Interview Highlights/The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali


A good interviewer is hard to find. For real. In honor of all the splendid journalists, writers, and readers out there, here are just a few highlights from the many conversations I've enjoyed since the release of my fifth novel, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali. Thank you to each thinker, for expertly putting my work in its specific and global context, and opening the right space for me to speak and grow. Click on each link for the full interview. 

  1. How do you define and understand the genre 'Historical Fiction'?
     Alessandro Manzoni said historical novelists put 'flesh back on the skeleton that is history.' So that's one answer. But Manzoni was a white man, and history's skeleton and flesh have been constructed by privilege. My generation of women, the first to be born in Pakistan, has largely been severed from our history and geography, by the same forces that write the history and draw the maps. So I reject the notion that the history we're given is the only one there is. There are many histories, many ways to think about whose history we are meant to believe and meant to erase. For me, historical fiction is first and foremost deeply personal. It's a way to imagine the unimaginable. A way to embody stories not meant to exist. 

     "Imagining the Unimaginable With Historical Fiction." Interview with Uzma Aslam Khan in First Post. https://www.firstpost.com/living/uzma-aslam-khan-on-the-miraculous-true-history-of-nomi-ali-imagining-unimaginable-with-historical-fiction-6577581.html


    2. The novel juxtaposes the brutality during the war with the enchanting beauty of the island. The island heaves with life in the novel. Did you consciously work on this? Did you have any island novel as a template? 

       One of the questions that haunted me from the start was that despite the coconut groves and crystal bays that the British found in this pocket of the Bay of Bengal, they turned it into a penal settlement. What is the mind that looks upon beauty and sees, instead, a means of torture? That wishes for whipping stands, gallows, and eventually a highly sophisticated panopticon prison? That when surrounded by flowers unlike any in the country of its birth, aspires to be Head Constable of a solitary lock-up? I mean, think about it, even cold-bloodedly. Why destroy indigenous people and lands, and replace them with transported inmates that you must work extremely hard to crush? 
I was fairly preoccupied with these questions. They are closer than we want to acknowledge. Many of us may not be that destructive, but we destroy each other and our environment every day. We have always been attracted to beauty, and always attached it to power, with devastating consequences. So I am still haunted by these questions. What do we do with what draws us--preserve or spoil it?  
As to the last question, I didn’t have an island novel as a template, but at the British Library and Cambridge University, I read many accounts of British settlers on the islands. 

"What the Body Remembers." Interview with Uzma Aslam Khan, Punch magazine. http://thepunchmagazine.com/the-byword/interviews/uzma-aslam-khan-what-the-body-remembers 

 3. Trauma returns to the victims in the novel and they struggle to orient themselves within the fog of colonial horror (yet) their personal experiences lead them to what may be called victim/survivor empowerment. As Joy Kogawa reminds us: “What is healing for a community is more than just a solution of a political kind. What heals is a process of empowerment” (“Literary Politics” 15). How would you describe your characters in light of what I have just said?

     The body doesn't forget the silence that accompanies each violence. In The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, Kaajal tells Prisoner 218D: ‘the opposite of peace is not war. The opposite of peace is inertia.’ Writing for me is a way to resist inertia, to find a metaphor (or several) for the trauma that the body never forgets ... Writing (is also) a deeply immersive act—it demands all of me, physically. Since I never have an outline or any kind of plan, the pen and page become the entire body. The physical world tells the emotional truth. 
    Which brings me to the necessary question of healing. One reader of The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali recently pointed out that though my characters carry trauma in their bodies, they also heal each other physically, with water and earth. (She noted: Haider Ali’s mother feeding him Multani mitti. Aye holding Zee when they swim. The aborigine women painting men with clay. And many other examples I didn’t consciously see.) I’d emphasize that 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. So I agree that a political solution is not enough. Healing requires more than that: it requires that the body be written back into history, story, and collective memory.

"From a Ruin of Empire." Interview with Uzma Aslam Khan, Southeast Review. https://www.southeastreview.org/post/2019/11/11/an-interview-with-uzma-aslam-khan


4. 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 in the freedom movement 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. 
      But at some point in my journey to writing the novel, 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 in my novel was the first character I wrote, over twenty-six years. My interest was, from the start, in her daily and interior life, as someone transported and imprisoned, more than in what she did to end up there. 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 Story Has To Come From Within.” Interview with Uzma Aslam Khan, Frontline magazine. 
https://frontline.thehindu.com/arts-and-culture/article28064266.ece


5. This novel I find to be your most history-conscious to date, on many levels. One is your sense of history and history-making, with emphasis on the question of who (gets to) write/record and hence define it. Also … this novel will likely find a place in the literature of the subcontinent’s history, as a record itself—because there is little by way of fiction on it. Could you tell me how you view your role as a writer here, of writing/recording these particular histories for these times?

When I began, in the 1990s, I’d gone to the library to find a book. I didn’t find it, but found instead a book that referred to the Andaman Island “prisoner paradise.” I found the book I wanted to write. I had no idea how to start. I only knew that this was my history, not a separate Indian history. And I knew that I had not been taught it in Karachi. I don’t know how I saw my role. I think there were a multitude of impulses I could not have identified—curiosity about what I’d discovered, 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. I have a healthy dose of scepticism. I ask a lot of questions. Mind you, I’m also dutiful: for the next twenty years, I collected every article and image I could find on the islands. But what sustained me was the fiction more than the facts, the license I gave myself to create. Which is to say, the license I gave myself to exist. 
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. Now I’ve come to wonder whether it had to be written by someone in my position, someone severed from my history and geography by borders, without the privilege to suppose much, yet with the understanding that everything had to be learned and imagined from scratch. And if my novel comes to be a kind of record itself, I am honored.   

Interview with Uzma Aslam Khan, 




Black, Dalit, and Sheedi Internationalist Solidarities: Cornel West, Chandrashekhar Azad, and Tanzeela Qambrani Make History!

Always a privilege to hear the brilliant Cornel West. To have him speak alongside Dalit activist Chandrashekhar Azad and Sheedi politician Tanzeela Qambrani as they build Black, Dalit, and Sheedi (Pakistanis of African descent) internationalist solidarity movements was truly historic. Expertly navigated by Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, it aired live on June 26th.



Fortunately, there's a recording:  https://www.facebook.com/EqualityLabs1/videos/403652040529444/

Please take time out to listen! So much power and genius was spoken, it's hard to single out moments, but some highlights:

I love that it began by establishing Black internationalism as the through-line of the conversation. Soundararajan used Keisha Blain's definition: "Black internationalism is the insurgent, political, urgent culture that is a response to slavery, colonialism, and imperialism so that the visions and freedoms of Black freedom animate the international solidarity that comes out of that. Black efforts have to use international collaborations and solidarities in order to overcome the dehumanizing systems of white supremacy."

There's a whole history of Black internationalism to draw from. Names cited from this rich legacy: Cornel West, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Marcus Garvey, Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Aime Cesaire, Gwen Patton, Patrice Lumumba, Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, bell hooks, Linda Burnham, Assatta Shakur, Margo Okazawa-Rey.

Soundararajan underscored that Black internationalism also animates how South Asians confront anti-Blackness and anti-Dalitness. And just as there've been rich collaborations between Black activists worldwide, there've also been rich collaborations between Dalit activists worldwide, and Black and Dalit activists, such as between W.E.B. Dubois and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.

Black internationalism, then, is "a way for oppressed peoples to see each other," and to together resist "predatory institutions that enforce violent systems."

Chandrashekhar Azad highlighted the struggle against Brahmanism and India's caste apartheid, citing numerous instances of anti-Dalit violence. He noted that whereas police brutality against Black Americans is given coverage in the US and global media, police brutality against Dalits is hidden. He also spoke on the Citizenship Act of Dec 2019, which refuses citizenship to Muslims; the first time religion is by law an overt criterion for Indian citizenship.

Tanzeela Qambrani spoke with mesmerizing strength and poise on her experiences with anti-Black racism in Pakistan's schools and offices, in politics, and as an intersectional Black Pakistani woman. She also spoke on how George Floyd's murder was experienced by her community, and why the policemen giving themselves the power to be Floyd's judge, court, and executioners was all too familiar to her. Truly, "the time to end South Asian anti-Blackness is today."

Cornel West spoke with expansiveness and deep listening on "radical love" and the inseparability of the fight to defund the police and demilitarize the US, to end US-led and US-funded wars and occupations. In his words: "As we enable and ennoble each other, our traditions, specific and local, connect us internationally and globally against evil forces. They (these forces) are structures and institutions, as well as attitudes and dispositions. In the end, we are going to have to have an international solidarity of our voices being intertwined, with Black internationalism tied to brown tied to indigenous--across the board. We've got to make these connections so that our solidarity is real and concrete; that's precisely why our conversation today is so very, very, very important."

So, so grateful for these incredible voices. 💞

Black Lives Matter. Say Their Names.


Strong turnout last weekend in Amherst, MA, to protest the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor--whose 27th birthday should have been today--and so many other recorded & unrecorded victims of police brutality and anti-Black racism in the United States. There were several hundred people (the Gazette put the number at over 1,000). This small town's been empty because of COVID-19, and I've been in near total quarantine for almost three months. Have had to be extra cautious because of chronic respiratory issues, but was glad to break quarantine and be with others doing the same, most wearing masks, together taking a necessary risk:




The protests have been in all 50 states now, across cities and towns, and in almost two dozen countries. Let's hope this marks the beginning of a new era of police accountability, racial justice, and solidarity across communities, including with those experiencing the brutality of Empire outside US soil as well. If you haven't yet, do check out the murals dedicated to George Floyd from around the world, including an incredible one by  Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun on a wall fragment of a bombed building in Syria.

#Solidarity


"Tell me, how do you spend your time in seclusion? Do you paint? Do you dance?"

"Our seclusion weakened us economically, but fortified us aesthetically. Theatre, painting, woodblock prints--I am very partial to these, ukiyo-e, they are called, pictures of the floating world--they thrived. Tell me, how do you spend your time in seclusion? Do you paint? Do you dance?"

Grateful to Scroll magazine for selecting this excerpt from The Miraculous True History Nomi Ali, a novel about an island under all kinds of lockdowns. I loved writing this scene between Shakuntala and Dr. Mori, and the many layers of unspoken tension building between them, yet always struggle to pick an excerpt myself. Read it here:
https://scroll.in/article/958984/read-at-home-life-and-love-under-a-lockdown-in-and-around-an-andaman-prison-during-the-british-raj

Later in the book, the doctor shows Shakuntala two "pictures of the floating world," both by Utagawa Hiroshige. Among them is this one, which mesmerizes Shakuntala--and her maker. I've ordered the print, but because of the lockdown, it hasn't arrived yet. This, too, seems apt.


#StayHomeStaySafe #ReadStories

Hello Visitors.

So, first, some happy news. A story I wrote, "My Mother is a Lunar Crater," which was a runner up for lovely Calyx journal's Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing in 2018, is out in their Spring 2020 edition (Vol: 31:3). It can also be read here: www.calyxpress.org/md-prize-2018-runner-up-khan/

Second, a huge shout out to this independent press for continuing to nurture art and literature in a very difficult time, when even the most committed among us are struggling to find structure. Calyx is one of few literary journals devoted exclusively to the work of women. And it's been around for some decades. We want this to continue.  So, please, consider ordering a copy, with the gorgeous cover by Dale Champlin :  www.calyxpress.org/shop/31-3/




As Tayari Jones recently said, "Airlines and big companies are getting bailouts but writers aren't." Support those that support writers and artists.


World Water Day and Birds

Today is World Water Day. Every day ought to be, but if keeping aside one day helps to cherish this resource, I’m glad we have it. (We need to wash our hands with clean water to beat COVID-19; when we succeed, what will it matter if clean water is gone?)

I'm using my time in isolation to re-read the bird journal that sweet Dave and I began a year after we met in Tucson, Arizona. Our first entry was after a walk in Agua Caliente Park, an oasis in the desert that means “hot water.” The park has a large pond and I’ll never forget the Belted Kingfisher perched on a branch over the pond, staring intently into the water’s depths. (Dave says my spirit bird is a kingfisher.) It was also my first (and only, alas) time seeing a pair of Great Horned Owls. So we started the journal and continued for a time. Back then, we didn’t photograph what we saw; we recorded in writing. Around the time our novels began to be published, we took more pictures and the written record slowed. Lately, it's picked up again. 

In non-chronological order, I'm sharing a few pics. All photos were taken by myself or Dave, and, with one exception (Nicobar Pigeon), all are of wild birds. I've included tidbits of each one's relationship to water. With gratitude to the creatures who bring me joy and solace. And to all of you, stay well, and be kind.

1. Lahore, Pakistan. Of course I'll begin in the city of my birth! It's a treat when Eurasian Hoopoes unfurl that magic crest, which they did on many occasions on their visit to my garden after the grass had been mowed, digging into the earth for worms and water. The latter is why hoopoes were once sacred in Egypt. They were believed to detect underground sources of water, indicating where to dig a well. The bird is sacred in many other places; in the book-length poem The Conference of the Birds by the Sufi poet Attar, a hoopoe leads other birds toward faith. In our garden, we'd put out water; hoopoes would bathe in it, though they usually preferred sand baths. 



2. Salt Range Mountains, Pakistan. Greater Flamingos migrate each year to Ucchali Lake, a saltwater lake in the Punjab, where they breed. You can see them nesting on mounds of mud, as I watch from a safe distance. The population of these beautiful birds has been declining due to poaching, and because shallow salt water estuaries, lagoons, and lakes are highly fragile ecosystems. Flamingos can neither live nor breed without their rapidly diminishing habitat. Using their remarkable bills--the upper jaw is the mobile one; for more on this, read Stephen J. Gould's fascinating The Flamingo's Smile--they filter out algae, shrimp, and mollusks from the silty water.



3. Treshnish Isles, Scotland. This is one of my favorite stories. On a visit to the Scottish town of Oban, Dave and I saw a poster for a bird-watching trip to the Treshnish Isles. It was summer's end; the hope was that Atlantic Puffins would still be breeding. We took the ferry the next day. Once on the island, I scaled the steep cliffs to find razorbills, guillemots, and shags. Not a single puffin. The captain admitted they’d probably left for the open ocean, where they spend fall and winter diving for fish. As everyone returned to the boat, I stood on a cliff, staring at the ocean. The captain kept blowing the ferry horn; time to go. I could see the boat pull away, but will never regret my refusal to get on. Behind me, I heard Dave say, “There!” A flutter of wings landed at my feet. Within seconds, the sky was spotted with feathery wingbeats and puffins were landing everywhere around me. The captain saw them too. The ferry re-anchored. Everyone disembarked. For a long time, I believed there was a cosmic reason for my refusal to get on the boat; perhaps it was clairvoyance. Most likely, I was just lucky, but I certainly felt blessed. Here is one that landed at my feet: 



4. Rabat, Morocco. I know, this isn't a great picture. But it's one of only two I have of the Chellah (or holy necropolis) in Rabat, where I once lived. The other photo doesn't show the river Bou Regreg. Once an ancient Roman site, the Chellah was later used as a royal Islamic burial ground. The ruins are great for walking. The highlight is the still-standing zellige-tiled minaret beloved by the White Storks that migrate between Europe and Africa. A wetland bird, the White Stork enjoys the protection of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, obliging signatories to conserve its habit, which includes protection from power lines, pesticide use, hunting, and other human activities. The Chellah was granted World Heritage Status in 2012, years after we left Rabat for Lahore. Birds have a way of finding the best perch; I've found minarets all over the world to be bird-friendly spots.



5. Todra or Todgha Gorge, Morocco. A picture of a picture! I was too excited to take a photo, plus: it was FREEZING. After returning to the hotel (which had no heat), I got under blankets and confirmed the sighting (at least to myself). A pair of African Desert Warblers, a fairly rare sighting, as the canyon floor is usually dry. But we were there in March. The Todgha River was awakening, its banks turning green, drawing migratory birds like warblers, who love moist habitats and their insects. Right after this sighting, it rained for several days non-stop. The river became a torrent. We were stranded at the hotel. Interesting to think on all the times when I've been forced to stay in place (the most obvious one being growing up in Karachi under a military regime, and all those curfews) but that's a different story! And I'd never compare blessed rain to a cursed general, or a man, however loathed, to a virus.



6. Haleakala, Maui. Action shot! This picture of Chukar chicks was taken on my first visit to beautiful Haleakala volcano in 1994. I returned in 2008, when living in Hawaii. Chukars, native to Asia, are the national bird of Pakistan. So imagine my surprise when I saw these babies running down a crater in an archipelago that is further from a land mass than any other place on earth. Apparently, they were introduced during World War II, for food. The birds live in dry areas, where water is prized. They can use tiny amounts of rainfall that seep into dirt. (In Pakistan, people say the birds will even enter a mineshaft, to taste a hidden spring.) Too many native Hawaiian species have been lost to intruders. Yet the Chukar might play a role in dispersing seeds, including of the endemic and endangered silversword plant. Chukars, like Hoopoes, keep their feathers clean primarily with dry baths. Water is for drinking, not for play.



7. Kilauea Point, Kauai. This is a lava peninsula on the steep, northern tip of Kauai, the wettest of all the (accessible) Hawaiian islands. It is a wildlife refuge with a lighthouse, nesting seabirds, and, on the grassy slopes, Nenes. These are endemic and endangered waterfowl that can only be found in Hawaii, making them the rarest geese in the world. Unlike other geese, the Nene breeds on land. It  rarely flies. Its wings are famously weak, which made it easy to hunt. Nor does it swim very far; the feet are not as webbed as those of other geese. If water is near a nest, Nenes will swim, almost recreationally. They like a wet environment, relying on daily doses of mist and dew on the native and non-native plants they eat. Here is a pair, with chicks.



8. Guanacaste, Costa Rica. I found this Turquoise-Browed Motmot the day we were leaving our hotel on the Pacific coast. It was sitting still at the end of the long gravel driveway, flaunting that brow and racket tail (with the longest shaft of any other motmot). We had ample time to photograph it from the car, so this is one of our best bird shots; kindly credit this site if you borrow! Apparently, it's called pajaro bobo (foolish bird) for letting people come close. Ahem! I will say that it's not only easy to spot, but easy to name. (Some birds really make you wonder, like, red-rumped such and such, when the rump has no red, not one bit). Turquoise-Browed Motmots like the arid coast more than the rainforest, and build nesting burrows on sandy river banks. They're also known to build tunnel-shaped nests inside water wells.



9. Monteverde, Costa Rica. The Hummingbird Gallery at the tip of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a wider array of hummers than I've seen anywhere else. Spotted there: Violet Sabrewings, Green Violetears, Coppery-Headed Emeralds, a Green Hermit (also aptly named; so skittish!), and many, many other kinds. Pictured here are three Green Crowned Emeralds that reminded me of desi aunties. (One always had its back to the others, who complained loudly and often.) Unlike Chukars and Hoopoes, hummingbirds love to bathe in water. They like heavy rain, dew, garden sprinklers, water fountains, and, of course, sugar water in your feeder, which is similar to flower nectar. Absolutely everything they drink and eat (aside from flowers, they love bugs) depends on water.



10. Central Park Zoo, NYC. My last photo is the exception. It's of a bird in captivity. The Nicobar Pigeon is special to me as it belongs to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where I set my novel The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali. Like me, the bird is far from 'home.' It now has many homes: Malaysia, Thailand, Palau, more. For me, home is not only Pakistan, but all the places I've lived. Many geographies have shaped me, and continue to, as I reinvent a 'natural habitat.' Nomi, which took 26 years plus to complete, is a product of many displacements. (Scroll my blog for interviews describing how I came to and stuck with it.) For this post, back to the pigeon. It may be the closest relative to the extinct dodo, and its own future is precarious. What's saved it so far is a love of roaming; it will fly on the open ocean from rock to rock, sleeping on remote islands. We know that pigeons fly faster over water than over land. Even so, predators are catching up: logging, poaching, polluting, the pet trade. The IUCN lists it as a near threatened species. Will this bird survive?



Birds are free and resilient and beautiful. They do what people can only achieve through the power of our imagination: with their physical bodies, birds defy borders. Let's use our powers to keep theirs alive.


     







Forbes Library Writer in Residence Series: Narrative Parallax/CANCELLED

UPDATE ON MARCH 13, 2020: Sadly, due to coronavirus fears, this event has been cancelled. We're hoping to reschedule in the not too distant future, so stay tuned. Meantime, look after yourselves. (And, yeah, wash your hands ...)

Mark your calendars for Forbes Library's Writer in Residence Reading Series, in which I will be reading and taking questions alongside two other writers, Gina Apostol and Ellen Meeropol.

The details:
Date: Wednesday, March 18th, 2020.
Time: 7-9 p.m.
Venue: Coolidge Museum, Forbes Library, Northampton, Massachusetts

For more details, please visit the library's website : https://forbeslibrary.libcal.com/event/5872679
Or Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/759822424541881/

The event will be curated and moderated by Forbes Library's wonderful Writer in Residence, Art Middleton, who designed the intriguing title, "Narrative Parallax," to link our works. The series is a beautiful way, too, of drawing links across community here in western Mass.

I'll be reading from my new book, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali. There will be a book signing, including (hopefully!) of my previous books Trespassing, The Geometry of God, and Thinner Than Skin.

Hope to see you there!