Author Interview: Ausma Zehanat Khan

Ausma Zehanat Khan is a British-born Canadian living in the United States, whose own parents are heirs to a complex story of migration to and from three different continents. A former adjunct professor at American and Canadian universities, she holds a Ph.D. in International Human Rights Law, with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as the main subject of her dissertation. Previously the Editor in Chief of Muslim Girl Magazine, Ausma Zehanat Khan has moved frequently, traveled extensively, and written compulsively.

What real life events provided inspiration for The Bloodprint?

I wrote this book because of who I am and where my family originates from. Ethnically, I’m a Pathan or Pashtun, a member of the tribes that live along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. And the Taliban that have risen, fallen, and risen again on either side of that border are predominantly Pashtuns. The Taliban’s stance on girls’ education, women’s rights, and the rights of other groups or anyone who rejects their ideology, is well-known by this point. The Taliban’s oppression is carried out in the name of Islam, as a form of Islam. But those who stand against them—including other Pashtuns—find empowerment and deliverance within that same tradition. So I wanted to write more expansively about the social and political conditions that bring a group like the Taliban into being. I hoped to write that with some nuance and sensitivity—to be self-critical and reflective but also to aim for empathy and understanding. And I found the best way to do that was to take this history and tradition and put it squarely in the hands of women. To suggest that other futures are possible, no matter how broken our history.

Tell us a bit about the research you did for the novel.

I’d been thinking about The Bloodprint long before I began to write it. I knew I wanted to write about the rise and fall of empires, and what it’s like to live at the crossroads of different civilizations. I also wanted to explore different iterations of faith—and how both deliverance and downfall can arise from within the same tradition. So I had to do a lot of reading. I spent six months just reading about Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire—an empire whose achievements continue to astonish me. The more I read about the Mongols, the more I got swept up in the history of the Silk Road, so then I began to read all kinds of travelogues and watched numerous documentaries before finally traveling part of the Silk Road myself. I was able to view many of the locales I describe in the book, and have a deeper sense of their magic. And of course, The Bloodprint is about faith, so I did a great deal of reading about the sweep of the Islamic civilization and the languages that were incorporated into it—the fluidity and mutual interchange that produced some of its most stunning achievements. In some ways, I think I’ve been preparing to write The Bloodprint all my life.

One of the most interesting things about The Bloodprint is the description of the geographical setting. Did you draw maps while writing? How did you visualize the expanse of the land that you talk in so much detail about?

I have a travel collection of maps of Central and South Asia, and of the Middle East. I used these maps as a baseline for a sense of distances and topography, not to mention really making use of Google Maps street view wherever I could. My personal hand-drawn maps consist of dots on a blank page, but I roped in my sister and my niece to draw real maps for me because they’re both extremely talented artists. Their maps helped me better understand geographic barriers and borders. I’ve also traveled in parts of the world The Bloodprint is based on, as I mentioned earlier, and have taken hundreds of my own photographs, so I was able to draw on strong visual cues to create the world the book is based on.

 

Who is your favourite character in The Bloodprint?

Without a doubt, it’s Arian, though Sinnia is a close second. It mattered to me to write a woman who holds power in her own hands, perhaps because my background in human rights has taught me how often the opposite is true. Arian is a character who faces temptation and self-doubt but who has a proven record of self-reliance. She venerates the written word and diversity of thought—a veneration that is rare in the world she hails from.

What do you hope readers will take away from The Bloodprint? Apart from a wonderful story and a pounding heart, that is.

That is such a lovely thing to say, thank you so much! I hope they’ll come away appreciating the pluralism of this world. I hope they’ll be intrigued enough by the histories I explore to do a little reading about the richness and beauty of these cultures because knowledge is so often an antidote to fear and cruelty—which is one of the main themes of the book.

What should we look forward to in the sequel to The Bloodprint? (Aka WILL EVERYONE BE ALL RIGHT?)

Ha, I love this question! I make no promises, but I can say that the characters you’ve come to know will be challenged at every turn, and it will take more than they knew they could give if they’re to emerge whole and unharmed. In the second book, we learn more about the Black Khan—who he is, what he wants—and what the fate of the city of Ashfall will be, the one city in Khorasan that still sparkles like a jewel. And if you want to know what lies between Arian and Daniyar—I promise you’ll find out!