So all that I’ve written so far is the preamble to the big event, the one that I was actually invited to keynote: Children’s Literature Festival in Karachi.

The Children’s Literature Festival is an initiative begun by two very dedicated ladies: Baela Raza Jamil and Ameena Saiyid (the head of Oxford University Press) trying to uplift the educational standards of the children in Pakistan. Maham Ali is its current CEO.

Currently there are about twenty-four million Pakistani children outside the school system. And even those within the school system seldom complete a full cycle of education.

For example there are thousands of elementary schools, but the number of middle schools and high schools drops significantly.

A vast amount of children never get past grade five!

One of the challenges is that there are apparently about ninety dialects spoken in Pakistan, so finding an official language of education is difficult. The official language is both Urdu and English, but for most children even Urdu is a second language.

It makes it difficult because the children just don’t have the resources to get proficient at it.

The teachers earn a good salary, but it seems they too are not trained in the most modern techniques to educate their students.

The Children’s Literature Festival is an event aimed at creating excitement around learning.

The Karachi event was held at Dawood Public School which is a school for girls and was probably the most beautiful school I saw while in Pakistan!

Its financed by an amazing entrepreneurial lady, Sabrina Dawood, who offered the campus as a venue for the festival.

Thousands of children, parents, teachers and media attended the event!

They had authors, singers and publishers and musicians and scientists!

I began with the keynote.

I had ten minutes to basically launch the festival, and I thought carefully of what was the best message to start with.

I should mention that about three days before the festival I got seriously ill.

It started with an ominous rash that quickly turned into blisters on my hands and the soles of my feet and in my mouth, and resisted all over the counter medications. In fact today, three weeks later, I’m still dealing with the ramifications and trying to get my health back to normal.

Now that I think of it, I wonder that I was able to function as well as I did.

But then you can never discount the effects of adrenaline! Plus, I always feel such a tremendous responsibility when I travel.

People have invested a LOT of money to bring me there! I have to make sure it was worth it!

It’s not about me or my ego. It’s not about anything but doing the absolute best job possible for my hosts!

So I tried not to think about how walking on the blisters on the soles of my feet was like walking on pins and needles. My feet got so swollen in fact that the pretty shoes pinched mercilessly and I had to wear my black running shoes even though they were quite ugly.

Anyway, getting back to the keynote. I thought the best thing to do was to tell them why I, as a Pakistani-Canadian, felt that I had the ability to write books that would appeal not only to Pakistani children, but to ALL children, so I told them a story about something that happened when I was ten years old, in grade five, with a handsome teacher whose name was Mr. Harrison.

It’s a story I tell often.

Short, to the point, it basically illustrates a moment when both Mr. Harrison and I witnessed a scenario unfold, and the thought that occurred to me as a result of it, was verbatim expressed by the handsome Mr. Harrison who I so looked up to!

And in that moment I realized that no matter what we look like on the outside, no matter what color we are or gender or religion we belong to, inside we’re actually not that different. And my goal in writing any story, is to use my imagination to create a scenario where the reader comes to the same conclusions that I have or that I want them to.

I particularly chose this story because having been colonized, Pakistan is still at the mercy of a HUGE inferiority complex towards anything ‘white’ and ‘handsome’. They would get it! And they did!

Oh how the crowd roared when I finished up my keynote address and the lovely Baela Raza Jamil herself told me how excellent my keynote had been.

I had delivered the keynote in a combination of English and Urdu, something I heard someone refer to as ‘kitcheree’. When I heard the term ‘kitcheree’ I had to laugh. I’m not sure if they still call it that, but growing up kitcheree was basically a sort of pot luck rice dish, where you just throw in anything you have leftover to make a meal of it.

And the interesting thing is that nowadays people don’t speak pure Urdu. They speak a mixture of Urdu with English words thrown in, ‘kitcheree’. So with my upside down Urdu, mixed in with English words, I was actually pretty understandable.

But I think one of the most effective things was the fact that here I was, speaking in a North American accent, conveying stories about Pakistani/Muslim/South Asian brown people, stories that were actually constructed with North American tastes in mind, and they could recognize it. Basically they could see in my stories a sort of ‘mainstreaming’ of Pakistani/Muslim/South Asian culture. And I think they found that incredibly cool.

After that I had three other sessions to do, and I tried to focus on different books, and different aspects of the creative process.

My sessions were packed! They were so full that kids and adults were sitting on the ground, filling in the spaces and standing at the back to watch.

And while I was presenting, did I think at all about my physical ailments?

No! Not a bit!

The pain returned after.

And when I was done my sessions, I asked to go back to my hotel room where basically I did my best to rest and recuperate.

Knowing now what I was going through, I’m surprised I managed it.

My only regret is that I didn’t extend my ticket to come home on the 29th because the day I was leaving, the 28th, turned out to be the teachers’ workshop day. I could have done so much for them!

But it was not to be.

And when we looked into changing my airline ticket, it would have cost $700 and no way was that worth it!

The folks have conducted a number of Children’s Literature Festivals all over Pakistan.

I hope and I pray that they have the intended consequence, that they raise the educational aspirations of the children in Pakistan!

It’s such a beautiful country, and the people have so much potential! It would be a shame to see it wasted.

It was funny how some people asked me what it was like to go ‘home’. And I’d look at them blankly and tell them that actually ‘home’ is Canada.

As much as I love Pakistan, my heart belongs to the vast wilderness that is Canada.

I love it in my bones.

And when I found out from the Canadian High Commission, that Canada has a policy towards countries like Pakistan and Haiti and a few others I can’t remember, that these countries who are still in deep deep foreign debt to us, that Canada forgives that debt if and only if, the countries spend the money they would have used to pay us back, on programs that will help educate and uplift children and women and other social infrastructure.

James Clark at the Canadian High Commission was telling me about this with a look of ‘why not’ on his face. And then he added, most practically, “It’s not like Canada needs their money.”

And honestly I could have hugged him!

And I had tears in my eyes, because that’s how much I love Canada!

Between the Canada Arts Council’s travel grant and the Canadian High Commission sponsoring my tour, Canada paid for me, a woman born in Pakistan, to do my best to teach everything I’ve learned to children and teachers in the country I was born!

And I’ll just end with this.

The folks at Children’s Literature Festival sent me an interview questionnaire afterwards and one of the questions was very interesting. It went:

“Would you want to visualize Pakistan a country like Canada or would you prefer to see it a country like Saudi Arabia?”

And I answered this:

Pakistan should be Pakistan and Canada should be Canada. I really believe that you should never try to be anything but what you are.

Pakistan has a rich history, and is a beautiful country. It has many many charming aspects to its personality and character. I love Pakistan.

If it were to take the best ideas from Canada and the best ideas from Saudi Arabia, I think it would become even better.

I really do believe that you should grab wisdom wherever you can find it!