This excerpt is from her introduction, one of her many brilliant questions (AG), and my answer (UAK):
"UZMA ASLAM KHAN's latest novel, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali (now available in the US by Deep Vellum), is a fictional account of the Andaman Islands under British and Japanese occupation, before and during World War II. With piercingly lucid attention, Uzma has drawn an intricate spider's web that is both a record and a refuge. (Nestled in the book is the story of the spider who saved the lives of Muhammad and his loyal companion by spinning a web over the mouth of the cave in which they hid.) Uzma's novel is an attempt to record the catastrophic consequences of imperial regimes while also honoring collaboratively made moments of safety and sanctuary among the colonized, including banished and incarcerated people, children, and the more-than-human world. Perhaps such possibilities are refuges unto themselves--simultaneously invisible and glinting in plain sight."
AG: To me, the tenderness with which you write is a kind of intervention of knowing that is in opposition to the colonial one. For instance, the roles that record-keeping and surveillance play in the brutalities in the imperial project, versus the "knowing" of the Mayakangne, Kwalagangne, and Dare winds. There is the intimate knowing between Priya, the chicken, and Nomi, the human. The third-person omniscient narration suggests, again, a different kind of knowing. How do you think about the memories and interiors of others within this much larger context of layered surveillance?
UAK: I love what you say about "interventions of knowing." It reminds me of Edward Said on knowledge: "Facts get their importance from interpretation [which] depend[s] on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment." When historical data privileges its own systems of knowledge, it's hard to trust the archives. It wasn't till about 15 years into the book that I began finding alternative sources, inspiring my own "interventions." A way perhaps to make fiction and an alternative record that I could trust.
I'll give examples. The titular character, Nomi, is made up. Her brother, Zee, is based on a historical figure. The first shot fired on South Andaman Island during the war was by a boy trying to save a chicken from Japanese soldiers. This actual event frames the opening chapter. Zee is based on the boy, Priya on the chicken. I took the liberty of giving Zee and Priya a loving sister.
The jailer, Cillian, is also based on a historical figure. I found reference to him in male prisoner testimonials. He is particularly feared by Prisoner 218 D. After the surrender of the Japanese, when the British reoccupied the islands, part of their strategy involved enlisting the help of former jailers. Cillian returns, with all the horrors that he took part in buried, along with my prisoner's name, beneath an official narrative of "white savior."
Too, the knowledge that you speak of between human and non-human. It's essential in all my books. For me, the physical world tells the emotional truth. One that's displaced when human and nonhuman reciprocity is displaced. So, for instance, the cost of war on indigenous fishermen because of underwater mines that removed them from their oldest food source and ally, the sea.
I can't say how I accessed these interiors. Love. Listening. A willingness to stay a long time, for instance, with the "knowing" of the winds that you mention. Interventions of knowing require immersion, empathy--these are acts of faith. There's a scene in the book in which an old man bemoans that the British never took their shoes off before entering a temple. I took my shoes off many times, yet I wasn't given permission to truly enter till I found Nomi.
** Read our full conversation here. So much gratitude to Aracelis, and to LARB for hosting us.**
Also, don't forget! (See previous post!) I'll be in conversation with another wonderful artist, Mara Ahmed, at McNally Jackson Booksellers in NYC--Seaport location, 4 Fulton Street--on June 28 at 7:00 p.m. Registration is required; please click here.
So honored to make language with dazzlingly large-hearted, deep-thinking women.