Robin Agnew

Ausma Zehanat Khan


"It’s wonderful to have community rooted in shared experiences or history, but it’s equally important to build a community of shared values, and that’s what my investigators are working toward."

Ausma Zehanat Khan’s first Detective Inaya Rahman book features a Muslim detective in Colorado who works for a squad called the Community Response Unit. Dealing with racially sensitive crimes, this unit allows Khan to explore cultural divisions and highlight the beauty of the Muslim community. She also writes a kick-ass police novel. This is a wonderful new series.

Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I know you’re originally from Canada though you’ve now lived in the United States for several years. Why did you choose the States to set your story? Is it because of our recent and unfortunate ongoing culture of division?

Ausma Zehanat Khan: I moved to the United States in 2005 and became an American citizen a few years ago. I wasn’t planning to move my green card status forward until Donald Trump began his political campaign in 2015. At that point I realized the divisive rhetoric he exemplified could pose a threat to my civil liberties and I needed the protection afforded by citizenship, which of course, is an immense privilege.

So although my first crime series, the Khattak/Getty series is set in my hometown of Toronto, Blackwater Falls is based in Colorado where I’ve lived since 2008. I felt like I’d now experienced enough of American politics and society to write about it convincingly, and I wanted to explore this significant shift to the right in the political culture, particularly given how deeply it impacts the communities I come from. I love Colorado—it exemplifies so many contradictions as a purple state that it gave me wonderful material to draw upon.

Is there a Community Response Unit (CRU) in Colordado? Would they have the authority to step in and take over an investigation?

There are various police units like hate crimes or anti-bias units in different police departments that would definitely do some of the same work that my detectives do, but I doubt they’d have the authority to supersede another police department’s jurisdiction. I’m grateful for the fictional liberties I’m able to take because they help give my stories added weight. I do think every police department needs proper community response training, but that by itself won’t be enough for systemic police reform.

Sometimes a little shift in perspective can upend a genre. Sara Paretsky did it by having a female character; Tony Hillerman did is by having a Navajo detective. I feel like you are bringing another and welcome seismic shift to the genre by illuminating cultural differences as well as (hopefully) points of connection. Can you talk about this a bit?

Detective Inaya Rahman is, as far as I know, the first American Muslim female detective in crime fiction, so she represents someone new and unfamiliar to readers. I loved the idea of depicting Inaya in the fullness of who she is, with the added benefit of giving her the context of her culture (she’s of Afghan-Pakistani background) and family.

One of the big questions we’re facing today is the over-policing of minority communities in ways that are hugely detrimental to those communities. So what happens when police officers come from those communities? How do they grapple with suddenly being perceived as not belonging in either place: on the police force or at home among their own? By writing not only Inaya, but her partner Catalina Hernandez, and her boss Lieutenant Waqas Seif, I was able to question the premise of police officer as undisputed hero. I also had the opportunity to explore the complexity of how officers of color navigate a broken system, and these are questions I think we should have been asking in crime fiction long ago.

This book is so rich in character. I loved learning about the different families and cultures. I loved attorney Areesha Adams—and I loved Inaya’s sisters who add just a bit of spark to the story. When you are telling a story do you start with character? Situation? Setting?

Thank you so much for these kind words! I normally begin with themes I want to write about—in this case, criminal justice reform—and build the book from there. I do always have a variety of characters at the back of my mind, and what I try to do is find the most effective character to explore the theme. I then begin the process of fleshing that character out. Who is she at heart? What matters to her? How do her personal values reflect upon the way she carries out her job as an investigator? Adding in her family is great for series longevity—I hope to put all these characters in difficult situations and thereby intensify Inaya’s personal conflicts, as well as her professional ones.

Blackwater Falls, by Ausma KhanI liked the tension between Lieutenant Waqas Seif and Inaya. Will that be maintained going forward?

Definitely! These two are the heart of the series and they won’t be able to resolve their complicated relationship too quickly.

Is there a version of this story where Seif and Inaya could be together? (If this is a spoiler leave it out, but I’m personally curious!)

There absolutely is, but it would involve a lot of introspection by both these characters, as well as the ability to make some foundational compromises. Inaya won’t end up with someone who doesn’t share her faith, so the challenge for Seif is to discover who he is at the core and whether he’s capable of meeting Inaya on her ground.

Incidents in the novel that involve assault and bullying, including scenes with the murdered Syrian teenager Razan Elkader that sparks Inaya's investigation, and with the investigator herself are difficult to read, but certainly has a large and powerful impact on your story. Can you talk about writing these scenes? Were they hard to write?

These scenes come out of a lot of work I do with Muslim communities, where I position myself as someone who witnesses the testimony of others, particularly my many headscarf-wearing friends. They often speak about the bullying and harassment they experience because of the hijab. I also track hate crimes against Muslims in the West, and there is definitely a gendered dimension to Islamophobia (anti-Muslim racism) because the hijab makes women easily identifiable as targets. So it’s difficult to write these scenes only in the sense that they are based on some truly horrifying facts, but I’m almost more dismayed by the fact that as time goes on, I’m becoming desensitized because of how often I have witnessed anti-Muslim hate. It’s there in the political discourse and the popular culture as a not-so-subtle undercurrent, yet so many people remain oblivious to it.

A football player who is involved with teenage bullying has a surprisingly subtle and well-delineated reaction to what occurs with Razan. I liked that this character was able to be reflective. Can you talk about this a bit?

I didn’t want to write the one-dimensional bully/jock character when it came to Campbell Kerr. I thought about the pressure we all experience to fit in, to belong, and how easy it is for young people to become radicalized either by a real-life presence like the Resurrection Church, or by their peer group or by reprehensible actors online. No one starts out wanting to be racist or thinking themselves superior to others based on race or religion—we have to be conditioned to accept those beliefs. So Campbell Kerr is the victim of the circumstances of his life, but he’s also intelligent and sensitive enough to know that he could have made a different choice, and that he has to take moral responsibility for the decisions he’s made. And he also has to accept the fact that those decisions have consequences.

I liked that faith gives the characters strength in the novel, but you are writing about different ways to be faithful. The evangelical church in the book is really a center of hatred and division, not love and acceptance. Can you talk about this dichotomy?

My personal belief has always been that the basic precepts of all faiths are the same: Most religions guide us to behave ethically in the world, the “do unto others” premise. In reality, religious institutions can be deeply problematic. Consider the Catholic church and child abuse, and how long those scandals were covered up the church. Or consider what happens when religious identity and political identity become aligned, so that you’re no longer talking simply about religion, but about political actors.

At an extreme end, you look at how institutions like the Serbian Orthodox Church of the former Yugoslavia, or the Catholic church in Rwanda gave credence to the state’s genocidal aims. Conversely, you have theocratic regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and nonstate actors like ISIS and al-Qaeda who carry out horrific human rights abuses in the name of religion, and you can’t ignore these realities either.

What I’m getting at is that we can’t assume that religious institutions, political actors, or nonstate groups are inherently “good” because of the teachings of the faith or religious institutions they may be aligned with. Instead, these same actors may often incite hate and violence against other communities—the Taliban repeatedly attacking the Hazara, ISIS enslaving the Yazidi people, or churches where you have pastors openly speaking about the Islamic threat, about American Muslims as a source of evil that needs to be rooted out.

I won’t name the church in question, but the Resurrection Church in Blackwater Falls, and the sermons of its pastor, were based on a church in the United States. Whenever I think I’m going too far in my fiction, my research establishes that the concrete reality far outstrips anything I come up with in my books.

I really felt that ultimately this was a book about community, both good and bad, community support and family support versus community pressure to think or believe in a certain way. Did you feel this was an important theme of the book?

Yes, definitely. Blackwater Falls explores how we build community, and more importantly, how we determine solidarity. On the face of it, Inaya, Catalina, and Areesha don’t seem to have much in common. They speak different languages, they face different social justice struggles, and they’ve had very different life experiences. Yet the core of this series is the solidarity these three women learn to build and express, becoming a community of their own by understanding that they do, in fact, share the same struggle because of their common humanity.

I find in life, we’re always building connections that don’t necessarily align with our cultural heritage or our ethnic backgrounds. It’s wonderful to have community rooted in shared experiences or history, but it’s equally important to build a community of shared values, and that’s what my investigators are working toward.

What books or writers have influenced your work? Was there a transformation read for you at one point that changed your life?

The New Zealand crime writer Ngaio Marsh influenced me as a superb stylist of language. I’ve always loved her Detective Roderick Alleyn mysteries. Elizabeth George is a writer I very much admire because of how deeply she digs into the psyche of her characters. I love the compassion inherent in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache crime series.

But because my crime novels center on social justice issues, the most influential books I’ve read have been books with similar themes: anything by the Algerian author, Assia Djebar, but especially A Sister to Scheherazade; a prose-poem novel by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish called "Memory for Forgetfulness" and his poem "Beirut" among countless others; Raja Shehadeh’s Occupation Diaries; A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra; Anna Politkovskaya’s A Dirty War; Fatima Mernissi’s memoir Dreams of Trespass and her groundbreaking book The Veil and the Male Elite; David Rieff’s Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West; Roy Gutman’s A Witness to Genocide; Frank Herbert’s Dune for world-building; Amin Maalouf’s immense historical knowledge and the panache exemplified by his unforgettable novels Samarkand and The Crusades Through Arab Eyes; Geraldine Brooks’ The People of the Book; and of course, Ann Patchett’s gorgeously lyrical Bel Canto. For me, these were all transformative books that I read at pivotal moments in my life.

What’s next? Will there be another Detective Rahman novel? I really hope this will be a long series.

Yes! I’m thrilled to tell you that I was so excited to dive back into Inaya’s life that I’ve just finished the (unnamed) sequel, which will be published next fall.

Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of The Unquiet Dead, published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books, and winner of the Barry Award, the Arthur Ellis Award and the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Novel, as well as a 2016 Macavity Award finalist. Works in Khan's critically acclaimed Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty mystery series includes The Language of Secrets, A Death in Sarajevo, Among the Ruins, A Dangerous Crossing, and A Deadly Divide. Khan's new crime series features American Muslim detective Inaya Rahman. Inaya investigates homicides in minority communities in Colorado with her partner Catalina Hernandez, and independent monitor Areesha Adams - a trio of Muslim, Latina and Black investigators who work to change a system impervious to reform from both the inside and the outside. The series debut is Blackwater Falls.