"From a Ruin of Empire: An Interview with Uzma Aslam Khan"

November 11, 2019

Photo credit: David Maine

 

Uzma Aslam Khan is an award-winning author of five novels translated worldwide to critical acclaim. These include Trespassing, nominated for a 2003 Commonwealth Prize; The Geometry of God, one of Kirkus Review’s Best Books of 2009, a finalist in Foreword magazine’s Best Books of 2009, and winner of the Bronze award at the Independent Book Publishers Awards; and Thinner Than Skin, longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and winner of the French Embassy Prize for Best Fiction at the inaugural Karachi Literature Festival 2014. Khan’s fifth novel, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, set in the British penal colony of the Andaman Islands during the Second World War, was released as a lead title by Context/Westland Books in 2019. Khan’s short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Granta, The Massachusetts Review, The Guardian, Nimrod International Journal of Poetry and Prose, Counterpunch, Drawbridge, Dawn and Herald, among other anthologies and journals, national and international, and is forthcoming in Calyx magazine and Red Hen Press. Her short story "My Mother is a Lunar Crater" won second prize in Zoetrope: All Story’s Short Fiction Prize 2018, judged by Colum McCann. The same story was nominated for the 4th Annual Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing by Calyx magazine in 2018, judged by Molly Gloss. Born and raised in Pakistan, Khan has lived in many locations across the globe, including England, Japan, Philippines, Morocco and Hawaii. She currently lives in western Massachusetts. Visit her here: http://uzmaaslamkhan.blogspot.com or @uzmaaslamkhan_writer.

The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali

 

Set in the British penal colony of the Andaman Islands in the years of the Second World War, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali features three local-born offspring of prisoners, Nomi, Zee and Aye, and their families’ tormented histories as they go through trials and tribulations within heterotopic spaces of confinement and otherness. The novel juxtaposes the complex history of the island and its inhabitants with the Japanese invasion underway in 1942 and their surrender to the British empire in 1945. Through chilling stories of freedom and resistance of colonial subjects from Rangoon, Chittagong, Penang, Delhi and Lahore, prisoners of the starfish jail and female factories, the force-feeding of hunger strikers in prison, native spies and sex slaves of ianjo, Aslam Khan unfurls before her readers the untapped history of undivided India.

 

I corresponded with Uzma via email about her most recent novel, about writing historical fiction, and the inextricable relationship between trauma and healing in her fiction.

Aroosa: Uzma, it is such a pleasure to converse with you. I would like to begin by asking about your interest in colonial horror in relation to the Andaman Islands penal colony (an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal between India and Myanmar). What would you say have been your own specific motivations for writing this novel? How would you explain the relationship between writing and history and what’s it like writing a historical novel?

 

Uzma: It’s my pleasure too, Aroosa. In answer to your question, my novel began with an accident, over 26 years ago. I’d gone to the library to find a book and mistakenly pulled another one off the shelf, which had a reference to the Andaman ‘prisoner paradise’. I didn’t find the book I was looking for but I found the one I had to write.

 

How do you write into a void? No other fiction on this time and place has been written before, at least not to my knowledge. History books rarely mention the islands. So I relied on internal truths. Among them: this was a shared South Asian history, not a separate Indian one. A fire was lit. I realized that I like discovering places for myself, without being tied to someone else’s script. I realized, too, that my task as a writer was to defamiliarize what was believed to be known. All my novels have focused on what is not being said in the news.

As to my relationship with history, it developed over time, but above all it has been a rebellion against the notion that the history I was given is the only one there is. I think I always rejected this, long before I read about the prisoner paradise. Mind you, I am as dutiful as I am unruly: for the next two decades, I collected every article and image I could find on the islands. Thankfully, more became available. 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.

 

Aroosa: Prisoner 218 D, who was no longer a prisoner, while contemplating “war” referred to the etymology and semantics of the synonyms of the word in “every other language known to her, the word was given more letters, or at least more syllables. Jang. Yuddha. Hirb. And now kugebe. Yet in English, there was no tongue or teeth to it. War could be whispered with lips closed. Like go. Like home” (222). To me, it suggests a deeper and historically contextualized understanding of warfare, as the scholar Cian O’Driscoll argues that ethics of war are informed by the ways in which war itself is defined. Could you expand upon how your novel provides us with a more variegated perspective on contemporary warfare?

 

Uzma: An interesting question, and a very personal one. I am the child of Partition refugees. My generation, the first to be born in Pakistan, was severed from our history and geography; it has sometimes felt that I, too, like my characters in The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, have been exiled to an island without memory. But the silences of Partition and pre-Partition weren’t all. I grew up under a military dictatorship supported by America’s war in Afghanistan, which fuelled an ethnic war in Pakistan. We were still reeling from this rotten collaboration between local, regional and global powers when the War on Terror began. So war means many things to me, each one accompanied by untold violence and unreconciled loss.

 

The body does not forget the silence that accompanies each violence. In Miraculous, 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. Since I am particularly drawn to unseen spaces that become the battlefields of empires, I suppose geography is one such metaphor. Miraculous is set in the Andaman Islands, a forgotten corner of Asia abused by both the British and the Japanese. The island is, in a sense, a body; in the opening sequence, Nomi hears them breathe. But who else is listening? The horrors that both empires committed there are still never spoken of today. And why should this surprise us, when the horrors being committed as we speak are also covered up? This book has always felt eerily relevant in the context of today’s hate politics, as people and lands continue to be classified into those that are inferior and ‘other’ and those that have value. So I have to agree with Kaajal: if we are opposed to war, we have to oppose the daily and violent practice of normalizing erasure and ‘othering’. We have to oppose inertia. 

 

Aroosa: There is a recurring focus in your fiction on the inextricable relationship between trauma and healing which, in this novel, is geared towards the recovery of agency, as we see that characters such as Aye, Dr Singh and Prisoner 218D variously engage in protecting and healing one another. Despite the fact that trauma returns to the victims in the novel by way of flashbacks and they are struggling to orient themselves within the fog of colonial horror, their personal experiences lead them to what may be called victim/survivor empowerment. I am reminded of the Japenese novelist, Joy Kogawa, who argues that healing, beyond a solution of a political kind, is a process of empowerment.  How would you describe your characters in light of what I have just said?

 

Uzma:  For all my novels, writing for me has been 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 although 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.

 

Aroosa: In the novel, the way “the prisoner who was no longer a prisoner” feels about her body – “once a body is in pain, it is always in pain” (225) – makes me think of an interesting juxtaposition of prison as space and space(s) as prison. Concerning your interest in spaces of detention in this novel, I am intrigued by the way in which you capture the indistinctness of the boundaries inside/outside prisons. In addition to prisons and barracks, there are many spaces that are no less than micro-prisons, such as Andamanian huts and the square, and here I am thinking particularly about women being locked up in prisons, female factories, hospitals and sex slaves from other territories brought to gurdwara, turned into a whorehouse or ianjo, a so-called comfort station. Could you talk about your interest in these spaces, including their dimensions of inside and outside and the ways in which your novel subverts the dynamics that define spaces as prisons of belonging or transgression, empathy or disgust?

 

Uzma: Having always lived along borders, I haven’t really known other spaces to explore. And I’ve always been fairly obsessed with confinement and policing. Perhaps it’s a result of growing up under a dictatorship, or living in many countries as a minority, or my family’s difficult history, or my upbringing, which was loving but absolutist. All of it made me contemplate, deeply, a woman’s right to freedom of movement and expression, and how similar are the powers—regardless of nationality, race or religion—that obstruct these fundamental rights. In Miraculous, for instance, there are spatial parallels between the prison cells of the British and the comfort-station cells of the Japanese. The deeper I got into the book,  other parallels also became apparent, which has caused some readers in the West, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be quite put off. 

 

And now that I think about it, my women characters frequently engage in a struggle for space—through art and science (The Geometry of God), direct political action (Miraculous), prayer and magic (Thinner Than Skin) or countless other ways—even for a tiny space, like the sand nests that Prisoner 218 D builds for herself in Miraculous. Those nests were interesting to me when I found the prisoner building them, as they were a kind of death shroud of her own making, as though she was a revenant. She had been confined for so long that only a counter-confinement of her own making could be the refuge needed for her to heal and revive, and eventually feel safe ‘outside’ again. But I never saw it coming. I never know how my characters will do it, or if they will. They show me how to live along and/or subvert each border. 

 

Aroosa: A question about the technical aspect of your writing: What do you think is the reason for the prominence of letters in your recent novel? Many contemporary writers emphasise the potential of epistolary and digital forms, including letters, for rendering contemporary sensitivities, aspects of historicity, liminality and the expression of subjectivity vis-à-vis an “other”. Did you think about a form before writing your novel that would allow the miraculous and mundane to co-exist at the same level? Could you expand on the aesthetic implications of the epistolary mode in your fiction?

 

Uzma: I didn’t know what form the story would take. In my earliest drafts—and we are talking 26 years ago—the first pages were a series of letters between two characters (one of whom is now so changed that I wouldn’t call the character the same). So I was always playing with the inclusion of different forms, while figuring out the story’s structure. When I discovered actual telegrams and transcripts of debates between British politicians about the transportation of women to the islands, it felt natural to include those, too. I didn’t consciously see, until almost the final draft, that it does allow miraculous threads to co-exist with everyday ones—the characters surprised me, and so too did the story’s ultimate shape. Writing fiction is always a leap of faith. Not knowing is part of the thrill.

 

Aroosa: You have always been interested in experiential aspects of the individual’s intimate connection to nature; your characters are never disconnected from the natural world, even within spaces of confinement. Would I be right in thinking that Shakuntala’s pig farm, Haider Ali’s back garden, Prisoner 218 D’s thoughts about rain, rimjhim and her preference to dig her nests while living with aborigines in fact gesture towards a comforting reciprocity of a human-nonhuman world in the midst of the human species’ threat of annihilation?

 

Uzma: Yes, absolutely. Nature is a primary character. Nomi, the prisoner, the other characters—they are part of it, not separate entities. It isn’t something I was striving for; it’s just how I work. I don’t work well with abstractions. I said earlier that the physical world tells the emotional truth. This is because the physical world is home. The only home we have, which brings me back to your second question, about how war is defined. Every man-made war is a war on the planet. And only a story—not a textbook or newspaper—can make us feel the horror of abusing our human relationship with non-human beings. To pull just one example from the book, it is one thing to say that the Second World War caused indigenous fishermen to lose a primary source of food. It is another to show the extreme historical and cultural damage and displacement caused by underwater mines, which separated fishermen from their oldest ally, the sea. Like an actor, a fiction writer needs to embody that relationship, its beauty and its loss.

 

Aroosa: What are you working on at the moment?

 

Uzma: I recently read that Herman Melville called writing “taking a book off the brain.” He was quite vivid, describing a need to “scrape off the whole brain in order to get at the book with due safety.” Since my novel took so long to complete, it does feel this way. I need some time, before attempting to take it off the brain with due safety. At present, I am scribbling in my journal, I always do this; for me that is as necessary as breathing. So I never stop, but I am allowing myself the mystery and pleasure of not knowing where it will lead.

Aroosa Kanwal is Assistant Professor in English Literature at the International Islamic University, Pakistan. She is currently pursuing postdoctoral research at Lancaster University, UK. She is the author of The Routledge Companion to Pakistani Anglophone Writing (Routledge, 2018) and Rethinking Identities in Contemporary Pakistani Fiction: Beyond 9/11 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015). Her monograph was awarded the KLF-Coca-Cola award for the best non-fiction book of the year 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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