Rukhsana Khan, the author of Wanting Mor (November 2013), is interviewed by Samina Mishra, writer and film-maker.
SM: What kind of research did you need to do to get the context right and to create the characters and get their voices right?
RK: Honestly, so much of the writing came down to what it would feel like to be that vulnerable. In order to do that I had to tap into my own feelings of vulnerability that I’ve encountered in my life experiences.
I did have to research addiction though. Fortunately there is no addiction problems within my family so what I did was watch reality shows on addiction, in particular one called Intervention. It’s a show that deals with addicts and tries to get them to rehabilitate themselves. The interesting thing was I found one common element to all the addicts: they were all very self-centered people. It was all about their need to get high, they didn’t care that their families were crying their eyes out.
I also had to create a backstory as to how the family got to the point they were at because knowing Afghan culture the way I do, the family structure would usually prevent a man from doing something like this. Other family members would step in and take the girl, so I had to figure out where the family was? Why did the father lose touch with reality and turn to addictive substances to cope? And in reading about Afghanistan I came upon numerous instances where American forces had bombed weddings because of the tradition of shooting into the air when locals are happy. The American pilots had thought they were under enemy fire and come in and bombed the area, killing men, women and children all dressed up for a wedding. Very tragic! And I thought this is what happened to Jameela’s family.
SM: Your bio note says you write about Muslim themes. What would you categorise as Muslim themes and how do they intersect with more universal themes?
RK: I would disagree with that bio actually. I write about universal themes that just happen to contain Muslim characters. Maybe that’s what they’re trying to say.
I don’t actually differentiate between Muslim themes and universal themes. To me people are people, but that said there is a dearth of literature about Muslims that actually accurately reflects our reality, so as a Muslim, I try to fill that gap.
SM: What are the challenges of writing stories that are set in marginalized contexts?
RK: Ooh, good question! I think the biggest challenge is the ‘so what?’ factor. People in mainstream culture tend to get so caught up with their own lives, it’s not that they don’t care about the marginalized, it’s more that they’re ‘out of sight, out of mind’. And when they think of something a marginalized person is going through their first thought is, ‘So what?’ Because they have their own problems.
What you have to do when writing about the marginalized is present the story in a powerful way, so that it passes the ‘so what?’ factor. And you have to make the marginalized, especially those of a different culture, react and behave in ways that are accessible to mainstream cultures. For example, when writing Wanting Mor, I had to show that Jameela’s attachment to her porani and her faith were a result of her mother’s attachment to them. And so as the story progressed the reader can accept these different cultural aspects of Jameela’s identity.
One of the things that has surprised me the most is the universal appeal of Jameela’s story. It’s now been published in several different countries, in different languages including Italian and Japanese. In Italy it sold so well that I was invited there in 2009 to launch the book. Japanese readers said to the translator that Japanese culture used to contain a lot of the same principles that Jameela adheres to, but many people have abandoned them. So they could relate to them too.
Last March I was invited to tour Alaska as their featured author in their Spirit of Reading Program. I met Inupiat kids in Barrow, a town on the Bering sea, only a few hundred miles south of the North Pole, who loved Jameela’s story. You know what their connection to Wanting Mor was? The fact that so many of these kids, teens, had to deal with parents who were addicted to drugs as well!
SM: Wanting Mor emphasizes virtue, in action, thought, even dress. Do you see this concept of virtue as a universal one? Can readers from different contexts connect with it or engage with it in different ways?
RK: Absolutely! Just because modesty and virtue seem to be ‘old-fashioned’ doesn’t mean that it’s still not a universal concept. I think in reading Wanting Mor, many readers return to principles they probably grew up with, admonishments they heard from elders or from religious authorities in their communities. People admire modest and virtuous people, and they understand the struggle to adhere to virtuous principles.
SM: In Wanting Mor, one gets a sense of a ravaged city without your dwelling on it specifically. We also get a sense of people ravaged by the context they have lived through without your specifically pointing that out. So, what is the relationship between story and context in your writing process?
RK: I think Jameela’s story could easily be told within a different context. But the Afghan war backdrop gives her story a poignancy and shows that her circumstances are completely beyond her control. Ironically that’s one of the reasons why she clings so firmly to her faith because it’s one of the few ‘possessions’ she has. In referring to the ravaged city I wanted to give a sense of a completely dysfunctional society. Afghan culture is extremely family oriented. For a father to abandon his daughter in the way that he does is a huge blot on a man’s character! It would have been almost impossible for him to do so with the family structure intact. People would have known about it and called Jameela’s father on such behavior! But with the war, and the bombing and the scattering of the family elements, the social pressure that would have prevented Jameela’s father from doing such a thing are gone, and for some people, social pressure is the only thing pushing them to fulfill their family responsibilities and doing what’s right.
So in writing Wanting Mor I had to establish the societal context.
Jameela’s father is the way he is because of society’s dysfunction. And I think every problem Jameela faces can be traced back in some way to the war so in a larger sense, Wanting Mor is really a story of how war devastates children.
And yet, the story is universal because such family dysfunction is not only occurring in wartorn areas. A lot of children are being abandoned by their fathers.
SM: Who do you see as the readers of the book? And do you have them in mind while you are writing? Or is this something that you realize once the story has been written?
RK: I’ve been taken to task by at least two people for referring to this as a children’s book. One of the people was radio host of CBC radio show The Next Chapter. You can hear the interview here: http://www.cbc.ca/thenextchapter/2010/04/april-511-2010.html She asked me why Wanting Mor is a children’s book, when she, as an adult, thoroughly enjoyed it?
And speaking to people, a LOT of adults have read and enjoyed the story! But yes, I do believe it’s a children’s book. The protagonist is a child and it really does delve into her perspective. But honestly, while writing the story I never think of the audience. I wrote Wanting Mor simply to find out myself how this poor girl would deal with such a betrayal.
Sometimes I think of the audience, but mostly I’m just trying to write a good story that I love and I think about what age group might like it, later.
SM: What do you like to read? Please share some of your favourite writers and books.
RK: I read everything!
My day feels weird if I haven’t read at least a few news articles online. I’m extremely curious! And I love all kinds of books!
Some of my favourite writers and books? Oh boy! Where do I start!?
You can check out my favourite reads on my website: http://www.rukhsanakhan.com
A partial list:
Mara, Daughter of the Nile, Moorchild, by Eloise McGraw
No Great Mischief, by Alistair McLeod
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
Jacob have I Loved, The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Huckleberry Finn, Puddinhead Wilson, by Mark Twain
Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen
Shadow of a Bull, by Maia Wojciechowska
The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth Speare
Banner in the Sky, by James Ramsey Ullman
Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit
Monster, by Walter Dean Myers
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White
The Hero and the Crown, and The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley
Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo
Rebecca, by Daphne Dumaurier
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, cowritten by Alex Haley
Mrs Firsby and the Rats of NIHM, by Robert C O’Brien
I have a few lists of favourite books but to really hear my thoughts check out my youtube reviews here: http://www.youtube.com/user/MsRukhsanaKhan
I’m planning on uploading more book review/tutorials of all my favourite books as time allows.
SM: Do you do school visits? What is the kind of response that your work gets from children in Canada?
I do LOTS of school visits! I visit about 80 schools a year and tour all over the world. I love doing school visits because I’m also a storyteller!
The response I receive is phenomenal! My favourite audience are teenagers because although a lot of authors find them scary and intimidating, I love that they think deeper and I can do so much more with them!