Khanversations

Rukhsana’s thoughts on her journey of life, writing and sometimes—when she dares—a bit of politics.
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Recently I was approached by a thoughtful teacher librarian who questioned the addition of this book on my Muslim booklist:

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The teacher librarian wrote:

“I am a public school librarian in a diverse, growing community. We have recently seen an increase in our immigrant/refugee population, particularly of students whose families are from Arab or Middle Eastern countries. One of my passions and goals is to ensure that all of our students have accurate representation in our library collection. I strive to provide books that act as the “windows and mirrors” for our students. I already have two of your books in the library, Big Red Lollipop and King for a Day. With the advocacy efforts of a book foundation, my school library is raising funds to support building a diverse collection.

…One of the books you listed on there is “Tilt Your Head, Rosie the Red.” I have not seen or read the book, but did read a few reviews. The Horn Book review said that it seemed to push Fadimata’s story and culture to the background as Rosie comes to her rescue. The Kirkus Review said that Rosie seemed to get all the attention and is shown as larger than everyone else (though I understand she is the main character, hence the book title). It sounded, to me, like a “white savior” type of story. While I want to have books that show acceptance and standing up for others, I’m not sure I want to promote a story that uses the “white savior” type of character.

I would love to have your insight on this since you recommended it on your list. Am I wrong in my assumption based on the reviews? Do the lessons of acceptance and standing up for others outweigh the potentially negative aspects? I don’t want to add books with more diverse characters that don’t show them as the strong people they are.”

First of all, I am thrilled that this teacher librarian reached out to me like she did. And also that she realized the problems with the book as ‘diverse’ literature.

When I first began compiling my Muslim booklist  http://www.rukhsanakhan.com/muslimbooklist/Muslimbooklist.pdf there were so few books about Muslims that I could recommend, that I basically added any book that dealt even remotely with Muslims and/or Islam. Many of the books were didactic and clunky, but there was nothing ‘wrong’ with them. No inaccuracies, no misrepresentations, so I felt I had to include them or it would be a very short list indeed.

In terms of this Rosie book, I did have second thoughts on including it. The main character is definitely Rosie, not the Muslim girl, but the Muslim girl features prominently enough that I thought it should be included.

The thing is, I keep remembering what this principal of one of my old alma maters once said to me.

Back in 2000 I had a grant subsidy that would enable me to work in schools with students on a literacy program for five days and the school only had to pay $300 for the whole five days. One of the projects had to be done at a school outside the greater Toronto area so I approached my old school in Dundas, Pleasant Valley School and offered them this opportunity telling them that I’d graduated from there.

The principal got back to me saying, “No thank you. We don’t need that multicultural stuff here.”

The funny thing is I’m beginning to think that having a diverse author like me come to a homogenous school like that is almost more important than going to a diverse school as those kids will grow up in a diverse world, they will come in contact with diverse people, and meeting a diverse author can help ease that transition.

I included Tilt Your Head Rosie the Red for principals and teachers like him. And also for Muslim kids.

These are teachers who might NOT have diverse classrooms.

The book is avowedly didactic. It’s meant to teach a lesson. To encourage students to stick up for people they see who are being marginalized. Nothing wrong with that. So this is a book for mainstream white kids, not really for Muslim kids, although that said, I thought the tentative manner in which they portrayed the Muslim girl in the story was quite accurate.

I remember feeling that tentative when I was growing up, even though I didn’t wear hijab at the time, so I related to that aspect of the story too.

And I also thought it might be encouraging for Muslim girls to read this book so that they know there are people like Rosie out there, who will in fact help stick up for them–that they’re not alone.

It is the reality.

Growing up marginalized it’s so easy to focus on the bullies and the bigots. We tend to forget all the allies we come across and I think this book can remind Muslim kids of that.

So that’s why I included it on my booklist.

Plus, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a soft spot for the editor of this book.

She was my very first editor and is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet! By recommending this and other books she edited it was my way of helping to promote the work she’s done. I included a lot of Second Story books because they were pretty good and because of this editor.

So yeah, even though there is a ‘white savior’ aspect to this book, I still think it belongs on school bookshelves.

 

 

 

Taking time out to smell the golden leaves…

A couple of weeks ago I went on a road trip with my son and daughter to view the fall colors.

What an amazing experience! A real rejuvenation!

We drove up the Bruce peninsula to Tobermory!

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Tobermory! Doesn’t the name just conjure up images of Jack Pine, golden birches, brilliant blue fall sky and rugged outcroppings of granite???

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At Tobermory there’s a ferry that crosses the gap between the Bruce peninsula and Manitoulin island. It’s a welcome respite from driving all the way up to Sudbury to get to Sault Ste. Marie which was our destination for the day.

It takes two hours to cross, and during that time the sun broke out and warmed wherever it touched.

I always feel sorry for immigrants who don’t venture outside of Toronto.

They’ll never enjoy the quiet pleasure of the Canadian wilderness!

My son and daughter hadn’t seen many of the places we were going. I hadn’t seen them either for well on twenty-five years!

From Manitoulin island we drove north to Highway 17 and took a left, going west to Sault Ste. Marie. The scenery was spectacular but as we went further and further north, the reds of maples gave way to mostly golden birch.

It was only October 14th but the peak of the fall colors had already passed.

As we drove along Highway 17, we ran parallel to the French river, which used to be a voyageur route for canoes.

My daughter was the first to see the bald eagles! Bald eagles in western Ontario!!! Who’d have thought!

In Sault Ste. Marie we went on the Agawa Canyon train tour, a one day trip through some of the most rugged and beautiful terrain in Ontario! My son agreed that it was the highlight of the road trip.

From there we drove to Sudbury where we spent a few hours at Science North. I had wanted them to see the mining expedition but so late in the season, it wasn’t open. We’ll just have to go back one day. Sudbury is known for its mining history.

And from Sudbury we drove north, past Timmins, the childhood home of Shania Twain all the way to Cochrane.

Cochrane is a small town at the bottom of a railroad line to Moosonee which is a small native settlement about ten km south of James Bay.

In planning the trip I wanted my kids to see all the terrain that Ontario had to offer. From the wilds of Algoma we were seeing the subArctic fauna of northern Ontario.

As I stood on the banks of the Moose river, looking across to Moose factory, I remembered when my husband and I, newly married, had stood on this very spot about thirty-five years ago.

I had changed but the Moose river seemed to have stayed the same.

It was prayer time when we got there and so my son and I found a field beside a building and we prayed.

Apparently native people filmed us with their phones as we did so. I didn’t mind.

It was a brisk windy day and we tried to hire a boat to take us out to James bay but the man said it was too dangerous, too windy, the waves would be too big on the open water.

We walked around Moosonee, went into the KFC/Pizza Hut combo in the little supermarket that hadn’t been there last time I’d come, and then eventually headed back to the train for the return trip.

Subhan Allah, what a wonderful time!

Came back down along Highway 11 which is Yonge St. (the longest street in the world!) through North Bay and prayed Zuhr on the lakeshore of Lake Nippising.

What with wifi I was still responding to business emails, but really, for most of the day, I didn’t think of writing, or business at all! I just enjoyed the view!

When I got back I’d clocked over 2000 km on the car odometer and the car was a mess with the snacks we ate en route but boy was it worth it.

Ontario is HUGE!!! We didn’t even cover half of it!

Had such a good time with my son and daughter!

As I get older I know that these are the experiences we will always remember!

 

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A Librarian speaks out…

It’s so weird to be tangentially part of a little controversy.

Recently first lady Melania Trump sent out packages of books to libraries around America and she picked, of all books to send, a bunch of Dr. Seuss books. As if all libraries don’t already carry them!

Well Liz Phipps Soeiro wrote a public post saying ‘Thanks but no thanks’ that ended up going viral. She quotes Dr. Seuss’s penchant for perpetuating racist stereotypes. In fact recently it was suggested that the ‘Cat’, in the The Cat in the Hat was black which gives the reading of the story a completely different flavor!!!

I think it took an incredible amount of courage on her part to speak truth to power.

Full disclosure, I actually know Liz. She’s booked me numerous times for skype visits for her school but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I agree with her decision anyway.

Ms. Soeiro created a list of ten books that Melania Trump would have done better to hand out.

These are books that promote cross cultural understanding and tolerance!

I was tickled to see my book King for a Day on the list.

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Here is the Quill & Quire’s take on the controversy.

Canadian titles among diverse kids’ books librarian suggests to Melania Trump

I hope very much that the pressure that Liz Phipps Soeiro received taking her principled stance doesn’t discourage future librarians to call out the powers that be when they want to do politically expedient but rather empty gestures of patronage.

Personally, I’m proud to know her!

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There is helping and there is hindering.

Hindering is where you’re actually handicapping the person you think you’re helping so that they’ll never learn the skills necessary to be able to stand on their own.

Helping is when you see someone being overwhelmed, and you step in, strategically!

It’s very important.

You never know when taking such an action can save a person, give them just enough encouragement to keep going till relief comes.

I think I’m in the sandwich generation phase of my life.

That’s when I’m dealing with elderly parents who need help and children who sometimes need help too.

Sometimes you end the week sore and exhausted. But even when that happens, I feel happy that I’d picked up some of the slack.

In this day and age of heightened acknowledgement of the fragility of mental health, you never know when the help you’ve rendered makes the difference between stressful functioning and despair!

When the elderly person you called, who’s been struggling, perks up enough to keep on going and same for the young mother who needed just a little bit of help.

Sometimes I feel like the mat of a trampoline. Like I’m being pulled upon by all kinds of family obligations.

And yet I believe in doing what I can.

Especially when it comes to family, I say yes as much as I can, so that when the time comes (and it inevitably does come) when I have to say ‘no’ I can do so without any feelings of regret.

I was talking to a family member recently and he was saying that I’m not like other women he knows. I said, “Yeah, I’m totally blunt.”

And he agreed and he told me he loved me for it.

And in the moment I realized that over the years the way I’ve learned to stop gossiping and backbiting is to take the things that irk me and say it in a polite way, so the person can actually deal with it. Or…shut up about it.

For example, a lot of cattiness involves personal comments about the way a person looks. Really? Who cares! We all have times when we don’t look our best. Making fun of others is just the worst thing you can possibly do.

But…some backbiting is an airing of grievances.

Talking to other people about what so and so did only creates ‘fitna’. Fitna is an excellent Arabic word that sounds like what it means, ‘trouble’ trial, difficulty. Fitna! I love that word!

It’s better to just speak to the person you’ve got the problem with, tell them politely why you can’t accommodate them or…if you’re only going to deal with them every once in a while, suck it up and ignore them.

That was a recent course of action I took. I was fuming over something that had happened, and then I thought wait a minute! I only have to deal with this person in this way once a year! Why do I care?

Let it go.

And so I did.

I don’t care what that person thinks. I’ll just avoid them as much as I can and I absolutely won’t count on them for anything!

No gossip. No backbiting!

Move on.

Nothing to see here folks.

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There’s an OISE article about how anthropomorphic animal stories are not as effective at conveying lessons as stories with real children in them. https://www.oise.utoronto.ca/oise/About_OISE/OISE_study_shows_kids_learn_more_effectively_from_stories_with_humans_than_with_human-like_animals.html

I am not surprised by these findings.

The study was done on pre-schoolers.

That age is not conducive to ambiguity. You need to spell it out.

And yet so many parents and educators avoid stories with obvious morals.

This is a mistake.

A lot of the anxiety our children are experiencing these days is a direct result of a tentative approach to morality.

Moral tales might seem heavy-handed to us, but they are not to children! Pre-school children need confidence when it comes to what is right and wrong. I’m talking universal mores: sharing is good, be kind, don’t hit people, have good manners, the golden rule.

One of my grandkids’ favorites is called Martha Doesn’t Say Sorry by Samantha Berger.

Yes it’s an anthropomorphized tale, Martha is an otter, but surprisingly my grandkids get the message and even though it has a moral, they often choose the book themselves to read.

When I read it to them, after each of the outrageous things that Martha does, I ask them, “What should she do?” and even the little two year olds whisper, “She should say ‘sorry’.”

They get it.

It’s so important for me to engage them like that. If I didn’t, perhaps they wouldn’t extrapolate the lesson to themselves. It sure has made it easier for them to say the little words ‘I’m sorry.”

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At this age, we need to be serious with kids. Tell it like it is. Give them the moral tools in order to establish the ethical foundation they’ll need to navigate life. And do so with confidence!

Pre-school is not the time to be tentative!

Go ahead and explain what is right and wrong. Then as they grow and are exposed to different cultures, discuss how they might view aspects of morality differently but how basic principles, like the golden rule, are true for everyone.

 

 

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Addiction…

I’ve been thinking a lot about addiction these days.

It’s all over the news, the opioid epidemic and it’s starting to hit Toronto, where I live.

Two eighteen year old girls recently went into a building downtown and overdosed in a stairwell.

There was a fascinating study done about cocaine addiction.

They had this rat in a metal cage and offered it a choice between water and water laced with cocaine.

It’s not surprising that the rat chose the water laced with cocaine and kept drinking till it overdosed on it.

But one scientist observing the data made an interesting observation.

What else did the rat have to live for?

Maybe it was the cage.

So he developed a new experiment, one where the cage was much larger, had a number of interesting activities and stimuli and you know what happened? The rat didn’t get addicted to the cocaine water.

And he deduced that it was the cage.

It’s fascinating that in the most advanced culture and civilization in the world, opioid addiction should be such a problem.

What is it about our lifestyles here in the West that is causing so many people to turn to narcotic addiction?

It’s devastating.

Personally I think it’s because we are primarily dissatisfied.

We have been sold a bill of goods, that anyone can accomplish anything if they try hard enough, and although there is truth in that statement, it’s not as simple as all that.

I have a friend, an ex-lawyer who has developed a nice career in the children’s literature field.

Oprah’s minions approached her at one point to be interviewed for some show they were doing on career success but ultimately they rejected profiling her, you know why?

Because she’d spent too long studying and developing her talent to be considered a miraculous success story!

They were interested in the ‘over night’ sensation story, but most people are not over night sensations. They work hard towards goals, and they do it even when they might want to give up.

So when we’re in the midst of the grind, the doldrums, the mucking through to get the project done, that seems to be when people need to ‘escape’ their reality.

But really, if you are living a healthy stimulating life, if  you are doing and working towards something you really believe in, why would you ever need alcohol or drugs to escape?

Maybe the people who are in the midst of addiction need to re-evaluate their lives.

What is so wrong with living a life nurturing the children in your care? Earning enough to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies and working towards the future?

Someone said that comparison is the thief of happiness, and that is very true.

We need to change our cages.

Life isn’t only composed of the ‘successful’ moments.

The other evening I was talking to a voracious reader who’d picked up a copy of Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis. And she said to me, “It must be so hard when the father drinks and runs away and he’s trying to find him. Why do they do that?”

And I answered quite honestly (and forgive me if this sounds a bit smug) that it is very hard and alhamdu lillah the fact that alcohol and drugs are forbidden in Islam saves us from a lot of that.

I wonder if we can make our cages interesting enough for everyone to not ever need narcotics.

I wonder if the allure of them can be completely resisted for all.

It seems to be mainstream.

The way comedians joke about getting wasted, the way singers sing about getting wasted, the way they joke about how much fun they must have had because they can’t remember a thing…

It’s just something I’ve never been able to tap into because it’s forbidden.

And what’s wrong with that?

Maybe we just do need to forbid these things to ourselves.

All I know is that I have no qualms that I would behave in any more superior a manner if I’d indulged in those things. The reason why I stayed away is simple, my religion forbids them and I obeyed, and by the grace of God, that saved me.

And as religion loses even more authority, and society decays more and more, I can’t see things getting much better.

We’ll see.

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Children’s literature is an interesting field!

There’s a whole canon of academia that wrangles over the minutiae of an author’s choices.

It’s quite fascinating to watch them wrangling actually.

I went to the IRSCL conference over the last few days, it began with its opening keynote on Saturday evening and then wrapped up on Wednesday August 2nd.

Being an academic conference there were delegates from all over the world, mostly professors of children’s literature, and Phd students attending.

I had been approached by one student, I think she was from Spain, who was writing a dissertation on my book Wanting Mor. She presented a paper on it at the conference, and out of curiosity I want to get my hands on it to see what she said.

I find conferences exhausting! They’re so mentally rigorous, there are so many ideas bombarding you as you sit there, that your brain kind of goes numb after a while.

I made sure to attend the opening keynote on Saturday. To me the opening keynote really sets the tone for the rest of the conference.

Five past presidents spoke about various aspects of children’s literature. One of them spoke of ‘whiteness’ in children’s literature and I really appreciated that!

But honestly, it was jarring to see these five past presidents, all of whom were white, sitting up there side by side.

And I marveled that it seemed odd.

When I first began in this career, it was anything but odd!!!

I also went to the panel on Indigenous literature. And sat right in the front row! Boy did I look like an eager beaver!

Drew Hayden Taylor was on the panel and he spoke about how in his work he’d melded aspects of Indigenous Drew Hayden Taylorculture with pop cultural tropes (is that the right word? I’m not sure but doesn’t it sound so intellectual!!!) in that he wrote a story about a native vampire who was over 350 years old, he’d been captured by European colonizers and transported to Europe as a curiosity to show the kings, and there he’d been bitten by a vampire and joined the ranks of the undead.

Drew is hilarious! I had met him down at Harbourfront where we’d been on a panel together. You know how sometimes you meet someone but it’s the second meeting with them where you really get to know each other better? Well it helped that we sat together at the final dinner and exchanged anecdotes.

I think the most interesting person on the panel though was this eighty year old lady who had collaborated with her daughter in law on her biographical experience of her time in the residential school system. Her name was Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and the name of her book was Fatty Legs. I definitely want to get this book!

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The panel I was on was called The Media and the Message and oh what an interesting group of people we were!!!

There was Zetta Elliot, a fiery African American activist who’s self-published numerous books both picture books and novels! She’s recently sold a couple of novels to Random House which will be coming out soon but she’s most famous for her book Bird which I quite loved! It’s a quiet, thoughtful book about a boy dealing with his brother’s addiction problems. Won all kinds of accolades!

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Loved, loved, loved Shauntay Grant’s presentation as well! She’s a singer and spoken word artist and has a voice as rich and smooth as Swiss chocolate! She read from this book I believe, Up Home.

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And rounding out the panel was Vivek Shraya who is transgender and had written a book about gender fluidity called The Boy In the Bindi. Vivek ended the presentation saying that children’s books needed to deal more with sexuality and read a piece about masturbation from one of Vivek’s books. While the story was amusing, I couldn’t see it being appropriate in a school setting. Not as a read aloud which is what it seemed that Vivek may have been advocating, but perhaps not, not sure.

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All the other presenters on the panel used technology but I decided to just tell my story. I spoke a lot about my father and about Wanting Mor.

In the opening keynote one of the speakers had spoken about raising ‘good white children’ and how this father had gone into his child’s room when he wouldn’t go to sleep and he had hit him. There was a bit of an assumption on the speaker’s part that this was abusive, and while it probably was, it left a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Growing up in Asian culture, that wasn’t unusual at all. It didn’t mean my father was abusive, but this was the implication. I decided to mention it in my presentation as my story dealt with it.

The response to the panel was amazing! We each brought our strengths and we were all so different. The group gave us a standing ovation and afterwards several people came up to me and shared stories about their fathers.

Later on, during the gala dinner, a lady came up to me and told me that she hadn’t wanted to come to the conference at all! She was African American and I got the impression she felt she wouldn’t be represented. She said my talk had made the entire conference worth while for her and she was SO glad she’d seen me!

She was not the only one who reacted this way.

It was humbling!

I came away from the conference feeling uplifted. Really positive!

 

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The IRSCL conference…

I’m so honored to be presenting at the International Research into Children’s Literature conference this year!

The venue for this international academically oriented conference changes every two years. This year it’s in Toronto and they invited me to be on a panel with some other authors.

The thing is, even though it’s tempting to just go for my own session and skip the rest of the conference, I decided instead to take advantage of the free registration and attend as many sessions as I can. So I braved the traffic and the heat and went last night to the opening keynote and boy am I glad I did!

The opening keynote basically sets the mood for the entire conference, it’s very important. The past presidents of the IRSCL each gave ten minute talks about various aspects of children’s literature.

It was held in a huge auditorium and the program began with a native ceremony and an acknowledgement that we were on the lands of Canada’s indigenous people.

A very nice touch!

I sat down and looked around and realized, wow, for an international conference, I’m the only one wearing hijab!

And then I looked around again and checked skin color and from where I sat I was the darkest person in the room!

Yikes!

It’s a weird feeling to be that different!

Mostly I’m used to it but this is an INTERNATIONAL conference! People came from all over the world! Why were they so white? And part of me wondered if maybe only white people really care about children’s literature and then I thought, no way! And remembered the Asian Festival of Children’s Content.

I’m thinking that IRSCL should partner with them, the work they’re both doing overlaps in spots!

There was a reception afterwards with a tabla playing duo (another nice touch!) and finger foods.

I needed some water! But they only had some kind of fruit punch and then diet coke (it was too late for caffeine for me) and a bunch of wine and beer–out of the question of course!!!!

Finally a friend showed me a water fountain and I filled up a cup.

Ended up having a fascinating conversation with some of the delegates and while I went to get some of the fruit punch I met a delegate from Washington who said she’d seen me at the NCTE Atlanta and that she ‘loves me’. She was the first of several fans I got to meet that evening.

This might sound pathetic but it felt SO good to meet people who take the work you do so seriously!

In the midst of all the rejections, failures and frustrations that lie in trying to compose a new work of art, meeting people who love you because of your work feels amazing!

It had been a rough month!

I’d had quite a few negative experiences too personal to get into and then there was this…

I find life is like this. You get the negative and you get the positive and even though you learn a lot more from the negative you need the positive, just to give you hope, to keep on going.

My panel is on Monday afternoon down at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library. It houses the Osbourne collection and is one of the nicest branches in the city!

Should be fascinating! Can’t wait to hear what the other panelists say! I already know what I’m going to say.

 

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Burning the candle at both ends…

I know I’ve been scarce in terms of blogosphere and that is always good news in some ways because it means the writing of fiction is going well!

Alhamdu lillah, it is.

I’m working on two projects and strangely enough one makes me laugh and the other makes me cry.

They kind of balance each other out.

I had some trouble with my email recently.

Couldn’t access it from my desktop only my phone which meant I couldn’t do the myriad business things I have to do as an author, couldn’t send invoices, couldn’t read pdf’s of upcoming  engagements, stuff like that.

But alhamdu lillah all that’s been resolved.

I had been working hard on a project dear to my heart but because of all the tech stuff I spent a day not able to access my Word program and that particular project, so… I cracked open the other one. The one that makes me laugh, really guffaw, a bit like a hyena!

Hysterically!

Even as I write this I’m chuckling.

I know though that some people in my life would not approve. One person dear to me is always warning me about jumping from project to project like a rabbit nibbling patches of clover.

And to a certain point I agree.

Multi-tasking is not very efficient, they have found that to be true.

And yet…

How fresh I feel!

My stories are usually either incredibly sad or rib-ticklingly funny. I’d been working on the sad one so long it was quite refreshing to be able to laugh.

And then I remembered something rather interesting. Way back, about ten years ago, this is how I wrote. I would work on one project till I got stuck on it and felt tired, and then I’d switch to another until I got stuck on that and went back to the first project.

The point I’m trying to make is each artist has to find whatever works for them. No two artists have the same process and it’s okay to do things differently as long as you’re making progress.

In fact I’m so excited there’ve been some days I’ve worked on both projects!

Now that’s burning the candle on both ends!

I just hope that come September I have a lot, insha Allah, to show for it!

 

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On the eve of Canada Day 150…

I confess I feel a little conflicted celebrating the sesquicentennial of Canada!

I’ve been reading a graphic novel about Louis Riel, and I think all Canadians can put away any smugness we might feel about being ‘kinder’ to the native Americans. We weren’t.

And a hundred and fifty years later, we have a handsome charismatic leader in Justin Trudeau who talks nice but hasn’t done anything to remedy the situation yet!

Like every other prime minister before him!

Whether tory or liberal, doesn’t matter, they all neglect the native population because frankly, we the people of Canada allow them to.

I read an interesting quote on the definition of patriotism being the admiration for my country, thinking it’s superior to every other, simply because I was born there.

For the most part that’s pretty accurate I think.

Except I wasn’t born here.

I was born in Pakistan.

And I do believe Canada is superior only because there is a little more justice here.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some corruption.

And we can still be vulnerable to xenophobic forces, but for the most part, it’s the best place in the world to live.

Canada has been kind to me.

And I love Canada!

Yay Canada!

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