Welcome to Words and Music and thank you for taking a moment out of your UK Book Tour to speak with me about your literary and musical influences!
You’re having a very exciting week here in the UK with an interview on Radio 4s Woman’s Hour, book signings and a Blog Tour. The Unquiet Dead is getting some fabulous reviews, how are you enjoying your stay and seeing the readers’ response to your novel?
It’s even better than I could have imagined and I’m enjoying my stay so much I’m trying to persuade my husband that we shouldn’t go back! Seeing all the support from the readers and reviewers has been amazing – it’s a writer’s dream come true!
The Unquiet Dead is a murder mystery story about the Bosnian genocide that culminate in the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Your interest in this moment in history seems to have come from your studies of International Human Rights Law and clearly you had to do a lot of research surrounding this novel. Why did you choose to tell the story of this atrocity through fiction rather than nonfiction? What challenges did you face because of this choice?
I had already written my dissertation on the fall of Srebrenica and the genocide in Bosnia, so I felt that from a professional or analytical or legal perspective, I had mined that territory very thoroughly, but what I was really seeing over time in the years that had passed since the fall of Srebrenica and the massacre there, was that those stories were being lost and those voices were not very well-heard or well-recognized. And I had felt that I had spent so much time with that testimony and that story that I had a perspective that I really wanted to see out there. I wanted to put those Bosnian voices out there in whatever capacity I could, and I thought fiction might be a way of reaching an audience that might not be interested in or be able to relate to or even be aware of what had happened during the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
Would you mind telling us about your first choice of ‘Words’ please?
My first choice is The Ornament of the World by Maria Menocal. It’s about the Moorish rule of Spain – so Muslim Spain and the 700 year co-existence between Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Spain called the Convivencia. And the Convivencia was characterized by this synthesis of faith, culture and languages, so I was particularly struck in that book by the chapters that describe how it was a mark of social status and good breeding to become fluent in the Arabic language and its poetic tradition of ring songs, which is something I refence in The Unquiet Dead. In fact, there’s a house in the book that’s called Ringsong. And to me that was really resonant, particularly in the United States today because every now and again there will be stories in the news about an uproar in a classroom because a teacher assigned Arabic calligraphy as an art lesson, or parents will object to Islam being taught in a classroom as part of a religion course. So today there is a real fear and loathing of the Arabic language and a deep misapprehension of many of its key terms and expressions. So this book, The Ornament of the World, points to other possibilities, to the beauty of pluralism and to how language can bring us together and transform us for the better.
You have chosen to include real extracts from the war tribunals in the novel. Can you tell me a bit about this choice and if it was a difficult decision?
For me it was a compulsion. I had never put those voices away and to this day I still have all my boxes of research from my studies. When I was studying them and highlighting the testimonies I read the material as a lawyer – from a very academic and analytical angle, but these testimonies and interviews were so stark there was something beautiful in the words. There was something that really struck me – these quotes had such an individual expression that they actually read like poetry themselves.
For your second choice of ‘words’, you have selected A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Why is this book so special to you?
I think because I read it after I had finished The Unquiet Dead and this author also writes about war and shows how to make it personal. Marra manages to make it more than just statistics and a news item. He makes it relevant and meaningful to people which is what I wanted to do in The Unquiet Dead. The book is about the Russian war with Chechnya and tells the story of 3 characters using the entire history of Russia’s aggression towards Chechnya as a backdrop. It is full of gorgeous prose and has a beating aching heart in the centre of the story. It keeps humanity at the heart of the novel which is a really difficult thing to do. It has a sparse, moving grace and it set fire to my heart. I can’t forget it.
What effect did writing The Unquiet Dead have on you? How did you cope with the process of writing such a powerful, heart breaking and intensely absorbing novel?
The first time I went through the material to prepare for writing The Unquiet Dead, a period of time had passed between from when I had last studied it which helped. But when I read it again and went through some of the documents which take you hour by hour through the siege and all the things that went wrong, all that could have prevented, it makes you feel very heavy. I kept thinking and asking what if…. So I did feel an emotional weight and I did have to go away from it sometimes. However the real lesson for me was that I am not the focus of this – these things did not happen to me they happened to the Bosnian people which as well as being humbling, created distance.
And your third choice of ‘Words’ please?
This is my favourite book in the whole world. It is an unusual book and it is called Samarkand by Amin Maalouf. It is about the manuscript of the Rubaiyaat of Omar Khayyam. It is a very unusual and told through fascinating episodes of Persian history. It’s a very funny book, it is light hearted and steeped in history, it’s unexpected in everyway, and completely captivating. I only have to pick up one chapter and I will always find it funny, every time!
Just as novels and words can have a huge impact on readers, music too is very powerful and evocative. Could you tell me a bit about your first choice of music and why you have selected it?
I chose Lara Fabian’s Adagio which is based on Adagio in G minor by Albinoni. This piece of music is intimately connected to the siege of Sarajevo as a cellist played the piece on the streets for 22 days in a row while the shelling was going on as an act of defiance to prove that the spirit of Sarajevo could not be broken. Lara Fabian has a beautiful voice and has added lyrics to the music and sings about the longing for a lover but for me, it could be about the loss of the period of enlightenment that existed in Sarajevo before the war. It has a deep sense of longing and loss.
Do you listen to music when writing?
Not while I’m actually writing but sometimes I listen before I start – I try to find something that reflects the culture or mood of the book so I can immerse myself and begin to connect with what I am going to be writing.
Please could you tell me about your second choice of music?
Yes, it’s Bad Timing by Blue Rodeo which has to be the most beautiful song ever written! This band are really storytellers who document our thoughts and feelings. The musicality and lyrics of this song really capture a sense of lost opportunities, lost chances, loss of courage and things that are lost from an inability to say what we feel. They are a Canadian band and I think the music and lyrics capture the sense of drifting to place to place that grounds it as a truly Canadian song.
And before we finish with your third choice of music, can you tell us what is next for you and if you are working on any new books at the moment?
Oh I’m working on so many books! I’m currently on Book Four of the Getty and Khattak series which is about a kidnapping and the Syrian Refugee crisis. I am also working on a fantasy series based on the Silk Road which is published with Harper Voyager. It’s a four book series and I’m working on book 3 at the moment.
And then to end, your third choice of music please?
My final choice is Fragile by Sting. When I was a girl, I was taken along to a Church meeting by my parents where a woman came along and talked about El Salvador and the Human Rights abuses in her country. I was quite young and it was my first experience of hearing about anything like this and it stirred my interest in Human Rights which is at the heart of all my books and anything I do. I think this song echoes a lot of what this woman talked about –but could be applied to anything were people are systematically oppressed. To me, it’s about how life can so easily be crushed, how people can be systematically crushed and the dark corners of the world. The delicate lyrics and the delicacy of the guitar playing speaks to me so much of this and I think the line from the first verse “Something in our minds will always stay” – well, you can’t put it any better than that.
Thank you so much for joining me today and sharing all your choices with us. It’s been fascinating and I wish you well with all your writing projects and to catching up with Getty and Khattak in books 2, 3 and 4! Thank you Ausma!
Listen to the audio recording of the interview »
WORDS & MUSIC : BONUS
AUSMA ZEHANAT KHAN – A further selection of songs that are important to the author
Bulletproof. Blue Rodeo, Palace of Gold album. Jim Cuddy as a vocalist and lyricist offers up his heart in every song, and understands human frailty with such poignancy. A song for the broken-hearted. “I’m not waking up each morning with forgiveness I can use. I’m careless and I’m cruel but I’m still easily bruised. I’m so tired of lying about it, I’m not bulletproof.”
Vision of Love. Mariah Carey, Mariah Carey debut album. With this song, Mariah exploded onto the scene with her powerhouse of a voice and astonishing vocal range. Thrilling as all that is, the lyrics are surprisingly moving: “I had a vision of love/and it’s all that you’ve given to me.” It’s a joyful song, and that’s not as common anymore.
Every Little Thing She Does is Magic. The Police, Ghost in the Machine album. The Police is my favourite band of all time, I know every song, every lyric by heart. In addition to the incredible keyboards with that repeating crescendo, the lyrics are wonderfully inventive and playful. It’s not your typical love song. Later, in his solo career, Sting will throw in lyrics from Police songs at the end of his new songs, and I love that nod to his history.
Blue Ain’t Your Color. Keith Urban, Ripcord album. I’ve had a lifelong love affair with country music, ever since my mother introduced me to Crystal Gayle and Dolly Parton. I love the pain and promise in Keith Urban’s voice in this song, and also the slow, smoky reel-in.
Deewani Mastani. Shreya Ghoshal, Bajirao Mastani movie soundtrack. This is an epic love song, where a Muslim princess conveys her love for her married lover, a fearsome Maratha warrior who will later take her as his wife. It’s the accompaniment to an Indian classical dance that features the most gorgeous setting, costuming and choreography I’ve seen in years. Shreya’s voice is stunning in its purity and thoroughly seductive.
Habibi Ya Nour El Ein. Amr Diab. By the Egyptian singer, Amr Diab, this is possibly the best-selling Arabic song of all time, with worldwide acclaim and numerous remixes for the dance floor. It is irresistibly catchy and Amr Diab is so happy when he sings it. That joy radiates through the song. The guitars, the accordion, everything about it is joyful.
Halo. Beyoncé, I Am…Sasha Fierce album. This song is sweeping and operatic and filled with enchanting vocal tricks, and the lyrics are sublime. “Hit me like a ray of sun/burning through my darkest night…baby, I can feel your halo.” I don’t think the word ‘halo’ has been used as such a tender expression of love before. The song makes me feel transformed.