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Research Techniques: The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan

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Ausma Zehanat Khan

Ausma Zehanat Khan

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My Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty crime series features a pair of Canadian detectives who specialize in sensitive investigations in minority communities. Though the series is grounded in the multicultural city of Toronto, the crimes Esa and Rachel investigate are tied to international human rights issues. So although The Language of Secrets is set in Toronto, it is a crime novel about a murder connected to a terrorist plot—a plot whose history and necessary context are rooted in the politics of the Middle East, yet not in a manner with which we may be familiar. This time the detective investigating the murder is a practising Muslim, and it is through his eyes that we see the crime, the terror plot, and the language of poetry that helps both detectives unravel a chilling, perplexing murder in the woods.

Writing this book posed a unique set of challenges for me in terms of research. My research had to be focused in three separate areas (1) a deep dive into jihadist ideology and rhetoric, set against the fallout of Western intervention in the Middle East, (2) the geographical setting that is at the heart of the book, and (3) poetry that could be meaningful and relevant in the context of solving the puzzle at the heart of the book, but which also had to represent a specific swathe of the Islamic civilization. What did that mean for me in terms of how I approached the book? Initially, it involved a lot of reading – and then travel to various locations used in the book to be able to reflect them accurately in terms of physical description and atmosphere. Because these areas are a lot to incorporate, I’ll focus on the first.

For me, research always begins with reading. Reading widely in the subject area of my book, often provokes new thoughts and new ideas about how to frame the puzzle I want to construct. But there’s so much information out there that it can be hard to narrow down what to read. I like to read a variety of material to get a more complete picture. So writing about a murder related to a specific terror plot, I focused on the recent history of Iraq. This included reading human rights country reports, academic sources on the invasion of Iraq in 2003, reporting from inside and outside the country, as well as literature from the region that could deepen my understanding. Then connecting the story to the foiled Toronto 18 terror plot that loosely inspired it, I read the excellent dossier put together by the Toronto Star newspaper on the details of the real plot. I read the biographies of each of the individuals involved, learned more about the fallout of the sting operation that stopped the attack from occurring, and followed up by reading reporting on the trials of the individuals involved. I also visited websites and viewed videos that gave me a window into a world of jihadist ideology that successfully radicalizes young people. (Yes, I cleared my browsing history after the book was done.) This gave me a more concrete sense of motivations and ideology that moved well beyond the simplistic framing of  “Us Versus Them”, or the language of “they hate us for our values.” Fertile ground for a novelist to explore, and important I thought, in terms of understanding the context through which acts of terror arise.

But books and secondary sources usually don’t give me a complete enough picture. So I also talk to people with expertise and conduct a lot of interviews so that I can hear a wide range of perspectives on issues such as terrorism. For The Language of Secrets, for example, I was lucky enough to be able to interview a pair of Crown prosecutors who gave me uniquely helpful insights into how terrorism offences are prosecuted in Canada. I spoke with experts on radicalization, historians, political scientists, community leaders and members, social workers and anyone else I thought might help me better understand the story I wanted to tell.

But it can be hard to find the right contacts to help you with your research, particularly research like this. I try a number of different things that help me find the appropriate people to speak to. Sometimes I get a break and know someone personally, but often I’ll find someone through a network of contacts, a professional organization, or through friends I’ve made on social media. I am always amazed and humbled by how generous people are with their time and thoughts, and I try to be very forthright about how I might use what I learn in my story, so those who are kind enough to help me aren’t taken by surprise later. This whole process of reading and conducting interviews can take anywhere from six months to a year before I sit down to write.

And one final point on writing The Language of Secrets. Books about terrorism that reference Muslim communities, frequently ignore the perspectives of people from those communities. They often contain assumptions about their practices, beliefs, and lives and associate an entire faith community with the actions of an extremist fringe. One of the challenges for me in writing The Language of Secrets was to deconstruct those assumptions – to provide a counter-narrative to those generalizations by viewing the murder and the actions of the cell through Esa Khattak’s perspective, a man whose work as a police officer is guided by the ethics of his faith.

One thing I learned from writing this book is that there are no easy solutions to complex realities, but that it may be possible to understand those realities with more clarity, and to find the common ground to address them.

(c) Ausma Zehanat Khan

About The Language of Secrets:


The sequel to The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan, featured on BBC Radio 4″s Woman”s Hour

“Powerful” – Bookpage * “Exceptionally fine” – Library Journal * “Compelling” – Leigh Russell

A terrorist cell is planning an attack on New Year”s Day. For months, Mohsin Dar has been undercover, feeding information back to the national security team. Now he”s dead.

Detective Esa Khattak, compromised by his friendship with the murdered agent, sends his partner Rachel Getty into the unsuspecting cell. As Rachel delves deeper into the unfamiliar world of Islam and the group”s circle of trust, she discovers Mohsin”s murder may not be politically motivated after all. Now she”s the only one who can stop the most devastating attack the country has ever faced.

The Unquiet Dead author Ausma Zehanat Khan once again dazzles with a brilliant mystery woven into a profound and intimate story of humanity.

Praise for Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Unquiet Dead is a powerful and haunting story”- Guardian

“Thought-provoking, intelligent plot” – Daily Mail

Order your copy online here.

About the author

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. Her widely acclaimed second novel, The Language of Secrets, was published in 2016. Among the Ruins, her third mystery was published in February 2017. She is also at work on a fantasy series, to be published by Harper Voyager, beginning October 2017. The Bloodprint is Book One of the Khorasan Archives.

Social Media:
Website: www.ausmazehanatkhan.com
Twitter: @AusmaZehanat
Facebook: www.facebook.com/ausmazehanatkhan

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