‘When people see the hijab, they see the package, and they make assumptions’

Face to Face: Rukhsana Khan
Souzeina S Mushtaq Delhi

Rukhsana Khan was 36 when she got her first book published. Between then and now, the 51-year-old award-winning author has written 12 titles, aimed at children. Her upcoming book, to be released in January by Duckbill Publishers, is based on the famous kite festival of Lahore. She was in Delhi in November for the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival. She spoke to Hardnews about being a Muslim writer in Canada, her books, family and success. Excerpts:

 

How was it growing up in Canada?

Growing up in Canada, in a very small town, was very hard. But my father wanted us to have educational opportunities that he always wished he had. When we first got to Canada, my father was making pretty good money – $7 an hour, which back in 1965 was a lot. We bought a house, but within a year, after my younger siblings were born, he lost his job. He found another job but the money was not enough to feed a family of six. We mostly ate beet leaves and potatoes because it was cheap.

Being different in a white place was also difficult. The kids in my class did not know anything about brown people. They used to call us dirty because we were brown. They would tell us that if we went home and showered, we would become like them. So we started taking five baths a day to get the brown colour out. It was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that it was okay to be brown.

All the bullying and persecution turned me to books for comfort. My parents were typical Pakistani parents; they urged us to take up maths and science. If you brought an A in maths, that was nice. But if you brought an A in English, no one cared. 

When did you seriously think of becoming a writer?

My eight-grade teacher was the first person to tell me I should be an author. I was shocked, because for me, authors were always white, from England or America. I never thought I could become an author because I was brown. But I started to dream – to grow up and write the kind of books I wanted to read, or write for other kids who had experiences like mine.

When I was 16, I wrote a story. At the time, I used to clean houses to make a living. I used to work in the house of an English professor every Thursday, because I wanted to go to college and become a scientist. I told him about the story I wrote, in the form of a book called Waldo, The Worm.

The professor sent it to a publisher. My initial excitement was dampened when I got a rejection letter. That was devastating, so I studied to become a scientist. But I couldn’t find a good job. They would look at me and say the job was filled. Evidently, there were issues with the way I dressed – with the hijaband all. I thought it better to stay at home and take care of my child. But I couldn’t stop writing. I started writing little songs and stories. I thought I should give it a chance. It took me years to get my first book published. By the ninth year, I had five books under contract. And now I have been writing for 24 years. 

How is it to be a Muslim writer in Canada?

Being a Muslim was a disadvantage because there were no existing stories about us. When you grow up without those stories, people think you are weird. I had to overcome that. I had to look at Islam and ask if it was weird or strange. But I realised it made a lot of sense to me. It is similar to Christianity. I did this when I was 13. Everything I did sounded strange to them. I had to decide – am I weird? Am I going to listen to them? Or I can move on.

When I would send my stories to my publishers, they would ask me to send “Muslim stories”. But I had to do it in a way that Western audiences related to it. I had to write about my culture with a universal appeal.

It was not easy. People used to come and tell me, You got published because you are a Muslim. I worked more and more on my craft to tell them that I was not getting published because I was a good Muslim but because I was a good author, a good writer and a good storyteller.

When people see the hijab, they see the package, and they make assumptions. And I know it closes some doors. Sometimes it is surprising to me that people have been able to look at my work despite all the differences, and see all the stories inside.

In March 2013, I was chosen by the state of Alaska as their featured author, because of Wanting Mor. I was there and talking to kids who had read the book, and I was thinking  what are they going to read in the book to relate to. It turned out what they related to was that the father in the story was an addict. And almost all of them had addict fathers and addict parents. Even in Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, all over the US and Canada, it was read and loved. And it is in India, and soon it is going to be in the Middle East as well. 

Why did you become a children’s author?

My first love is children’s books. I think children’s books are actually better. Sometimes authors can go on and on, dragging the story. You cannot do that with children’s stories. Also, books saved my life, and I wanted to tell good stories. Second, I am a Muslim. I come from a culture that is marginalised. So I wanted to share stories that will help people understand and humanise Muslims. I wrote a book called Muslim Child to answer many questions people have about Muslims. And I tried to make all the stories really engaging. I hate boring stories. The reviewers said, If you read Muslim Child, you will know what Islam is all about. 

How have children responded to your books?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2014