“There Is Freedom in Not Having a Script”: A Conversation with Uzma Aslam Khan

June 17, 2022   •   By Aracelis Girmay

UZMA ASLAM KHAN’S latest novel, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali (published by Westland India in 2019 and now available in the US from Deep Vellum) is a fictional account of the Andaman Islands under British and Japanese occupation, before and during World War II. With piercingly lucid attention, Uzma has drawn an intricate spider’s web that is both a record and a refuge. (Nestled in the book is the story of the spider who saved the lives of Muhammad and his loyal companion by spinning a web over the mouth of the cave in which they hid.) Uzma’s novel is an attempt to record the catastrophic consequences of imperial regimes while also honoring collaboratively made moments of safety and sanctuary among the colonized, including banished and incarcerated people, children, and the more-than-human world. Perhaps such possibilities are refuges unto themselves — simultaneously invisible and glinting in plain sight.

Born in Pakistan, Uzma is the author of five novels that have been translated worldwide to critical acclaim. These include Trespassing, recipient of a Commonwealth Prize nomination in 2003; The Geometry of God, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2009; Thinner Than Skin, nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize and DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and winner of the French Embassy Prize for Best Fiction at the Karachi Literature Festival 2014. The daughter of Partition refugees, Uzma has lived in the Philippines, Japan, and England. She currently lives in Western Massachusetts. Our conversation unfolded across a series of documents emailed between us as March turned into April.


ARACELIS GIRMAY: In the book’s acknowledgments, you write of chancing upon a quote by a British politician who described a group of islands to which Indian prisoners were banished as a “paradise.” What arose in you when you read that British politician’s word?

UZMA ASLAM KHAN: My first thought: “I know almost nothing about these islands.” I was a graduate student in Arizona, looking for another book in the library. It bothered me that I’d been taught little of my history at my convent school in Karachi, where “history” arrived in a syllabus from Cambridge University. All I knew was the Urdu/Hindi name for the islands, Kala Pani. It means “Black Water,” indicating a place of absolute exile. That’s where the British sent anticolonial revolutionaries, whom they called “terrorists.” But the actual name of the islands, Andaman, meant little to me. So, when I found that quote, I felt I’d been banished to an island without memory.

I went looking for a globe and found a spattering of freckles in a corner of the Indian Ocean. I had to know what had happened there. There was a single library stamp on the last page. I had a soulmate. I didn’t find the book I was looking for, but I found the one I had to write. It took a long time — almost 27 years. It involved learning and especially unlearning. A question loomed very large: how do I write into a void? Perhaps that single library stamp allowed me to jump.

In this work, everyone’s desires, strategies, and needs are thoroughly entangled. Entanglement is axiomatic — a fact of our existence in the worlds inside and outside of your book’s pages. I am also thinking about the prison as a process by which members of the imperial regime exacted an ongoing humiliation and trauma upon those who were incarcerated. Can you talk about your relationship to these conditions of entanglement and isolation in your book?

I appreciate how you connect entanglement and isolation. It’s where my research led me, even if, along the way, I had to shed the research to arrive at the writing. Let me explain. After I found that quote about the island paradise, I looked for true histories of the penal colony, but found hardly any. What I did find, unsurprisingly, was told from a male gaze. Though women were also exiled, because their removal carried a particular social and sexual stigma, in these sources not a single woman prisoner was named.

The first character that I wrote in The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali was the woman prisoner. In my earliest drafts, she had a name. Later, I called her Prisoner 218 D. But her story was taking forever to complete. I couldn’t find the material needed to incorporate factual truth with the truth of my imaginings. I had her essence. I didn’t have her words. They didn’t sound accurate or feel “true.” I was becoming entangled in her world and isolated from its language.

The language was failing me because the research was failing me. Because of the colonial project itself, the selective erasure that it’s built upon, the isolation and trauma that comes with this erasure — all of which are of course also alive in me. I needed to see that much of what I know comes through sources that omit people like me — brown, Muslim women from the Global South. Though I continued to collect every article and image I could find, ultimately not finding all the “facts” grew to excite me. It forced me to imagine from scratch. There is freedom in not having a script.

To me, the tenderness with which you write is a kind of intervention of knowing that is in opposition to the colonial one. For instance, the roles that surveillance and record-keeping play in the brutalities of the imperial project, versus the “knowing” of the Mayakangne, Kwalakangne, and Dare winds. There is the intimate knowing between Priya, the chicken, and Nomi, the human. The third-person omniscient narration suggests, again, a different kind of knowing. How do you think about the memories and interiors of others within this much larger context of layered surveillance?

I love what you say about “interventions of knowing.” It reminds me of Edward Said on knowledge: “Facts get their importance from interpretation [which] depend[s] on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment.” When historical data privileges its own systems of knowledge, it’s hard to trust the archives. It wasn’t till about 15 years into the book that I began finding alternative sources, inspiring my own “interventions.” A way perhaps to make fiction and an alternative record that I could trust.

I’ll give examples. The titular character, Nomi, is made up. Her brother Zee is based on a historical figure. The first shot fired on South Andaman Island during the war was by a boy trying to save a chicken from Japanese soldiers. This actual event frames the opening chapter. Zee is based on the boy, Priya on the chicken. I took the liberty of giving Zee and Priya a loving sister.

The jailer, Cillian, is also based on a historical figure. I found reference to him in male prisoner testimonials. He is particularly feared by Prisoner 218 D. After the surrender of the Japanese, when the British reoccupied the islands, part of their strategy involved enlisting the help of former jailers. Cillian returns, with all the horrors that he took part in buried, along with my prisoner’s name, beneath an official narrative of “white savior.”

Too, the knowledge that you speak of between human and nonhuman. It’s essential in all my books. For me, the physical world tells the emotional truth. One that’s displaced when human and nonhuman reciprocity is displaced. So, for instance, the cost of war on indigenous fishermen because of underwater mines that removed them from their oldest food source and ally, the sea.

I can’t say how I accessed these interiors. Love. Listening. A willingness to stay a long time, for instance, with the “knowing” of the winds that you mention. Interventions of knowing require immersion, empathy — these are acts of faith. There’s a scene in the book in which an old man bemoans that the British never took their shoes off before entering a temple. I took my shoes off many times, yet I wasn’t given permission to truly enter till I found Nomi.

Beloved Nomi Ali. Can you say more about your relationship with her? How she first came to you or you to her? How you carry her now that the book is complete?

I mentioned earlier that the woman prisoner was the first character I wrote, and she took a long time. In contrast, Nomi appeared years after I began, and didn’t take as long. With her, the book found its momentum. The prisoner started the journey. Nomi completed it.

There’s a scene early on in which Nomi recites “the names of as many bodies of water as drops in the bowl” that she’s carrying, while catching raindrops from a leaky ceiling. It was an image that stayed with me as I wrote her. Nomi collecting the Arabian Sea, Andaman Sea, Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean. Nomi as the keeper of seas, pooling in a bowl. Later, she’s also the “soil’s keeper.” I feel this has been my task, too, as a storyteller and collector of histories — familial, regional, global. At some point in the book, I touch upon the Partition of India into India and Pakistan, when refugees come to the islands. Like the prisoners and their children, the refugees ask what is left of the living with the death of the past. I was turning the question inward.

My father’s family are Partition refugees. He never spoke of the violence, but my paternal grandmother told me of the killing of her parents during the Partition riots. When I wrote this novel, what happened to Nomi’s father, Haider Ali, turned into an inversion of sorts of my great-grandparents’ Partition story. And there are other unexpected intersections between Nomi’s life and mine, those that touch me more directly, that I’m only just beginning to see — which is funny, given how long I’ve been with the book. I won’t risk spoilers, so will share only that I’m also the youngest of two children, in a nuclear family of four that was broken by the grief of “losing” one child. Grief can make those closest to you cruel. The survivor child never stops carrying the grief — her own and her family’s — and can recognize this particular kind of carrying in others, who are then lifted and given a home, as I do for Nomi, and she even more for me.

Yes, the brevity with which you explicitly refer to the Partition is devastating for the enormity of what is marked but unsaid. I wanted to hear from you about the moment in your book when Prisoner 218 D is in conversation with a beloved anticolonial comrade of her youth. This friend, Kaajal, refuses Gandhi’s summation that the “female sex is not the weaker sex” but the nobler, for her suffering. Kaajal rejects silent suffering. She says: “I like anger. […] It wakes me up as a friend should.” I am thinking of Audre Lorde’s 1981 essay “The Uses of Anger.” What are some of the uses of anger in this book and in the writing of this book?

I love this question. Earlier in that scene, Kaajal recalls her father saying, “Anger isn’t ladylike.” And she asks the prisoner, “Like which lady? I don’t know any ladies who aren’t angry.” After I wrote it, I made a list of words for “unladylike” women (later used for the prisoner). Virago. Harridan. Banshee. Minx. Shrew. Crone. Termagant, from the French termagaunt, an imaginary and violent Muslim deity.

The words become more loaded when the woman is of color. Then she’s the angry Black or brown woman, a trope that functions like a panoptic gaze. So, I loved writing that scene between Kaajal and the prisoner. Later in the book, I loved writing the prisoner in an even wider range of emotions, and through her discovering the uses of anger in the book: expression, action, wholeness, art, visibility, triumph, opposition, allyship. I’m thankful that you mentioned Audre Lorde. Who has more brilliantly drawn our attention to intersectional struggle? That scene between Kaajal and the prisoner has for me possible layers of attraction, though no reader has mentioned it yet. Lastly, do you know that Lorde, like Toni Morrison, was born on 2/18? I discovered it only now. My prisoner’s sole identification, on the wooden tag around her neck, is 218 D — and the letter stands for dangerous.

There’s a scene in the book when the Japanese dentist-spy is surveying the Andaman, and readers see it as a small island between two island giants, the Empire of Japan and the British Isles. Each character has their own relationship with the concept “island” — as a site of imprisonment and colonial expansion, or of escape and personal growth. For instance, Shakuntala, the Indian woman who runs her own farm. Could you speak of your relationship to islands?

As a child, I lived in Japan and the British Isles. Like many South Asians, Japan for me was “haute Asia” — art, ceramics, fine cuisine. And the story I’d learned of Japan’s alliance with Indian freedom fighters during World War II was a heroic one, of Japan helping India to fight the British.

As an adult, I lived on Oahu, in Hawaii. Though I was far from Pearl Harbor, being there helped me to recall my time in Tokyo, where I’d apparently spoken a little Japanese (since forgotten). I had happy memories of Tokyo and troubled ones of London, though it was in London where I first recorded history — I loved dogs and kept a secret journal of all the ones I met. In Hawaii, some childhood experiences found new homes through writing. For instance, Nomi’s teacher has a King Charles Spaniel. The headmaster of my school did too. Like Nomi, I was considered “too dirty” to play with the dog. The Japanese dentist-spy, who came to me in a flash, riding a bicycle, was perhaps a reincarnation of the kind man who helped me to steal a rose for my mother from the school garden in Tokyo.

It was in Oahu that I first learned of atrocities committed by the Japanese on the Andaman. I knew then that the book I’d been writing was about a dual occupation. Being on the island also shifted how I measure time, distance, and proximity. Some images came very close, not only of my early childhood but also of my family resettling in Pakistan after leaving Japan and England. This was during the Cold War when the US fought the Soviets in Afghanistan through Pakistan. The Karachi that I grew up in was a battlefield between empires, though at one time it had been a fishing village. And now, in Hawaii, I seemed to fly to an in-betweenness from another time, one where borders are mapped by water. Possibly, this allowed me to find a language for characters who exist between empires and seas.


Aracelis Girmay is the author of three books of poems, most recently the black maria (BOA Editions, 2016), for which she was a finalist for the Neustadt Prize. An essayist, picture book maker, and teacher, she is also the current editor-at-large for the Blessing the Boats Selections and is on the editorial board of the African Poetry Book Fund.