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

What a week!

I had been dreading this week! Six days, non-stop. Not easy.

I’m still processing it.

On Monday I visited a small town outside Toronto. No Muslims in the school that I could see, only one or two brown kids! Part of me wondered if they’d cancel, considering the devastating attacks in Paris the Friday before. The world was still reeling from them. But no, they didn’t cancel, and I resisted the urge to apologize for anything because why should I? They have nothing to do with me, just like the brutalities of Abu Ghraib have nothing to do with average white people and they don’t feel the need to apologize! So why should I?

Yeah, yeah, it’s a sensitive subject and I dealt with it in my little book published by Pearson Educational called Not Guilty.

Anyway, it was while in the staff room, having a cup of coffee that one of the teachers started talking about the Paris attacks, and how the students were scheduled to go on a trip to Paris in April some time and it should be okay by then, and then she glanced over at me, like she was acknowledging the presence of ‘one of the enemy’ and I felt SO uncomfortable. Then she looked away, and continued talking and that was it. I’m sure the other people didn’t even notice. And there was nothing for me to say. She didn’t SAY anything. And with all the attacks on Muslims happening, I thought hey, if this is the worse I get, I’ll count myself lucky.

And I thought of it from her perspective, and I couldn’t even blame her that much. Why wouldn’t she be scared of me? And then I found it depressing.

Because this is the kind of crap I have to face every single day.

And then on Wednesday night I went to the Canadian Children’s Book Centre TD Awards gala, and it was the usual, crowded space filled with authors and illustrators and bankers funding the award, schmoozing and drinking wine and beer and other nonsense but the food was good and I hadn’t been for a LONG time! I was wondering how the scene had changed. It was great seeing old acquaintances, and yet unnerving too because everyone looked so much older! (Which shouldn’t have surprised me and yet it did.)

I ended up meeting a LOT of people! One teacher I’d met at one of my favorite schools Wilkinson P.S. even sought me out and we had a lovely conversation! In fact it seemed a lot of people sought me out, touching me on the arm to get my attention and we’d chat about how we were doing!

When the awards part of the evening began I ended up sitting beside an old white guy. What it is it with these old white men that they feel they can just spread themselves out into the next seat, and me trying to avoid physical contact, so I had to scrunch myself up and lean away from him all night? He ended up falling asleep during the ceremonies and his wife or whatever nudged him a couple of times. At least he didn’t snore.

So I was looking at the program and as the faces of all the jurors came up on the screen as each award was being announced, lo and behold I started to notice that ALL the jurors were white! Whitey white white!

Every single one of them!

And then I looked at all the entries, and I could find only three books with non-white characters on the covers, one was a native book and two had black faces and the two black ones were written by white authors!

Only the native book was written by natives, I think. Or I assume.

And I probably would never have noticed this before but this time I did because of the movement #weneeddiversebooks . Guess all the stuff I’ve been reading has sensitized myself to it.

And I thought wow, Canada really needs to get its act together!

And then I started thinking of all the people at the awards. There was diversity! At least fifty people who were non-white in a room full of 600, that’s something! But I mean go into the majority of schools in the big cities and they’re mostly diverse!

But again, it was depressing.

Came home feeling like a loser. And started imagining all the reasons why my agent will reject my newest project.


By the way, the native book didn’t win.

Only white authors did.

And yet, on Thursday afternoon I did my last workshop for the tween public speaking and the little boy who’s been coming regularly asked me to continue to the end of the residency. He said that this workshop was so much fun and he wanted to keep coming! And I told him that I’d already taught him everything I could, it was just down to him practicing. But it did feel good to have a boy tell me how much he enjoyed working with me!

So I guess that’s something.



Last week I did two out of town trips in one week!

I shouldn’t be surprised that I got sick, sick, sick, as a dog!

The first trip was down to Windsor, to one of my favorite schools: Al Hijra Academy. I tried something new, did a workshop on my new book with Pearson Educational called Not Guilty.

The second trip was to keynote an ESL teacher’s conference in Calgary! (One of the participants told the lady who invited me that he could have listened to me for another two hours!).

It’s always hard to develop a new presentation. It’s just so much easier to stick with what’s tried and true. And both trips involved me creating new presentations!

But developing new presentations, or shows, is imperative to growing yourself as well, as an artist.

I did go over some familiar material.

But, and this is probably my tendency to be over critical, or maybe it’s my husband’s critical voice in my head, but I felt like I rambled a bit.

My husband is a very good public speaker in his own right. He does excellent lectures that are full of information that he’s basically compiled from other sources.

But where we differ is that I try to explore and develop original ideas. Stuff that I, myself, might be struggling with, or more likely, conclusions that I’ve come to over the years.

The difficulty lies in trying to figure out the process, how did I come to these conclusions? And then try to replicate the process in the workshops I develop.

Well that’s what the Not Guilty workshop was all about.

I definitely had the kids’ engagement during the whole hour. And afterwards a bunch of kids came up to mob me, which is always a good sign! But I was feeling kind of tentative, and I asked the kids what they thought. Many of them said they loved it! One of the boys even said, “It was mindblowing!”

And I thought, “Good!”

And then I asked the teachers and got some very good feedback on how to improve it. So there’s work to do!

In the second keynote I did at the Calgary conference, I wanted to impress on the teachers the biggest challenges their students, as ELL/ESL learners faced, and one of the things that wouldn’t occur to them, as part of the teaching establishment, is that they, as teachers, need to respect the roles of their students’ parents. And I talked about how I’d seen a very stupid science teacher unintentionally belittle my father.

I remember watching her and my father shaking hands, and thinking it was all wrong. She was very tall, and very gawky, and she did stupid things to try to be ‘innovative’ and get our attention. My parents were at the school because I was graduating and on impulse I had introduced my father to her, and the way she bent over, every so slightly and took my father’s hand, with a stupid condescending look on her face, still makes my blood boil to this day! And the way my father showed respect on his face when she deserved none!!! Well! I thought it should have been the other way around! She should have been honored to meet my father! And that’s what I talked about!

It went over very well. I think perhaps it opened up a different world to the teachers. And there was talk of inviting me back next year.

All in all very successful, but very stressful so that as I boarded the plane to return home last Saturday, I could feel the cold coming on, and I’ve been hacking and sniffling ever since.

And in between those two trips I had two days at the residency.

I have a few very dedicated teens who come to my teen program on Tuesday evenings. They’re each about fifteen years old and they travel a LONG way!

I’ve been doing writing and public speaking workshops for them, and boy, it’s so cute how appreciative they are! And so polite!!!

But the residency is starting to wind down. I can feel it.

And one of the teens, who dreams of being a public speaker one day and raising the profile and challenges of single parenthood (because he has a single mom) has made some incredible breakthroughs. I asked him what was the most important thing he learned from the workshop so far and he said that for his purposes it was more effective to relate personal experience instead of doing a ‘powerpoint’.

I couldn’t agree more!

Last week I actually did my Roses in My Carpets powerpoint for them. I let them see me in action. Mind you, this presentation was developed over seventeen years!

And I’m proud to say that I would pay to watch it!

Tomorrow night I intend to go through and show them the techniques I used, and we’ll discuss why it works.

At the end of the session, that teen says to me, “I discussed it with my mom, and after this workshop is done, we’d like to hire you to tutor me further.”

Well my jaw just about dropped! From everything he told us, his mom works really hard, they don’t have this kind of money to spare! And so I told him the truth, that he couldn’t afford me. And I told him that it wasn’t a good idea. Not when he could get me for free, through the residency. And I have indeed applied again for next year.

Basically what the residency has come down to is really assessing the needs of the people I’m working with. Really figuring out what it is I need to teach them and then doing it in a way that really engages them!

Tomorrow morning I have a workshop with newcomers and I’m going to develop exercises for them to do, to practice their verbal skills. I’ve developed scenarios they might encounter and I will teach them the right inflection and intonation to use so that Canadians will take them seriously. Language is such a huge barrier these newcomers face and it isn’t just about learning to ‘talk’ English. It’s about learning to ‘speak’ English. Two different things!

This residency is such a learning experience even as it’s been physically exhausting!

I’m giving them everything I have!

But forget about writing! I’ll have to wait till it’s all wrapped up.


It’s just amazing!

When you see the light go on in the eyes of someone whom you’ve been guiding along on a process!

Today I feel like I had not one, but two breakthroughs!

One of my sessions at Downsview Public library is attended by one boy mostly, who’s been coming pretty darn regularly. When he first began I worried about being able to keep his attention.

Today! I had the idea of getting him to write about his favourite video game or movie character, as if it was him!


So he wrote as Michael Jordan, and at first he only wrote one page. And as he read it back to me I started to ask him questions. Try to get him to imagine more details. What about the fans? What would it really feel like to be Michael Jordan and there was only say eight seconds left of the game and your team and the fans were expecting some sort of miracle?

As I teased some more details out of him, he started writing again, and this time, he was so intent, that he finished three pages easily. It was amazing to see this boy who had always been easily distracted, getting so intense in this writing exercise! He wrote for a good solid ten minutes! And at one point I asked if he was done. He answered, “Nope. Not yet.”

I just thought wow!

And then during the adult public speaking program, a very determined lady came by, and I was just amazed at the improvement in her storytelling skills.

She wanted to focus particularly on some issues, but she said that whenever she tried to address these issues with friends and acquaintances they got angry at her. I told her to couch each issue in the form of a story. Some sort of anecdote she’d observed. She’d already been able to do that with the idea that children should be more caring towards their parents! Last week she’d told a very moving story about an old woman and her pig!

I told her she needed to treat the other issues in the same way. Nobody wanted to be lectured. But if you couched what you wanted to say, in a story! Well! Everyone loves a story!

And just seeing the look on her face…

It was priceless!

Can’t wait till next week when she comes back with the stories! Insha Allah!

Assessing engagement…

I guess I have to change the way I measure how engaged the kids are when I’m storytelling or presenting.

I’ve always looked at how much they move.

If I can hold them completely spellbound, where they forget to even move, so they all start stretching when the last word is said, then I thought I’d completely engaged them.

And while that still happens a lot, I had a few incidences this week that showed me that even when they squirm around a bit, they might still be completely engaged.

Schools sure have changed since I was growing up! We were made to sit for long stretches at a time, expecting not to move and to LISTEN!

More often than not, we daydreamed, but still, we were quiet and externally, at least, we looked like we were listening.

But I do remember being in the living room when my dad was talking to the uncles about politics or other things, I’d be completely immersed in whatever little game I was playing and yet I had an ear out to what they were saying too.

Well…with the introduction of so many special  needs children into the classrooms, presenting to groups has really changed!

It took me a while to get used to some of the whoops and hollers of some of the autistic kids at the back. It wasn’t until I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time that it occurred to me that maybe the teachers were right. Maybe the other kids had learned to tune out those noises and concentrate, nevertheless.

And…what’s really important, is that you just can’t tell how much of the presentation those autistic kids are absorbing and gaining from the presentation.

When I was at the Singapore American School I remember the moment the librarian informed me that during my exercise on sentence structure and syntax, the autistic kids had been leaning in, enthralled when I talked about the focus of a sentence. She’d been worried about them being disruptive! (I hadn’t even known they were there!)

Well this week was interesting. I did a skype visit for a school in Connecticut. King for a Day is up for the Connecticut Nutmeg award. Skype visits are a whole other animal! They’re extremely hard for a presenter! To do them properly you have to kind of ‘amplify’ yourself without looking like an idiot. It’s not easy. And because your focus should be on the camera, not the screen, you only ever see the audience out of your periphery, so gauging their reaction is difficult. Half the time it feels like you’re overcompensating. And yet the feedback has been excellent! The teacher emailed me and told me how excited the kids were and how much they had enjoyed it! And here I’d thought I hadn’t done such a good job.

And yesterday I visited a school as part of my Artist in the Library residency. It’s just up the road from the library but because of the job action the teachers can’t walk the kids to the library so I went there.

I got there early, I was supposed to start at 10:30, so I offered to do a little program for the kindergarteners as well because I felt bad that they’d be excluded from the assembly.

Well! When we got into the kindergarten room and the teacher informed them of this change in plans, the looks on the teachers’ faces were not pleased. Apparently the kids had just had a lot of ‘sit down’ time, and one little kid even said, “Awww!” when told he had to return to the carpet.

Well, I just looked at the teacher who’d escorted me and said, “We don’t have to do this.” And she cheerfully agreed, so we walked right out again.

My husband’s always telling me that I shouldn’t be pushing myself forward like that. And I always tell him that I just want the kids to benefit. And he’ll say something like, “Do you want to work that hard? Get over yourself!”

And he’s right.

I was doing the rest of the student body in the gymnasium, grades 1-5. I did my A New Life/Coming to Canada presentation, that’s always a good bet for such a diverse group.

There were about a hundred and forty kids. My ideal number is less than a hundred, but I had wanted to do the whole school.

Those extra forty kids really make a huge difference! I think it would have been better and even easier to do two smaller presentations even though the time commitment would have been double!

It’s hard to include so many kids into the presentation if you know what I mean. Basically a presenter needs to reach out and bring all the listeners into the fold and it’s just hard when there are so many.

And it seemed that some of the kids had problems sitting still.

Like I said, this seems to be more the norm these days.

I don’t make an issue out of it any more. Usually if the teachers aren’t stopping them, there’s a reason for it.

It’s really hard to present to kids who are so rambunctious and my first assumption is it’s me. I’m doing a terrible job. So what do I do? I try to amplify myself. I go BIGGER!

But it doesn’t always work.

What should have clued me in though, was how at key moments in the presentation, the children did get quiet. They paused, waiting to find out what would happen next in my narrative.

I wrapped things up to very good applause, and then I gathered up my stuff to leave and then what happens if the kids have been engaged, I get little stragglers. A little boy who’d been thrusting up his hand at several points to answer my questions, came up to me to tell me some connection he had to one of my stories. And a couple of the other kids too, came up to me, and just stood there in front of me with shy smiles, but not really saying anything. Really cute!

So I asked them if they liked the presentation and they nodded emphatically, and then their teachers called them or something and they had to go.

And as I was leaving the school, pulling my case behind me, trying to get through a line of kids, several of them greeted me, and called out how much they’d enjoyed it.

At 1:00 at the library I had my seniors memoir writing program and the ladies said something that made me almost blush! They said that I was so encouraging, so helpful that they really enjoyed  coming and that I’d been able to raise them to new heights of creativity!

And then later, as I was leaving after the last of my workshops, some of the kids who’d been at the school approached me in the foyer smiling and saying, “You came to our school!”

There were four of them. Two little girls and two little boys. And again it was like the shy stragglers at the assembly, and I realized right then that they really had been engaged! And this was them finding me ‘cool’ and wanting to be around me so that some of my ‘coolness’ would rub off on them, kind of, I think. (Just like I did with my grade five teacher Mr. Harrison.)

And I smiled and thought to myself, “Cool!”


Time flies when you’re really busy!

And having fun!

The second statement, the ‘fun’ one, I’m not so sure about right now. You know how when things are so intense, you’re just trying to keep everything straight, that you can’t really know if you’re actually having ‘fun’ or not.

Well that’s where I’m at right now.

I told my Public Speaking adult class that when you get nervous before a presentation, it means that you respect your audience. You care about doing a good job, not wasting their time, and it’s a good thing.

Well from the anxiety I feel before each and every workshop, I think I respect the workshop participants a LOT!

It’s been busy the last few weeks.

I’ve been continuing with the programs at Downsview Public Library. The turnout ebbs and flows. Just when I’d resigned myself to having one very determined journal writer for my adult Writing program, a bunch of people showed up! It was almost crowded! One of the ladies was working on a thesis and wanted help, the others wanted to know about writing fiction.

Each group is so different, and the people are so interesting! From the kids who come to the writing and public speaking programs, to the teens, fifteen year old boys who are eager to hone their public speaking skills (one of whom wants to be a sort of motivational speaker!) to the seniors who are working on their memoirs.

I’m seeing so many little breakthroughs!

The girls who are a little shy are really blossoming! The boys who are sometimes full of a few too many antics are calming down. The fifteen year old boy who wants to address social issues chucked the powerpoint he’d developed and spoke from his heart about his experiences in such an effective way that it brought tears to my eyes!

And there were tears in the seniors’ program too as some of the writings were coming very close to home. One of the ladies remarked that the writing was almost therapy. And another lady was surprised when I remembered details of her story from last week. She said I had such a good memory, and I told her it was because they were all so interesting!

And I told them that I find people, in general, fascinating. And that when I meet them I’m trying to reconcile their character and personalities with what I see of them.

I encouraged the ladies to give me some of their writings so I could comment and give them feedback on them, and many of the ladies took me up on the offer. I’ve been reading pages and pages of an Asian lady’s memoir. It’s fascinating! She’s been through so many interesting experiences. And as I read I’m thinking of how she can further shape the story to make it even better.

Part of the residency involved inviting schools in the area to partake of free author presentations at the library. But because the TDSB schools are still involved in job actions, I got permission from my supervisor to instead do outreach in the schools.

I’ve been to two different schools so far. I went to Ancaster P.S., a small school of about 105 kids, and I went to Blaydon P.S. which had closer to 170.

At the Ancaster school I did my A New Life/Coming to Canada presentation where I talked about the immigrant experience and how I became an author, always bringing it back to how very valuable libraries are! And of course mentioning my residency and the programs that I’m doing–for free! I was supposed to do the grades 1-5 but when I got there, I found out there were only about fifty kindergarteners so I did another presentation for them, a short one, where I focused on Big Red Lollipop, just so they’d be included too.

I did the same at Blaydon P.S.. Just did a mini presentation for the kindergarteners.

But at the Blaydon school they gave me the choice of which presentation to do for the older kids so I decided on The Roses in My Carpets. It’s funny but these days I haven’t had as much chance to do that presentation and it really is my favorite.

We went up to the library, and the kids, grade three to five, came in so it was pretty crowded.

By the time everyone was settled I only had about forty-five minutes, but I’ve done it in less so I just went ZOOM!

What I’ve learned is that doing the presentation quickly can actually be more effective than doing it slowly. I think it’s because with all the techno gadgets, kids are actually used to be engaged at a faster level than what they experience in school. In school teachers try to take their time, really get them to comprehend things.

But actually what I find is that the kids will only get so much anyway. You need to tell them a good story! Information sticks so much better in anyone’s mind if it’s attached to a story, so my Roses presentation is perfect in that regard!

It’s basically a story of me writing a story, and the reason why the kids care is because they realize the personal investment I have in writing the story.

Honestly, I always say my Roses presentation is a presentation I would pay to watch! I do think it’s that good. And the fact that I’ve been able to do it in some pretty sketchy schools, where kids can be pretty scary, speaks volumes!

Usually it even gets to the point where if one kids starts talking, the others will shush them because they want to hear what I have to say.

One of the girls in my workshops was in the audience. She’d already seen me do the presentation in the public speaking workshop she’d been attending and I worried that she might find it boring to see again. She assured me afterwards, “Not at all.”

It was neat having an insider who knew the other kids at the presentation. She told me that one of the teachers had started crying. I told her that wasn’t unusual.

And she said that one of the girls who hates reading and books had pronounced my presentation ‘excellent’.

It turned out she was one of the kids who’d been clamoring for my autograph at the end of the session. And the funny thing is when the kids ran out of paper, they had me sign the tops of their hands.

The first time I’d been asked to sign body parts, t-shirts and hats, I refused. But now I just do it. What the heck?!

At one point of the presentation I raised my voice because I was saying something pretty passionate about video games. She told me that I had scared some of the kids when I did that. And yet it was appropriate.

I turned it into a public speaking lesson, pointing out to her the different techniques I’d used.

Ah, teachable moments!

I haven’t had a chance to do much writing. Honestly between lesson planning and organizing stuff and just keeping the house half decent, I don’t have the time, but I’m sure everything I’m learning is all grist for the mill!

Life, death and Tenterhooks…

My cousin died last week.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajioon

It affected me deeply.

This was not just any old cousin, he was three months older than me, the second oldest in my generation, and now, with my older sister gone and him gone, I’m the oldest, and it feels…weird.

It feels kind of lonely. Like I’m at the edge of a precipice.

And then I did something silly.

I have a deeply held belief that once a person is prepared for burial, washed and wrapped in their shroud, no one should look at them again.

I would definitely not want anyone gawking at my dead face while I’m laying there helpless.

It’s even in my will.

Once I’m washed, I don’t care who they are, they’re not seeing me.

I drove all the way down to Hamilton to attend my cousin’s janaza prayer. And while I was mingling with family, my auntie, his mother, told me to go take a look at him, they’d be closing the lid of the pine box soon and wheeling it to the head of the congregation, and being curious, I went to take a peek.

That one quick glance is etched in my mind. It’s the last glimpse of him and I’ll remember it over all the other times I saw him, and I deeply regret it.

I do believe you have to take yourself to task.

Once you’ve established a principle, you need to try to stick to it, and yet yes, there are times you will be weak and violate your principle.

Mostly everyone does. I know I do.

I slip up at times, despite the best of my intentions.

And at this moment, curiosity got the better of me.

When I was telling a friend of mind about my lapse, she kept trying to insist that it wasn’t a lapse.

And that got me frustrated. I wanted to tell her that look, the biggest sin is not sinning, it’s not being honest enough to own it.

When I sin, and I do sin, I try to own it, and ask God for forgiveness. And then I try not to do it again. I think that’s a heck of a lot better than pretending I never did anything wrong.

Anyway, I was so sad about my cousin’s death I also lapsed in terms of my determination not to eat sugar. Ooh nelly! Boy did I ever! Doesn’t help that halloween candy’s on sale!

Anyway, I’m going to try to get back on track.

As for the tenterhooks, my Blue Jays, Toronto’s baseball team, of which I am a huge fan! Were on the brink of elimination from the ALDS series. They came back to even the series and tomorrow is the final game that decides it all.

On tenterhooks!!!

Oh, and there’s an election coming up. I really really hope we have a change of leadership!

I’ve never hoped it more in my life!

May God have mercy on us!


Ego checks and balances…

The first time I did my Saturday storytelling session at the Downsview Public Library I did it in the children’s section because I thought the kids would gravitate over and listen.

Two kids did, and their mother sat with them and one person peeked at me around a bookcase, from where she was sitting, so I counted her too.

The other people in the area basically ignored me, the intrusion, and I felt like a fool.

Thing is, in this business, you will feel like a fool, often.

It’s got a very humbling aspect to it.

And that’s going to be true no matter what, because basically you’re putting yourself out there. And when you put yourself out there, you risk getting ignored and basically feeling like a fool.

Luckily though, the feeling doesn’t last long.

I think it comes down to the ‘stigma’ of libraries. People really do think if it’s free, it can’t be very good.

Not realizing that no, my programs are not free. I’m getting paid for them, and I’m getting paid well.

And yet I still feel almost guilty when no one turns up.

So yesterday, when I showed up early for the Saturday storytelling again, I went into the office and made the announcement that the storytelling was going to start myself. I used my sunniest voice, and I told them that I’d be in the program room, (no more trying to make myself heard in the children’s section) and then I went into the program room and I waited for anyone to show up. Unfortunately they did not.

So I spent the time working on a picture book idea that’s been niggling at me for a long time.

At least until the kids in the writing program showed up.

This time we tackled a ‘real’ story, not a ‘magic mittens’ type of fantasy. I asked the kids what they were afraid of and one of them said snakes, so we began an adventure story where he went to Africa, Egypt to be exact, because he wanted to ride camels and then a spitting cobra showed up.

I took a few moments to explain that Egyptian spitting cobras are extremely aggressive and will attack you even if  you leave them alone, spitting venom in your eyes to blind you.

So the boy decided that the spitting cobra bit his camel and it fell and died, and he landed underneath it, trapped and calling for help.

I started the exercise with the one boy who arrived first and as three other girls arrived, I added them to the story.

The biggest lesson they got from the exercise was that any story has to make sense.

Two of the girls were going to try to distract the spitting cobra and we decided they’d brought swim goggles because they were going to go swimming later, but when one of the girl’s wanted not only to put on the swim goggles but to change into her swimming suit I said, “Wait a minute! That doesn’t make sense.”

And she said, “But we’re going swimming later.”

I said, “But you’ve got … (the boy character) stuck under this dead camel calling for help, and this spitting cobra coming at you, are you really going to take the time to change into a swim suit? And,” I added, “How are you going to change out in the open like that? You going to let … (the boy character) see you change?”

She said, “He’s under the camel, on the other side.”

I said, “Nope, you still have to make it make sense.”

It was pretty funny when the same girl said they’d taunt the cobra to get him to chase them by saying, “Cobra! Cobra–Obra!!!”

These kids! They’re so funny!

So we finished up the story and it came out pretty well. The boy did complain a bit about being stuck under the camel for so long, but all in all, it was an enlightening exercise.

When the other kids showed up for the public speaking it was almost crowded with seven of them.

We didn’t even have time to hear all of their stories, so it occurred to me maybe it is better if there are fewer.

I had them practice telling their stories with ‘microphones’. I explained the difference between universal and directional mics and I gave them two different types of markers to represent each kind of mic.

When they lowered the mics or didn’t pay attention to them, I’d call out, “I can’t hear you!” And they’d immediately fix the mic position.

I think next week I’m going to give them the assignment to bring in a factual presentation, like a power point about anything they find interesting. During one of the public speaking sessions, I ended up telling scientific ‘stories’ of how the universe formed to the two kids who attended. I was priming the kids for just such a presentation.

Oh they had so many questions! I could barely tell them how stars would burn out and if they were large enough they’d collapse upon themselves and turn into supernovas and when the supernovas exploded they created all the heavier elements and caused the dust that we’re all made of, before they had other questions.

I want to make sure that the kids can not just tell stories up on a stage, but rather they can deliver informative presentations too.

The sessions go for about eight to ten weeks but I’m starting to wonder if that’s going to be enough time!

There’s so much to cover!

I can only do my best, but with the erratic attendance, I find myself repeating myself a lot.

Again, it’s all very humbling. But fun! Lots of fun!

Little victories…

Maybe it helps that I do believe that everything I do, and everywhere I am, I am meant to be doing or being in that specific moment in time.

There’s no such thing as no impact.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there are times I wish more people would take advantage of the free programs I’m doing at Downsview Library. It feels weird to be paid so much when only a handful of people show up for your program.

You almost wonder if the library will think, forget it! It’s not worth it. And yet it seems the library system doesn’t think in that way. They think more in terms of impact.

As long as even a few people are benefiting, really benefiting, they’re happy.

It almost feels like the library system is the biggest kept secret in the city.

But anyway, I just have to share something that happened this last week.

In my last post I talked about a shy girl who had reluctantly come to my public speaking workshop.

Well… I feel like I had a huge breakthrough with her! And with her counterpart, the outspoken boy.

And I realized that it can be really nice to have fewer kids in a session because then you can tailor the lesson to their needs more carefully.

Last spring I was chosen for the Toronto Library Sophie’s Studio workshop series. In developing the writing sessions for the kids at Downsview Public Library I built upon my experience there. This isn’t ‘school’. The workshops have to be fun enough that the kids want to come! They want to play mostly and learn secondly.

When I gave the children (5-8) time to do some writing in the last session, I realized that some of them were so young they lacked basic writing skills. So for this last Thursday’s session, I decided I’d take the writing ‘work’ out of the equation. I’d do the writing, and they’d simply do the story creating.

Basically I was the ‘secretary’ jotting down their story as they created it, guiding them through the process where I had to and in the process they’d learn organically what works in creating a story.

One of the creative exercises I’ve always used to show children story structure is creating a story about one of the kids in the group having a pair of magic mittens that when they put them on, they can make any wish they wish.

I went back to that premise with the two little boys that showed up. One was a very young boy and he had his little brother (about three years old) with him. His mom was in the background. Since nobody else had arrived at that point, I let the toddler stay and contribute to the story.

Within five minutes the outspoken boy arrived and I added him to the mix as one of the characters in the story. And then the girl I mentioned earlier, she arrived as well.

The six year old who began the story process, wanted to use his magic mittens to blow up the world. The girl said, “No, then everyone will die!” and so I added that to the story. We had conflict!!!

The younger boy and his three year old brother ended up becoming the antagonists of the story, and the other three worked at what they could do to stop him.

The outspoken boy may have been tired because he said his character kept falling asleep, which was funny, but not very dramatic.

Then another girl arrived and she too was added to the mix. Her job was to search a cave for magic potions.

The outspoken boy decided to wake up and use ‘picks’ to defuse a bomb that the six year old had created and the shy girl was poking the six year old with the magic mittens, who had turned himself invisible.

Oh it got heated!

And exciting!

All of them were shouting (even the shy girl) plot suggestions all in good fun!

And so we created a nifty little story that even had a sweet little resolution!

In the end, the shy girl got the magic mittens away from the six year old, wished that all of them would have their own pair of magic mittens and that the six year old and his little brother were sent to a planet of their own with their own magic mittens so that they could blow up their own world as often as they liked!

And later, when the same girl stood up to tell a story to the rest of us…well I felt very proud! Within three sessions she had come such a long way!

Alhamdu lillah, this is the second week of the Artist in the Library residency. I’m feeling a little better about the refugee situation.

As soon as possible, we’re going to be donating to some refugee camps in Jordan. We’re budgeting for about $500. (I wasn’t going to say the amount but hey, if it encourages anyone else to donate, why not? right?)

Our masjid is sponsoring some Syrian families and the donations are good alhamdu lillah!

I have contacts who know trustworthy people there who can distribute funds. They are saying the situation is dire, many refugees are starving and since the Ontario government and even the stingy conservative government has finally opened up to accepting refugees coming here (thank God!!!) then I try to see where the need is the greatest.

I’m so fortunate to get this grant! For three months I’ll be doing writing and public speaking programs and opening myself up to the community that is served by Downsview Public Library. It’s quite different from Fairview library that I did last year. This area seems a little less affluent.

It was a busy week of the residency and although the numbers have been small (compared to Fairview) the impact has been interesting.

On Wednesday afternoon a mother dragged her daughter into one of my writing sessions.

I was in the midst of teaching two little six year olds some writing skills. We were talking about stories, and how they need to have a problem and I was doing my ‘magic mitten’ exercise. Every once in a while I glanced over at the older girl and I could see her eyes were shiny.

“Are you all right?” I asked. And she nodded hastily.

I continued working with the two children, and I tried to keep it light and funny, and as we worked, the older girl unfolded her legs from the chair she was sitting on and let them touch the floor.

She was here for the public speaking workshop.

So at 4:00 the only other kid who’d registered arrived.

Both of the older children couldn’t have been more different! The boy was outspoken, I had to actually reign him in to be a better speaker and the girl was very quiet.

I doubted I’d be able to get her to open up enough to tell a story. When I said I wanted to just mash the boy and the girl together so I’d have a perfect public speaker, I saw the girl smile.

At the end she did tell a story. She spoke quietly, but distinctly, and showed that she was quite knowledgeable.

When her mother picked her up, she asked me about other public speaking sessions her daughter could attend and I told her about the Saturday session but then I told her also about the writing session. The girl spoke up, she wanted to attend both of them! And her mother gave her an ‘I told you so’ look.

She attended both sessions on Saturday. I have hopes she’ll open up more by the end of the program.

One thing that has been surprising to me is how popular the seniors’ program “The Essence of Memoir” has been. I had eight people registered and the stories these seniors have to tell are amazing!

We have a diverse group, from different ethnicities and backgrounds.

The seniors are very enthusiastic about writing!

And in fact one of the ladies wrote a piece that was so poetic, I told her there was nothing I could do to improve it! It didn’t need to be turned into found poetry!

I spent part of the session illustrating how I wanted them to turn their pieces into found poetry.

At the end of the session, one of the ladies had questions and stayed behind to discuss them with me.

Her memory was from something her mother had told her, and I helped her transcribe it into a found poem that was quite remarkable in the power of its imagery. I was particularly happy when she said that she didn’t like the way I’d transcribed one of her statements. She thought it should be written in a different way, and I thought to myself, “Good! She’s taking creative control of this herself!”

The experience of dealing with these seniors was very rewarding for me as an artist. Writing often includes sketching different types of characters and these were people I’d never come across before.

I learned a lot from them and I look forward to learning more.

The residency is such an intense experience! I work so hard, but alhamdu lillah, it gives me a lot to ponder over as well.

I know I promised more posts about my trip to Spain and Portugal.

I had it all planned out, I’d write about Don Quixote, that most famous of Spanish heroes and his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, but life interrupted.

It was funny.

All during my time in Spain and Portugal, I was having such a lovely time and yet underneath it all, I had a feeling of impending doom.

All this summer in fact, I felt like something very bad was coming, but I did not know what it is.

I often get premonitions that warn me ahead of things or even reassure me that certain things will work out just fine.

They’re not something I count on in any way. I just get feelings that either something hard is going to happen or something good will.

And when the Syrians started walking, it began.

And the picture, the famous picture of three year old Alan Kurdi hit me like a truck going 70 mph.

And I cried for days.

One night I couldn’t sleep, all I could do was imagine my spare room as a home for Syrian family, and then part of me thought, no, it will never work. And then I thought of other means, and practicality just kept hitting me in the face.

And I thought of when the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) who were being tortured so much by the Qureish, left their homes in Mecca for the long walk to Medina and how the Ansar took them in, into their own homes, and for the first time in my life it really hit me how generous the people of Medina had been.

How do you open your home to a strange family?

What if they turn out to be jerks? What if they take advantage? What if they steal? What if they don’t clean up after themselves? What if they refuse to leave?

All of satan’s whisperings when you want to do something good but you know you’re not capable.

And I thought what if I just donate. Donate time, donate books, donate part of my weekly allowance. Money I’d normally use to buy a coffee or get my haircut, I don’t absolutely need a haircut, I can live with it in my eyes and just tie it and clip it back and look shaggy right? I’m wearing hijab anyway, it’s not like anyone will see!

And I thought no, that’ll just be a drop in the bucket. And I thought why is it so different from before?

Before the government would step in! We wouldn’t have had to individually step up and promise to cover a refugee family’s costs for a year, a sum of about $27,000 which is a burden on any family.

And I still kept thinking of ways we might manage it, what if my whole family pitched in? What if? What if?

And then I realized why it’s so hard now. It’s because of Stephen Harper. He only wants to let in the Christians.

No Muslims.

And apparently he returned 235 million dollars which was budgeted for refugees, because they never spent it this year.

And I thought, Aha! So there is a budget for this!

And with the election coming up he’s bragging about a billion dollar surplus not revealing the fact that it’s because he cut so many veteran programs and refugee programs and social assistance programs, he’s skimming off the backs of the poor and I cry again for what Canada has turned into.



And when I logged on to write this blog, I see this long message from this woman from New Brunswick who says we don’t need refugees or immigrants and I can understand why many people feel that way.

And then the other day, I saw a cartoon by that horrible Charlie Hebdo, mocking the death of that baby Alan Kurdi, and I posted it on Facebook saying I was never Charlie and I wonder, of all my Facebook friends, who still #jesuischarlie and I thought of all the latent racism that exists and I wondered for a moment if I had the guts to challenge them all, ask them to reveal themselves.

I wanted to write:

“Who is still Charlie Hebdo? Who agrees with this? Tell me, so I can know who is for this despicable cartoon??? And I can be warned against you!”

But I didn’t, because that would not be gracious, and us immigrants, we need to be ‘gracious’. We need to turn the other cheek.

Outrage is not our right or privilege. We are supposed to be grateful just to be here.

No matter how many years we’ve lived in Canada (50)!

No matter how many taxes we’ve paid!

No matter how much we follow Canadian politics and not Pakistani politics (I don’t even know who’s running!)!

No matter how much we’ve invested in this beautiful country, we’ll always be immigrants and we need to tread carefully!


We need to be grateful!


We need to not be angry at every injustice.

Just swallow it, and be patient!


But sometimes it’s hard.

And you have to do something to let it out, or it will poison the writing. It will leach into the story, so I’m writing it here, and I will be fine, really I will.

But it will take some time. That’s all.

And I will do my best to help the Syrians, like I would have helped anyone who was running from war.

Because we’re all one race, the human race, and we need to be kind to each other.

That’s the Canadian thing to do.

And then I saw this beautiful video and it made me cry more, but also it gives me hope because despite all the ugly bigots out there, there are still that businessman who’d never helped anyone but handed out water for the Syrians because his heart was moved. And so there is hope. Watch this video to the end! It’s worth it!