Khanversations

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

Doesn’t mean your own life has to suffer.

We’ve been saying that a LOT around the homestead.

I mean who wouldn’t be appalled at what’s going on all over the world?

There’s carnage and bloodshed and dying and starving all over the place.

I’m trying really really hard not to hate rich people!

And I’m trying really really hard to keep it together what with all the suffering that’s happening.

It’s not always easy.

I just read an interesting article in the most recent issue of the SCBWI magazine and the lady stated factually that most authors are suffering from a lack of school visits. That for many, they’ve all but dried up as a form of revenue, and I thought really?

I’m still getting them, albeit yes, the numbers are down, but I’m still plenty busy!

It also helps that I was fortunate enough to receive another Toronto Arts Council grant to be Artist in Library again. This fall, at Downsview library, although now that I’m typing this I’m not sure if I already mentioned this on the blog.

If I did, please forgive the repeat.

But that should prove interesting and will keep me busy this fall.

Wanting Mor was published in Sharjah in November and I’ve been invited there in April to the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival 2015 there. I’m really looking forward to that!

The folks are planning to fly me business class and the weird thing is I’m kind of conflicted about it.

Is it strange to feel that spending so much money on a ticket that will get you to a place in pretty much the same way as if you flied economy, is shameful?

Shameful!

I’m tempted to ask them to fly me economy and then donate the rest of the money to the refugees in Syria or something. But then part of me feels that no, just take it, and see what business class is all about.

But honestly, I’m starting to hate this ‘class elitism’ nonsense!

I’m starting to hate the whole idea of ‘status’.

And yet don’t I suffer from it all the time? Don’t some people take one look at me and think I’m beneath them? It happens a lot!

You can see it in their eyes.

In the curl of their lip.

And then more often than not, I can turn that curl around when I actually get up to present. And then it’s like a look of astonishment on their faces, but not on everybody’s face.

You can’t win everyone over.

You just can’t.

Some people just aren’t able to get past the package.

I’ve got a new project coming out very soon alhamdu lillah. I hope it blows people away!

It’s called Not Guilty and I was reminded of it even with some of the recent happenings.

When I have more news I’ll tell, but for now, keep your chin up and remember, from that old Afghan folktale, about the subjects giving the king a ring that he could always look upon with good advice that read, “This too shall pass.”

Every time something awful happens recite that mantra to yourself, “This too shall pass.”

And every time something wonderful happens recite that mantra, “This too shall pass.”

Ups and downs, life is bound to have both.

So ride them both equally, knowing in your heart that the things that happen to you, do not define you.

And your economic stature or your other status do not define you.

You are something else.

You are the soul, deep within the shell of your body, that looks back at you, that runs the shell of your body to do its will.

And try to do good.

That is who you are.

 

Reflecting and germinating…

I know it’s been a while since my last post.

Been thinking of things to blog about but I’ve often been too busy to blog.

And then something really sent me for a loop.

Every once in a while that will happen.

You’ll be coasting along and something impacts you with enough force to change your whole trajectory.

But maybe, and this seems to be a conclusion I’m coming to, I was leaning towards it even before I got hit.

I wrapped up the residency with the Fairview Library.

What an awesome learning experience that was!

Turns out I conducted about 63 hours of programming that served the needs of about 650 of their patrons.

I think I worked harder than any of the other artists in library, and something about that makes me feel quite happy.

Like I tell my son, nothing wrong with some good hard work!

I sure wanted to leave the library staff feeling like they got their money’s worth.

And then, after I’d pretty much given up hope, I received news that I got another Toronto Arts Council grant, for another stint as artist in library for the fall of 2015.

It should be a LOT easier this time around. I’ve run the programs and I’ve kept notes on all my lesson plans.

So the residency ended with me feeling exhausted but happy.

2014 was a year of lots of trials and lots of failures.

I did complete a project which is being published alhamdu lillah but an educational publisher.

It’s a very good piece alhamdu lillah, and I’m just in the final stages of it. Wrapping it up so to speak, but I didn’t sell any trade books and now that King for a Day has come out, and garnered quite a few accolades, alhamdu lillah, I need to top that.

For the first time in my life, I actually do feel ‘established’.

But not at all complacent.

I’ve been working hard on my craft and I feel this year of frustration will bear fruit insha Allah, and I’m on the cusp of growing a lot in my craft.

Patience.

Perseverance.

Even after you feel established.

And then, aha, the moment of impact. The trajectory will be affected.

I was invited to conduct a presentation at Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) convention.

Every year they hold it at the Metro Convention centre downtown and they were even going to pay me.

They wanted me to do two presentations–and they were even going to pay me! So how could I refuse?

I did the girl’s presentation no problem. Many of the girls had even seen me at their schools, and I knew that would be the case. I guess I’ve been to enough schools in the greater Toronto area that this is bound to happen.

So I fretted and worried the night before, hardly being able to sleep!

But I needn’t have worried. It went fine.

The boys, ages 7-11 were another story.

Many of them too remembered me from school visits.

And these boys were positively squirrely from being inside all day.

All the techniques I usually use to quiet a group–failed.

Eventually the only thing that worked was speaking over them, until I got into the story, and they quieted themselves because they really wanted to listen.

I chose ‘violent’ stories.

I thought they’d get their attention the best, and yet they were stories that had deep messages to them.

It was curious how many of them started lying down and just listening.

There were a couple of the kids though who couldn’t understand English and would not settle down, but I didn’t take it personally and they were remarkably, not that disruptive.

Several times I’d be in the midst of a story, and part of me just looked around at all these rambunctious boys and how I’d actually managed to quiet them, and thought, ‘Wow.’

But by fifty minutes, they’d had enough.

And as I started gathering up my books and things, and signed a couple of autographs for the couple of boys who asked for them, I thought to myself, “Ooh that was hard! But alhamdu lillah, I gave them something to think about even while I entertained them, so it’s all good.”

Then I went down to the bazaar, it’s the best place to find some good hijabs, and as I was rounding a corner, I met a lady who would pierce the entitlement bubble that I hadn’t realized had formed around myself.

And in the process I’d remember yet again, how extremely fortunate I am, and especially how kind God has been!

This is a video of her speaking at an event on homelessness.

She is a remarkable woman, one of those rare Mother Theresa types, who saw a real need, and has spent her life trying to address it. She’s been endorsed by the Baltimore Ravens, Hamza Yusuf and Tariq Ramadan. How often can you say all those three entities in one sentence???

It’s about twenty minutes long but well worth listening to!

And even though my schedule is crammed with stuff to do, I’m putting stuff on hold and I’m writing up a profile of this sister Asma Hanif for Sister’s Magazine, insha Allah

Watch the video! Maybe it’ll change your trajectory too!

 

 

 

 

Things have calmed down somewhat with regards to the infamous comments of Daniel Handler during the National Book Award ceremonies where he pointed out that Jacqueline Woodson was allergic to watermelon, ‘make of that what you will’.

Jacqueline Woodson then posted a very interesting open letter in the New York Times talking about how hurtful the comment had been, but at the end of it, honestly I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Mr. Handler.

We all say stupid things.

I’ve met loads of stupid ‘brown’ people, stupid ‘yellow’ people, stupid ‘black’ people and stupid ‘white’ people.

There really is no monopoly of race when it comes down to stupidity!

And I think white people are in a particularly difficult position because historically, and even presently, they’re often in a position of privilege and many of the more conscientious ones completely understand that.

Perhaps they want to show how ‘egalitarian’ they are, and would like to be able to include some good natured ribbing of their ethnic minority friends in the same way that they’d rib their white friends, often without thinking of what’s coming out of their mouths.

And everyone knows humor can be hit or miss.

Rene Saldana Jr. writes an excellent post about what occurred recently here: http://latinosinkidlit.com/2014/12/18/guest-post-a-bucket-load-of-talk-no-action-a-bucket-load-of-nothing/

And like he says, I’d be much less willing to forgive the Republican Elizabeth Lauten for her stupid remarks about Obama’s daughters.

Like Mr. Saldana says, the GOP have a track record, and I really believe that they are highly disingenuous when it comes to reaching out to minorities and championing their rights.

But…

I do think both Lauten and Handler should be really forgiven, and maybe it’s because of my own history of saying stupid things. Showing mercy in this kind of situation can be much more effective than anything else.

I feel very strongly about this because of a moment of mercy in my life, that was a real turning point for me.

I went to Guyana, South America, for three weeks and I stayed with my husband’s family. They lived in a quaint little house, very neat and clean but full of bugs.

Being a tropical developing country I found the taps and washroom facilities rudimentary and yes, uncivilized. But it was the lizards and frogs on the walls of the inside of the house, flicking their tongues at flies and mosquitoes that were the most alarming.

The customs and mannerisms of the local people were also very rudimentary and unusual to me, and after two and a half weeks, I was really homesick and singing the praises of my beloved Canada to the youngest of my brother in laws, while we sat on the veranda, where the sea breeze kept the mosquitoes somewhat at bay.

I was only about twenty-one and it was the first time I’d ever left the continental North America, but still that’s no excuse for my behavior.

I was telling my brother in law (a boy about twelve) all about how wonderful Canada and Canadians really were. And he was listening avidly.

“Things are so modern there!”

“Really?” he said.

“Oh yes! And the people are so civilized!”

“Really?”

“Oh yes! And smart! They’re so smart!”

“Really?”

“Oh yes! And I’m so smart!”

“You are?”

“Oh yes! In fact…I’m smarter than everyone in this house!”

Even as the words came tumbling out, I realized how stupid they sounded. And there was a moment of stunned silence. The veranda jutted out, like a balcony of sorts, and behind us were the curtained windows of the living room, just a few feet away, and of course the windows were open to let in the breeze.

You couldn’t see inside. But I heard my father in law’s voice very distinctly as he calmly said to my brother in law, “Get in here.”

That was all.

He’d obviously heard my stupid remark, but he made no other reference to them.

Even when I went downstairs.

Even when we all sat down to dinner.

My mother in law had always been such a friendly chatty type, but she said little, and her little sideways glances told me she knew what I’d done.

I waited to be scolded.

I waited for the next day and the next day after that for them to confront me with the magnitude of my stupidity, so I could apologize, but they never did.

Probably because I was a guest in their house.

And their silence was a much more painful punishment than any scolding could have been.

I didn’t know what to do.

I’d never experienced this type of excruciating kindness.

And it occurred to me that I could just pretend the whole thing had never happened.

But it was eating me up inside, and on the way to the airport, I decided I had to say something!

When my mother in law was hugging me, just as I was about to board the plane, I said, with tears in my eyes, “I’m really sorry.”

Her face changed. And she smiled, and it was like the sun had come out. And the relief made my knees wobble.

And then I turned to my father in law and said, “I’m really really sorry. Can you forgive me?”

And his face too, broke out into a grin. “It’s okay.”

And that was that.

In all the years since, they have never reminded me of it or thrown that incident in my face.

I felt thoroughly humbled and I have never thought myself better than them in any way. In fact, for the last thirty-five years of my married life, I’ve been doing everything I can to make it up to them.

That’s what mercy can do.

Whether or not Lauten was sincere, (I really do believe Handler was) they should both be forgiven in the hopes that mercy can lead us forward, and we can all get a little closer and a little more united despite our various cultures and backgrounds.

Hmm.

In light of that mini-speech I gave at the NCTE, I’m starting to think, hey, what’s so wrong with being on the porch?

I’m feeling a little disillusioned with pop culture.

Last night I was watching Toy Story 3. It’s not the first time I watched it. It’s the third time, and yeah, there are some funny bits, but I really don’t get the ‘magnificence’ of it.

I actually think the first one is the best.

I tried really hard to tear up, like I felt like I was supposed to, at the end, and yeah, a little tear fell but nothing like normal.

I cry easily!

And yet somehow the waterworks were wanting in this one, and I was left feeling kind of puzzled.

Maybe it’s just more of a ‘boy’s movie’.

And maybe it didn’t help that I’d watched a gem like Steven Spielberg’s Amistad just before that.

I don’t know if it was the after effects of all the recent injustices towards black people. The case in Ferguson and Eric Garner’s where both cops who acted recklessly and killed unarmed black men, got off scott free, but there was something very satisfying about the opening mutiny scene in Amistad!

It’s gory and it probably made a lot of white audiences uneasy, seeing black slaves revolt like that! But I don’t know, I felt the crew deserved it!

Honestly we should turn away from the claptrap of most Hollywood movies!

Blech!

It’s hypocrisy!

What I’m finding more and more is that even while I seem to be chasing certain people’s approval, looking inward on that warm cabin, other people are stepping forward and asking for my services.

Who needs that cabin???

Go where the opportunity arises!

And even while the Canadian establishment doesn’t seem to notice my work, the sting of their not noticing has gotten less and less.

I mean, really who cares?

It’s all about the work!

Creating better and better stories! Helping more and more kids, especially immigrant kids, with their language skills through the workshops I gave as Artist in Library.

I really really love children!

Yesterday when I was doing the Public Speaking workshop for the 5-12 year olds at Fairview Library, this little five year old girl, Serena (I think she’s Phillipino, so cute!!!!) lay down on the chairs while one of the other kids started telling his story, and put her head in my lap. And I patted her back and she smiled up at me! So cute!

And I just thought, “Awww!”

And oh how they begged for me to tell Big Red Lollipop, chanting, chanting, till I had to explain to them that this was a workshop where they were supposed to learn to tell, not me! And the way I quieted them down was to tell them, quite honestly, that if there was time at the end, yes, I’d tell it.

Spoke to the branch manager and the librarian who was acting as liaison and they both said how much they’d loved working with me! I’d done 63 programs at the library in the course of about four months! More than any of the other Artists in library  and she asked me if I always worked this hard, and I said, “Yeah. Actually I do.”

Because I always try to give my hosts more than they bargained for.

I think it’s the immigrant in me.

 

 

 

 

Isn’t it interesting that such an odd word ‘pedagogy’ deals with the teaching of stuff to kids?

It’s funny how lately I’ve been pondering the physical impact of words and finding onomatopoeia in all kinds of words!

Like ‘pondering’ for instance, doesn’t it sound like you’re doing just that, pondering, thinking, mulling something over?

And same with the word pedagogical, with it’s ‘d’ sound and hard ‘g’ followed by a soft ‘g’ sounds and then hard ‘c’, doesn’t it sound like it implies putting barriers up, something hard and methodical (ah, there’s another great one!) and difficult.

Pedagogical.

Ew!

And yet if you’re a children’s author you better be familiar with the pedagogical method!

Because the biggest darn market for kids books remains, and probably will always remain, schools and pedagogical teachers.

You got to make friends with teachers, and most of the times it’s really easy, but then every once in a while you come across a person who really puts the ‘gog’ in pedagogical.

The kind of person who takes offense to the word ‘fart’ in your Fajr story and who asks you to, instead use the term ‘pass wind’ and when you do, because hey, they’re the vice principal, and you got to tailor your presentation to please them, the kids just look at you with a blank expression, so you say, “You know…pass wind.” And again they look at you, “Huh?” So finally you just say it, “Fart.” And that’s when the kids get it, and they laugh.

And something that was a natural story with universal themes becomes a bit more awkward because you couldn’t just use the normal term because some stupid educator thought it was too crude!

I really don’t think these kinds of people actually respect children.

I think they believe that children need to be manipulated away from their baser selves.

They look at education as a form of civilizing the little savages, not that different really from the mentality that gave us reservation schools.

Ugh!

I don’t think they realize that you can actually appeal to the natural curiosity in children, and the natural desire to be good.

I think a LOT of educators actually underestimate kids.

Maybe it’s because of this pedagogical game they play, where they try to present things in an ‘appropriate’ manner, and they don’t deal with reality.

It’s such an artificial construct.

It’s like when I was doing those workshops with those grade four and five kids and we were brainstorming, composing a found poem about what it was like to live in their little corner of Toronto, and some of the kids tossed out some stupid answers, and I just looked at them and said, “No! That won’t work!” and I asked the next kid.

The teacher told me afterwards that she was so surprised that the kids hadn’t curled up in a fetal position at my blunt rejection of their idea. She said how during their pedagogical training they’d been taught to never tell a kid their suggestion wasn’t valid. But to hedge, to hem and haw and move onto better ideas.

Baloney!

The kids knew right away that it was nothing personal. In fact the kid who offered the silly suggestion probably knew it wasn’t a good suggestion. And they knew when I rejected it, that I was just being honest. Not insulting!

Kids can figure out just the way a grown up is dealing with them and they adjust, accordingly.

I find it so easy to build a rapport with kids!

And I think maybe it’s because I try my best to be honest with them.

I tell them the truth, unvarnished, without any ‘gog’ in it.

And they can recognize it.

*sigh*

Sorry for the rant.

It’s just been a very trying week!

 

I just came back from attending a fabulous panel discussion that opened up the NCTE conference in Washing D.C.

I was on a panel being moderated by Rudine Bishop, and my fellow panelists were Christopher Myers, Matt de la Pena, and Mitali Perkins.

For the following two days all kinds of attendees came up to me and told me how much what I said below resonated with them, so I thought I’d sum it up, as best as I could remember (you know what it’s like when you’re on stage!) and transcribe it here for the benefit of those who couldn’t attend the conference.

So here it is:

When I was a young girl, growing up in a small Judeo-Christian town a friend of mine told me this joke. I don’t mean to offend anyone and in fact, I myself found it racist, but I tell it here to make a point.

Once there was a Catholic who lived in a farmhouse.

On a cold stormy night there came a knock at the door. It was a man.

He said, “Please sir, could I have shelter? I’m  half frozen and very hungry.”

The owner of the farmhouse said, “Are you Catholic?”

The man said, “Yes.”

“Oh! Come on in and rest  yourself there by the fire!”

A little while later another knock came at the door.

It was another man, half frozen, asking for shelter.

The owner said, “Are you Catholic?”

The man said, “Yes.”

“Oh! Come on in and rest yourself there by the fire!”

A little while later another knock came.

It was another man, half frozen.

“Are you Catholic?”

“No, I’m Protestant.”

The owner said, “Oh. Well there’s some room there on the porch. Maybe if you press yourself against the window you can get some warmth from the fire.”

Now make no mistake. I found this joke to be very offensive, but I didn’t say anything. But to myself, I thought, “Wow. If this is how one Christian talks about another Christian, what the hell do they think of me?”

And ever since then I’ve always felt like I was out there on the porch, looking in, to a warm scene of people gathered around a fire, but the warmth doesn’t penetrate the glass of the window.

Growing up in such a community, I used books to survive.

I didn’t know you could purchase books! As immigrants we had enough problems just keeping food on the table, there was never money for books!

The books I feasted on were from the library.

And I remember reading one of the Anne of Green Gables books, it was one of the later ones, Anne of the Island or something and I got to a point where L. M. Montgomery refers to ‘those heathen Muhammadans’, and I couldn’t believe it!

She was talking about me!

Couldn’t she ever have imagined that one of those ‘heathen Muhammadans’ would one day be reading one of her Anne books and identifying so much with the characters, thinking that aunt was just like so and so, and that uncle was just like this uncle of hers???

I got so mad I threw the book across the room.

And once more I felt like I was out on the porch, looking in.

We need diverse books!

But what really constitutes diversity?

These days there’s an awful lot of books that pass as diverse literature, that are written by white feminists, who mean well, but I wonder how well they can really penetrate the cultural paradigms of the ethnicities they write about.

I mean how can someone from inside the cabin really comprehend what it’s like to be out there on the porch, when they’re sheltered and warm from the fire?

And think about it. When you’re in a well lit house, looking out onto a dark porch, the windows act as mirrors, you can’t properly see outside! It’s your own world that’s reflected back at you.

And as a result many of these books that the white feminists write really just come down to plunking a white feminist kid in an exotic setting and writing the story as they would react to it!

What kind of diversity is that?

We can’t just color the kid in the story brown or what have you and maintain western ways of thinking.

Kids need to be exposed not only to characters of other colors but also to different cultural thinking and ways of problem solving.

We need to be less superficial.

Because ultimately, how can we ask children to think outside the box when they’re living so firmly within it.

 

 

People in Glass boxes…

Most of the programs I’m running at Fairview Library take place in the program room. With two walls of glass it’s basically a glass ‘box’ on the first floor. Everyone coming in and out of the library passes the program room.

It’s a favorite for people to use for quiet study. The glass walls muffle noise. It’s peaceful and there are outlets and tables and chairs.

I always set up by the big chalkboard, towards one of the solid walls so that the people I’m teaching have their backs facing the glass walls.

This way there is nothing to upstage me.

They don’t see the spectators, who stop by and gawk through the glass walls at me, while I’m presenting. They don’t see these spectators then go to the schedule that’s posted outside the door and see what’s going on, what program I’m running.

And yet the spectators don’t come in.

They just watch me, and I imagine what they see, this highly animated Muslim woman, gesticulating with her hands, marching to the blackboard and jotting down notes, often underlining points with vehemence to illustrate the importance of them in the grand scheme of what she’s trying to say.

And when I picture it from their point of view, I smile.

I must look odd indeed.

I was doing the second of three sessions on Public Speaking on Tuesday. I’ve taken a very different approach to the subject.

Instead of bombarding them with the obvious, I’ve been working on voice. Intonation, inflection, enunciation, and talking about the best use of powerpoint.

The problem is that the attendance isn’t always steady.

These are free workshops and when people don’t pay for a workshop they will often attend sporadically–I mean they’re not losing anything right?

Last Tuesday I had a new lady attend, and I was dealing with powerpoints and I ended up illustrating the issues I was covering by showing them my Roses presentation.

All the people were immigrants, so I geared the workshop to dealing with the special challenges they’re facing when they present.

Honestly just speaking English as a second language would be hard enough! Imagine trying to use your voice as an instrument with the proper inflections that naturally punctuate what you’re saying…in another language!!! I can’t imagine doing so. My Urdu is rudimentary at best. Can’t imagine actually doing a presentation in it!

So what I did was give them a very difficult exercise to do. I gave them some of the most popular poems in English literature–the old fashioned kind of poetry that actually rhymes, and I gave them the assignment to recite the poems without resorting to the rhythms.

That’s not even easy for someone like me!

But what it does is, it makes you hyper conscious of the natural tones and inflections of speech. And that was precisely the objective!

And as a result, within only two, two hour sessions, one of the ladies, a shy type, actually got comfortable enough to recite her poem and speak publicly, which is the whole point of the exercise!

It’s interesting that when you teach a subject, you actually crystallize  your own understanding of how you accomplish what you do.

I found myself telling the group that they should ‘project their personality’ to the edges of the room in which they were speaking. And I realized that this is precisely what I do. It’s the key to holding the attention of an audience.

Some performers, their performance ends at the boundaries of the stage. I was watching The Voice last night, and several of the singers were doing just that.

It’s like the audience was watching them do their own little thing, up there on the stage.

And then I thought of singers like Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam. When he sings Father and Son, it can be such a quiet song, and yet he projects his personality so strongly that it moves even the edges of the audience!

At the end of the session the new lady came up to me and said she didn’t understand why my session wasn’t jam-packed.

I just shrugged.

She said that the public speaking workshops that the library runs were some of the most popular! And there was another guy doing one and she couldn’t even get into it, it was too full. She said that he wasn’t nearly as accomplished in terms of publications and experience as I was.

I asked her what he was doing in his session and she told me he was doing basic stuff.

Then I asked her how my session compared to his and she said they were two different entities, you couldn’t compare them. But that she loved mine.

I guess I’m taking a more creative approach to the whole public speaking thing.

I’m not sure.

But it bothered me.

And I wondered if it wasn’t because I’m Muslim and the other guy was white. That might sound like I’ve got a chip on my shoulder but I think it’s only natural to wonder if it isn’t like people would be wondering, “What can I learn from her?”

And I remembered for the hundredth time, “Oh yeah. I wear hijab and I look different. It’s a stretch for some people to think that I might be competent.”

It’s so very important to keep your audience in mind.

Remember where they’re coming from and what limitations they might be operating within.

I need to remember that more because I made a faux pas.

It’s been such a learning experience dealing with the general public like this.

I’ve had some refugees in two of my sessions, both of whom had suffered persecution at the hands of Muslims in their native countries.

In one part of one of my presentations I deal with the whole adage of ‘write what you know’. I talk about how I was trying to write stories about regular kids like ‘Bobby and Sally and Joe’, when publishers were asking me to send them stories from my cultural heritage.

Then I talked about how I got an idea to write a story about a kid who farts during the prayer (which is a big deal!). You can hear me talk about this here:

Now the thing is, one of the reasons I’ve been successful as a children’s author is because I NEVER EVER EVER preach!!!

My goodness how obnoxious would that be!!!

Naturally there are times when my cultural heritage comes into play, and it would be ridiculous to not mention it! And without understanding why farting in the prayer is a big deal, you won’t get the significance of it, so naturally I do need to do some explaining.

When I’m talking about how I became an author, I tell the story of how I wrote Fajr, because it’s relevant to the topic.

I’m basically telling the listeners that they need to write what they know!

It’s not about teaching aspects of my religion. Not at all!

But a few of the people in the workshops felt like that, and these were people who were sensitized to it because they were refugees and had been persecuted by Muslims.

They even felt as if I’d turned it into a ‘religion’ class.

So…long and short of it, I’ll have to be more careful when I include aspects of my own background in a presentation.

Even though the presentation in which I tell the Fajr story is a very popular presentation in schools, and if anyone felt I was imposing anything, teachers would (and no teacher ever has complained in such a way!), I have to be sensitive to general audiences in case they feel like this is the case.

I guess it comes down to being such a visible minority.

I have to be more guarded.

Lesson learned.

I really am in a glass box, in more ways than one.

 

 

 

Baby audiences continued…

So yesterday I did the baby storytelling again at the library and I relied on poems and stories that I had grown up with.

It was interesting because most of the audience of babies and toddlers were immigrants/Asian/and South Asian and to them these poems and pieces were completely new!

I did an old favorite, “Little Rabbit Fou Fou”. It’s really funny! And Bringing Home My Baby Bumble Bee which is pretty funny too.

And I did five little monkeys and the crocodile. That one I had done last week.

I went after the other children’s librarian, and she played a cd with some toddler songs on it like “Clap Your Sillies Out” and “If You’re Happy and You Know it” and she read the babies Brown Bear Brown Bear What do you see? and a few other very simple stories.

It was lovely to see the little round eyes transfixed on the illustrations. And she had a quiet very sweet way with the kids.

And here I come with my crocodile eating monkeys in a tree, SNAP!

I think I was going too fast.

I liked the way the children’s librarian took her time. And I felt a bit rushed, like I just wanted to get the stories done with.

I also told the Lion and the Mouse, hmmm, another story where a character threatens to eat another!

But the babies seemed to like it.

There was one little boy, about four or maybe five, who’s been coming every single week. Last week he’d wanted me to tell this Persian story about a lion and a donkey, but I hadn’t. And all week I thought of that little boy, and decided at the end of the presentation, I’d tell that story just for him because he loved it so.

It’s called What Should I do? What shouldn’t I do? and is, you guessed it, about animals who threaten to eat each other.

I expected the babies to lose interest. They’d been listening for 45 minutes for goodness sakes, they were bound to lose focus! But I didn’t expect what happened next.

Some of the babies didn’t lose focus. One was lying on the floor right in front of me, watch me tell this story, and another one was sitting in his Dad’s lap.

And of course that little five year old, he was SO into the story!!!

During the baby stories, one of the Dads had been sitting there checking his phone. But what I didn’t expect was that this time it was all the adults who had their big googly eyes fixed upon me! Like their babies, sitting in their laps or wriggling out of them, were an after thought.

They LOVED the story!

And there was a funny sort of silence when I was done.

They just sat there.

And for a moment I was sure they wanted another story. But it was five to twelve, and I was feeling really sick, didn’t have the energy to tell another story, so I wrapped up. “Okay. That’s it for the day. I’ll see you next Saturday.”

And they kind of snapped out of it, and started collecting their things.

It was funny.

 

Rukhsana Khan

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