A HAUNTING, NECESSARY CONVERSATION -- interview in Cafe Dissensus

A joy to be in conversation with writer Pooja Pande, who somehow manages to put each one of my books in its specific and global context. In her words, 'Besides being an accomplished literary masterpiece, The Miraculous True History Nomi Ali is also an important book for our times in the context of migration and hate politics, as we shape our history, catastrophically failing at all the big questions of race, identity, and the wielding of power. To top it all, what makes Nomi supremely special is that, as readers, we get to witness a shining depiction of a masterful, empathetic writer at her creative peak.'  


Pooja Pande (PP): This novel I find to be your most history-conscious one to date; your sense of history and history-making, with particular emphasis on who gets to record and hence define it. (It) will likely find a place in the literature of the subcontinent's history, as a record itself. Could you speak about how you view your role as a writer here, of and for these times?

Uzma Aslam Khan (UAK): I don't know how I saw my role. I think there were a multitude of impulses I could not have identified--rebellion against my own ignorance and the notion that the history I was given is the only one there is. I think I always rejected that notion, long before I read about the (Andaman Island) prisoner paradise. I have a healthy dose of skepticism.

At some point, I did realize that no other fiction on the islands during the 1930s and 40s had been written before, at least, to my knowledge, in English. If my novel comes to be a kind of record itself, I am honored.

PP: Memory has a multi-layered resonance in this novel and its making. The story also explores how space has memory too--the land, the water, the sky. What do you feel about this lingering presence of memory in the novel, especially since the story itself has been with you through 26 years?

UAK: Yes, 26 years. That is more than half my life, so you could say that I grew up writing this book. During those years, I moved across North America, North Africa, South Asia, and Oceania. Among the few constants was the prisoner in my book. Of course, I didn't consciously know it. I simply moved, and moved her. She was physically transported, physically severed from home, but memory followed, and kept expanding.

In my book Thinner Than Skin, a character says, 'Everything alive is in movement and everything that moves is alive.' I wonder if this is my prayer for all those who are displaced. To keep finding life, no matter how hard a severance may be. Often, this requires careful navigation of memory.

PP: While your previous novels have all featured female voices prominently, this novel strengthens and enhances these further ... At the same time, there is a disruption of even that reading. Could you share with us the birth and shaping of these characters? Also, who was the most difficult to let go of?

UAK: Each character had its own genesis. As noted, the prisoner was the first one I wrote. Though her story arc took so long to complete, as a character, she didn't change much, she was always who she was. In contrast, Shakuntala is completely different now. During the war, she became someone I did not foresee but grew to very much respect. The Japanese characters came to me fully formed. Perhaps I drew from some lingering memory of my time in Tokyo, where I lived as a child ... When I found Nomi, the book found its momentum. She and the prisoner were a kind of dual compass. The prisoner started the journey to the book. Nomi completed it. Both were hard to let go of. But many others were too, for instance, Haider Ali (Nomi's father). He tugged, and still does.

PP: The stories of brutal state-sponsored clampdowns ... are, needless to say, feeling quite chillingly close to the bone these days. What were the resonances for you as the creator of this novel, as a global citizen?

UAK: Unfortunately, very many. I scratched the first lines soon after the 1991 Gulf War, and the wars, of course, never stopped. After 9/11, the topic of a distant territory used by an imperial power to incarcerate and torture 'terrorists' became eerily close, with the parallels between Andaman and Guantanamo. The absence of empathy for people from the Global South is one of many reasons why I could not give up on the book.



A writer is lucky when an interviewer asks excellent questions. Shireen Quadri at Punch magazine opens the right space for my new book, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali. I say things I'd been wanting to say for a time, and those that surprise me. 

Shireen Quadri (SQ): The evocative passages (in The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali) describing the suffering of Prisoner 2018 D bring to mind your treatment of the corporal, which is also evident in your earlier novels. Do you have to work on this element?

Uzma Aslam Khan (UAK): Writing for me is a deeply immersive act — it demands of me, physically. Since I never have an outline or any kind of plan, it’s as though the union between pen and page becomes the body. 

Recently, I read an article about Frida Kahlo’s illnesses, and how her work reflected this. I realised that mine did, too. I’m not comparing my work to hers, but I also had a difficult childhood, health-wise, which has carried into adulthood, and I do find it interesting that disability becomes a site of exploration. My characters are dealing with trauma that is held in the body. A reader recently pointed out that they also heal each other physically, often with water and earth. Haider Ali’s mother feeds him Multani mitti. Aye holds Zee when they swim. The aborigine women paint men with clay. And other examples.

I’d emphasise that we are still overlooking the catastrophic impact of trauma — local, including within the family, and global — on the body. What happens when the body is written out of history and memory, generation after generation, can only be written, reclaimed, and healed by the body.

SQ: Do you see nature as one of the novel’s characters since it is steeped in the colour, and silences, of the place, the expanse of the sky, the land and the sea, and lends the novel breath and breadth? 

UAK: Absolutely. Nature is a primary character — Nomi, the prisoner, and the other characters are part of it. They can’t be separated. This isn’t something I was striving for; it’s just how I work. As noted in the previous question, I don’t work well with abstractions. The physical world tells the emotional truth. For instance, it’s one thing to say that the Second World War caused indigenous fishermen in the Andaman Islands to lose a primary source of food. It’s quite another to show the fear caused by underwater mines, and the totality with which the mines displaced fishermen from their oldest cultural ally, the sea. A fiction writer needs to capture that relationship from within, its beauty and its loss, physically and emotionally.

SQ: Is there anything about this novel that nobody asked you about and you’d like to share?

UAK: Thank you for this question. I wonder if I can ask, simply: why does this story matter today? 

My answer: It is dangerous to think of 1930s and 40s Andaman Islands as merely a “remote” history, or as a past that is “over.” There is still today a terrible battle underway worldwide between right-wing ideologies. Each time we label a land and people “remote,” we are complicit in their marginalisation, which in turn is a kind of violence. Children like Nomi are still caught in the crossfires. They are still losing families to death, detention, and irreversible emotional damage. Women like the unnamed prisoner are still unnamed, still forgotten. We — the global we — never freed ourselves of fascism. For all our present-day talk of diversity, the lives of people from outside the “known” Euro-American universe are still being erased, and those who survive are expected to exist gratefully on the margins, still silenced, still unequal. This history is chillingly cyclical, and this fiction, to me at least, is very much of the moment. 

THINNER THAN SKIN is released in Pakistan!

Thinner Than Skin is out in a new Pakistani paperback edition, thanks to Readings/Elan Vital.

Love how the designer captures the shape-shifting mountains and myths of the novel's setting, Kaghan Valley and Gilgit-Baltistan, along the Old Silk Road.

My slightly belated Eidi would be that the next time you're in a bookshop,
consider getting this and the new novel, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali :-) 


After 50 years, Pakistan's leading monthly magazine, Herald, is suspending publication. A huge, huge loss--I've always loved reading and occasionally writing for one of the few media outlets in Pakistan to consistently support art and culture, while providing bold, in-depth coverage of local and global events. Though so bittersweet, I couldn't be more honored that in this last issue, my novel The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali has gotten an expansive, detailed, beautiful review by the writer Osama Siddique. It's a review to dream of--a three-page spread about the prose, as well as the specificity and universality, past and present, of the novel's context. An excerpt:

'In important ways, even more so than a good history book, it is good fiction that is truly capable of capturing not just what it is factually known to have transpired but also the attendant hopes, dreams, and emotions of a people and an era. Such a work of fiction miraculously lifts the mists of collective forgetfulness. The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali performs that vital and welcome miracle ... The voices of the past have been successfully captured and amplified by this remarkable novel ... (with a) dream-like quality to (the) beautiful prose. (It) is a novel about pain, loss and systematic exploitation but ultimately, it is also about injustice that transcends time and locale. And yet ... it does  not obfuscate injustice as a neutral, ahistorical and decontextualized phenomenon. It provides no leeway for the unjust to breathe easy. In Khan's politics, the ingloriousness of empires, the tyranny of the oppressors and suffering of the victims are not abstract ideas. She engages with these ideas through specific stories with a definite history and a particular geography--a history and geography that keep repeating ... At the same time, all that in no way prevents her from also successfully exploring the universality of the phenomena. Therein lies the great success of the novel.'

With so much gratitude to the magazine and the reviewer.  

INTERVIEW IN FRONTLINE MAGAZINE: 'The story has to come from within'

Interview with eminent writer, journalist, and Associate Editor of Frontline magazine, Ziya Us Salam


There are many histories and many ways of looking at history. Yet there is a common strand of marginalization of the role of women. History is often told from a male gaze. How challenging was it to address these inequities in a work of historical fiction?

At the start, it wasn't challenging so much as frustrating. I encountered references to women as either feminine ideals--dutiful and chaste sisters and wives who supported the efforts of men, mostly through social work--or else championed for being 'as strong as men.' There the narrative stopped. The social and sexual stigma around their life in the prison colony meant that they were barely if ever mentioned in books written by men.

It must have been frustrating?

At some point, I stopped caring about what had or had not been said. I entered that other world, the one of fiction, where the focus is on language and character. The unnamed political prisoner was the first character I wrote, over twenty-six years ago. My interest was, from the start, in her daily and interior life, as someone transported and imprisoned. I didn't want to erase or champion her: I wanted to know her as a person, in her entirety. She was a seed that I carried with me, across many seas. I just had to be patient. I had to let her speak. The same was true for Nomi, who in a sense becomes the keeper of her family's history. I wanted to know how she got there. I wanted to value her life, as a young girl who grows up not only between two colonial powers, but between two parents who largely don't see her. I just had to hold her, and listen, and forget about any other gaze.

The book took around 26 years to be completed. Yet it has a seamless narrative. How challenging was it to keep coming back to it after each of your other novels? 

There is a lovely compliment embedded in your question. Thank you. I have actually asked myself the same question. How did I slip back into this book, after immersing myself totally, body and soul, in each of the others? And now I am not complimenting myself so much as acknowledging that I don't quite understand. I think the simple reason is love. The unnamed prisoner, Nomi, Shakuntala, Aye, Haider Ali--I simply could not abandon them. They seemed to know it because they never left me either.

Mind you, this doesn't mean I love the characters in my other books any less. It means there is never a choice--you love who you love. Through writing, I've discovered a greater capacity to hold love for multiple people across time and place.


Read the full interview here: https://frontline.thehindu.com/arts-and-culture/article28064266.ece

Two more loving reviews for The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali

'Khan paints her characters with a loving, generous hand ... urging you to remember, and urging you to find delight in the remembering.' Open magazine https://www.openthemagazine.com/article/books/the-act-of-remembering

'Language remains the strongest character in the narrative ... A consummate storyteller, (Khan) keeps readers engrossed till the end. It is one story that you should not miss.' Tribune