Rukhsana Khan is the author of many award-winning picture books and novels. Her novel Wanting Mor is published by Duckbill.
If you ever watched the movie Inception, with Leonardo DiCaprio, you’ll recognise that this blog post is a bit of an inception because it’s self-aware.
I mean how do you NOT write about how cool it is that your Indian publisher is asking you to write a blog post, and you’re writing it at your desk on the other side of the world for readers you hope will find what you have to say worth reading?
And with the rise of India as one of the BRIC countries, with the rise of the middle class and the thirst for knowledge that makes such a rise possible, I thought that if I were reading this post, I’d want it not to waste my time!
Honestly I’d be wondering, how did you do it? Answer me that!
How did you write a story that reaches beyond the borders of your homeland to readers in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Italy, America and now India?
And the simple answer is it always starts with a dream! And each year the dream seems to get a little bigger.
When I was an awkward bullied school girl I immersed myself in books to survive a pretty brutal childhood.
I never thought of the stories I read ever having been ‘written’ by anyone.
I read them because they swept me away!
When I read them I could be someone else, I could escape the problems of my daily life and actually, now that I think about it, immerse myself in the problems of a fictional character with whom I identified so strongly that his or her struggles were my struggles, long after the book was done!
They were friends I carried with me, so that in some ways I didn’t feel so alone. At least not inside.
To grow up and write stories required the belief that I had something interesting to say, something to add to the collective wisdom of the whole. And like the old story of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer whose biggest embarrassing distinguishing feature became an asset for him, my South Asian identity that I had so shrunk from all my life growing up around white people, became precisely what a lot of publishers wanted me to write about.
It took me eight years to get my first story published, and twenty-four years till this day when I’m writing this blog post for my first South Asian publisher!
When I filled out the online application form for my Indian visa they asked me to list all the countries I have traveled to within the last ten years.
I ran out of room!
And the interesting thing to me is that all the countries (U.S., South Africa, China, Turkey, Mexico, Denmark, Singapore (3 x), Malaysia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the U.K.) were countries I visited on business or for research as a published author and storyteller!
And now, God willing, I will add India to that list!
But how do you go from being a poor immigrant child to having twelve books published and international success?
It starts with reading and curiosity.
But it helps to have a very authoritarian type of South Asian father!
My father always controlled how much TV we watched. Thank God he was constantly telling us to, “Shut that stupid thing off!”
Books, on the other hand, were sneaky forms of entertainment.
They required no electricity and they were easy to hide!
I’d make a little nest in my bedroom closet complete with a stash of books, and I’d read and read and read! And when my mom or my sister would come looking for me, popping into the bedroom to give me some chore to do, I’d have closed the closet door so they couldn’t see me, and when they were gone I’d open it back and continue reading.
My father read us scripture every day. It was written in old English, with all the thees and thous, and he made me and my older sister look up words that we were unfamiliar with.
I considered it torture at the time!
But … it did give me a vocabulary!
And when we inevitably studied Shakespeare I was one of the few kids in the class who could actually understand it.
I began seriously writing in my late twenties and it was very hard! Very awkward, and there were plenty of times that I thought of quitting. But I had a dream, and I had the nerve to think, “What do those great authors have that I don’t? Didn’t they all just pull those stories out of their imaginations? So why can’t I?”
It meant going deeper. Getting in touch with all my feelings and instincts when things are happening around me and asking, ‘Why?’, ‘Why do I feel this way?’, “How did this scenario play out so that I think and feel the things I do?” and then trying to recreate that process on a page with nothing to aid me but different combinations of words from the twenty-six letters of the alphabet.
I learned that the aim in writing is to get the reader to forget they’re reading. To engross them so much in what is happening to the characters you’ve imagined that they actually forget they’re not actually real flesh and bone, but made up of words on the page!
In some ways it’s like an artist painting a picture that is so amazing you forget who and where you are for an instant and just stare and stare! Trying to figure out what they’re really saying.
(I felt like that one time when I went to the Art gallery and saw an early Picasso of some peasants in a snowy field, bent over carrying wood. I could feel how cold it was and how desperate they were! And that painting still haunts me to this day!)
That’s what a writer tries to do with their words.
It ain’t easy!
Now, after so many years of practicing my craft, I have various theories on putting my sentences together. And always always I strive for clarity. Clarity and emotion. Good writing is clear writing!
It can be very frustrating when the words don’t cooperate. It can be very frustrating when you’re not getting your point across.
But when it works … it’s fantastic!
And when you’re invited to Italy to launch the Italian version of Wanting Mor there (which they called Cenerentola a Kabul) and you’re in a café in Bologne talking to a librarian who said that your book moved her in a way that she’d never felt before! It is worth every hardship you ever suffered!
And when you’re up in Alaska talking to native audiences and the kids can relate to Jameela because they have parents like hers … again, it’s amazing!
And of course when you get asked to write a blog post from your publisher on the other side of the world, in India, the part of the world where you were born, it’s like Wow!
And if you never let up with the curiosity and the delving deep with the emotions stuff, if you are determined to keep on trying, keep on working on your craft, then you have this feeling that you’re only getting started and things will only get better and better!