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.
- 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.
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,
Café Dissensus. https://cafedissensusblog.com/2019/08/30/making-write-right-our-world-a-conversation-with-author-uzma-aslam-khan/