A few days ago, a lady emailed me with a problem. This is some of what she said:

“…I am now in ….’s creative writing class, and sometimes i get an odd sense about him.  Many students in the class have read their work and he always writes good comments about their work down and verbalizes it to them after they have read.  The other day it was my turn, and surprisingly enough the whole class and this was a first actually applauded and some were even teary eyed.  I was pleased as you must know how great it feels when people are sincerely pleased with your work.  Yet, …  the instructer had not written down a single thing he had liked about my work.  Although he did say he like it, and asked me how far along i was.  But i was still disturbed.  Any how, yesterday i was looking up his name on the web and it seems he is very pro-isreal, and has even written articles…  I am a muslim women who wears the hijab, and now i am feeling like maybe i should not continue with the class, because i am afraid that he might be biased.  I would really appreciate your advice. “

When I first began writing I always assumed that writers were above petty politics. That if you take a course with an instructor then he or she will give you the most sincerest advice both to encourage you and to guide you in your growth as a writer.

That’s true perhaps ninety per cent of the time, but not always.

I’ve only been published now for eleven years and I can count on one hand the number of people I felt were subtly discouraging, but from what this lady says, I think her concerns are legitimate.

It happens. People are not perfect. 

Most Jewish people I know have been very nice, but there are the odd ones that have said the odd thing.

Like the time I was at the book launch of a friend. It was a few weeks after Sept. 11th, and of course there were people talking about it. I was standing at the edge of a group listening, and this lady just glared at me, actually said, “Humph!” and stormed off. I wanted to call after her, “IT WASN’T ME!!!! I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!!!”

Then there was the time that another lady (hmm, come to think of it, the men usually leave me alone) approached me on the Sunday evening that I arrived in Denmark and took me to task for the subject of the speech I was going to give.

I had met her in South Africa at the IBBY congress there. I didn’t know her well, but she was also from Toronto. She said, “Rukhsana, I have a big problem with your speech on Wednesday.”

I didn’t know how to answer. I told her she hadn’t even heard the speech yet. The Danish IBBY progam co-ordinator had approved it, he’d even really liked it, and maybe she’d feel differently after she heard what I had to say.

She said, “No. I really have a problem with the topic of it.”

It was about freedom of speech versus cultural sensitivity, the right of creators to create freely vs the right of cultures to be respected.

In the end I just said well she’d have to just wait and see. And then I told her to tell me after she’d heard me deliver the speech if she still felt it was inappropriate.

She left me then, and I started wondering why she’d felt the urge to come up and tell me in this manner, three days before I was to give it.  It wasn’t like we were that well acquainted.

And the vibe I got from her wasn’t one of trying to warn me against making a career mistake.

I still think she was trying to psyche me out.

I think she actually felt threatened by the topic and she wanted to plant the seeds of doubt (as if they weren’t already germinating on their own!).

There have been other occasions.

The advice I gave to this lady who emailed me was to guage this instructor’s feedback in a different manner.

Most people are pretty straight forward and will praise your work if they like it.

But some people will praise you if you’re NOT that good and they can afford to be generous. I suspect this instructor was like that.

If you’re too good, they can find you threatening, and you’ll see them clam up.

And interestingly enough that Jewish lady who approached me in Denmark never came up to me after my speech at all.

This other lady did. She was also Jewish, in fact she was a Danish Jewish author and she told me that many people had come to listen to me with an ‘arms-crossed-let’s-see-what-she-says’ kind of attitude. She told me I was able to win them over.

The speech was eventually published in a condensed form in Horn Book magazine, and I gave it at the Serendipity conference in Vancouver in ’09 and have been invited to give it again at the Canadian Library conference in Edmonton in June.

I have not seen the lady from Toronto who had so accosted me in Denmark since then. The fact that she has completely avoided me, even though I invited her feedback, may be one of the best ‘compliments’ she could have given, under the circumstances.

It’s sad really.

I do not feel threatened by other cultures’ expressions of their heritage or their concerns. Quite the opposite, I find them fascinating.

And I really do believe there’s room for everyone to express themselves and we, as a society, are all the richer, for that diversity.