Rukhsana Khan is a children’s author and storyteller. She has written many books
some of which are published by Lee & Low, Viking, and Scholastic Inc. Her
picture book Big Red Lollipop was awarded Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text in 2011. Rukhsana lives in Toronto with her husband and family. You can find out more about Ruhksana on her website or following her on Youtube or Twitter.
Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain.
1. If you feel comfortable with this question, how do you identify yourself? (i.e. religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual identity, gender, etc.)
I am a Pakistani-Canadian Muslim woman.
2. On your website, you talk about books in your childhood being an escape from what was going on in your world, like bullying and other issues. What books resonated with you at that time? In times of difficulty, what books do you escape to now?
There are so many books that I escaped to when I was young! My favorites were: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Mara, Daughter of the Nile. In times of difficulty I still love to read Watership Down, The Lord of the Rings, The Blue Castle, Mara, Daughter of the Nile and Moorchild by Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
3. When did you decide you didn’t just want to be a reader, but also wanted to write? What inspired you to become a writer? Did you receive a lot of encouragement from your family when you decided to pursue writing?
These questions are answered in other interviews I’ve given but I’ll try to summarize.
It was my grade eight teacher who first said that I was a writer. I’d handed in my creative writing journal and he wrote me an encouraging note. Up till that point in time I never even thought that writing could be an occupation. I come from a very non-literary background.
Books were so important to me, they literally saved my life during all the years that I was being bullied, I thought it would be the coolest thing in the world to grow up and write the kind of books I loved to read, that might give other kids hope.
Initially I received encouragement from my family, but there came a time when that sort of collapsed. A close family member told me flat out, “You’ll never get published! Look at the way you dress!” and when I relayed that message to other family members they agreed that it was against all odds. This was actually at a time when I had already received my first acceptance and was waiting for my first book to be published. So I just sat on the news. When the book was published the same family member who’d expressed doubt was one of the most proud of my accomplishments.
Now my family is quite proud of me, although there can be a bit of a resentful undertone to their pride.
4. What books have made the largest impact on the kinds of books you write or want to write?
Probably the historical fiction I loved. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is about the Salem Witch Trials. I love books that delve into other cultural ways of thinking.
5. In one of your author talks you mention your family moving to Canada to give you more opportunities, why did they choose Canada?
My father stood on the road in London outside the U.S. and Canadian embassies. The U.S. embassy had a statue of an eagle that looked ready to pounce. The Canadian embassy had a leaf on its flag. My dad chose Canada.
6. You are a prominent pioneer in writing mainstream published books that feature Muslim characters, and you’ve mentioned it took 8 years to publish your first book. Can you talk about your experiences, and touch upon what it was like as a Muslim female in the publishing industry at the time?
It’s been a fascinating journey. At times I’ve been told that I got published because of my ethnicity! That I was ‘flavor of the month’ and sometimes those kinds of comments can hurt but for the most part I don’t take them seriously. I try to remind myself that it’s not about me. It’s about the story. I want to share stories that shake me to my core and that will shake the reader to their core, open up their minds, make them see things from a different perspective. Sometimes I write the stories in a palatable enough way that they become published. Other times I flap around like a fish out of water struggling to convey what I’m trying to say. It’s a very frustrating field. I’ve always had fits and starts in my publishing career. There was a time, many years in fact, when I never went without a book coming out. At the moment I do have a book coming out, but getting to that point when there was nothing coming down the pike was very scary. This is a very precarious industry. It’s easy to feel irrelevant. But I’ve been working hard on a number of stories and am hopeful that I can work them into something the world might want to read.
7. We talk a lot about windows and mirrors for marginalized readers/reader’s of color. Where and when did you first see yourself in literature? We recognize that identity is intersectional, so please do list multiple titles, if applicable, that coincide with your identity. As a child, do you remember wanting books with characters that looked like you?
Hmm, this is hard. As a kid I don’t think I found any books where I really ‘saw’ myself in the literature. I identified totally with Anne in Anne of Green Gables up until I read a later book in her series where L.M. Montgomery described ‘those heathen Mohammedans’ and I realized she was talking about me! I was furious. Every once in a while there would be passing hostile references that jarred me so totally. I started searching for my identity in books about ‘brown’ people. I gravitated to books about Native Indians and Black people. I remember reading a book called North to Freedom about the Underground Railroad that really moved me because I learned that it had been illegal for Black people to learn how to read. That made me all the more determined to read. And I read the horribly racist book Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw too. I didn’t realize it was racist! But I did like the fact that he was a spiritual person. Mara, in Mara, Daughter of the Nile was everything I wanted to be! Beautiful, witty, bright, clever and she lived an adventurous life as a double agent in ancient Egypt! The first book that I really and truly identified with was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I absolutely LOVED that book! It inspired me! I wanted books with characters that looked like me, of course! But really it was more about the story!
8. Do you feel that books featuring Muslims are being created and marketed in a positive way? Are there trends you like or hope will change?
There’s been a number of excellent books about Muslims that have emerged and a number of not so good books too. I’m so glad that so many Muslims are getting published, sharing their stories, illustrating how dynamic and diverse the Muslim community is. There’s also been *ahem* a LOT of books about jinns and that literally scares me. I completely understand the temptation of writing about them. They make great literary devices! But I’m of the somewhat old fashioned camp that believes that these kinds of unseen forces are best not meddled with. I’ve got my literary feet firmly planted in reality.
9. Of your books, which is your favorite? Which book do you think resonates with your community most? With children?
Hands down my favorite book of mine is WANTING MOR. I do believe it resonates with my community, but not as much as BIG RED LOLLIPOP. That is my most famous book! Audiences from 3-83 laugh at Big Red Lollipop!
10. Have you had to edit or make changes in your books? Do you feel like Muslim writers are pressured to include or not include specifics about Muslims or Muslim communities in their narratives?
Yes! Absolutely! I try to write truth uncensored but it seems as though even the truth must be written in a ‘palatable’ way–a manner that feeds into established norms and customs.
11. What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace?
Oh gosh! So many! There’s Mommy’s Khimar, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, Saints and Misfits, Ayesha at Last…in fact why don’t I just direct you to my Muslim Booklist. These are all books I’ve reviewed and approve of. It’s woefully out of date though, a lot of the newer books haven’t been added yet because there’s just so many of them!
12. What are you working on next?
I’m working on a bunch of projects! There’s a historical novel set in 1788-1829. I’m writing a graphic memoir. I’ve got picture book ideas as well circulating!
13. You were recently part of the Muslimah Writers Online Summit, helping Muslim women through the writing process and getting published. What are other ways to help support Muslim authors, agents, editors, librarians and those involved in creating Muslim literature?
I think the best way to help Muslim authors, agents, editors and librarians is to BUY BOOKS! There will be no Muslim literature if Muslims don’t buy books and unfortunately many Muslim parents (and other parents as well) have ceased valuing books enough to create libraries for their children. They’ll plunk down fifty, sixty dollars on the latest video game but they won’t put down their hard earned money on a book that can actually last a lot longer. (I have books that I bought for my kids that I am now reading to my grandkids! Good books last a VERY long time!!!)
By creating a demand for them, publishers and the publishing industry will produce them. It’s as simple as that.
14. We have talked about you being one of the first Muslim authors in children’s books. What has it looked like from your perspective seeing more Muslim voices entering the field? Does it look like what you had hoped for? What do you hope it looks like for Muslims in the coming years?
I am both thrilled and at times alarmed by all the Muslim voices entering the field. I have seen novels designed to capitalize on the curiosity behind Ramadan where a girl starts fasting because she wants to lose weight to look good in a bikini. I’m not kidding. There is a book out there about that!
Muslims don’t realize that the books they write can do just as much damage as good! They can spread a lot of misinformation! And that worries me.
Now of course the Muslim world is not a monolithic entity. But there are many people getting published solely because they can tick off the Muslim box. I call them ‘career’ Muslims. Basically they’re capitalizing on their Muslim identity to make a quick buck.
I don’t mean to be judgmental, but if you look at Islam as a cultural phenom, an ‘identity’ or hashtag and you want to create a ‘rah rah cis boom bah We are Muslims! Yay!’ kind of book, well I find that incredibly crass and disgusting.
I’ve long ago come to the conclusion that being Muslim isn’t intrinsically better than being any other religion. And in fact religion itself is just a set of ideas and dogmas. People will apply those ideas in various ways. Islam at its essence is a set of ideas. Islam is basically the idea of attaining peace through submission to the will of God! And Muslims will apply those ideas to a varying and largely inconsistent and even at times hypocritical degree.
I would like the Muslim stories to be about more than just ‘identity’. I mean who really cares if a person is Muslim or Hindu or Christian or Jew or whatever?
The stories need to be deeper than that!
Muslims are people, like any other group, and all people need to be judged on an individual basis.
I find the human condition fascinating! And I’d love to see more stories that delve into the intricacies of human nature and our capacity for good and evil, hypocrisy and altruism and the character will approach all that differently depending on their faith or lack of it.
15. How do you hope your work can impact the Muslim community? How do you hope your work can impact perceptions of Muslims? Have you seen an impact already in both of these areas?
I have always wanted my work to add to the conversation, to the grand human discourse of ideas! That might sound pompous but I don’t mean it to, I really am serious. If your book doesn’t say something of benefit to the understanding of the human condition I mean, really, why bother? I’d like to show that Muslims are human–that’s important because right now we are being vilified by an industry that pours lots of money trying to prove we don’t deserve to live. So if my stories can alter that perception by showing our humanity, and making someone identify with a story about a Muslim, even if it’s a girl whose little sister swipes her lollipop, then that’s good! I find all my stories have to have a deeper message or *gasp* a moral to them. It’s just the way I’m wired.
I have seen an impact in that all kinds of kids have enjoyed my books.
16. How did you decide to write for youth (audience) and what is your main message to them? Are there any word of winsome that you would like to pass on to young writers?
I’ve always found young audiences the most open-minded. And I’m really, really worried about them! Because kids are being buffeted with all types of propaganda in the guise of literature these days and I think it will be detrimental in the long run. My main message to young audiences is QUESTION EVERYTHING! Be your own devil’s advocate! Try to see the other side of the story! Don’t take anything for granted! Keep your mind open and collect all kinds of data, listen to those you disagree with–you will need to find a way to get along with them in the world too. Some people are write-offs. They’re not interested in getting along, but the vast majority of the people can be reasoned with! Listen to what motivates them. Find the common ground–there is always common ground! And try to think of ways where everybody gets what they want–real win-win situations. I fear the rigidity in people’s attitudes that is happening these days.
17. What is something that you would like your readers to know about you?
I love to laugh! I know I must sound like I’m a very serious person, but I can also be a very silly person! I will crack up like a four year old if you tell me a good fart joke! And I don’t just read literature! I read EVERYTHING and ANYTHING! I like humor and I like things that make me think. And I’m always CURIOUS! I want to figure things out and even though I keep trying, I know I probably never will really really get things figured out, but isn’t it fun to try?
18. Most of your books have been illustrated by non-Muslim illustrators. How did you work with them and your editors to make sure that cultural depictions were accurate and sensitive?
Most of my illustrators were chosen by the publisher. I had very little say about them. One author I admire a great deal said it’s important to step back once you’ve written a picture book and allow the illustrator to do their part without interference. Picture books are collaborations! I liken them to a relay race where the story is the baton. The author runs the first lap with the baton, hands it over to the illustrator who does their lap and then the illustrator hands it over to the publisher to take it from there! I don’t tell the illustrator and publisher how to run their lap and they don’t tell me how to run mine. But together we can win the race. In terms of cultural depictions I always had the chance to give input to make sure things are accurate.
19. Reading in King for a Day, it seems the dynamic would be different if he were not in a wheelchair. Was it a deliberate choice to feature Malik using a wheelchair?
Oh, absolutely it was a deliberate choice to feature Malik in a wheelchair! To me it’s the whole point of the book! Here’s this boy who is viewed as incapacitated in many ways, and yet he’s the BEST king! He’s got all the best qualities of any ruler! I talk about this in my book talk tutorial about this book here.
20. Many of your books feature familial relationships and a problem that needs to be solved. How do you choose a conflict and weave the story around it?
Often I just start writing and the story takes me there. So much of writing is an unconscious unplanned process, at least for me. I might have some general idea of the themes I’m trying to explore but for the most part, I just see where the characters take me. I’m sorry, I know that sounds weird but it really is the way it works. Whenever I try to ‘plan’ the journey too hard the story comes out forced and stilted.