Interview with author Rukhsana Khan
Award-winning author Ruksana Khan was born in Pakistan and emigrated to Canada with her family when she was three years old. Her writing ranges from picture books to young adult novels and she has become particularly renowned for her books with Muslim cultural settings. Her picture book The Roses in My Carpet was awarded the Janusz Korczak's International Literary Prize by the Polish chapter of IBBY.
She lives in Toronto with her husband; they have four grown children.
But really, fundamentally, I’m just trying to tell a good story. The kind of story I, as a child, would have picked up off the library shelf and curled up with, to escape the brutality of my life.
In Copehagen you also decried those children’s books which nurture cultural stereotypes. What do you see as the main challenges for authors who write about different cultures to their own?
It is extremely hard to write about another culture. Almost every time I have done so, despite all my research, I have made mistakes, even when the culture I’m writing about is very similar to my own. Many authors write about other cultures to explore problems in those cultures but they fail to understand the social construct that allows those problems to exist in the first place. They are basically looking for the mote in another culture’s eye, writing about it without enough knowledge and without realizing they might be making it that much harder for authors from that culture to set the record straight.
When I write about other cultures, I try very hard to make sure that none of that attitude creeps into my writing. I write about things I can empathise with in the other culture. For example, when I wrote the Buddha’s birthday story in my book Many Windows, I deliberately chose to focus on an aspect of Buddhism that I am in harmony with, the idea of right livelihood. It also happened to fit well into my set of linked short stories because it shows how communities are interdependent upon each other through trade and business. The story is about Natalie’s anticipation of the celebrations of Buddha’s birthday but it’s also about how her family needs to sell jewellery at her father’s shop to pay bills, and then how she is able to help her friend Benjamin find the perfect gift for his mother’s birthday. The whole collection of Many Windows is about how community is made up of individuals who find ways of getting along despite their differences.
I also try and find someone from within the culture I’m writing about to check that I’ve got it right. In the Hannukah story, Benjamin goes to visit his great grandmother in a nursing home. It’s a story about how communities involve different generations, it’s about respect for the older generations and how, like the dreidels that they play with, we have no idea how long we will keep spinning. I had done my research but still made a mistake with regards to this story. I initially used the Yiddish word schlep, but according to my friend, who vetted the story for me, I had used it incorrectly. Apparently schlep has a negative connotation to it that wasn’t appropriate in the way I had used it. Apart from that, though, my friend assured me it was a good story.
In writing Wanting Mor I didn’t think I would have that kind of trouble. Pakistan, where I’m from, is right next door to Afghanistan, how different could they be? Surprisingly they are very different. And I got a number of things wrong according to my son-in-law’s sisters. They’re from Kandahar, where a lot of the story takes place, and were instrumental in vetting the manuscript. They also helped me with the plot. At first I had a pretty wimpy ending. It was my son-in-law’s sister who suggested that the stepmother would kick the father out of the house. I asked, “Would she really do that?” My son-in-law’s sister looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Yeah!!! Of course!” As a result, there is a final scene, a kind of closure for Jameela, that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The funny thing is that I have family members who vehemently insist that the father left of his own accord when he realized that Jameela could earn him some money and was definitely NOT kicked out by the wicked stepmother!
What do you think is the role of storytelling in enhancing respect for the other, whether close by or on the other side of the world?
I think storytelling can be like travelling to another country without getting on a plane and taking a suitcase. Travelling broadens the mind, whether in reality or via reading. Basically, storytelling can help reinforce the similarities we all share. It can show us that fundamentally we’re really not that different.
Storytelling is often peopled with archetypal characters: Cinderella, the wicked stepmother, the simpleton, the trickster or the wise fool. These archetypes exist because human nature is basically the same no matter what the culture and they show up repeatedly in stories all across the world. We can recognize the type; we know them… They may be a cousin or an uncle or an aunt. And the fact that these stories have been passed down from generation to generation, adopted from culture to culture, traded like baseball cards over a shared meal, shows that they’ve withstood the test of time. They’ve been translated and adjusted to fit the local customs of different sets of people, and in the process they reveal a facet of who we all are as people. We all want Cinderella to find her prince; we all want the wicked to get their comeuppance.
Can you tell us some of your favorite children's and YA books that give readers genuine insight into cultural settings in a way that doesn't seem forced or contrived?
Oh there are so many! Like I said above, I loved Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman and Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska–and also her book Single Light. Once I discover a writer I usually hunt down all their books!
I loved the classics: Charlotte’s Web, The Secret Garden, The Blue Castle, the Anne of Green Gables series, (until I got to the one where she insulted Muslims), Rebecca, Huckleberry Finn, Puddinhead Wilson, Watership Down, Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Emma, Last of the Mohicans, Ivanhoe. All these books really do provide a glimpse into the character of their respective cultures, even when, as in Watership Down, it’s about a warren of rabbits: and in all these cases, the settings are ‘unsensational’ and realistic.
What effect do you think Canada’s approach to multiculturalism has had on the children’s book industry there?
Canada’s approach to multiculturalism has affected me personally because, due to the growing number of South Asian and Muslim children in schools, Canadian teachers search out books to validate the experiences of the South Asian and Muslim children in their classrooms. But the interesting thing is that many teachers search for diverse books even when their classes are comprised predominantly of one culture. The majority of Canadians seem to really value diversity. There is a demand for such books, and so publishers hasten to fill that demand.
Canada’s policy of inclusion and multiculturalism has basically allowed me to make a living at what I love to do. Of course it wasn’t always like that. And in rural areas there is still a resistance to learning about other cultures. Ironically, the war in Afghanistan has made at least two of my books more ‘marketable’ because they are set there.
When I was growing up all our books were imported from Britain and America. The only two Canadian authors I could name were L.M. Montgomery and Farley Mowat, and both of them were actually published in the United States and their books imported back into Canada.
It’s really hard to explain how impossible it seemed. for a while, that I, being of Pakistani origin, could ever become a mainstream children’s author. It seemed a pipe dream.
Your recent novel Wanting Mor was inspired by a short notice you read in the newsletter of an Afghan orphanage. Did you know straight away you wanted to create a story out of it?
No, not at all. In fact I didn’t want to write the story. I thought it would be too depressing. But then I thought maybe I could make it a kind of companion piece to my book The Roses in My Carpets. That one’s about a boy refugee, this would be about a girl who suffered through the aftermath of war. I actually wrote it at first as a picture book, but it just seemed flat. I could see that it needed to be a novel, but novels require so much of an investment in time and I didn’t want to mire myself in such a sad story for so long.
The decision was made for me, though, when one day I was going down to Dundas to visit my parents. I heard this girl’s voice in my right ear. (That’s the way stories usually come to me. I seem to be a very auditory person.) It was a young girl’s voice and all she said was, “I thought she was sleeping.” She sounded so devastated. I thought, she’s just lost her mother, the only person who believed in her, who really cared about her. This occurred a few years after I had lost a very dear relative to breast cancer, and her children had then been abandoned by a dead-beat dad. And I started crying.
I had the whole story in front of me, or so I thought. This girl would be abandoned by her father in a marketplace and she’d end up in the orphanage where I had helped sponsor a library. The opening scene, in which Jameela is helping to bathe her dead mother, was inspired by my own experience in helping to bathe a dead relative in preparation for burial.
Many readers will come away from the story with a deeper awareness of different aspects of life in Afghanistan – but the main drive of the narrative has universal resonance in that it deals with how the young heroine, Jameela, copes with the upheaval in her life following her beloved mother’s death – including being subsequently abandoned by her father. How conscious were you during the writing process of both telling a good story and enhancing cultural awareness?
I wasn’t conscious of enhancing cultural awareness at all. In fact, I had no idea that the story would even ever be published. I wrote it selfishly, on my own terms. I wanted to find out what would happen to this poor girl. How she’d come out of this intact. And I started to think of what would have happened if my father had been weak and abandoned us. He would have been fine: $2.35 an hour was a big stretch for a family of six but a single man would have had no trouble living on that. If my mom had been abandoned with four children and a sixth grade education from Pakistan, we would have been up a creek!
One day I asked him why he hadn’t left; why he had stuck it through. He said something I ended up quoting in Wanting Mor. He said that when you want to make a clay pot strong, you put it in the fire. You cannot take the pot out of the fire too soon, or the pot will crack and be useless. He said that God made Adam out of clay, and we are the children of Adam. When we go through our hard times, that is like our firing. We have to endure it, and not take ourselves out of the fire too soon, or we will crack. We have to trust in God that He will take us out when the time is right.
I ended up quoting this sentiment in Wanting Mor. To me it’s the theme of the book and I returned to it symbolically, several times in the story. In writing Wanting Mor I was really just satisfying my own curiosity – and trying to tell a good story in the process.
You write sensitively of Jameela’s cleft palate – what were your considerations for introducing this added strand to the narrative?
I decided to give Jameela a birth defect that, while fairly common (one in seven hundred babies is born with it), would be sufficient, in my opinion, to explain her inwards character. Simply being poor and abandoned, unfortunately the all-too-common state of so many children in Afghanistan, would not have led her to be the type of thoughtful, introspective person I wanted her to be. The fact that her mother named her Jameela, which means ‘beautiful’, despite the cleft lip, speaks volumes of the mother’s own character.
Earlier you alluded to your picture-book, The Roses in my Carpets, which is about a young Afghan refugee who became your foster child. Can you tell us something about your involvement with the child’s orphanage and also about how you set up your Libraries in Afghanistan project, following the book’s publication?
In the winter of 1991-92 I visited Pakistan and took a trip up to Peshawar to visit my foster child. I had begun sponsoring him many years earlier, when I first heard of the invasion of Afghanistan. My husband and I sent off the cheque and we got back the picture of my foster child, Kareem. He had blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles, and he was white. Given the lengths I went to as a child to become white, I found it hilarious and ironic that my foster child had the one thing that could have made my growing up in Canada a lot easier!
It took me four years to write The Roses in My Carpets. I still consider it one of the best things I’ve ever written (although I also believe it’s now been eclipsed by Wanting Mor); and it continues to be one of my most popular books. The story seems to have a life of its own. It was originally published by two publishers, one Canadian and one American. Then came some bad luck: the Canadian publisher went bankrupt and the American publisher put it out of print right after September 11th! Going out out of print usually means the death of a book. Very few publishers ever take on a book that has been around that long and been published by two different publishers, but I did get a third publisher to buy the book. Then a Japanese publisher bought rights as well.
When the book first came out, I thought it wasn’t fair to keep the royalties. The story was inspired by Kareem's older brother, who, unlike Kareem himself, could remember the horrors of the war. It didn't seem right to profit from their story. So I started sponsoring more refugees. Then when the third publisher bought it,
Later on, the people running that orphanage sent me a report on children in crisis and within that report was the story of Sameela, a girl whose mother had died during the war, and whose father had remarried and, when the step-mother didn’t want her, taken Sameela to the marketplace and left her there. If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it is the basis for Wanting Mor.
I continue to use the royalties of The Roses in My Carpets towards the Libraries in Afghanistan project and I’m hoping that more and more people will discover this book. It’s been a bit of a sleeper hit!
In fact, The Roses in My Carpet won a Janusz Korczak's International Literary Prize, awarded biannually by the Polish chapter of IBBY between 1979 and 2000. Can you tell us about this award?
Janusz Korczak was a Jewish children’s writer from World War II whose books were very popular. When the Nazis invaded Poland and rounded up all the Jewish people to send them to concentration camps, they realized this man was the author they knew as Yanusz Korczak! They basically told him that he didn’t need to go to the concentration camp because they loved his books. He asked what would happen to the children in his orphanage and the Nazis said they’d have to go to the concentration camp. He couldn’t leave them so he went with them to Treblinka, where all of them were killed. He was a true hero.
I was honoured and deeply touched to receive this award. And I get a kick out of the idea that there can’t be many Muslim women who’ve won an award named after a Jewish man!
You have already mentioned Many Windows, which is a truly multicultural story about six children of different ethnic backgrounds, whose diversity is cause for celebration and whose common ground is their passion for basketball. Each child is the protagonist of one story, which could stand alone but also links into the continuing thread of narrative as a whole – could this be a metaphor for the society these many windows seek to encapsulate?
It might be tempting to read each story only at the time of the celebration it deals with but the stories might fall a bit flat. They are so much more effective when read in order, continuously, as feedback from teachers who’ve read the book as a whole in class demonstrates. A librarian friend of mine, whom I’ve known for years, told me that each story actually brought tears to his eyes, especially at the end when all the different strands are drawn together.
I used basketball throughout because I needed some kind of passion that these kids had in common. Basketball is such a cool, non-violent sport. And it contrasts with the themes of bullying and acceptance that are encompassed in the character TJ’s narrative. Despite being bullied myself, I’ve always had a soft spot for unhappy kids whose cry for help evinces bullying tendencies. I love the idea of second chances, of transcending your reputation. Maybe it’s because as a kid I was never able to do that. My geeky reputation followed me until I finally moved out of Dundas, to Toronto, which was so much more diverse. I left behind all those kids in my age group who remembered every stupid thing I’d ever done since kindergarten. I took every advantage of that second chance and have never looked back.
The stories were carefully designed to expand not only on the characters of the kids in the stories, who eventually become TJ’s friends, but also on both the idealistic and very functional nature of this community, and that goes back to the opening poem,
“Through our many windows,
Rounding it all out are five non-fiction pieces that elaborate on the celebrations mentioned in each of the stories. It is a story book that kids could read for fun, but I’ve always thought the greatest use of this book is in a classroom setting to encourage respect and community spirit, when looking through their own windows. Honestly, I can’t imagine a school who wouldn’t want a copy!
Many Windows was written in collaboration with Elisa Carbone and Uma Krishnaswami. What was the background to the book coming into being and how did the writing process work, with three different writers involved?
When I think of Many Windows, my chest swells with pride at what Uma, Elisa and myself were able to accomplish. It’s a very unique book. There aren’t very many linked short-story collections with characters appearing in each others’ stories.
It was originally Elisa’s idea. She thought we should write a collection of stories about kids from different faiths who were able to look past their differences and be friends, just like the three of us. Elisa is Christian, Uma is Hindu and I am, of course, Muslim. We were also touched by all the conflict going on in the name of religion all over the world. So originally I wrote the Eid story, Uma wrote the Diwali story and Elisa wrote the Christmas story and we shopped the concept around to our various publishers trying to get them to buy it. None of them did.
However, I fleshed out the project a bit more and took it to Napoleon, a very small Canadian publisher I’d worked with before with my third book Muslim Child. Although small, they’d been a joy to work with, and that means a lot to me; so I approached Sylvia McConnell, my publisher there and she liked the concept. The problem was that being a Canadian publisher, she relied heavily on grants to subsidize the publishing and because I was the only Canadian on the panel of authors, in order to qualify for a grant, I’d have to write eighty percent of the book. Uma and Elisa didn’t mind: they’d gone on to other projects. So I grabbed the bull by the horns and wrote the other stories and most of the background notes about each celebration to make it what it is today.
What do you particularly enjoy about making school visits? Can you share some special moments with us?
School visits allow me to connect with my audience, and in doing so I remind myself not to get too ‘serious’. With so many forms of entertainment vying for their attention, meeting authors usually help kids to connect with their work. They can put a face to the name, and if the author is interesting in person, they figure maybe they won’t regret taking the time to read his/her books.
I do a lot of school presentations. I visit about eighty schools a year, presenting to kids from kindergarten all the way through grade twelve, and I really enjoy it. Each group has its joys and challenges. In addition to my book related storytelling, I also tell traditional folktales. I’ve been told I’m a natural storyteller. Sometimes I’ve held audiences so engrossed they forget to move. When the story is done, I love watching them stretch and groan because they’ve sat still too long!
The kindergarteners are hilarious! Between keeping them engaged but not over-excited and ignoring the nose-picking, a presenter definitely has their hands full! I think the purest form of praise I ever receive is from kindergarteners. They’ll run up to me and hug me after they’ve heard my stories, or sometimes they’ll be standing in line, waiting to be dismissed, and they’ll say, “You write really good stories.” The biggest hit always tends to be Big Red Lollipop (which is coming out as a picture-book next year). I tell that story at the end, when they’re starting to get restless, because it has some finger actions and some places where they join in. I call that story my ‘no-brainer-crowd-pleaser’ because it appeals to ages three to adult. Half the time the teachers will be laughing harder than the kids!
The little ones are fun, but you can do so much more with the older kids, and actually, my favourite group to present to would have to be the grade sevens and eights. My From ESL to Author presentation seems to be particularly effective with them. That’s the presentation that deals with my novel Dahling if You Luv Me Would You Please Please Smile. In it I talk about how I became an author, my growing up as an immigrant outsider, and the moment in grade eight when I didn’t speak out for a girl called Betty. What I always try to do with my presentations is include a lot of humour; and the presentations have a story arc all their own. The From ESL to Author presentation is, at times, very funny. The humour actually makes the tragic parts more effective. Humour and pathos, the one enhances the other.
By the end of the presentation I come full circle and relate the beginning of Dahling... When I tell them about my classmate’s attempted suicide, you should see the kids grow silent. It doesn’t matter what race they are or what social background they come from, they inevitably go silent, and a few of them will look side to side to see who might be watching them. The kids who’d laughed when I told them how Rick and John would call that poor girl ‘Betty big boobs’ would now grow very quiet, and look around sideways. It’s also clear that many of them have thought of committing suicide and when I talk frankly about the two reasons why I didn’t, even though I was tempted too, they listen respectfully.
I once also had a very interesting experience withl Dahling if You Luv Me... at a local festival: a black girl came up to my table, snatched up a copy of Dahling and said, “Oh I loved this book!” I thanked her but then her mother said, “No, you don’t understand. She really loved this book! It was the first book she read that nobody had to force her to finish.” I felt stunned. It felt like an incredible burden of responsibility had been put on me. What if I consequently wrote something that would disappoint this reader?
And then later, during a visit to a posh private school, there was one girl in particular, a white girl in the front row, who kept asking me very detailed questions about Dahling. Then when I was done with the presentation she came up to me and said, “You don’t know how much I loved this book! I had practically given up on literature till I read it." And I thought, wow! What a diverse audience!
With my presentation The Roses in My Carpets I’ve had so many teachers come up to me with tears in their eyes afterwards, that it no longer surprises me. And the way the kids will often gasp when I get to the climax of the presentation is very gratifying! I do that presentation from grades three all the way to adult with hardly any need to change it. The only thing I do with the older group is add a bit of detail regarding the gruesome realities of war, which I tend to gloss over more for the younger audiences. The presentation includes a visual tour of the Afghan refugee camp I visited in Pakistan and the kids see a completely different way of living. One grade three girl from a very privileged area of Toronto was so moved she wrote an essay that I later posted, with permission, on the kids’ page of my website.
Can you tell us what projects you are working on at the moment?
Right now, I’m wrestling with a novel set in Pakistan, about a sixteen-year-old boy who does something so shameful he thinks he deserves to die.
I’m also intrigued by the historical figure of Crazy Horse, an Oglala Sioux warrior chief. He was an amazing man. I’ve read a lot about native history. I think what’s been done to the First Nations is appalling and every person in North America, including the immigrants, should pressure the government until the treaties have been honoured and justice has been served. I’d like to write a novel about that.
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers' Associate Editor .
Posted December 2009
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