Competition published on August 4, 2017.
Scarborough Bluffs, Toronto: the body of Christopher Drayton is found at the foot of the cliffs. Muslim Detective Esa Khattak, head of the Community Policing Unit, and his partner Rachel Getty are called in to investigate. As the secrets of Drayton s role in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide of Bosnian Muslims surface, the harrowing significance of his death makes it difficult to remain objective.
In a community haunted by the atrocities of war, anyone could be a suspect. And when the victim is a man with so many deaths to his name, could it be that justice has at long last been served?
“We have 3 copies of The Unquiet Dead to give away – scroll down for your chance to win*
This is what just a few of our Real Readers had to say:
A beautifully written piece, providing everything expected from a murder mystery and more. The writer evokes thoughts of identity and kinship, challenging the reader to evaluate their heritage. Writing this thoughtful and compelling is a rarity and a joy to behold. A book that I would highly recommend and an author whose work I will highly anticipate.
Rekha Duggal, 5*
This is a superb, amazing and intellectually stimulating first novel…meticulously researched…The main story is compelling, hauntingly powerful, and often very difficult to read. The author often uses chapters in italics to record what certain people endured, and the difficulties they found in telling the amazingly disinterested world about what was happening to them…In the end it isn’t just gripping, it is devastating!
Sue Goult, 5*
This is a fantastic debut novel, where one must question what is right and wrong, has justice been done, and what really is the definition of justice. How or why did the United Nations stand by allowing genocide on a massive scale to happen once again at the hands of fascists in Europe? This book will remain in your memory long after you have finished reading and asks sensible questions of us all.
Paul Diggett, 5*
The book is a brilliantly constructed novel. The chapters swap between being about the main characters, the investigation and the atrocities of Srebrenica. The mystery surrounding the death of Christopher Drayton makes the book a page turner but the author also hints at problems within the main characters lives which leave you intrigued about them as well. The more information revealed about the death, as well as the main characters, makes the book a very compelling read. The manner in which the story unfolds is brilliantly thought through and keeps you guessing and interested throughout the whole novel. This is a highly recommended read, an elegantly written murder mystery with complex and intriguing characters, based around a haunting period in recent history.
Jo Kirk, 5*
AUTHOR MEETS REVIEWER…
Reviewer Linda Hepworth was also seriously impressed and we asked her to come up with some questions for Ausma, to further explore the themes behind this important novel:
LH: Your experience in international human rights law enables you to write with considerable authority about the atrocities of the Bosnian War, especially the Srebrenica massacre, an event which is central to this story. What influenced your decision to use a fictional story to convey something of the horror of what Bosnian Muslims experienced at that time?
AZK: I’d tried to write about the war before—I’d written a play, several poems, even songs, but I wasn’t able to do justice to what I’d learned. Because the subject of the war is so daunting and so heavy, I eventually realized that a novel would allow me the scope and nuance I was looking for without overwhelming myself or the reader.
LH: You use quotes from testimonies heard during the subsequent War Crimes Tribunal to introduce each chapter. Many of these were harrowing because they reflected the horrific experiences so many people faced, whilst others reflected acts of supreme courage and of optimism for the future they made me cry and they made me angry. Why was it important for you to remind people of the truly monstrous events which took place, the immediate effects on so many people and the long-term repercussions for the individuals and families involved – in effect, to give voices to the “unquiet dead”?
AZK: The Bosnian genocide formed the subject of nearly all of my graduate research, and for a long time after, I kept up with news of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It had been such a focal part of my studies, yet at the same time I was seeing the voices of the victims fading into memory, or not being memorialized at all. Genocide denial has been a terrible aspect of the post-genocide phase, it silences the victims twice. I didn’t want those voices to be lost, so I tried to do my small part to resurrect them.
LH: I really enjoyed the developing relationship between your two main characters, Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty. On the face of it they are very different personalities, and come from very different backgrounds, yet they work very effectively together. When you first started writing this story did you have a very clear image of each of these characters and how their partnership would work?
AZK: I had a very clear image of Rachel from the beginning. She has the kind of personality and humour that asserts itself and starts speaking very clearly, forcing me to listen to her. Esa took me longer to figure out—I think I’m still figuring him out because he’s not like other characters. He can’t simply serve the story, he stands for something bigger than himself. As a Canadian Muslim, he’s carrying the weight of an entire discourse about Muslims in the West, and that’s trickier to navigate while still trying to determine who he is as an individual. I did know how I wanted them to relate to each other—tentatively finding their way towards a mutual trust and respect.
LH: It seemed to me that some of what they have in common is focused on their shared commitment to seeking truth and justice for victims, and this was a central theme in the novel. In what ways did your own experiences influence the way in which you portrayed the characters?
AZK: Without overstating my experience as a researcher or a teacher of law, I can say that I’m fundamentally driven by a strong commitment to universal human rights. We know from so many crises around the world, that the political will to commit to the protection of human rights is glaringly absent when weighed against factors such as state sovereignty or national interest. But I conceive of the inviolability of sovereignty as being dependent on a state’s ability and willingness to protect and defend the human rights of its citizens — sovereignty as the responsibility to protect. So that’s the framework for how I write about these issues.
LH: Your explorations of what constitutes justice (for both the living and the dead), and whether this can always be achieved by following the strict letter of the law, are an important part of what made this such a thought-provoking book to read. How important is it to find ways to ensure that a search for justice doesn’t become a vehicle for seeking revenge acts?
AZK: This is the question I left up to my readers to answer with The Unquiet Dead. What does justice look like? What should it look like? How sacred are our principles when they come up against gruesome realities? How much do we expect the victimized to suffer in the name of principle? Of course, I’m committed to the rule of law. The question I’m exploring is what we do when the law is fundamentally unjust, or when it no longer serves to defend and protect. What I’ve found is that when justice is upheld, the need for vigilantism vanishes.
LH: Something else Esa and Rachel share is the experience of profound personal loss and many of your other characters also faced devastating losses. Is an exploration of the effects of loss, and the repercussions of it, an important part of your story-telling?
AZK: Yes, I think it’s fundamental. For my detectives to have experienced loss, greatly increases their capacity for empathy and their ability to move beyond narrow constructions of right and wrong. It gives them insight into the cases they investigate. On another level, with all these characters, it allows me to write about our capacity for redemption, and our ability to reconstruct ourselves in the face of tragedy, though we can never be as we once were. Exploring who we are in the aftermath is a hallmark of my books.
LH: In spite of all the disturbing and harrowing themes in the story there are also very powerful ones of love, forgiveness and redemption. Did it feel important to you to reflect this balance?
AZK: Yes, definitely. What amazed me during the course of my work on Bosnia—and later when I travelled to Bosnia and met many Bosnians, was a spirit of hope and forgiveness. That’s why I write about these themes: when we achieve justice, it opens up that hope and the possibility of reconciliation. But I can’t imagine one without the other—to me, they’re tied together.
LH: Esa was appointed to head a newly formed Community Policing Section. Its rather vague remit is rooted in pressure to be seen to be responding to a political shift to the right rather than a determined attempt to confront racism, so he suspects that his appointment could be something of a “fig leaf”, used to counter accusations of bias towards minority groups. Do you think that countries and communities should be acting much more robustly to tackle the very serious problems caused by any sort of extremism?
AZK: Absolutely. The rise of the far right, of neo-Nazi elements in Europe and the United States, the apparent sanctioning of racist violence by political figures and media—a top-down sanctioning—can have disastrous results for the rights of minority communities. Hate crimes are on the rise everywhere, so unless these extremist groups are robustly confronted by the organs of state, law enforcement, media and education, they will continue to flourish and gain strength. There’s a discourse that’s been mainstreamed that was unthinkable a decade ago. And that discourse is leading to violence, and to the abrogation of civil rights.
LH: Investigations into the mysterious death which is central to the novel lead Esa and Rachel into a centre for Muslim refugees where they are greeted with suspicion and have their intentions questioned. I thought that you evocatively captured the understandable reactions from people who have every reason to fear official intervention. From your own professional experience, how difficult is it for trust to be established with people who have experienced the trauma of being forced to flee their homeland?
AZK: Very difficult. I’ve interviewed refugees from a number of different communities and it takes time and care to build the trust that encourages someone to speak of what they’ve suffered. Refugees have experienced violence and bigotry as they’ve fled, much of it from state or sub-state actors. In many of the countries they’re fleeing, the security apparatus and the police are corrupt or tyrannical or oppressive. In many Western nations, including Canada and Australia, the detention process refugees face after fleeing effectively criminalizes those who’ve already suffered the kind of cruelty we can’t begin to imagine. When you carry the weight of those experiences and that history, it’s difficult to know who to trust, or who is genuinely interested in your well-being.
LH: This story is set in Canada, a country not normally associated with mindless bigotry, prejudice, anti-Muslim rhetoric and ultra-right wing views. What do you think has influenced this recent development, not only in Canada but in so many other countries?
AZK: In Canada, our last parliamentary election brought this kind of rhetoric out into the open. We heard for the first time a strident debate about “Canadian values” and “barbaric cultural practices.” Fear-mongering against refugees and other groups was seized upon, and given official sanction by various political leaders. These, of course, are just code words: they reflect entrenched white privilege holding onto its ground against an increasingly diverse and multicultural Canadian society—a fear of the Other. Canada’s example is an interesting one because the debate about Canadian values conveniently erases Canada’s oppression of and ongoing disenfranchisement of its indigenous population. In any debate about who belongs in Canada or the “ownership” of Canada, the rights of First Nations should be paramount, yet they aren’t.
When Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government came to power, that top-down sanction of speech that incites and demonizes was shut down, but the voices in opposition remain and they’re growing louder: they’ve found a constituency. There’s a far right militia arming itself in Alberta that’s come under the scrutiny of intelligence. We could ask ourselves who they’re arming against and what accounts for their actions. This is an interesting question: if you are a person of colour, an indigenous Canadian, or a Muslim, the answer to this question won’t run along the lines of ‘why is this happening now?’ Speaking as a Canadian Muslim woman who lives and works in the United States, our communities have been aware of these realities for decades. Since 9/11, hate rhetoric has gained strength in the United States—it influences Canada, as well. It flourishes in politics, in media, in popular culture—and now it’s been clarified in policy. It has a trajectory. It’s heading somewhere. It’s the legacy of a coordinated, protracted, well-funded demonization of Muslims. God knows where it will lead. The Unquiet Dead suggests an answer.
LH: An important strand in the novel centres on the imminent opening of a museum which will be devoted to the art and artefacts from an historic region of Spain; an area where, for centuries, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived peacefully together. As history shows, there have been many instances when people of different faiths have lived together in a harmonious way but have then become divided by their beliefs. How do you feel about the fact that we seem unable to learn from history and so allow such atrocities to be repeated?
AZK: It awakens my desire to resist. And to fight back against fascist forces. I will say, it’s not usually people’s beliefs that are divisive. It’s the cynical manipulation of political factors and social conditions at play.
LH: You have now written two further books and a short story featuring Esa and Rachel (The Language of Secrets, Among the Ruins and A Death in Sarajevo). When you started writing The Unquiet Dead did you know that this would be the first in a series, and do you have plans for any more?
AZK: There’s also an unpublished prequel where Rachel and Esa meet! I did always know I wanted to write a series because there are many human rights issues I wanted to give voice to through the lens of these detectives. I would love to write more books in the series: I’d love to develop both Rachel and Esa’s personal lives, take them through all kinds of conflict and see if they emerge triumphant on the other side. Or at least a little less damaged. I’ve just finished the fourth book in the series, A Dangerous Crossing. I hope there will be more!
LH: You now live in the U.S.A. so I wonder what impact all the anti-Muslim and Islamophobic rhetoric which accompanied the presidential election campaigning had on you?
AZK: I’ve answered this a bit, I think. Sometimes I’m afraid to answer this question honestly—I usually project more positivity and hope than I feel. To wit, I’m horror-struck, angry, dispirited, worn down. I fight a new battle every day, and my husband and I receive hate mail when we address these challenges head on. We give talks and write a great deal on these issues, as do nearly all the activists or Muslims in the public eye that we know, only to have those efforts erased by the acts of extremists who don’t represent our communities. One of the areas I studied in my graduate work was the Rwandan genocide. I’ve also been studying how the Nazis came to power in Germany. Mob violence doesn’t happen overnight or out of the blue. First, you have to condition people to accept it—to believe it’s necessary. To be immersed in anti-racism or anti-Islamophobia work is to know that we’re in the process of being conditioned.
LH: Have you, on either a personal or a professional level, experienced prejudice as a result of your faith? If so, have you felt able to directly challenge the perpetrators?
AZK: Personally, yes. Professionally, no. Hate speech is usually anonymous online. To engage online is to open the floodgates, so I try to avoid it. I have more important battles to fight. Would I challenge the perpetrators in person one-on-one? Not if I felt unsafe in that situation. But in any public forum, where I was confident that violence would not erupt, and if there was a chance that I could enlighten someone or bring them around to a point of view that recognizes my humanity, I would. I’ve had interactions like that—where people come out guns blazing, and with a little civil discourse, can be persuaded to think differently. And I hope, if someone needed my help because they were being attacked, I’d find the courage to act.
LH: It would be all too easy to think of many more questions I would like to ask you because your book resonated so powerfully with me and continues to do so. However, I think I should give you a break – but just before I do, may I indulge in a final, more light-hearted one! Which book would you take to a desert island, and which five people (living or dead, real or fictional) would you like to take with you to discuss it?
AZK: Samarkand by Amin Maalouf. It’s an account of the friendship between Omar Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk and Hassan Sabah, the founder of the Assassins. It’s such a funny, brilliant, wise and lovely book—a story of how Khayyam came to write his famous Rubaiyat that is peopled with amazing characters. I’d invite Amin Maalouf because I have so many questions, and also J. K. Rowling, Malala Yousufzai, Robin Wright and Shirin Ebadi.
LH: Finally, thank you so much Ausma for taking the time to respond to all these questions and for reminding me that the best novels are always those from which I can learn something new, and which inspire me to go on to learn more about a subject.
We have 3 copies of the book to give away – for your chance to win, simply fill in the form below:
The Competition is closed.
About the author
Ausma Zehanat Khan holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law with a specialisation in military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. She has practised immigration law and taught human rights law at Northwestern University and York University. Ausma both founded and served as Editor-in-Chief of Muslim Girl magazine. The first publication of its type to address a target audience of young women, Muslim Girl re-shaped the conversation about Muslim women in North America. She is a longtime community activist and writer. Born in Britain (Leicester), Ausma currently lives in Colorado with her husband. The Unquiet Dead is her debut novel.
You can buy The Unquiet Dead, published on 27 July, 2017 in paperback, from No Exit Press at half price, including a free e-copy of the book.
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