I’m a fan of both writers, who are giants in the history of detective fiction, but personally, I’ve been much more influenced by Ngaio Marsh. Not only is she such a gifted stylist, I’ve always been drawn to her construction of character, which is layered and complex, and brilliantly intriguing. She takes you on a journey with her characters, which is a great part of the pleasure of getting lost in her books. But I don’t think of Rachel as Esa Khattak’s sidekick, I see my detectives as equals. Each has something to contribute, and each one’s perspective on the case as it unfolds is equally valuable. They’re meant to learn from each other.
Scott: Finally. The Unquiet Dead as a title seems to refer to many aspects of the novel. The Bosnian victims, the character of “Christopher,” even the pasts of Esa and Rachel. How much thought did you put into the title and how important do you think the title is to a book?
Ausma Zehanat Khan: I put a great deal of thought into the title of the book, and it’s an interesting question, because the book’s working title was ‘An Unsafe Area.’ In the end, though, that title didn’t seem nearly evocative enough to carry the many resonances of the story. ‘The Unquiet Dead’ is a phrase that speaks to the heart of the novel, to its moral purpose. For me, titles are significant because they express what the book is about, conveying an idea to the audience of the book, but also allowing the author to play with language, and to use all the creative and imaginative tools at his or her disposal. Finding the right title is a thoroughly rewarding challenge.
- Be sure to read our review for THE UNQUIET DEAD here at OBS.
Thank you to author Ausma Zehanat Khan for an amazing interview!