Khanversations

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

Went to an interesting workshop today.

Met a bunch of people and did some networking in the arts.

It’s so weird.

I didn’t notice I was the only brown person in the room till much later when I was relating some interesting anecdotes to my husband. And I thought, “Oh yeah. I think I was the only brown person in the room.”

It was funny because the Arts community seems to live in a world all its own.

They understand, the way other people cannot seem to, the importance of arts education.

Basically arts comes down to expression.

Can you express yourself artistically?

And if people don’t think that’s vital, they’re sadly mistaken.

It goes from sensing the undercurrents in the words we use to express ourselves, to body language. Dance is just a refined form of body language if you think about it, and if you don’t think body language is important…well.

And yet the problem is the Arts organizations don’t seem to know how to convey that to regular people.

Isn’t that ironic???

They were talking about fund raising, and I probably should have kept my mouth shut but I couldn’t help saying something.

Any artist who actually makes a living at it, basically knows about fund-raising.

Fund – raising is being able to convince people that what you do is so valuable you should be paid for your art!

That’s the crux of fund-raising. So how do you do that?

You show it!

It’s been very interesting lately.

I was contacted by a church group who wanted permission to use my book Many Windows to form a sort of play for their Easter congregation.

And I thought, Wow!

Many Windows is probably my least publicized books. I was sad when it didn’t receive any promotional recognition at all. And yet it made it out to the American Midwest somewhere and they liked it enough to share it with their congregation at an Easter service when the church is probably going to be well attended.

Fascinating!

It’s amazing where your work can end up!

And today, sitting beside me was a teacher who was from Ottawa. In doing one of those icebreaker activities we had to ask each other questions.

She said, “I know who you are! I love your books! I read Dahling if You Luv Me Would You Please Please Smile”

And again I thought Wow! But it turned out she’d read it when she was 12 years old! And now she was a teacher. And that was more than fifteen years ago, so yeah, I felt old.

But alhamdu lillah.

It was an interesting day.

And once again, I thought alhamdu lillah, I get paid quite well for what I love to do.

It’s all good!

Insurance and growth in creativity…

It’s a testament to how strange this world has become that not only do I need to get police checks and clearances in order to step into a school and talk to kids, I have to get insurance in case I inadvertently do something to them.

Like what?

Fall on them or something?

I’ve heard of authors who balk at police checks and clearances, and I completely understand. I mean as authors and storytellers we’re never left alone with the kids. The teachers are always present! But still, in this day and age, I can see why educational institutions would want to ensure that the people who come in contact with their vulnerable student body, haven’t committed any perverse sort of crimes.

And it helps that I have nothing to hide!

But insurance?

In a position where I talk for a living???

Oh well.

People sometimes get wound up about the prestige of being an author without realizing all the humdrum banalities that come along with it. And sometimes I just feel like kvetching.

On another note, it’s been such an interesting period of growth in terms of creativity.

I guess I can be more forthcoming of this project I’ve been working on. It’s through Pearson educational and is an educational series they developed to tackle issues of mental wellness in the classroom.

I wrote a short story, kind of a novella really, about an Iraqi refugee who comes to Canada and has to deal with the aftermath of the Boston bombing incident. I called it Not Guilty and it’s actually one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve done.

I’m really proud of it, and it wouldn’t have come together without the encouragement of two very good friends of mine.

In the past I’ve always relied on ‘inspiration’ to drive my projects.

I get the idea, I get all excited, then I write, write, write, till the project’s done.

Well with Not Guilty the inspiration came and I wrote the title poem and it nearly got published as a picture book and then fell through. Then I got busy with other things and when I was approached by Pearson to work on this series because apparently Deborah Ellis recommended me for it, I took out the Not Guilty poem, brushed it off, still really liked it, and sent it to them.

They loved it, but they asked me to develop it into a longer piece, so I did.

I thought who wrote this poem???

Why did he write it???

I got the distinct impression that it was a boy, and he was going through a lot, and so I ended up making him an Iraqi.

I have no idea why, I just did. And this was before ISIS reared its ugly head, when Iraq was out of the news.

So I was half done, dragging my heels on this project and my two friends invited me on a writing retreat. We went up north to a little cottage to get some time to really write, and at this retreat, I just buckled down and basically finished the project.

I wouldn’t call the writing of it ‘fun’, or particularly inspiring.

It was just work.

Perspiration vs inspiration.

I knew what I wanted to do with the story, and I just did it.

And when I was done I had Not Guilty and now I’m really proud of it. I think it more than holds its own in the package. It’s about racism and stereotyping.

In fact, and I know this will sound kind of snobbish, but I actually thought the story was ‘too good’ for educational! You know educational stories! They’re kind of, um, boring. But my friends rebuked me for that thinking and they were right. Why shouldn’t I give my all to every story I write, whether it’s educational or not?

And the interesting thing is that when they sent the booklets to a grade seven classroom for the kids to read it, the kids loved the story so much, that the boys (boys!!!) actually wrote a LOT about what the story meant to them, how much they felt like they were the boy telling the story, and if you know how reticent boys tend to be in terms of writing responses and expressing themselves…well!

The reaction is remarkable!

In fact they wanted to know what would happen to this boy after this story, which is also a very good sign. And I’m toying with the idea of turning it into a full fledged novel.

So it seems I’m going through a different phase of my creativity.

A more ‘dogged’ phase.

I’m doggedly determined to just finish the projects to the best of my ability, and send them out into the world.

To learn more about Pearson’s Well Aware series and to buy it please click here

I am told it is possible to purchase only one title in the series, you’d have to call customer service here: 1-800-361-6128

I really like the cover of Not Guilty. It’s a brick wall with a badminton birdie swirling in front of it. Very suitable to the story!

In the midst of a Creative Blitz…

Alhamdu lillah, trying to wrap up a number of projects that have been dragging and lagging, competing for my attention but I’ve been so busy with other commitments that I’ve been interrupted on their progress.

Got a bit of time now and hope to actually get them done.

And when that happens, it’s the blogging that suffers.

I’m finding that the writing is changing now.

Before I’d just burst it out.

Now I actually see certain scenes that I need to write, in my mind, and I take my time, knowing insha Allah, they’ll be there when I want to commit them to paper.

The critic in the back of my mind has been busy!

He’s been rocking back and forth, furiously, muttering discouragement. Oh the things he says! Not worth repeating!

And I’ve been trying not to inflate the projects too much, just saying I’m just writing something a little decent, to shut him up.

Hasn’t always worked.

It feels like a long time since I published a ‘book’ book.

My booklet with the Well Aware series at Pearson should be coming out soon insha Allah, and I’m really proud of it! But it’s not a ‘book’ book.

And I’m just in the process of wrapping up another project for an educational publisher. But again, not a ‘book’.

These projects were well worth doing though.

They kind of reconnected me to the joys of smaller projects.

And because they’ll get out into the schools a lot (I hope), then hopefully it’ll make the kids aware of my work and the teachers too, and they’ll start looking for it more.

I still feel it’s been a struggle just getting noticed here in Canada. They seem to ‘get’ me more in the States.

But it’s been really nice being able to make a good living, alhamdu lillah.

No complaints here!

 

Customizing a presentation…

I was invited to a lovely Muslim weekend school on Sunday.

But I went with a lot of trepidation.

The organizers asked me to do a presentation that’s designed for grades three to twelve, for very little kids, including kindergarteners. The presentation was The Roses in My Carpets.

That’s tough!

Because it includes the concepts of refugees, and bombs and war.

For kindergarteners???

It’s kind of too much. And when I said as much to the organizers they still asked me to do it anyway, so I thought of how to fulfill their request.

The way I’ve designed my presentations, they’re definitely geared for certain age groups. Sometimes it’s because they contain issues that are too provocative for younger ages, but mostly it’s because the little kids won’t necessary get the depth of what I’m really talking about.

So how do you change a presentation like The Roses in My Carpets so that it will appeal to the younger ones?

I find it comes down to third person.

Third person point of view is hard for me. I seem to naturally write in first person. “I did this… I did that”

But little kids find it easier to understand if you said the boy did this or the girl did that, because then they can see the separation between you, as the narrator, and the characters in the story.

So I took the same powerpoint that I had developed, with its visuals from the book, and I began by telling the story of The Roses in My Carpets in third person.

I began as usual, by talking about what a refugee is. I did a bit of introduction, then I started telling the story along with the powerpoint slides of book’s pictures.

“Every night this boy, see? He has this same dream that jets are chasing him and his mother and his little sister.

Then he wakes up, and he realizes that he’s safe. In the mud house. In the refugee camp. He can hear his mother and sister breathing nearby…”

It worked a little too well!

You see the problem is I’ve become immune to the emotional impact of the story when I tell it in the normal way.

That tends to happen when you’ve done a presentation enough times.

When I first started, I couldn’t even read the book without crying, and I definitely couldn’t tell the story out loud!

But after sixteen years of presenting it, probably about five thousand times, yeah, I don’t cry.

But now, changing it to third person, the poignancy was threatening to overwhelm me again.

It was kind of embarrassing.

A number of times, I found myself choking up, fighting back the tears, all because I was coming at the story from third person.

But, alhamdu lillah, I got through it.

I told the story, and once I got to the slides of the refugee camp I visited in Peshawar, I was on safe ground.

The kids loved to see the way these Afghans had lived in mud houses.

And even though there were many little kindergarteners, they remained engaged.

There was only one little girl who started rolling around on the floor dangerously close to the projector cables so I had to tell her to move back.

Other than that, they were a wonderful audience, masha Allah.

Ended up selling tons of books! I’d taken extra, but I still ran out!

Alhamdu lillah, it was a lot of fun.

 

Taking cues from your Audience…

I did a group of kindergarteners today and they surprised me.

There were some kids in the bunch that barely looked three and others that looked almost seven!

What a range!

I thought let me see how much of my Picture the Story presentation they can pick up on, and so I went ahead and started it.

Now the first group, I guess they were a bit more advanced, because they were actually getting the concept of inspiration and imagination.

And when it came time to tell Big Red Lollipop, they really got what I was saying.

The second group seemed to be a bit less mature.

I had to go slower with them.

I took my time, enunciating my words. Not overwhelming them.

I noticed two of the kids in the second group were even getting a bit agitated.

I always do Ruler of the Courtyard first. It’s a good introduction to the whole South Asian thing, but…it is a pretty intense story!

I mean the girl confronts, what she thinks is a snake, in the bath house!

The first group was fine with it. I didn’t see any of the kids getting anxious, but definitely in the second group, one kid had his hands pressed against the side of his face, and another kid was slowly withdrawing into his turtleneck jersey. He was pulling his head in, like a turtle, and peeking up at me, with just his eyes showing above the neck hole, and another kid, he was putting his hands over his ears.

I’m thinking he was responding to the noise level.

I’m pretty noisy.

But with kindergarteners,  you kind of have to be.

You need to drown out all their little nonsense talk, kind of scoop them up with the power of storytelling and take them on the ride with you!

Most of the kids were loving it, but at one point, he even went to hide behind his teacher. I thought, “Oh no. That’s not good.”

He wasn’t crying. He was still peeking at me. He was just scared. Even though Big Red Lollipop isn’t at all scary. He was getting nervous when I was talking about how Rubina was chasing me around the living room and dining room.

So even as I was telling the stories, I brought it down a notch and then another. I lowered the volume of my voice, and the effect on him came quickly.

He stopped putting his hands over his ears, and pretty soon, he’d rejoined the group in front of me.

I think this can only happen when you’re so familiar with the program that you can keep it going even as you’re actually watching the audience.

That’s what I do now.

For this audience I had to tone it down a bit.

Other audiences I have to amp it up.

It just depends.

But at the end of this second group, this blond kid at the back announced he wanted to give me a hug!

He weaved through all the other kids listening and wrapped his arms around me. Very carefully, I hugged him back.

And then the other kids started.

I felt mobbed at one point by these tiny little bodies.

Oh it was so cute!

Almost as much fun as it is dealing with teenagers!

A New Milestone of dubious merit…

Okay, I had always wondered how anyone could receive emails and not respond.

I thought these types of people had gotten ‘too big for their britches’.

I’ve always tried to respond to the emails I receive, even if it takes me a long time to get to them. The very least I do do, is at least respond in my head to any greetings they give me.

But for the first time I’m actually considering not responding to a query.

Thing is people seem to think I write Islamic books.

I don’t think I do.

I write books about Muslims.

There’s a difference.

I often have strong aspects of Islam in my books, but they are not, primarily, scholarly books. They are not religious texts.

I don’t ever pretend to be a scholar in Islam! Yikes! No way do I have those kinds of credentials.

I am a story maker. I make stories.

And because Islam is dear to me, and the world is filled with misunderstanding and conflicts between cultures, many of my stories serve a dual purpose of entertaining while at the same time illuminating Muslim culture and even tangentially dealing with some Islamic concepts within their cultural contexts.

But somehow certain Islamic publishers, publishers who are writing didactic stories to teach Muslim faith, have been contacting me to endorse them.

Before I was only getting a few requests here and there.

But now…

Wow.

And there’s a bit of a creep factor involved.

I feel like I shouldn’t even engage some of these people. I should completely avoid them.

And so, yeah, I’m considering not even responding.

Never thought I’d get to this point.

I’m going to be doing a skype visit this Friday morning insha Allah with some kids at a school in Brooklyn about career choices and I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make it as an author.

Thing is you need to have a number of ‘income streams’.

I know that sounds kind of like fishing, but hey, it may be the technical name for it.

There are times when the writing will dry up. When the books will not be working properly.

I seem to be going through a period like that, where I’m receiving a lot of rejections.

I could look at it in a very depressing mode, but I figure I must just be growing.

You know when you go through a growth spurt, nothing fits and you’re all awkward and gangly and bumping into things? Well that’s kind of like how some of my writing is going.

If I didn’t have the other streams going, then I’d probably be in a lot of trouble.

You need to have grants you apply for. They’ll help give you the funds to work out the kinks and get the writing going. Just received another Artist in Library grant for example, and that will provide three months of income come September to December, like it did last year.

For me, it has REALLY REALLY helped that I’m also a storyteller! Because I always, so far, alhamdu lillah, have had the storytelling and the presentations to fall back on.

Even though most all authors are suffering from a shortage of school presentations, I’ve been pretty fortunate because I still have been getting more than enough to keep me going.

Then there are the royalties and the foreign sales on past titles. Those cheques are very nice. Like finding money, sometimes a LOT!

And then, in Canada, there are the other found money sources, the ACCESS copyright and PLR cheques.

And then there are the book sales. I do sell my books when I visit schools and venues and you know what? It adds up.

It all adds up.

Got invited to do a storytelling gig in an underprivileged area on Wednesday afternoon. They weren’t offering a lot, but I said yes anyway.

I figured that even though it’s not a lot it’s still more than I’d make sitting home.

And you never know when a moment like that can lead to a story idea. You just never know.

This is definitely a field in which patience and perseverance triumphs.

And I’ve noticed a change, a very subtle change recently.

People are starting to treat me differently.

I really do feel more ‘established’ now.

Feels weird, but good, alhamdu lillah.

Being ‘remarkable’

Came across an interesting Ted Talk. I ended up reading the transcript instead of watching it. I find I often get more from reading something than listening to it.

It was actually about marketability and it said what a lot of people are saying these days, that in order to get noticed in this day and age you need to be ‘remarkable’.

That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘excellent’. Remarkable literally means ‘to be remarked about’. So that means you need to be enough of a freak, or aberration that people will actually remark about you to others.

You become a topic of discussion. Oh, did you see ‘so and so’…

I think it’s kind of sad.

And I think it’s a symptom of the times in which we live.

Call me old-fashioned but that’s not my style.

I actually think there’s another way you can make yourself seen, and that’s by consistently giving good value.

Sadly, that is remarkable in this day and age.

My tactic in my career has been to exploit every opportunity that comes my way to its fullest.

For example, when I was invited in 2006 to the American Library Association’s convention in New Orleans, I prepared the best I could. I had about twenty minutes to talk about Muslims in Children’s Literature and one of the points I made was that as a kid, I never read a book to learn anything.

I read it to hear a good story!

And that resonated with some of the people in the audience.

I remember Deborah Ellis was on the panel and she came up to me afterwards and told me how much she’d enjoyed my speech. And then years later (just last year in fact) she recommended me to an educational publisher who was doing a series of booklets on mental wellness and I wrote a piece on racism for them. My booklet is for grades seven and eight and is called Not Guilty and should be published very soon now.

What happens is when you really shine during an opportunity, people will remember that. And they will pass on the word and it will lead to other opportunities.

That’s been the way of things with me.

I started this business the hard way. Pulled straight out of the slush pile by a small Canadian publisher.

I’d read somewhere that if you keep writing your best,  you’ll eventually write  your way up to higher markets, and that’s precisely what I’ve done.

And that ALA opportunity eventually led to the IBBY Congress in Denmark opportunity where I gave my Freedom of Speech vs Cultural Sensitivity speech 

Ironically that speech would be perfectly apropos for the Charlie Hebdo situation as it dealt with the Danish cartoon incident.

And that speech led directly to the NCTE conference presentation I just did last November where the vice-president of the NCTE herself, told me how much she’d enjoyed what I’d said.

These things take time.

It’s not good to be too impatient. Remember the old adage, good things come to those who wait.

And I have a lot of faith that when the time is right, my star will really shine. But all this is preparation time. It’s good to develop in the ‘dark’.

Right now I’m fighting a cold. Oh it’s been bad, but alhamdu lillah there’s finally some relief in sight.

And I must be remarkable enough that I keep getting bookings. So there.

But I do agree, being safe is the worst mistake you can make.

 

 

 

A Character sketch I did back in 2005…

Think of character sketches as a sort of ‘painting with words’. Using large brush strokes to capture a likeness of an individual. And notice the little details I included that provide clues. I read it just now and it still made me laugh!

See if you can guess who it is.

 

George couldn’t help glancing in the mirror on the way to the briefing. Dangit, he was still a handsome fellow, and wasn’t he lucky!?

Fine wife. A wife that stood by him. For better or worse. Well wasn’t this the better he’d dreamed of?

Top of the world! By the grace of God!

He positively glowed inside. He walked by the dour likeness of Lincoln, the bust of Washington. He wanted to chuckle. Why not? Who’s to stop him? He’d earned his place among them.

Last check before he faced the hyenas. Shoes sparkle. Tie straight. Versacci pressed. Breath? Yep.

Silly. They’d never get close enough to know otherwise.

He took a deep breath and fluttered his fingers to loosen them up. Hail to the Chief played and he walked through the blue curtains.

Flashes. He should be used to them by now, but they still made him wince. That’s it. Smile. Show them your charm. You c’n do it cowboy.

Then an aide handed him a memo. Another suicide bomb in Iraq. He’d have to offer condolences. He shouldn’t have smiled so big. Why couldn’t they have given him this before? The mood should be somber. It’s okay. No harm done.

Let the smile fade. Not too slowly or they’ll think he’s nervous. Okay, that’s it. You’ve got them. “Good evening gentlemen.”

The Mr. Harrison effect…

Mr. Harrison was my grade five teacher.

He was tall and handsome with chocolate brown hair that swept across his forehead and he was cool and funny.

All the kids loved him and wanted to be like him.

And when he was on yard duty we all hovered around him hoping some of his coolness would rub off on us.

There was a particular incident that occurred when I was in grade five and following him around as he did his rounds that I reference in my Coming to Canada/A New Life presentation.

It’s funny how popular the presentation has become. Used to be that The Roses in My Carpets was by far the most popular. Now I’d have to say it’s a tie between Picture the Story and Coming to Canada/A New Life.

I guess it’s also relevant that immigration and some of the themes in Coming to Canada are pertinent to curriculum in junior grades.

Anyway, it’s very important to really observe the people around you and what’s happening.

I think if you want to be a writer, you need to be a student of human nature.

It’s often the case that kids will hang back after they’ve been dismissed from my presentation.

On Thursday I was doing a school that didn’t have a lot of brown kids. They were mostly white. Honestly though, I sometimes feel as if it’s MORE important to be going to these kinds of schools.

Anyway, I finished the first Coming to Canada presentation for the grades 3 and 4 and a bunch of the kids crowded around me, asking questions, but some of them didn’t have questions, they were just standing there with their friends.

Fine, that’s normal, and didn’t think much of it.

But then after the second Coming to Canada presentation in which I talked to the grades 5 and 6, we were coming to the end of the presentation and I asked the teachers if there was any time for questions. One of the teachers said, “We’ll make time.”

And then one of the teachers asked me an excellent question. He’d read The Roses in My Carpets to his kids, in preparation of my visit, and yet  I had referenced some of my more humorous stories, including Fajr in Muslim Child. He asked, “Is it harder to write a serious social activist kind of story or is it harder to write a humorous story?”

Wow!

I’d never been asked that before!

It’s funny because usually the questions are always the same. After sixteen years of doing presentations I’ve heard most of them!

And I told him, “It just depends. I write each story because that’s what I need to write. If it’s funny or sad. Doesn’t matter. It just has to work.”

So then I asked if there were any more questions. There were no hands up, so I started wrapping up, and then a bunch of the kids stuck their hands up, so I answered some more questions.

But finally it came time for them to be dismissed and I turned around and started packing up my books. But four girls had stayed behind.

Oh they were so cute! One Asian, two white and I think a brown girl, all four tall, slender and cute.

Just standing there watching me pack up, with big grins on their faces.

I asked, “So do you girls have any more questions?”

They kind of did a double take and one of them posed a question but it was pretty innocuous. I went back to packing up the books. And they were still standing there, with smiles on their faces watching me. Just grinning and watching, not really needing to say anything and that’s when it occurred to me.

And I said, “Ohhh, I get it!”

They looked at me waiting to see what I’d say.

“This is like the Mr. Harrison thing right?”

And they started laughing.

“I’m the cool one though, and you’re hoping some of my coolness will rub off on you!”

And they laughed even harder.

It’s interesting to note that they didn’t deny it!

They didn’t affirm it either.

But they didn’t deny it!

We talked a bit more and then eventually they skipped out to experience what was left of recess.

I’m sure it was the case.

In fact I’ve noticed the phenomenon many times. After a speaker does a very good speech, something that moves people, there will be a group that comes up and just kind of mobs them. Not necessarily wanting to ask questions but just wanting to be close to the person. Physically close to them.

I know I’ve done that myself! It was instinctual. Didn’t know why I was even doing it!

But thinking back it makes me feel so strange, and blessed! That I can engage with a group of kids in such a way as to elicit such a response!

…And get paid for it!!

Rukhsana Khan

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