Khanversations

Rukhsana’s thoughts on her journey of life, writing and sometimes—when she dares—a bit of politics.
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Dealing with heartache…

Just days after they laid Muhammad Ali to rest, a 29 year old American named Omar Mateen shot up a gay nightclub killing 49 people.

How could anyone do such a thing???

Just when things are getting calm, something like this happens.

I try not to think of it because whenever I do, tears well up, and I’m fasting and already dehydrated enough. I can’t afford to lose more water.

Oh Allah have mercy.

I’ve been immersing myself in Quran. Lots and lots of Quran. It always helps put things in perspective.

And it makes me feel grateful because no matter how tumultuous the world is getting, alhamdu lillah, things are good with myself and my own family situation.

I can pray for the world, I can pray for the victims. And I can work to tell stories that try to make sense out of it all, and urge others towards a better world view.

That’s about it.

A friend puts it bluntly, ‘Just because the world’s going nuts, doesn’t mean you have to.’

Destroying my own mental health isn’t going to help the situation any. Instead it’s time to lean in, plod on. Patience. Perseverance. God loves those who patiently persevere.

 

 

Oh Beautiful Ramadan!

The Prophet (peace be upon him) had encouraged Muslims to welcome this sacred ninth month of the Muslim calendar! Welcome it because during this month the doors of heaven are opened and the doors of hell are closed and all the shayateen (devils) are chained up and have no power to influence us.

It is not easy.

But there is something very exciting about it!

I was writing a novel recently and I came to describe it, that you think it’s going to be so hard, but then the first week passes and the second week passes, and when you go to the masjid for taraweeh prayer, you feel the peace descend upon you as you listen to the beautiful recitation of the Quran, God’s own book, that was first revealed in this blessed month.

And you see the moon changing, through the lacy cloud cover, or sometimes you can see it better when it’s clear, and you see it waxing, and then waning, the days and nights inevitably passing, and you get into the rhythm of the month so that you hardly feel the hunger and thirst of the days, even though the days are long because it’s at the height of summer.

And before you know it, the month is passing and you’re getting ready for Eid!

Oh it is a beautiful month.

My heart is light.

I am surrounded with peace.

And even though I have a bunch of presentations in the fall to prepare for, including the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Atlanta, Georgia where I will be conducting two presentations, I am at peace, and I know I will work towards it insha Allah and everything will be okay.

Last night I watched The Martian with Matt Damon. During Ramadan I try to stay away from stupid nonsense and dirty stuff in particular, and The Martian is really just a good story. It’s in the end, when Damon is lecturing to a group of students that the themes of the story really come together. It’s well worth watching, and it makes me realize that more and more Hollywood is tired of the normal story format. There are no ‘love interests’ in the new stories. And good on that.

And yet there’s something missing. Soul.

Hollywood and science fiction is incredibly amoral, and areligious.

And kind of depressing.

I hope whoever reads this has a wonderful month of Ramadan, whether you celebrate it or not, whether you fast or not, and I hope this month will bring the world one step closer to peace.

Ameen

Especially when things are really funny!

Like when you had a chip on your shoulder and you made a terrible mistake, a faux pas, and then life has a way of circling around back at you, as if to nod and say, “It’s okay.”

That’s what happened to me today.

About twenty years ago, when I was still just starting to try to get published, I tried writing everything and anything, just to get a publishing credit so that I could mention it on my cover letters so editors could take me a tich more seriously.

I always admired OWL and ChickaDEE magazines! They’re Canadian institutions, so naturally I took an oral speech I’d help write for my daughter and tried to turn it into an article for OWL.

I have come to the conclusion that I am NOT a non-fiction author.

Not really.

Despite the occasional article I write for journals and stuff, I can’t write creative non-fiction. Not for the likes of such prestigious magazines anyway, but at the time I didn’t know any better and I wrote the article.

It languished at OWL in the slush pile.

And so I went to this conference back then called STORYMAKERS. The editor of OWL was Sylvia Funston. She was doing a session, and here’s me sitting in the front row, listening eagerly. And when she said that they respond back within three months, I stuck up my hand and told her it had been six months.

She was kind enough to go back to the offices, dig up my story, and sit down with me the next day to tell me why it didn’t work and what I could do to fix it.

Did I appreciate it?

No, I did not.

LOL.

Omigosh. Like I said, I’ve made every mistake imaginable on my journey to be an author.

I cringe at the way I behaved. I did not appreciate the criticism. I did not even realize what a favour she was doing for me!!!

By the time I did, she had moved on.

I wrote an open letter to Sylvia Funston, I think on this blog, apologizing profusely but I don’t think it ever wended its way toward her.

And then lo and behold, out of the blue, I get a request from ChickaDEE magazine to write a story for them! A fiction story–which I can do!

And which I did.

And now that it’s been finalized and the editing is done, I can say it feels absolutely SURREAL to have written for such a prestigious magazine as ChickaDEE!!!

I asked my editor if she knew Sylvia Funston and whatever happened to her, but no, alas, she was before her time.

I do hope I get to apologize to her one day.

But in the mean time…

CHICKADEE!!!!!!

Judging an audience…

Thing about this field is that I’m ALWAYS learning things!

Just when I think I’ve kind of figured things out, I will go ahead and learn something new.

Like just a few days ago, I did two afternoon presentations.

I thought afternoon presentations would be easier. I’m starting to get anxiety when I have to get up early these days!

Just tackling Toronto traffic, and the worry of getting to the venue on time means I have trouble sleeping the night before.

The presentations themselves are a piece of cake!

Anyway, I did two afternoon presentations and I realized why so many schools book me for the mornings.

Kids are fresher in the morning!

One of the presentations was for kindergarteners, and it was the end of the day.

In Ontario we have full day kindergarten and as a result these little tiny kids are at school from nine in the morning. Poor little things, some are so young!

I decided long ago to never take it personally if a kid dozes off during a presentation.

I told myself, maybe they need the sleep more than they need to hear my stories.

So when I saw this little boy starting to sway, and his eyes starting to close, I thought, oh well, can’t catch everyone.

But when more started keeling over, I got really disappointed.

I think there were a total of about twelve little kindergarteners, who gradually drooped to the gymnasium floor, and fell fast asleep, in the middle of Silly Chicken and Big Red Lollipop.

And I thought, Yup, no wonder they book me for the mornings. I will stop complaining about that from now on.

At the end of the presentation, as the teachers were waking up the sleepy heads, one of the teachers came up to me and said, “You were awesome!”

I was so surprised. And I said, “But I put them to sleep!”

And she said, “That’s because you’re a wonderful storyteller. You have a very soothing voice.”

And I looked at her astonished. And I said, “Okay. I’ll take that.” Sure. I put them to sleep because I’m so good.

LOL.

But honestly I think I’d rather see them in the mornings from now on.

Intersectionality…

Never heard of this concept until I spoke to someone in the biz and she mentioned it and then I looked it up.

It’s a feminist term that basically articulates the nagging feeling of condescension that many women of color feel from our white feminist colleagues.

It’s the feeling that the only way they would consider us ‘successful’ is if we adopt the exact same attitudes, platitudes and attributions as they do.

That basically the ideals of white women are the only ideals that all women should strive for.

I’m not sure if I’m a ‘feminist’ exactly.

And yet I remember Katie Couric’s speech at that gala event I attended a few weeks back where she said that if you believe in women’s rights, you bet your life you should call yourself a feminist.

But thing is, I also believe in men’s rights. Basically I believe in justice for everyone.

And yes, that includes women. So I guess I am a ‘feminist’.

When I came back from Pakistan this time I really got a very different idea of the dynamics there.

It’s so funny how much things have changed. When I was doing the teachers’ workshop, there were many men in the workshop and they had no problems with me, a woman, leading the workshop. They eagerly participated, and so did the women, and yet the women hung back. More out of modesty though than anything else.

How does modesty fit into feminism? It’s not bold. It’s not brash. It doesn’t seem to be something white feminists even value and yet, I think it is valuable.

Intersectionality is also the idea that women of color experience an intersection of challenges, not all of which have to do with their gender. For example we experience racism, class-ism, age-ism and others as well.

So the solutions we strive for may not be the same as those striven for by our western counterparts. And what we consider success might also look different and basically western feminists should stop trying to make us feel bad about that.

I did a presentation recently on Wanting Mor, and the topic of other very famous novels written by white feminists came up. I was asked how I viewed them and I said flat out that I found them to be insulting. Despite the fact that sometimes the authors had good intentions, ultimately the story line comprised of a Muslim girl, abused and oppressed, dressing up as a boy and running away. And my beef is, really? Is that the only solution a white feminist could come up with? Can’t the girl resolve her problems from within the culture? And what does that really tell girls from that culture???

And yes, this is all about intersectionality.

It’s so cool when someone puts a name on a nagging feeling you’ve felt all your life.

And maybe it means that women of color, and particularly, authors of color are taking back their voice. We’re no longer being dictated to in terms of what we should accept as our measure of success.

And it means there is real hope that we can bring about more understanding between the western and eastern hemispheres, between white and non-white cultures.

We can only hope.

Sometimes when you’re conducting storytelling workshops,  you might encounter children who are really really reluctant to get up in front of others and speak. And yet, public speaking is such an important life skill to have!

I really dislike it when they insist on reading their stories or even having the paper version near by.

I always tell myself in these kinds of situations to just chill, RELAX! It’s no skin off my nose if they tell the stories with their papers!

And yet it’s a crutch!

I know they’ll do a terrible job telling if they’re glancing at their papers every two seconds, or even just reading off them. They won’t have learned to stand on their own two feet and recall a story from memory. They won’t have realized that in storytelling there’s no such thing as perfection! Because you don’t memorize the story! So they won’t have learned the art of spontaneity! And the art of dramatization!

Even as I write all these things it occurs to me how very valuable an experience the storytelling workshops really are!

I’ve even been doing these exercises with my grandchildren.

Every once in a while, instead of me telling them stories, I have them get up and tell a story they’ve recalled. Even the three and four year olds do their best to remember a story. Sure they stand and fidget and they smile shyly as they tell them, but they do it! And when they’re done we show our appreciation.

The trick is, when they stumble, and yes, they will stumble, instead of grabbing for a paper, all I do is coax the story out of them with a few gentle questions.

Sometimes I’ve dealt with kids who are so nervous of telling, they actually begin to cry. And yet they have had some wonderful stories to tell!!!

With them, I say, “Come and stand right beside me.” And somehow they take courage from my proximity and as I coax the stories out of them, the tears slowly vanish, and they focus on me and the story, not the audience.

They get through it!

Imagine the sense of accomplishment they must feel! Imagine the courage it gives them to tackle other new endeavors!

Sometimes they can be so quiet, speaking just above a whisper. In this situation I do a relay. I let the kid speak the story to me, and then I tell it to the group.

I often give them a day of dress rehearsal, and then the next day it’s on for good.

And because it’s important to have something at stake, a bit of pressure! I offer up a prize for the best storyteller. (Usually it’s a DVD of me storytelling.)

In the past I’ve had teachers ask me to excuse some of the students because they were suffering anxiety.

Anxiety!

What the heck is the world coming to?

Why are kids so anxious?

I don’t care if they are horrible at it, the simple act of getting up in front of your peers and speaking is good experience for the real world!

This is what I tell the kids. I say that you need to push yourself sometimes to do something that is uncomfortable and scary. If you don’t, how will you ever grow?

Alhamdu lillah, in the end, I often get every single student to tell a story. Some of course are better than others.

And it often amazes me how sometimes it’s the kids who struggle with English, or who are the most shy, that win my little competition!

It’s so good for them to shine in such a way!

It’s such a confidence booster!

One time I found out that one of the kids I was leaning towards winning always won at things. And it was interesting because it occurred to me that maybe I should not let this kid win this time, maybe I should give it to someone who ‘needs’ it, and then part of me thought, geez, why not???

Should I really penalize a kid for being good at things and confident???

No way!

So I let the kid, and I was glad.

I come at kids with a completely blank slate. And the winners are always about proficiency.

Recently, after a workshop, the kids groaned, “Awwwwww!” when they realized it was my last day with them.

And they asked, “When will we ever see you again???”

Oh they were so cute.

 

Underestimating children…

It’s funny how many adults and educators assume that children only want to laugh.

They only want to have fun.

I did too.

When I first began school presentations I assumed that the funny stories would be the ones that would reach the children the best.

That perhaps I’d have to coax them into being interested in more altruistic story lines like The Roses in My Carpets.

I guess it goes back to that teacher I overhead in Cambridge, MA, when I was at the Children’s Literature New England conference back in the summer of 1996.

I had read out an early draft of The Roses in My Carpets and I overheard her saying to another lady, “…yeah but what kind of kids would like it?”

We underestimate the altruistic streak that exists in so many kids. I mean what else are superhero stories about? Except helping other people?

I’ve been doing workshops after school as part of the Toronto Public Library’s Sophie’s Studio. They’re free workshops designed to encourage the creativity and writing skills of the kids who enroll.

About eighteen kids have been coming every Wednesday afternoon from 4-5:30. And it’s tough!

It’s got to be engaging because as an after school program, these kids don’t have to be there!

Well there was one kid who definitely didn’t want to be there!

He spent most of the time, not participating, reading his comic book instead.

Part of the program I do with the kids includes my The Roses in My Carpets presentation because it really illustrates the creative process.

I thought I’d have to trim it for the purpose because the juicy part that applied was really about how I wrote the story, the inspiration behind it, not all the social studies bits.

One of the kids in the group whose story was getting off to a bit of slow start sat for most of the presentation with her hand over her mouth and a look of shock on her face.

And this whole group–very gregarious at times–were totally silent, and the little disengaged kid who was being forced to come, he sat right in front, and for the first time, he had his eyes wide open and was totally engrossed.

At the beginning of the presentation I asked them, “Who wants to do some good with the stories they write?”

ALL of them put up their hands!

All of them!

And that surprised me, and then I thought no, it shouldn’t. Because here I’d been guilty of the same thing.

Underestimating these kids!

Well I only have one more session with them.

I always learn so much from the kids in the workshop! And this time is no exception.

Thing is, kids really do respond to good art.

We might think they won’t get it, but on some deep level they do.

Reminds me of when my son was only two years old and he found Pride & Prejudice very interesting. Pride and Prejudice! With Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy!!!

We need to give the kids access to not only silly humorous stories, but to deeper more profound stories!

Think of it this way, we don’t always like the silly stuff! Sometimes we, as adults yearn for something that will really challenge us, spiritually and intellectually!

Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate Captain Underpants and a good fart joke. Just that I also long for something more wholesome.

Our tastes, as well as the tastes of children, run the gamut.

Do not underestimate them!!!

Call backs…

Sometimes I look back over the places I’ve been and the conferences and festivals I’ve had the privilege of attending and I get a bit nostalgic.

Singapore, Mexico, Iran, Pakistan, India, Denmark, Sharjah, Italy! The list goes on! Wow! I’ve really been a LOT of places!

I remember the trips so fondly! Although at the time they were extremely stressful!

As I age, these kinds of trips are taking a bigger toll on my body. And yet, I really had such wonderful times!

And I have come to firmly believe that when you remember someone, there is some sort of psychic connection in the atmosphere, because just as you think of someone, they’re also thinking of you!

It’s happened way too many times to be some sort of coincidence.

I’ll be thinking of someone, and days later I’ll get a call or an email or something where they say they were thinking of me too.

This is out of the blue! When I have absolutely no reason to be thinking of for example, the gentleman I met in Mexico when I went down there for the Universal Forum of Cultures.

It’s so nice when you get re-invited, or even if they just want to bring you back but they don’t have the resources.

There are so many NICE people in the world!!!

And I’ve met so many of them!

But then I’m also getting to the point where nowadays, whenever I’m a little bit too honest or blunt for my own good, and I put my foot in my mouth a bit, or I may have closed a door that was swinging open for me, I can just shrug and think, “C’est la vie.”

And move on, with no regrets.

Part of me thinks, hey, if they can get their nose out of joint just from a little bit of bluntness, then maybe it’s just as well. I’m not talking about saying anything rude. I’m just talking about expressing an opinion that they might disagree with–after I was asked for it!

And part of me thinks that there comes a point when your body of work has to stand for something and you don’t have to pussy foot around people.

I know that kids can relate to the stories I write. They just have to be exposed to them. And I know I’m coming at stories from a completely different mindset so I’m offering something unique. And it’s something of value.

If people aren’t in to that, if they can let an off colour remark offend them so easily, then it’s okay. There are others out there. Not everyone has to like me.

One actress, Jennifer Lawrence, was talking about how women are expected to be so nice, to take a cut in pay compared to male colleagues and not make waves about being paid the same amount. And she was sick of it.

I can certainly understand that.

Maybe it’s only when you get older that you get the courage of being not always nice.

I try never to be mean but hey, don’t ask me a question unless you’re prepared for an answer you might not like. I might just give you a completely honest answer without putting it in proper diplomatic double-speak, and what I’ve learned is that there are MANY people who can’t handle complete honesty.

I’m not trying to be mean. And if the situation were reversed I would definitely not take offense. I would consider the opinion being offered very seriously, and take a personal inventory, and decide whether the opinion was valid or not. It’s just the way I’ve learned to be.

And yet it’s so important to make connections! To be nice to everyone! You never know when such connections can lead to opportunities.

Oh dear, I know I just totally contradicted myself, but then that too is part of dealing with the world out there.

Never mind. Let’s end with that original thought.

La la la la!

Nostalgia and good times and good friends!

Aaahhh!

Over thinking things…

My goodness, it seems pretty hard to recapture the magic of picture books.

They are so deceptively simple!

And yet, I wonder if I haven’t sort of moved on.

I’m looking at most of the picture books I find in libraries and thinking ‘meh’. And I watch my grandchildren’s reaction closely as I read picture books to them, seeing what they respond to, what they laugh at, what makes them want to read a story again.

There is such a discrepancy! The older grandkids (9 and seven) really like the longer picture books! Westlandia is one of their favorites!

It’s a fascinating story about a boy who creates his own little world/ecosystem based on an imaginary fruit that he plants in his backyard as a sort of summer project.

It really is a story that shows the basis of any society–agriculture.

And they like the whimsical picture books that tell real stories.

The younger ones like humor! We’ve read Robert Munsch’s Smelly Socks probably a dozen times! It’s not one of my favorites. I still prefer Stephanie’s Ponytail. I think it’s brilliant! One of his three masterpieces.

I just finished a story I’m quite pleased with. Sent it off thinking ‘ooh maybe!’. But then the doubts creep in.

They always creep in.

And then sometimes like this morning, I was looking through snips I’d written, just dribs and drabs of stories I began in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. And they’re often filled with whimsy but they don’t go anywhere. And I ended up abandoning them.

I really feel like I’m going through a different stage of my career. A floundering period where very little is falling just right and yet the underlying concepts are there.

And yes, I think I’m over thinking things.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a book accepted and I’m starting to regret the fact that I gave away Not Guilty to an educational publisher when I could have expanded it and made it into a full length prose novel.

Right now I’m neck deep in presentations. I’m doing the Sophie’s Studio workshops at the Toronto Public Library. They’re a lot of fun! They have to be because the kids are coming after school. We’ll focus on story creation, emphasis on the fun imaginative stuff.

A new year and a new group of kids. We’ll see how it goes.

And I’m just wrapping up on the mentorship program through TDSBCreates. It’s been fascinating working with a group of four intermediate girls. Their writing is a lot better than I thought it would be! And I’m doing a TDSBCreates residency with two classes of grade three students!

Oh they’re so different from the grade four and five students I’ve worked with for the last couple of years. So enthusiastic, I often have to take time to calm them down!

But they’re cute! I was doing my story creating exercise with them yesterday and oh the exuberance!!! LOL

I just wish I had more time to write!!!!

I know I could have done some writing right now, instead of blogging, but it wasn’t enough time to actually write, get deep into the revisions of the one project (which I have to finish up) and get back into the new project that’s beckoning me!

Oh well, what are these but first world problems?

Sometimes they make me feel guilty because people are really suffering all over the world.

I heard that we’re in for yet another recession, and it will hit globally.

Yikes!

One of my daughters decided to use the picture below of me, as her profile pic. She thought it was absolutely hilarious.

I have to admit that it is.

I have to confess that I can’t stand watching videos of myself because I do make really goofy faces while I’m telling a story.

You have to.

It’s just me being me.

Here’s another one!

LOL.

Omigosh, I can’t even remember which story it’s from. Probably the Hungarian folktale: The Little Rooster. It looks like I’m doing the part about ‘Come my special stomach’ or something.

Thing is, not everyone is comfortable looking silly during a performance.

I remember watching Robert Munsch for the first time and thinking, my goodness, he looks ridiculous. But of course that’s only during the storytelling.

When you storytell, it HAS to involve the risk of making a fool of yourself. You have to be vulnerable.

And the BIGGEST mistake people make is not taking that risk.

If you don’t go for it, if you don’t put  your all out there, then the audience can tell you’re holding back, you’re not COMFORTABLE, and ironically, that is what really makes you look FOOLISH.

Acting silly on stage as part of a story that calls for it, does not make you look foolish.

When I’m storytelling, I don’t worry at all about my personal dignity. I use whatever means necessary (and yes, that’s a conscious reference to Malcolm X!) to tell the story. No holds barred!

Mind you I’m not always goofy! That’s the secret!

I believe that mixing pathos with humor accentuates both! You can have a few moments in a story when things get quiet and thoughtful, and even sad at times, and that makes the funny parts all the more hilarious. They’re moments of comedy relief!

One of my best presentations is The Roses in My Carpets.

The thing is even though the story is sad and serious, the presentation has some very funny moments in it. Moments when I let loose and be ridiculous! And the kids laugh and it’s a relief from the heaviness of the other stuff I’m talking about.

Below I’m looking kind of pensive! This was at the Charlotte Zolotow award ceremony.

Rukhsana Khan – Spinning Stories to Life | Lanterns

And here I am talking to a group of kids:

But thing is that shot is kind of posed so I look more dignified.

I guess what I’m trying so hard to say is that when you’re dealing with children audiences, respect that they love humor (just like adults do) and yet they also like to think. Believe it or not, kids love to discover the world and they really do like to think about deeper things.

Respect your audience.

Give them ALL of yourself! Don’t hold anything back.

If that means, that like me, you tend to be goofy at times, then go for it.

But if that’s NOT your comfort zone, if that’s not the kind of person you are, then speak to them in other ways. Just be truthful and honest.

And above all respect them!

I have dealt with some of the most difficult kids that way.

They’ve been pieces of cake! Really!