Author, poet, singer extraordinaire
Rukhsana Khan was born in Pakistan and moved to Canada when she was three. Growing up as a Muslim in Canada was difficult and she was often picked on and bullied by her classmates because of her background. To escape this trauma she turned to books.
It was Khan's eighth grade teacher who first discovered her creative abilities and encouraged her to become a writer. Khan took the advice to heart and by the age of 16 had already written and illustrated her first book. Unfortunately, the work was rejected by a children's book editor in New York. However, that same editor encouraged Khan to continue writing. That she did, going on to become an award-winning children's author whose books have been published by major publishers including Scholastic, Inc.
Laced with moral themes, Khan's books have been instant hits with both Muslim as well as non-Muslim children. In this interview she talks about her writing career, Islamic themes and her latest book King of the Skies. Mohammed Ayub Khan spoke to her for Islamonline.
When did you start writing and what was the motivating factor that led you towards becoming an author?
I first started writing when I was about fourteen years old. My English teacher told me I was a "poet" and should become an author when I grew up. The idea appealed to me because I absolutely loved books; but I didn't think I could be one because of my cultural background.
But I began to dream of it. I thought it would be wonderful to write stories for other children, the kind of stories that I loved and cherished. So I proceeded to write a very bad novel called Carla the Gypsy Girl and a silly little picture book about a worm named Waldo.
My mother worked as a cleaning lady back then, to help feed us, and at the time she was working for an English professor from McMaster University. She told him about Waldo and he asked to see it. Before she came back to clean his house, he had sent it off to a New York publisher friend of his and I thought my dreams were coming true. Instead I received a rejection letter; a very nice rejection letter - my first.
After that I gave up on getting published for a while. But I still continued to write. I wrote songs, including a lullaby for my first child, and other poems. When my husband got involved with the masjid [mosque] newsletter I took on the children's page. People liked my stories so much they encouraged me to get published.
The editors of the newsletter kept asking me to write for the sister's page but I kept gravitating towards the children's page. About 10 years after my mother had first sent off Waldo, my husband bought me a desk. I was transferring my old files and came across the rejection letter I'd received. I realized that the lady was actually encouraging me, so I rewrote Waldo and waited for the acceptance to arrive. It didn't. Instead I received a whole lot more rejections.
So I started studying writing. I took courses, went to conferences and seminars, and I read voraciously. People told me I'd never make it because of the way I dress - I wear hijab [headscarf]. But I didn't give up. It took six years to get my first acceptance, although that book didn't work out. But by eight years I had not one book accepted, but five. Then it took me another four years before I sold my sixth. Writing and publishing is a very sporadic type of business.
One of the things that motivated me and kept me going through all the rejection was the anger I felt at Salman Rushdie. One day I fumed to my husband, "Why don't we as Muslims write something to counter what he wrote?" My husband said, "What's wrong with you?" But I thought, "I can't do it! I'm just a housewife!" He said, "Nobody else is [doing it]." And I thought, "He's right."
I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully counter what he [Rushdie] wrote. I don't even know if I should bother. But I do know that stories are powerful tools. If you can read a story about a person of another culture and identify with that character, laugh or cry with that character, you can never look at that culture in the same way again.
These are some of the reasons I write. Plus, I think I'm just wired to write. I think it's a need in me; perhaps a gift from Allah. I can only hope.
Were your early writings related to Islamic themes?
No. In fact I tried to write regular stories with characters with names like Susan and Bill. But there's a cardinal rule in writing: It's "Write what you know." And I found, to my surprise, that my culture [i.e. Islam and being Pakistani] were considered fascinating to people in the West. And I could write my stories, real stories, with humor and tragedy, but within my culture; and people of all types would read them and like them. At least that is what I have found to be the case.
Do you see yourself reflected in the personalities of your characters?
Sometimes, I do. I think each of the characters I've written about share some core beliefs with myself. But I have also written about characters who are quite different from myself. I've even written about characters whose actions and beliefs I disapprove of. Sometimes I worry that people will think that I think and feel this way, when that's not necessarily the case. I can't force my characters to be good, and I wouldn't want to. It would make for very boring reading.
How difficult was it to get published by mainstream publishers?
It was very difficult, but a lot easier than getting published by Muslim publishers. I originally approached Muslim publishers but they were so slow in responding to me, so unorganized and hard to deal with, that I thought, "Forget this" and went to non-Muslim publishers. There was another reason for doing so.
I want to reach Muslim kids in North America. I think that as Muslims we have quite an inferiority complex. In order for these kids to take an author seriously, I think that an author would have to make it within mainstream publishing, not just Muslim publishing. We have to compete with the best of the best out there. We have to show our Muslim kids that we are just as good, and perhaps even better, than anything else that's out there. It's about striving for excellence. Only then will they take what we say seriously.
In terms of competition in mainstream publishing, let me put it this way: Even a small Canadian publisher gets about five thousand manuscripts; that is five thousand stories a year. The publisher might choose to publish three of them. The competition in the children's publishing business is perhaps even more stiff than adult publishing because so many people think children's books are so easy and simple, and they think they can easily toss one off.
Are Islamic themes your forte?
I don't know if you can say that. Islam is the background of my stories. I call it "wallpaper". Just like wallpaper lends a certain atmosphere to a room, Islam lends an atmosphere to my stories. It's part of the "setting", where the story takes place; but I like to think that I write with universal themes. The fact that the themes are also Islamic is a bonus. It's a way to show very effectively what Islam is truly about.
Do you write primarily for a Muslim audience or a general one?
Truth be told, I write for an audience of one: Me. The story has to make it pass my quality control. It has to move me - either to tears or to joy and laughter - before I'll even think of sending it out to be read by others.
Because I write for myself, in a way, I write for everyone. Because deep down, we're more alike than different, and if something makes me laugh or cry, it's got a good chance to evoke such a feeling in someone else.
By the way, my publishers and agent have told me flat out, that I don't only write for Muslims. I write for everyone. I guess they'd be the best judge of that.
Your latest work, King of the Skies, is about the Basant festival in Pakistan. Some Muslims object to this festival saying that it is un-Islamic. How do you respond to such criticism?
The story King of the Skies is not just about Basant. It's about a crippled boy, overcoming his disabilities - about ability overcoming disability. It's about power and mercy. It's about being a good person. All these things are Islamic. From the research I've done, Basant was originally a Hindu festival of spring. It had no religious significance except that it celebrated spring, a season of the year. Now it is a celebration that crosses Hindu/Muslim lines in Pakistan and India. I see nothing wrong with flying kites. It is not forbidden in Islam, although some folks in Pakistan and India do become rather obsessed with it. Anything taken out of moderation is not good, including kite flying.
I think if people stay within the limits of Islam, there's nothing wrong with having a little fun flying some kites on a spring day. By the way, that's one of the reasons the boy in the story puts his kite away. His day is done and it's time to go back to being normal.
What are your future literary projects?
I'm working on two novels right now. One is finished and in the process of negotiation with my agent and publishers. Inshaallah (God willing), it will sell soon. The other is a novel I've been contemplating for over twenty- three years. It's an ambitious project, a historical novel set in Arabia after the Treaty of Hudaibiyah in spring of 629 A.D. It's about a boy who wants to save his sister from being buried alive. In a way I consider it my rebuttal to The Satanic Verses.
Do you plan to write for more mature audiences?
RK: My father once asked me when I was going to grow up and write for adults. I have no idea. This novel that I'm working on right now, the historical one, may be for adult audiences. We will see. Actually all my novels can easily be read and enjoyed by adults. In fact Dahling has been read by many adults.
Rukhsana Khan’s published works
King of the Skies, Scholastic Canada, 2001; Bedtime Ba-A-A-lk, Stoddart Kids, 1998; The Roses in My Carpets, Holiday House, 1998; Dahling, If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile, Stoddart Kids, 1999; Muslim Child, Napoleon Publishing, 1999
Short stories: Fajr, Santa didn't Come, Message International, July and December 1993
Songs: A Little Sadaqa, Thank You Allah, Born to Learn, One Big Family, Where Can My Baby Sister Be? (Sound Vision, Adam's World Videos 5, 6, 7, 8)