Uzma Aslam Khan on The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, imagining the unimaginable with historical fiction
Uzma Aslam Khan's fifth novel The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali is a sensitively crafted alternate perspective of history. In this interview, Khan talks about her inspirations and shares an excerpt from the book.
Uzma Aslam Khan’s fifth novel, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, is a vibrant defiance of traditionally accepted histories.
Sometimes, a young boy passed her cell. He was slender and brown and he hurt. He had enormous eyes that tapered at the ends, where the hurt was. He had a square jaw and his cheek was growing into a man’s. Perhaps he did not know how to shave. Sometimes, he stood outside her cell till one of the warders started to approach and then he would dart away. Without a sound. He had the feet of a cat. She had seen him before, but could not recall when.
Perhaps he would come today.
She started to hear it, the sound she hated most. They were holding someone down. Soon would come the rush of liquid and the horse doctor’s voice. She covered her ears with her hands. She rocked herself back and forth.
From the women warders in the factory she had learned what the hunger strikers wanted. Their demands were hers, too, if they only knew. Newspapers. Light in the cell. Better food. Proper medical aid. No more rationing of water. Warm baths. Bedsheets. No more rough handling. The warders laughed at this.
That other sound. The sound of laughter.
The strikers also asked for the freedom to answer the letters they were now allowed to receive. Why did no one write to her?
She rocked herself back and forth.
The Bengalis had asked for fish. She did not like fish. She wanted the taste of her mother’s love as she fed her cubes of mutton.
How many daughters see their mothers for the last time in court?
She pressed her hands to her ears more tightly, but the screaming did not stop.
— Excerpt from The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali by Uzma Aslam Khan, published by Context.
How is history handed down to us? Who narrates it? And what role does perspective play in shaping facts? Uzma Aslam Khan’s latest novel, The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, is a vibrant defiance of traditionally accepted histories. Through a rejection of historically privileged perspectives, well-rounded and responsible research, and a lyrical narrative that a reader can effortlessly float through, Khan gives a voice to the marginalised and oft forgotten.
From children growing up on a prison island to the only female political prisoner in a jail, and from forced prostitution to mass starvation, Khan writes of the lives that history would rather ignore, creating a brilliant gash in the narrative structure historically manufactured. With sometimes soft and often courageous moments of humanity amidst gut-wrenching pain, she takes her readers through the many days that make a life, on prison islands where people understand what it means to be fearful of hope, and still have the will to carry on another day, another breath.
In an interview with Firstpost, Khan talks about her novel and what inspired it, including structures of historical narratives, the personal ache and connection she felt, the resonance with current events, and the way she hopes readers will respond. Excerpts from the interview below:
How do you define and understand the genre ‘historical fiction’?
Alessandro Manzoni said historical novelists put "flesh back on the skeleton that is history." So that’s one answer. But Manzoni was a white man, and history’s skeleton and flesh have been constructed by privilege. My generation of women, the first to be born in Pakistan, has largely been severed from our history and geography, by the same forces that write the history and draw the maps.
So I reject the notion that the history we are given is the only one there is.
There are many histories, many ways to think about whose history we are meant to believe and meant to erase. For me, historical fiction is first and foremost deeply personal. It is a way to imagine the unimaginable. A way to embody stories not meant to exist.
You have said that this book has been 26 years in the making. What was your process of writing it?
Slow! It began in 1992, with pulling the wrong book off a library shelf. The book had a quote by a Home Secretary of India, describing the Andamans islands ‘a prisoner paradise.’ Instead of finding the book I was looking for, I found the one I had to write.
I spent the next twenty years looking for the true histories of those transported to the penal colony, but found hardly any. I learned that women were also banished to the islands, and my prisoner became the first character I wrote. Yet, unsurprisingly, both British and South Asian historians had omitted women from their accounts. As I collected material to construct the world into which she had been tossed, I went on to write four other novels. Between them, I kept coming back to the prisoner. I was obsessed with her. I carried her with me wherever I went, in some roundabout process that involved creating a liminal space, between dream time and deep research.
In terms of research, you have mentioned that the history of the prison islands is almost completely lost. How did you go about finding the sources you mention? What was your process of taking factual research and incorporating it into fiction?
All fiction writers, including historical fiction, take liberties with facts. Yet, when the fiction is set in a real place, during real events, questions of accuracy loom large. For instance, I wanted evidence, in official language, of the transportation and erasure of women ‘terrorists.’ I wanted to dig deep into why, for Asians and Europeans, the fight for freedom and experience of exile are different for women than for men. I wasn’t sure what proof I wanted – I just knew I hadn’t found it yet.
Portions of the book were written in Honolulu, on a group of islands further from a land mass than any other place on earth. On the other side of the island lay Pearl Harbor. I had lived in every place that plays a role in the book – Japan, England, even Hawaii — except the one that my parents, both Partition refugees, were born in. I had characters from present-day Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. All together on one island, in pre-Partition British and Japanese India. How to tell that story from this moment, with so many national hurdles? When it sometimes feels that we are all adrift on an island without memory?
I had to embrace the fact that I, as a Pakistani, having limited access to my pre-Partition history, is my history.
All of this contributed to the texture of the fiction, making me more determined to write this book. I had to write it from a place of being silenced — because of colonialism, war, Partition, and because, well, why should a woman write this history, anyway? The writing had to come from the ache of the underestimated and marginalised.
The ache allowed me to inhabit the islands, but I still had to do my homework. I received a fellowship that allowed me to do research at the British Library, where I found the written evidence I had been looking for, all those years ago. Like all good stories, it happened on the last day of my search: telegrams sent by the Home Department of the Government of India to the Secretary of State in the 1930s, referencing the transportation of women political prisoners to the Andamans. The telegrams were in five parts, and I included a slightly amended version of the first part in my book. I also included other documents I found.
Your writing makes nature feel almost like another character. Where does this connection stem from?
Even as a child, I was supremely content to be by myself in the company of trees and birds. One of my favourite activities was documenting, in a secret journal, all the dogs I met — my first encounter with recording history — putting a star next to each one I could identify, and two stars next two each one I pet (slyly; I’d let my hand glance the dog’s back as it passed, without the owner knowing it).
I’m not sure where this love of nature came from — perhaps the time I spent in my paternal grandmother’s old crumbling house in Lahore, inhabited with bats and ghosts. Or maybe it’s older than that. My paternal great-grandfather was a well-known hakim in a village near Ferozepur. My father would help him collect herbs for his clinic, in the same way that my character Haider Ali helped his hakim father. It wasn’t till late in life that my father shared this with me, but even before then, I carried an image of those herbs and flowers, their colours and scents, and felt I had already seen my father extracting, with pride, plant juices for his grandfather. An intimacy with the natural world is in my genes. Nature has always helped me to find a place.
What, according to you, is it about war that makes people forget their own humanity? What do you think makes the view of an enemy as the ‘other’ so strong that no empathy remains?
I wish I could say. I’ll try. After 9/11, the parallels between the Andamans and Guantanamo began to feel sickeningly urgent. I came to understand what my characters had already been showing me: the topic of a distant territory used by an imperial power to incarcerate and torture “terrorists” is eerily resonant.
This is a story of our past, present, and, unless we change, our future.
What do I mean by change? Change is an hourly, meditative practice. The empathy you speak of, it has to be cultivated, to become a habit, through what I can best describe as a process of radical inclusion: of those who are profiled and policed because of race, religion, class, caste, nationality, refugee status, immigrant status, sexuality, gender. Of course, this isn’t radical inclusion; it’s just inclusion. In my book, one of my characters says ‘the opposite of peace is not war. The opposite of peace is inertia.’ If we could normalise inclusion, so that it doesn’t seem radical, if we could overcome the inertia that keeps us from normalising inclusion, then ‘othering’ would not be so easy.
What type of response to your work would make you happiest?
Aisee kitab meine kabhi nahi pari! (I’ve never read a book like this before!)
I’m also glad when readers are open to a range of emotions – wonder, tenderness, anguish. When they don’t expect the story to be simplified and explained, but are bewitched by it, on its own terms.
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