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.