By Pooja Pande
Uzma Aslam Khan in a haunting, necessary conversation on her recently released novel, the epic The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali
The author of five acclaimed novels, including Thinner than Skin (2012), which was longlisted both for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Uzma Aslam Khan’s most recent novel, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali (Nomi, 2019), is fast gaining momentum in critical praise.
A stunningly dramatic recreation of spaces and times in history that have remained largely unexplored in fiction, Nomi weaves through its pages the narratives of the Andaman Islands that unfold through the era of the British Raj when it served as Kala Pani, onto the tumult of World War II when the Japanese seized control over them.
Epic in scope and ambition, thorough in its research, the book ultimately soars in its storytelling, which is what separates the Karachi-born globe-trotting novelist Uzma from the rest of her tribe who write historical fiction. A work in progress since the 1990s, when she first stumbled upon the story she knew she wanted to tell, Uzma, in her own words, “grew up writing this book”, in a way. She is a creator of unforgettable characters, their journeys, pains, and pleasures, rendered in sharp relief against the backdrop of the chaos that is our world – Nomi being no exception.
Besides being an accomplished literary masterpiece, Nomi is also an important book for our times in the context of migration and hate politics, as we shape our history, catastrophically failing at all the big questions of race, identity, and the wielding of power.
To top it all, what makes Nomi supremely special is that, as readers, we get to witness a shining depiction of a masterful, empathetic writer at her creative peak.
In this interview over email, slightly edited for clarity, Uzma speaks with Pooja about the urge to write and make right the world, her world.
Pooja Pande (PP): This novel, I find to be your most history-conscious one to date; your sense of history and history-making, the recording of it, with particular emphasis on the whole question of who (gets to) record and hence, define it. I also mean this as a meta question of sorts, in that this novel will likely find a place in the literature of the subcontinent’s history, as a record itself. Could you speak about how you view your role as a writer here, of writing these subaltern histories, of and for these times?
Uzma Aslam Khan (UAK): My generation of women is the first to be born in Pakistan. It is through writing The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali that I came to grasp the immensity of this, existentially. When I first began, in the 1990s, I had gone to the library to find a book. I didn’t find it, but found instead a book that referred to the Andaman Island ‘prisoner paradise.’ I found the book I wanted to write.
I had no idea how to start. I only knew that this was my history, not a separate Indian history. And I knew that I had not been taught it in Karachi. I don’t know how I saw my role. I think there were a multitude of impulses I could not have identified – curiosity about what I’d discovered, rebellion against my own ignorance, and the notion that the history I was given is the only one there is. I think I always rejected that notion, long before I read about the prisoner paradise. I have a healthy dose of scepticism. I ask a lot of questions. Mind you, I am also dutiful: for the next twenty years, I collected every article and image I could find on the islands. 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.
At some point I did realize that no other fiction on the islands during the 1930s and 40s had been written before, at least, to my knowledge, in English. Now I’ve come to wonder whether it had to be written by someone in my position, someone severed from my history and geography by borders, without the privilege to suppose much, yet with the understanding that everything had to be learned and imagined from scratch. And if my novel comes to be a kind of record itself, I am honoured.
PP: Memory has a multi-layered resonance in this novel and its making: The story follows the characters through time, and also explores how space has memory too – the land, the water, the sky. What do you feel about this lingering presence of memory as a trope in the novel, especially since the story itself had been with you through 26 years?
UAK: Yes, 26 years. That is more than half my life, so you could say that I grew up writing this book. During this period, I also wrote four other novels, each in different settings, each with its own intense, immersive demands. Yet after each one, I returned to Miraculous. It had a magnetic pull difficult to describe. In part, the pull of home. During those 26 years, I moved across North America, North Africa, South Asia, and Oceania. I lived in too many spaces to count. Among the few constants was the prisoner in my book. She was the first character that I wrote, back in the 1990s. There are few things I have carried for so long, across so many continents. Of course, I didn’t consciously know it. I simply moved, and moved her. All the spaces that held her, loving and traumatic, were also held by her. She was physically transported, physically severed from home, but memory followed, and kept expanding.
In my book Thinner Than Skin, a character says, ‘Everything alive is in movement and everything that moves is alive.’ Now I wonder if this is my prayer for all those who are displaced. To keep finding life, no matter how hard a severance may be. Often, this requires careful navigation of memory.
PP: While your previous novels have all featured female voices prominently, this novel strengthens and enhances these further with Nomi, Prisoner 218D, Shakuntala – their narratives, voices, their agency (or lack of), are poignantly raised as the novel maps the contours of history forged by the men. And at the same time, with Aye, Zee, Dr. Singh, Mr. Howard, there is a disruption of even that (arguably convenient feminist) reading. Could you share with us, the birth and shaping of these characters? Also, who was most difficult to let go of?
UAK: Each character had its own genesis. As noted earlier, the prisoner was the first one I wrote. Scenes on the prison ship and of her memories of Lahore were among my first lines. Though her story arc took so long to complete, as a character, she didn’t change much, she was always who she was. In contrast, Shakuntala is completely different now. Initially, there was more of her past in Chittagong, and the tensions between her and her British in-laws. But when she leaves that space to make a farm on South Andaman Island, and then later, during the war – when British and Japanese men try to enlist her – I grew to understand her better. She became someone I did not foresee but grew to very much respect.
The Japanese characters Susumu Adachi and Dr Mori came to me late in the drafting process, fully formed; I barely had to revise those sections. Perhaps I drew from some lingering memory of my time in Tokyo, where I lived as a child. Then there are the characters inspired by actual figures and events. The first shot was fired on the island when a boy was trying to save a chicken. Zee is based on that boy, and Priya on the hen. Nomi is entirely made up. When I found Nomi, the book found its momentum. She and the prisoner were a kind of dual compass. The prisoner started the journey to the book. Nomi completed it. Both were hard to let go of. But many others were too, for instance, Haider Ali. He tugged, and still does.
PP: The stories of brutal state-sponsored clampdowns ensured as carefully dramatized spectacles, are needless to say, feeling quite chillingly close to the bone these days. (Social media are the new central town squares, aren’t they?). What were the resonances for you as the creator of this novel, as a global citizen?
UAK: Unfortunately, very many. I scratched the first lines soon after the 1991 Gulf War, and the wars, of course, never stopped. After 9/11, the topic of a distant territory used by an imperial power to incarcerate and torture ‘terrorists’ became eerily close, with the parallels between Andaman and Guantanamo. I was exploring the intersection of freedom and captivity at a time when the world was and still is experiencing increased militarization, heightened fear of the ‘other,’ and a deadly battle between ideologies. So it is dangerous to think of 1930s and 40s Andaman Islands as merely a ‘remote’ history that is ‘over.’ Children like Nomi are still caught in the crossfires, still losing families to death and detention, still suffering irreversible emotional damage. And they are primarily of colour.
A white, European woman recently read my book and wondered who would want to read it, given how overburdened people are these days with their own personal tragedies. This absence of empathy for people from the Global South is one of many reasons why I could not give up on the book. Apathy is a kind of violence. It enables horrors to perpetuate. No surprise, then, that women’s bodies are still today used as the battlefield in war; we have not even begun to bear witness to and heal the awful wounds of the past, and show no will to do this. Instead, fresh wounds are inflicted, primarily on brown and black bodies. So how can we – the global we – claim to have freed ourselves of fascism? This history is chillingly cyclical, and this fiction, during each year it took to write, was always of the moment.
PP: Is there a sequel, Uzma? Are you planning to deep dive into any of the characters’ histories and stories? What are you working on next?
UAK: Your question reminds me of something I recently read about Herman Melville, who called writing ‘taking a book off the brain.’ He compared it to ‘the ticklish & dangerous business of taking an old painting off a panel – you have to scrape off the whole brain in order to get at it with due safety – & even then, the painting may not be worth the trouble.’
Since my novel took so long to complete, it does feel this way. I am not certain I can or should keep it on my brain for a sequel – I need to feel less dislodged, and know that it was worth it, not only to me but to others. I am scribbling in my journal, I always do this; for me that is as necessary as breath. So I never stop, but I am allowing myself the mystery and pleasure of not knowing where it will lead.
PP: Is there a story to the novel’s title, and the exact phrasing it has – the blending of the ‘miracle’ (i.e. the non-rational/aligned with belief) with the ‘history’ (i.e. factual)?
UAK: I chose it for exactly the reason you say.
Delhi-based writer and editor Pooja Pande’s first book Red Lipstick, 2016, was a literary-styled memoir of the celebrity transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. She currently heads Partnerships at India’s only grassroots, feminist digital media platform Khabar Lahariya, and is working on her second book.
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