Author Interview with Rukhsana Khan

It is my pleasure to interview Rukhsana Khan, an award-winning author and storyteller.  Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she immigrated with her parents and family to Canada at age three.  She is married, has four children, five grandchildren and lives in Toronto. She is the author of 11 books, with others under contract.  Rukhsana says there are few good children’s books about Muslims.  Her goal is to try to humanize Muslims and create more understanding among cultures. She understands what it is like to be bullied as a child. She feels it is important to write multicultural books so kids of all cultures have stories to validate their existence. Wanting Mor, has received a lot international recognition. Rukhsana will travel November 22 to London, as her novel has novel has been nominated for Britain’s Muslim Writer’s Award.

Wanting Mor is based on a true life story.  Where did you find the story and did you know immediately that it was a story you wanted to write?

Wanting Mor was a direct result of another book I wrote called The Roses in My Carpets.  That book was based on a visit with my Afghan refugee foster child in a refugee camp in Peshawar in 1991/2.  With the proceeds of The Roses in my Carpets I sponsored a library in an orphanage in Afghanistan.  Click here to see the new library.   A few years ago they sent me a report on children in crisis and in the report was the story of a girl named ‘Sameela’, whose mother had died during the war, her father got remarried, stepmother didn’t want her so the father took her to the marketplace and left her there.  She ended up living at the orphanage where I sponsored the library.  Actually, it was a story I didn’t want to write at first.  I thought it was too depressing. Then I wrote it as a picture book.  I thought it would be a companion to my Roses in My Carpets book, only from a girl’s perspective.  But it didn’t work as a picture book.  Then one day I was driving down to visit my mom and I heard a girl’s voice say, “I thought she was sleeping.”  That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it means I need to drop all my other projects and write this book right now.  That became the first line in Wanting Mor.

Were you surprised with the success of Wanting Mor?

Yes, I am surprised by the success of Wanting Mor.  When I was writing it I tossed all caution to the wind and I had no idea if it would ever get published.  I only wanted to find out what would happen to this poor girl.

I shuddered at the thought of Jameela going into an orphanage and wondered if that was a good thing.  What are the orphanages like in Afghanistan?

I have never even been inside Afghanistan.  The orphanage in the story is purely from my imagination, and the pictures I’ve seen of the actual orphanage I sponsored.  But knowing the Afghan culture as I do, I felt pretty strongly that I could represent it in an authentic way.

How does the Afghani culture differ from the nearby Pakistani or the Muslim populations of northwest India?

Yes, indeed.  There are actually quite a few differences between the Pakistani, the NW Indian Muslim, and the Afghani cultures.  The Afghans are a bit more secluded from worldly opinions, I think.  Pakistanis are very influenced by the Indian culture and Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry.

I was happy to see that Jameela, has a cleft lip, as it added so much to the story.  I know that India has the highest number of children born with a cleft lip/palate.  Is this a common deformity among children in Afghanistan?

I’m not sure if it’s a huge problem, but it is definitely a problem.  In writing the story I wanted Jameela to be a deep thinker.  And to be so introspective, you have to be set apart in some ways from the norm.  Unfortunately, being poor and abandoned wouldn’t be enough in Afghanistan, so I wanted to give her a slight deformity.  Nothing too big.

What do you want your readers to take away from Wanting Mor and your other books?

Well, when I was writing Wanting Mor I was really struck by how little Jameela required to be happy.  She has hardly any sense of entitlement.  She literally has only the clothes on her back, and sometimes  a comb.  And, she cherishes them and makes the best of her situation.  And yet, she’s very generous.  When she does acquire some money, she used a lot of it on her friend.  I really want readers to take away a good story from Wanting Mor (and all my books).  They all have things you can take away from them, but I try mostly to focus on just telling a good story.

You’ve been writing children’s books for nearly 20 years.  How hard was it for you to establish yourself? 

It’s been extremely hard to establish myself.  In fact, I still don’t feel established.  I’ve always got a lot of pressure on me to write the next book even better.

Why did it take you a while to write about your culture?

When I first began writing, I thought I had to write about “normal” kids.  I grew up on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  I thought if I do well in establishing myself as a good “normal” writer, then eventually I could write stories nearer to my own experience.  I actually didn’t think such cultural stories would be welcome.  Ironically it was editors who often urged me to send them stories about my culture.  They’d jot down little hand-written notes on their rejection letters.

What was your favorite character to write, and what is your favorite book?

Not sure if I have a favorite character.  I put everything I have into all my books, while I’m writing them, and I love ALL my characters and stories.  But, I do have a favorite book.  It’s Wanting Mor.

You are a talented storyteller.  Did you grow up in a family of storytellers?  Was storytelling something encouraged in your family?  Did you encourage your children to tell stories?

Thank you!   Yes.  I can say that I grew up in a family of storytellers, though none of them were paid for their performances.  None of them are professional storytellers.  People who meet my father and mother are often charmed by their storytelling abilities.  They’re almost a comedy tag team.  Very,very funny!  I grew up hearing my father read the Quran (our holy book) to us, and telling us stories of when he was a kid growing up in Pakistan.  My book Silly Chicken is almost entirely from my mom.  She told me a story of this really dumb chicken that her mother (my Nani) had.  Everything in the story happened, except it wasn’t a dog who ate the chicken, it was one of the neighbors.  He was a really mean guy.  He stole the chicken and ate her.  When my grandmother found the chicken’s long legs on his garbage pile, she chased him around and hit him with her shoe.  But when I began writing the story, I changed it to a dog who ate the chicken because it’s less political.  *g*   I have encouraged my children to be storytellers, but they’ve chosen a much more private life.

I know after hearing you speak at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference last August, that you have a wonderful sense of humor.  Do you have a preference in writing humor over something more serious?

I do love humorous books!  And yet my son says I’m better at the tear-jerkers.  Not sure why.  I love both.  It just depends on the story that needs to be told.

Are there any new books in the works that you would like to share?

I’ve been asked by Scholastic Canada, to write a novel based on a character in a short story I wrote for them.  They’ve also asked me to write a historical novel.  I’m working on a sequel  for Wanting Mor, and a story about a girl who goes to Hajj (the big pilgrimage to Mecca).  I’m also working on another picture book idea, something that will be as good as my book Big Red Lollipop, which was chosen by the New York Times as one of the ten best picture books of the year, and won the Charlotte Zolotow and Golden Kite awards for best picture book text.

Patricia:  Thank you so much Rukhsana for this interview!  We hope you win the award for Wanting Mor in London next month, and will look forward to your upcoming books.  Congratulations on your new grandson! 

Khan also is the author of the award-winning the Big Red Lollipop, The Roses in My Carpets, Silly Chicken, King of the Skies, and Ruler of the Courtyard.  Check out Rukhsana Khan’s website for information about all of her books, her blog, articles and school presentations.

 

Copyright (c) 2011,  Patricia Howe Tilton, All Rights Reserved

About Patricia Tiltonhttps://childrensbooksheal.wordpress.comI want "Children's Books Heal" to be a resource for parents, grandparents, teachers and school counselors. My goal is to share books on a wide range of topics that have a healing impact on children who are facing challenges in their lives. If you are looking for good books on grief, autism, visual and hearing impairments, special needs, diversity, bullying, military families and social justice issues, you've come to the right place. I also share books that encourage art, imagination and creativity. I am always searching for those special gems to share with you. If you have a suggestion, please let me know.

14 thoughts on “Author Interview with Rukhsana Khan

  1. Oh My Pat! This was an excellent interview. What an honour to be able to interview Rukhsana. I loved her book “Wanting Mor” and am delighted there is a sequel to follow. Will be looking forward to that one. I was surprised to hear she had never been inside Afghanistan. Rukhsana is an exceptional writer, when I listened to her at her keynote speech and in her workshop at the SCBWI in LA earlier this year, I found her both interesting and full of humour, she is also very direct, and am pleased that editors persuaded her to write about her culture. There is obviously a great need for more of these books so that others, especially the younger generation understand and learn and appreciate the differences and the similarities. Her blog is also very interesting. Well done Pat on such a wonderful interview, and great questions. Thankyou and thankyou Rukhsana.

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    • Diane, you posted the first comment of the interview. It was a privilege to have Rukhsana agree to the interview. I know how much you enjoy her multicultrual books, because of your love of travel and different cultures. Yes, I was delighted to know there will be a sequel. I want to know how Jameela grows into adulthood. I agree that there is a great need for children’s books that help the younger generation understand and appreciate other cultures, and ultimately realize we are more alike than different. They are our future. Oh, Rukhsana read everyone’s comments on my review of Wanting Mor last night. She was pleased and left a comment thanking everyone. Thank you my Kiwi friend!)
      Pat

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  2. Hi Pat and everyone!

    Thank you all for the kind words! And thank you Pat for coming up with such interesting questions.

    By the way, I’m told by my Kabuli sister in law that Afghan culture is way more westernized than Pakistani culture in terms of debauchery and stuff. She also said that the scene in WANTING MOR where Jameela is scandalized at the party her employer is throwing is bang on!

    I’m still working on the sequel for WANTING MOR but at this point, with the rejection of my publisher, it turns out that I’m going to have to pitch it as a separate book.

    I had a lovely conversation with Laurie Halse Anderson in L.A. (please excuse the shameless name dropping! *g*) and she suggested that since the publisher for WANTING MOR had rejected my sequel, to go ahead and change the names and present it as a separate book. And then when I do presentations or talk about it, tell people it’s a sequel.

    So that’s the course that I’ve decided to take.

    I really do hope that people aren’t disappointed with it.

    All the best,

    Rukhsana

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    • Rukhsana,
      I have thoroughly enjoyed my contact with you over recent months. I was so happy when you agreed to do an interview. I am very interested in multicultural stories and share your interest in helping young people better understand all cultures, as it is vital to our future. I know Wanting Mor was liked by those who read the review. And, I know many more will enjoy the interview.

      I have learned a great deal from you, and I am especially pleased that you held your own with the sequel. You always say what is most important to you is telling a good story — how can you settle for less then that,? I’m delighted you talked with Laurie Halse Anderson, and I like her advice. I don’t know how others feel reading your comments, but I respect your integrity and belief in what you have written — a good story.

      Thank you for sharing with us!

      Best.
      Patricia

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  3. Pat, I thought your questions for Rukhsana were excellent, really helping us get more insight into the author, the stories and the culture.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Rukhsana’a replies and was very interested to read of the strong Indian influence in Pakistan and the stronger debauchery in Afghan culture. Her family have clearly also provided her with a wealth of material as well as a great storytelling culture in which to grow up.

    We most certainly need more such stories for all ages of children. Laurie’s advice would seem pertinent for the sequel. Good luck with finding the right publisher for the sequel, Rukhsana.

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    • Joanna, I’m glad you felt the interview helped give you more insigt into Rukhsana, her writing and culture. I had fun working with her and getting to know her better. She is so accessible, and loves a good conversation. Yes, I was surprised with the strong Indian influence in Pakistan. I’m so happy she’s writing about her culture because of her depth of knowledge — even in her picture books which I ar truly wonderful reads for young children. I’m sure she will appreciate your note.

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    • Thank you so much Joanna! I’m awaiting my Kabuli sister in law’s feedback on the book to see where to proceed.

      I really want to make it as good as I can before I send it out to agents.

      All the best,

      Rukhsana

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  4. Rukhsana,
    I am sure sequel or no sequel the second book will be just as riverting as the first one. Like Pat I agree, Laurie Halse Anderson is keen to see your book published. I for one am so pleased you are still going ahead with it.
    Thankyou again for a wonderful and insightful interview. We can learn much from you.
    And again, thankyou Pat 🙂

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  5. At the SCBWI conference yesterday, I looked for Rukhsana’s books but they didn’t have any. I was so sorry, Especially since I had enjoyed this interview and the book review of “Wanting Mor”.
    Thank you for highlighting this book and author. Next time I have an order to fill at Amazon I will remember this.

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    • Am so glad you enjoyed the book review and interview with Rukhsana. My library didn’t have it, so they ordered it for me, since they carried four of her picture books. I didn’t tell them I owned it — I just felt it belonged on their bookshelves! It’s a good way to get the library to purchase books you want. Appreciate your support and look forward to further contact. Hope you had a great weekend at the SCBWI — and I hope you write about it.

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