Khanversations

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

I can’t help getting nervous before a big trip!

There’s worrying about the physical toll the travel will have on me! (I’m not getting any younger!)

And then when I arrive, it’s only natural that I’m worried a little about my safety.

Just a few weeks ago there was an attack in the North western part of the country.

I’m not going there, but still…

And yet part of me is super excited!

The Canadian High Commission is sponsoring the trip.

It feels really cool to get travel papers with the Canadian High Commission’s logo at the top, with the crest and the coat of arms and all that, looking all official!

And then there’s the fact that it’s a melding of my birth country and my home country both kind of recognizing me. That’s really cool!

I hope the kids and teachers understand English.

I was contacted by a teacher from a school in Karachi asking me to do a skype session ahead of the festival. When I told her my rate (and they’re not even that much!) she backed out saying that they never paid for skype sessions from authors.

I wasn’t surprised.

I’ve taken a lot of precautions in terms of health: vaccines including typhoid. I’ve already been inoculated against Hepatitis A and B. And then there’s the malaria tablets I’ll have to start taking two days before I leave and a week after I get back.

I was born in Lahore, but this trip I won’t be going there. I’ll be in Karachi and Islamabad, two cities I’ve never seen before.

Last time I went, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan was winding down. It was the winter of 1991-1992. My goodness a LOT has happened since then!

I got ideas for: The Roses in My Carpets, Silly Chicken, Ruler of the Courtyard, King of the Skies, King for a Day, Wanting Mor, and some of the stories in Muslim Child. Who knows what will happen this time around?

It should be very exciting!

The trip is being covered by the Canada Arts Council.

Subhan Allah, I’m so fortunate!

I leave on February 13th, which looks to be the coldest day of this winter. And return on February 28th insha Allah.

I plan to blog while there. So stay tuned…

 

It’s very important as an author to keep abreast of what’s coming out: trends in story creation and trends in literature.

But with me, I always tend to read a book or watch a movie that’s received a lot of hype, long after the hype has died down.

Hype is really tricky! It can color the way we read something! And there’s a famous saying that you should never believe your own hype!

Okay, so I watched the roll out of the Inside Out movie with great interest.

It had some really good stars in it! The critical consensus was darn near perfect! I think 97% on Rotten Tomatoes!

And it was Pixar!

What could go wrong?

And yet the opening weekend, it DID NOT dominate the box office. And that shocked me.

Me, I seldom go to a movie in the cinemas.

It’s too expensive and ever since I heard that some movie theaters had bed bugs, I’ve been scared off!

Besides, it’s part of waiting for the hype to die down.

So I watched and waited, patiently. And then when I saw Inside Out available on Netflix, I was both excited and alarmed!

Excited that I could finally get to see it, but alarmed because I thought, “Wow! It really did THAT bad???”

And this comes down to marketing. When you’ve got a real bonafide hit, you don’t put it on Netflix a year after it debuted! You just don’t!

Disney is about the stingiest company around. They hardly put any of their best stuff on Netflix. They let dribs and drabs seep through. I watched Brother Bear and a few other of their movies on Netflix now that they’re there but they keep the ‘good stuff’ close to their chest.

Why did they release Inside Out???

So I confess I started watching it with a bit of a jaded view.

I already knew that the emotion Sadness would play a big role–thanks to some other spoilers. And I knew that the imaginary creature Bing Bong would ‘die’ by sacrificing himself, which I thought was totally cheesy because he’s imaginary, he’s a thought, Riley could always think of him again and bring him back to life!!!!

I felt totally manipulated by that! And even a bit resentful, but yeah, I think kids would find it emotional.

But what really bothered me about the movie, the reason the whole movie felt FLAT was because by the time I finished watching I realized that the brilliant folks at Pixar had missed something! Something pretty obvious!

The danger in creating a movie based on modern understandings of psychology is that we’re still learning about the brain!

And how do you do it without appealing to a HUGE part of the human psyche: FAITH! Religion!

What’s missing is SOUL!!!!

The biggest drawback of the movie is that the MAIN CHARACTER Riley is reduced to her idiosyncrasies and emotions!!!! She’s FLAT!

Ironically Joy and Sadness and the other emotions have more personality than Riley does!

I mean really? Riley has no say in what emotions she feels? She’s just like an avatar for these five emotions in her head???

Really?

It’s nonsense!

And the thing is, it’s so weird to be so critical of such a critically acclaimed PIXAR movie, that at first I thought maybe I’m wrong.

So I watched it again.

And I watched it again with my son, not telling him about the conclusions I’d already come to.

And yup, again, the fact that Riley has no soul is what is missing in the movie.

Who am I to critique a juggernaut like Pixar?

And yet…

I’m wondering if in Pixar’s quest to make a film that would appeal to the widest audience, and because of the natural reticence of Americans to discuss anything as personal as religion and faith in the public sphere, that Pixar didn’t fall short in creating a true masterpiece in Inside Out.

If only Riley could have revealed her ultimate control over her emotions and destiny…

Oh well.

It’s really really sad when something that could have been truly amazing, misses the mark.

One of the things I’ve been worried about with the Syrian crisis and everything is what if, as happened in Sweden, a refugee commits a crime or even expresses an ‘ungrateful’ sentiment.

People are very fickle.

And sometimes people in difficult circumstances are at the end of their patience and might not express themselves in the best manner.

For two years the war in Syria raged and the world did nothing.

Then one picture touched the hearts of a lot of people and suddenly they wanted to help. That’s still good.

But yesterday I came across a CBC article where some volunteers had interviewed a Syrian refugee family and *gasp* the family was upset they were stuck in a hotel room, the kids had nowhere to play and they just wanted to go back to the refugee camp.

Oh, you should have read the comments!

It was so depressing!

And yet, I can imagine the same thing happening to Canadians if God forbid, we had a reason to leave our homes, travel to the other side of the world and subject ourselves to the often humiliating terms of being a refugee in a country where you don’t know the customs and you can’t speak the languages.

I remember when I went to Guyana, South America, the home of my husband’s family. It was my first foray outside of North America and what a shock!

I remember wanting to climb back up the stairway and get the heck out of there! And that was just a visit of three weeks!

How do you give your heart to a new country?

I know for sure that if I ever had to leave Canada, my heart would pine for it for the rest of my life.

I would miss the vast forests, the sweep of Rocky mountains and tundra and the mighty St. Lawrence!

How do you make a new country your home?

It must be a LOT harder than people can imagine.

And now in Denmark the officials are planning to take away any jewelry or money from the refugees more than $2000. My husband said, “What’s wrong with that?” And in some ways I agree, but in other ways I think it’s not a good idea. If they have some money, they can use it to set up businesses. And yet Denmark will be paying out to house them.

Many of these Syrians were prosperous educated professionals. Imagine coming to Canada in the middle of winter, where it’s grey and dreary outside, and your stuck in a hotel room waiting, waiting!

I heard they need a bunch of things like winter coats, socks, underwear, pajamas, running shoes so I went through all my closets and found lots of coats that we can give them. And I found new socks and gently used socks, and even as I’ve been packing them all together, these things we can still use but have extra of, I remember what this one lady I met who runs a Muslim women’s homeless shelter in Baltimore said. She said people like to only give the things they don’t have a use for. Basically garbage, things they’re throwing away.

And I desperately don’t want to be like that. We’ve donated a good chunk of money already, so I can’t afford to go out and buy new pajamas and underwear, but the running shoes, the socks and jackets, yes, we can do that.

It takes real effort to be able to imagine what people are going through.

May God bless them with the use of them. And may God make their transition be easy, and may they be patient and grateful and may Canadians be patient with them too.

 

Keeping things in Perspective…

Just deleted my first hate mail/comment just now.

It feels so weird to think that someone would be so irate that he’d take the time and energy to leave a hate-filled comment on a blog like mine.

In a way though, I kind of see it as a bit of a triumph.

What did Gandhi say? First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.

So when you start getting attacked/made fun of, it means you’re entering a new phase of the game. They can’t afford to just ignore you any more.

It reminds me of how I felt when I debated this anti-Muslim ‘Muslim’ a while back. I was invited onto a TV show to respond to her accusations about Islam. And just sitting out in the waiting room, waiting to enter the studio I realized that with the way things are going, these kinds of attacks on Islam are going to become more frequent. And it’s not like in years past where white ‘Orientalists’ would do the attacking. People are savvy. They’d get other Muslims to do it for them. They’d prop them up and promote the bejeezus out of them and attack Islam left right and centre, and that’s precisely what’s happening.

And up till now they were ignoring me too.

I’ve had a few incidents. Nothing much yet, alhamdu lillah, and they’ve all been unnerving but very very educational.

And whenever it happens I’m always kind of naively shocked that these people attacking me, don’t like me! LOL

And I remind myself over and over again, “Get over yourself honey, NOT everyone is going to like you!”

Even though another part of me replies, “But why not? I’m a nice person!”

LOL

Oh well. What can you do.

I submitted some proposals for a conference coming up in the States. And I finally got my paperwork ready for my trip to Pakistan.

I had to ask myself, “Wait a minute! How many authors these days are lucky enough to be getting invited to international conferences, and getting paid for it!!!” I really am fortunate alhamdu lillah.

And I was chatting with a friend in America and she was saying how some Muslim editor she’d been talking to admired my work and I asked, wow, she knew about me? And my friend said I shouldn’t be so humble. That I was the first ‘real’ Muslim author and she’d admired my work for so long.

And I thought okay, wow.

Sometimes you’re so deep in the trenches just trying to work out the hiccups in your next project that you don’t see that hey, things are pretty good! Masha Allah.

Perspective.

 

Impact…

Some times you’re so busy just trying to write the next book that you forget that your work is out there in the world.

Someone might be reading it even as I’m writing this and it’s having an impact. Insha Allah it’s having an impact.

It’s not like I haven’t received fan mail over the years.

And I often receive it at a time when I’m feeling low, my confidence isn’t at its best.

But this time was special.

I had just begun a new novel, and it wasn’t going well. I kept getting stuck, which usually means I’m not coming at it from the right angle.

So I was writing bits and pieces that I thought were quite good and then reaching dead ends, when I received a lovely email from a mother of four children.

And she told me how much my book Muslim Child had impacted her children who were mostly grown up by now.

And then she sent me a video link of her daughter doing a TED talk for a private affiliated group. I guess TED talks have a new category where private groups can use the format or something.

But her daughter had quoted from Muslim Child for her TED talk, and boy was she ever cute! The video brought tears to my eyes.

This is such an up and down biz.

I also got news that I received my visa for Pakistan so the trip is definitely on insha Allah. I’ll be keynoting the Children’s Literature Festival in Karachi and also going up to Islamabad in the second half of February. I’d received a travel grant from the Canada Arts Council for the trip and the locals will be covering my ground expenses.

So everything is good!

Here’s the video of the girl Maryam Elassar. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

 

“I’ll forgive you Donald Trump…”

“…if you forgive me ISIS.”

This is a sentence I wrote to a friend of mine Brent Olsen (a former pig farmer) who writes a fabulous column called Independently Speaking. I’ve known him for decades.

After reading his Christmas and New Year columns, I felt a lot more hopeful!

That’s what Brent does. He can make you feel hopeful. He talked about perspective!

He said he felt embarrassed about Donald Trump and he actually apologized for him.

While reading those words, I laughed out loud!

I decided a while back that I would no longer apologize for the actions of crazy Muslims. And Americans sure as heck don’t need to apologize for Trump!

Our actions are our own, we are not responsible even for what our parents or children do.

And that is a good thing.

Spent all day reminiscing over 2015.

It was such a difficult year, I’m really hoping this year will be better.

And as the years add up, they go faster and faster, whoosh!

Insha Allah this year I’ll have time to actually get some writing done. It will be interesting, if nothing else.

And I’m finding these themes are making their way into the words I’m writing.

But I do warn whoever might be reading this, that as the writing gets better, the blogging gets worse. It seems there’s only so many words I have, so much creative output allowed.

I spent New Year’s Eve finishing up a fascinating series on Netflix called Making a Murderer. I thought it would delve into the psychological evolution of a person inclining to crime. Instead it turned out to be an addictive documentary series about how this poor bloke in Wisconsin got railroaded by local police not once but twice, and it was surreal to think Steven Avery, who’s about my age, spent 28 out of his 53 years of life inside a prison for crimes he didn’t commit.

Basically a real life version of Les Miserables, where law enforcement kept hounding him.

Depressing.

But strangely satisfying at the same time.

I think we live in a time when the authorities have gotten drunk with power. They’re using the little man as their personal toilet to dump all over.

So sad.

God tests people according to what they can bear.

And on that cheerful note… I’m off.

Good writing in 2016!

And remember, just because the world is going to pot, doesn’t mean you have to be.

“Wanting to have written”

I read an interesting article about the creative process recently.

I’m always curious about other people’s processes, comparing them to my own, trying to imagine how they came up with an idea and then how they developed it so the story was properly executed.

So I came across this article written by a person charging an exorbitant amount for a book on the creative process. Not surprisingly the book went out of print quickly but the crux of the advice was around the idea that many writers are guilty of ‘wanting to have written’, not actually wanting to write.

They tense up too much.

And they don’t apply the discipline of ‘butt in chair’.

Even if they preach it to others. And I thought, “ooh, I’m guilty of that!”

During the residency workshops I told this aspiring author to just keep writing, don’t go back and edit. Finish. Give yourself permission to write a really lousy first draft and yet what do I find myself doing?

Thinking about themes and where the story is going even before the story is fully fleshed out!

And it’s so true, I want to have written! I want to have gotten that moment where something unexpected happens in what you’re writing and you think, “Wow!” but I don’t necessarily want to be doing the work to write it!

Silly, silly, silly!

Recently I was telling a good friend who’s finding it hard to fit regular writing into her busy schedule, “Ah, that’s because you’re realizing it’s work!”

Ha, ha. I felt so superior when I said that!

All during the residency I was so busy with workshops I didn’t have time or energy to write. And yet now, that my schedule has opened up somewhat, I just feel like farting around!

But no, I started a project, especially since I wasn’t blessed with another residency grant for next year, and I thought what better time to write? So I’m busy with that! But oh, it’s hard.

I want to have written!

But never mind. I’m not complaining.

Just finished a couple of pages that seem to be working, and it feels real good!

Alhamdu lillah!

I keep telling the critic at the back of my mind, I’m not trying to write a masterpiece! I’m not trying to write a masterpiece! I’m just having a little fun. And it’s worked. He’s quieted down for now.

Rocking back and forth in the perpetual rocking chair, squinting at me suspiciously from that dim corner of my mind.

While I play with words.

That’s all.

;o)

When the kids surprise you…

I really wasn’t planning on blogging again about the Downsview Public Library residency, but after what happened yesterday, the last day of the residency, I simply can’t resist.

I did the last two workshops with the kids yesterday. At 1 pm, we did the writing workshop. I’d begun with an imaginative scenario that the kids basically brainstormed under my guidance into a nifty little story. Yesterday we did the conclusion of it.

Oh it was fun!

And the kids were yelling out suggestions, and two of the parents were sitting on the side, just watching, and smiling, I think, though I didn’t really look over at them. But you know how you get the ‘feeling’ that someone in the room is smiling? Well yeah, that.

And then at 2 pm, we began the finale of the public speaking workshops, it was the COMPETITION!

I always like to end the children’s public speaking workshop with a competition. Because all this time that they’ve been learning the skills I’ve been teaching, they need to enact them within a scenario that actually does have some pressure involved. There needs to be something at stake.

What was at stake was a prize for the best speaker. They could choose any of my books. (I had previously offered them a choice between books and candy and they’d opted for having one of my books as a prize.)

In the end though I did buy some candy as well, as sort of consolation prizes, just for participating.

Well did I mention that at the beginning of the workshops there were a couple of girls in particular who were painfully shy!

I’m not talking about the one who was dragged in there by her mom and eventually asked to come on her own. These were two girls who were brought by their parents and both of them wrote me testimonials saying how public speaking would make them cry (one of them said the mere thought of having to give a speech would make her cry for days!!!).

I always mark the children on three aspects of their presentation. First is the story. Did they choose a good story that was appealing, that made sense and was fun to listen to? Second is technique. How did they tell the story? Did they incorporate the techniques I’d taught them? Had they been engaging? And thirdly is how good an audience they were being when the others were telling their story. Are they listening respectfully? Each is of equal weight and I always tell them the easiest marks to get are for listening!

Guess who won???

I had originally vowed to have only one winner, but the problem was in terms of marks, three of the girls were tied with perfect scores. I really couldn’t find anything sufficiently wrong with anything they did to deduct any marks! (And I’m not the kind of anal sort who won’t give a perfect score!) I also can’t help but take into consideration where the kids were when we began the process. So there it was between three girls.

And then I did something kind of interesting. I asked the audience who they thought won, and sure enough it was unanimous, one of the shyest girls I just mentioned won, the same girl I was leaning towards. They all thought so. She was just a titch better than the other two, even though they all had perfect scores.

And because the other two with the perfect scores were honest enough to put their hands up in unison to say that the shy girl had won, I thought I just had to let them choose a book too!

So long and the short of it is, that two of the shyest girls were among the winners!

Wow!

It’s so humbling and amazing to see such a phenomenon! I never would have pegged either of them to have improved so much!

And I told them so. Basically I told both of them, “… I am so proud of the way you’ve improved! Look at you! Good job!”

And you should have seen the way they smiled.

They practically preened!

And then it was a total surprise because one of the mothers of one of the kids in the program gave me such a lovely gift! And two beautiful cards thanking me for helping her son and wishing me a wonderful holiday season.

Subhan Allah!

 

It’s the last week of the residency…

And I’m already feeling nostalgic.

I’ve come to know so many of the people, the kids, the teens, the adults, the seniors. In each program there are a few people that have really stood out!

I look at the progress I’ve seen in the teenagers from the time they first started the public speaking program. I wonder if some teachers observing my techniques would have been shocked at the way I spoke to them. Bluntness, honesty, but praise too, when they had genuinely earned it.

When one of the teens was giving a powerpoint presentation he kept waving his arms after making each statement and when he was done, I asked the other two teens, who were part of the audience to give him critique. We always start by saying something they’re doing well. Sometimes that’s hard. ;p

But this time the teens said he was nice and loud. It was easy to hear him. And then, yup, one of them honed in on the hand motions. He said they were distracting. I asked the boy bluntly, why he was ‘flailing his arms around like that’? And he laughed, good naturedly. He knew intrinsically that I wasn’t insulting him. I was trying to help him.

And then I demonstrated what it looked like and he laughed again, he got my point. They’ve all learned so well that if they fiddle with their hands, if they sway side to side, if they tap their toes, all these things distract from what they’re trying to say. The audience will focus on their hands, or the way they’re swaying or the tapping of the toes. They need to guard their actions. They got it!

And then both he and the girl gave me testimonials, and in his he said how he’d taken other public speaking courses but mine was the best. He’d actually have paid to attend it. And that I’d helped him improve a lot. And the girl, oh my goodness, when she first came, she could barely speak loud enough to tell a story, she was so shy. But by the end she was vastly improved! And she said in her testimonial that I’d helped her more than I could know.

It really warms my heart.

And then there’s the lady who always dreamed of writing, who said I inspired her to go for it! When I was supposed to end the adult writing workshop sessions, I didn’t have the heart because darn it, I wanted to hear what she wrote next! So we continued the sessions!

I will miss her!

And the lady who was writing about the time she took a bus to Vancouver when she was 19.

And the seniors with their memoirs and their fascinating stories! So spirited! We explored the themes and patterns in their lives!

And the newcomers, teaching them how to manipulate the inflection in their voices so as to come across with more authority.

I’ll wrap up the residency on Saturday December 5th with a storytelling concert at 11 am and then the kids’ writing and public speaking workshops.

And those kids! Oh the fun we had with story creating!

In the past few sessions I took my oldest granddaughter.

I told a pretty funny story at the end of the session, to demonstrate something or another, and when I asked her how I did she said, “Well…you did make a couple of mistakes!”

Omigosh! She actually noticed where I’d stumbled on a word or two!

It was nothing! I swear it was nothing! The average audience wouldn’t even have noticed but she did.

Ha!

I created a monster!

LOL

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.

Sigh.

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.