Nikesh Shukla, who played an integral role in securing the manuscript for The Good Agency, says that his first reaction on reading an early draft of Saima Mir’s The Khan was that he had not read anything like it. His second reaction was: why not? “It feels so shameful that it took so long for this book to be published,” he says. “But at the same time, it took the right amount of time, because it is here now, and British crime will never be the same again.”
Set in an unnamed city in northern England, award-winning journalist Saima Mir’s debut novel, The Khan (Westland, Rs. 499) has been described as a South Asian version of The Godfather. It’s also long listed for The Portico Prize 2022 – for books which “best evoke the spirit of the north of England” – and Mir is already working on a sequel.
The protagonist, Jia – a second-generation British Pakistani – lives by this motto: "Be twice as good as men and four times as good as white men.” A successful lawyer, she is forced to return to the childhood home and city she once fled, and to take charge of the family’s local crime syndicate following her father’s – the leader of the Pukhtun community and the overlord of the business – death. Crime and cultural clashes, murder and misogyny, racism and gang rivals… Jia must face all this and more.
“Commercial fiction is the next big frontier for us as South Asian writers,” says Rahul Raina, author of How to Kidnap the Rich. “I think The Khan is a big step for all South Asian writers, not just women, and not just the genre writers.” Indeed, Mir crafts a character – and a fictional world – with a particular brand of justice and honour, leaving the reader with a story of the here and now, but also the future.
Over email, Mir speaks about her long publication journey, writing the story she wanted to read, and not taking on the burden of representation. Edited excerpts:
You have a background in journalism and reportage writing. Why did you choose fiction to tell this story?
Fiction lets us access other people's lives, struggles, and challenges, and gives us an insight into things we might not have known without being preachy. In an era of news fatigue, stories whisper to us and hold up a mirror to our lives.
You’ve spoken before about how you had trouble trying to get this book published. Can you comment on your personal publication journey, but also on the significance of this publication—and what it means for South Asian, indeed Muslim writing, in the UK?
I had given up on seeing The Khan in print. As a South Asian, and as a Muslim woman, who doesn't play to type, my story didn't fit existing genres. Publishing is a business, and it relies on its past successes to predict what will be profitable and what won't. This makes it challenging for anyone writing something new, but it also means there is an opportunity to do something great.
My publishers, Point Blank, are an exceptionally talented team, who nurture writers. Working with them has been an amazing journey, and one on which I am still learning to hone my skills.
Your protagonist is an “anti-heroine” and the book is set in a northern English city, not London. It seems to me that you were trying to offer up alternative stories and ways of storytelling to the dominant narratives we see. Can you speak to this?
I didn't set out to disrupt dominant narratives. I wanted to tell the story that I wanted to read—one that I couldn't find on bookshelves.
At a glance, the canon of British South Asian crime writers, including Vaseem Khan and Abir Mukherjee, is largely male-dominated. Where do you see yourself in this literary landscape?
I don't see my work that tactically. I love to tell stories about the kind of men and women I know and have met in my life. I like cleverness, surprises, and entertaining tales. I hope my work fits into those criteria.
You've said somewhere: “I’m very conscious of the fact that I have written a crime novel, I haven’t written something to represent Pakistani culture. I just want to tell a story — like any writer wants to tell a story. The Khan has been likened to The Godfather and that was well received by Italian Americans even though it was about a crime family.” Can you talk about the "burden of representation" writers of colour still face?
I don't take on the burden of representation because it is simply not possible for me, as a lone writer, to cover all the bases. The 'rep sweats' are a waste of time because I may write hundreds of stories that have all the different types of people represented, but I don't get to choose which gets picked up by a publisher, and which work they decide to pay me for. I can only do my work to the best of my ability, and write characters that are rounded, not stereotypes.
Sana Goyal is pursuing a PhD in literary prizes at SOAS, London.