Taran Khan: Author Profile

by Travel Writing World
Taran Khan

Taran Khan stops by Travel Writing World again to answer a few questions about her career as a writer. She is the author of the 2021 Stanford Doleman Travel Book of the Year Shadow City (Chatto & Windus 2019).

How did you first become interested in writing travel books?

 I didn’t set out to write a travel book, but the longer I wrote about Kabul the more I became aware that I was walking on densely written terrain. There are a lot of books written about the city over the ages—mostly by western, male authors—and these are usually the titles that come up in discourse and conversations around Kabul. Thanks in part to my grandfather, who read Persian and Urdu, I was able to discover other routes into the city. For instance, he told me about the travels of the famous poet Muhammad Iqbal through Afghanistan in 1933. Iqbal wrote about this journey like a pilgrimage, in a long poem called Musafir, or Traveler. Approaching Kabul in this way was also a means to address the idea of diversity, and the very important question of who gets to describe places, and the world, for readers. Because even something that appears as neutral as a guidebook is in fact shaped by a certain narrative and worldview. 

All these ideas were important to me as I began thinking about Shadow City as a record of wandering. I wanted to offer a way of travel that centered discovery rather than efficiency, that celebrated digression and curiosity over explanation or control.  

How did you manage to get your first travel book published?

As a journalist I have been writing for most of my professional life, which I also did from Kabul. Over time, I became interested in finding a literary form that was not focused on ‘issues’ or current events, but about what made the place feel so special. I wanted to capture the look and texture of its walls, the sounds of its mornings, the shadow of memories on its streets. I found I could write most freely when I stopped worrying about what kind of book I was writing. For that reason, I invested time in shaping the book the way I wanted it to be before I tried to get it published. I was a bit stubborn about this, as I didn’t want to change the book to make it fit into a more traditional form. There was also a certain degree of insularity- some feedback I got was not about the work itself, but about whether readers would be interested in what an Indian woman had to say about Afghanistan. Fortunately, I was able to find an agent and then an editor who embraced my vision and helped me build on it.  

What is your writing process like, both on the road and at home? And how long does it take you to write a book inclusive of the research, travel, writing, and editing phases?

It’s hard for me to answer this because it may be a different process for another topic. Shadow City grew out of my time in Kabul from 2006 to 2013, which is also the arc of the book. As a writer, I like to take my time. And for places like Kabul, or even for India, a lot of problematic discourse comes out of this reluctance to invest time: from hasty parachute journalism to the need for authors to provide “hot takes.” I wanted to stay with the topics I was writing about to be able to get to the heart of what I was trying to say, beyond the news cycles that so often obscure the way we talk of Kabul. 

What books or authors influence or inform your own work?

I enjoy the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski. I read Shah of Shahs many years ago and was captivated by his treatment of images and photographs as a way to describe events. It was like a door opening to a different way of writing altogether. Some of my favourite works are Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus, Anna Badkhen’s The World is a Carpet, The Baburnama, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, The Rihla of Ibn Battuta and Tim Mackintosh Smith’s travels in his footsteps in The Hall of a Thousand Columns. The best travelogue I’ve read on Kabul is Syed Mujtaba Ali’s In a Land Far from Home, translated from Bengali to English by Nazis Afroz. It is a witty, insightful journey to 1920s Kabul, ending with a tumultuous uprising against the king.

What advice would you give to someone interested in writing a travel book?

Reflect on your own presence and be honest about your intentions on the page. There is no neutral voice. 

Above all, be persistent and believe in the value of what you have to say, especially if there are not many people like you writing on travel. 

What is so appealing about the travel book as a literary form?

Its fluidity, the way it allows the reader to traverse multiple timelines and narratives. It can move from massive landscapes and scenery to the tiny details. I am usually interested in the overlap between the writer and the places they are describing, which is another way of travelling through both internal and external landscapes. 

Why write about travel?

This is a great question. The key for me is the many things that travel means. When I first read books about travel, I focused on the differences they revealed, on how quaint and exotic, or charming or dangerous the faraway seemed. Over time, I’ve become more attuned to the many ways in which travel reveals our commonalities. How we are connected, how we have the same longings, the same joys and sorrows. I think it’s important to recognize this, especially in our era of large-scale migration and refugees, to understand that places of so-called distant suffering are in fact very like places we know and hold dear. 

Taran Khan stops by Travel Writing World again to answer a few questions about her career as a writer. She is the author of the 2021 Stanford Doleman Travel Book of the Year Shadow City (Chatto & Windus 2019).

If you enjoyed this interview with Taran Khan, you might enjoy our author profiles section for more behind-the-scenes interviews with authors of travel books.

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