One-on-One with Author, Rukhsana Khan

Meet Toronto based Rukhsana Khan, author of Bedtime Ba-a-a-lk, Ruler of the Courtyard, Muslim Child, The Roses in my Carpet, King of the Skies, Dahling If You Luv Me Please Smile and Silly Chicken. The woman is a cause for celebration! Not only is she a mainstream and immensely readable children’s writer but her stories are about Muslims and their causes. She provides young Muslims with characters they can identify with and at the same time offers non-Muslims a better understanding of their Ramadan observing, Jumaah praying, halal eating, hijab/ jilbab wearing neighbors! Her stories range from heartbreaking ( Roses…) to the wacky (Silly Chicken, Ruler of the Courtyard).

Rukhsana has wanted to be a writer since she was thirteen. And today that is what she does full-time. ( Did I hear someone just say ‘Never give up on a dream? )“ I write books about Muslims that are mainstream in nature. They're for everybody, not just Muslim. I've built up quite a following within the Canadian publishing industry,” she says.

“Basically being an author to me means thinking in non-linear terms. Most Muslims are very good at linear thinking, and learning, but my books are about non-linear thinking. There are definitely messages and morals in all my stories, but they tend to be interwoven into the plot.”

The response to Rukhsana’s books has been overwhelmingly positive. “I've had some pretty amazing experiences in the seven years I've been published. I've had a LOT of emails including one from a thirteen year old boy in Alabama who wanted to become Muslim after he read “Muslim Child” (thirteen times). When I asked him why, he said it just seemed like such a beautiful way to live. I sent him a book on how to pray and a prayer mat and a few other things. He was so cute!” Rukhsana has a treasure trove of stories like that one.

“Dahling, If You Luv Me, Will You Please, Please Smile,” her third book, was rated by one reader as a novel for every middle school and high schooler, growing up in the West. It’s a novel that captures the American/Canadian Muslim experience while portraying how each of us deal with problems that range from wanting to fit in to having to contend with friends with big breasts! And she manages it went resorting to School Marm mindset or manners. It’s the protagonist, Zainab’s, struggle that young adult readers will identify with. Her decisions are made within the framework of her values and that truly makes for a thought-provoking read, says another reader.

“When my third book came out, my novel, I was with my husband at his business booth at this festival called Word on the Street, when a black teen came by. She picked up my novel, “Dahling”, and said, ‘You know, I loved this book!’ I thanked her. Her mom was with her and she said, ‘No, you don't understand. She really loved that book. It's the first book nobody ever had to force her to finish.’ The black teen was nodding. I felt flabbergasted. I was so surprised. Then she asked me if I was working on other stuff. She'd gone to look for any other novels I'd written but couldn't find any. I told her I was working on another novel. I'm still working on it, but honestly, I was scared whether she'd find it disappointing.” Err.. Rukhsana..Chill girl. I’m sure it’ll rock!

Same book, different incident. “I was invited to a preppy private girl's school in a very well-to-do neighborhood. I was expecting the girls to be bored little snobs. But on the contrary, they were some of the nicest, most sincerely interested students I'd ever seen. The girls were in high school, and they were asking in depth questions about me, my writing and especially about the novel. One girl in particular… had obviously read the book and her questions were very well thought out. When I got home, she emailed me and told me that she'd actually pretty much given up on novels until she read mine. She found it to be 'true'.” Wow!

“I've been lots of different schools presenting. I went to one school in a posh suburb of Toronto where there was a real air of tension in the grade eight group I was presenting to. Then this black boy came in, wearing a bandana and baggy jeans tied low in that rapper style….”.

I was just about to begin when that black kid got up and left the room. I asked the preppy young girl who was … to introduce me, ‘Where is he going?’ She said, ‘I don't know. They probably asked him to leave. He's bad!’

I told her I hoped he'd come back. She just looked at me doubtfully. He did come back.

I started my presentation on my picture book “The Roses in My Carpets”, and when I began describing how I wanted to be white as a kid and the various things me and my sisters tried to lighten our skin, that black child … in the back yelled out, ‘YEAH! YEAH!’ All the kids whipped around and looked at him and he was still gesturing and shouting, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ And I thought, ‘Subhanallah!’ He'd been through the same thing!” Awwww…sweeeet!

Many of Rukhsana’s books have nominated and/or won national and international awards. She even has one of the top agents in the North American writing field representing her work. That means that Rukhsana writes a story and her agent shows it to numerous publishers and eventually sells it to the one who offer Rukhsana the highest payment for her story.

Since she’s been published Ms. Khan has had some strange experiences too. “I've actually had Pakistanis email me asking me to match them up with a 'beautiful' girl so they can immigrate to Canada. I've also received numerous emails from people who can't write or spell, asking me to collaborate and write a bestseller, and split the profits. I told them: ‘Why don't you write it yourself? That way you can keep all the money.’ ” LOL.

What is it like being a hijabi author? “I felt a little self-conscious at first, wearing hijab, but I've actually found it to be an advantage. I attended numerous writing conferences and workshops, meeting editors and networking. As a result of the hijab, the editors always remembered me and were intrigued, wanting me to submit my work.”

“Editors tend to be on the liberal end of the spectrum. Very open-minded and tolerant people. I've experienced nothing but respect from all the various editors and publishers I've worked with. It was different with the Muslim publishers I initially approached. They wouldn't give me the time of day.” Hmm… I wonder what THAT’s about?

“I'm often invited to schools with significant Muslim populations because they see me as validating their experience. Especially in Canada there's a real drive to be inclusive and tolerant of other cultures, so I'm often brought in for that purpose. I'd often have the kids laughing and engaged for my whole presentation. Then the Muslim kids would come up to me afterwards and tentatively ask, ‘Are you Muslim?’

I used to get so surprised. I'd laugh and say, ‘Of course!’ The Muslim kids would grin, stand a little taller and say, ‘I'm Muslim too!’ But thinking on it later, I realized that they'd never really met a funny Muslim.” True, true.

Often, the teachers were changed by Rukhsana’s presentation even more than the children. “Because even though we've got such a multicultural drive in the educational field here, many teachers don't expect much from multicultural authors. I mean, they don't expect them to be entertaining and thought provoking. And I've often sensed a bit of hostility or sometimes apathy from some teachers who've invited me. It used to make me feel resentful, but I've learned not to write them off so quickly.”

“Often the same teachers will come up to me after the performance and say, ‘Wow. That was really good!’ I'm often tempted to say, ‘Well yeah!’ But I don't. I just say, ‘Thanks.’ It's often those very teachers who were so hostile and apathetic, who end up becoming some of my biggest advocates.

“I am a children's writer because I love children's books,” she says. And as a mother to three girls and a boy she has plenty of memories to cull from for stories for her books. Her oldest daughter is twenty-one, her twin daughters are eighteen and her son is eleven. She does have a novel geared towards adults in the works but plans to remain a predominantly children's writer. Is that a hurray I hear from Muslim children around the world?

To learn more visit: www.rukhsanakhan.com

Keep Housing Affordable In Naperville, Downers Grove, Say Residents

Together Each of us Achieves More
By Amy Lawless

"Action springs not from thought, but from readiness for responsibility."
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich German theologian (1906-1945)

The cost of housing is sky-rocketing and in effect, squeezing out the middle class – our teachers, policemen, taxi drivers and every day working people. What has been lacking, until recently, is organized political will to either pressure or support elected officials to take action. However, under the guidance of DuPage United, since June 2006, a team of residents from Naperville began to explore the issue of affordable housing specific to Naperville. A team of residents in Downers Grove did too. Lake County United and United Power for Action and Justice in Cook County are also working on the issue in their respective counties.

The Naperville and Downers Grove teams used a number of strategies after they had researched the issue. This included dozens of community meetings, many education sessions on housing, presenting the research at city council meetings, and requesting the city council to direct city staff to work with them on this issue. The Naperville team, for instance, met with each member on the city council to educate them and build support. The leaders also sought support from the Naperville Chamber of Commerce, who agree that affordable housing is a workforce development issue. The City of Naperville had never directed staff to spend time on this issue and did not see affordable housing as a priority. However, as a result of these efforts the mayor and council have voted to have affordable housing as a priority for their Strategic Initiative Plan for 2007, which means this issue is now a priority for the city.

As someone once said, the word Team could very well be an acronym for Together Each of us Achieves More Interested individuals, organizations and mosques are requested to join the effort. Please contact Don Derrow (donderrow@wideopenwest.com) in Naperville, and John Hazard (hazardj@comcast.net) in Downers Grove, Lake County United ( Kitty Cole 847-735-0418, ColeKitty@comcast.net) and United Power for Action and Justice in Cook County ( Stephen Roberson, (708) 386-6102).

About the Writer: Amy Lawless is a lead organizer with DuPage United.

Not Your Mothers Movie Review

I am a writer because I also happen to be an insomniac… at least the nights I do not fall asleep at 9 p.m. sharp. Tonight, is not one of those early nights, and I have actually had to pull myself out from under warm blankets to quite the thoughts running through my head. Downloading them in MS Word normally works better than a glass of hot milk or a shower.

My days, however, have been going well. They’ve been marked by some realizations that have had a positive impact. Sunday, March 4, 2007 I’d stepped out for brunch with some activists friends. (We’re calling ourselves American Muslimah Activists (AMA), or so I think.) “I’ll be back in an hour and a half,” I said to Farhat as I left him with the kids. No resistance, no questions. Same scenario at 4:00 p.m. that evening. I wanted to see ‘Blood Diamond’ before it left the cinemas, and needed my movie fix, as well. ( I am a movie junkie.) I knew the children had something to eat for dinner. With a quick good- bye, I left hubby with the kids. With no servant, rare is the day that he and I watch a movie together in the cinema. Squelching my guilt at leaving the kids again, I told myself I needed to seize the moment and actually do what I wanted to do. That bit of advice to myself is precious because I don’t know how to have ‘relaxed’ fun. I write for fun. I am an activist for fun. I email for fun. Plus, I am an expert at making myself miserable thinking of the really ‘fun’ stuff I want to do, without actually making the time or effort to get it done.

As for Blood Diamond…. Well, I went to watch a movie and I came away with new eyes. That $4.50 I spent on the ticket did more for me than a series of sessions with a therapist would do. It left me without even a fraction of a reason to complain about my life. How dare I…, I who have health, food, heat on cold winter nights, peace and security,… how dare I complain? The kind of terror chronicled in “Blood Diamond” is the everyday reality of millions, both in Africa and elsewhere.

Leaving the theatre, I realized how I’d become the person who notices only the black dot on a white piece of paper. I saw clearly, that no matter how good things were getting, my focus was on the one or two things that were less than perfect, and that colored my entire perspective of how my life was. I returned home, actually wishing I was more pleasant and happy like my husband, instead of the high-strung, grump that I am by default. Talk about paradigm shifts.

Finding fault with him and being dissatisfied in general, I saw, had become second nature. This when, MashaAllah, MashaAllah, things have never been better. Yes, he can be the kind to put himself first, but he is also the kind who doesn’t gripe and groan, if his wife wants to leave the kids with him and go to see friends, or a movie. He is also the kind who will do the laundry and take out the garbage. How had I forgotten to value the good things in my life, the good things about my spouse? How I had not seen that it would make me a happier person, if I could begin to truly appreciate all that met my needs in my relationship with him? How had I never, ever seen that it would do me good to learn a thing or two about attitude from him? And I told him as much, much to his shock. I sincerely apologized for being Mrs. Grumpy so regularly, instead of being Mrs. Farhat Ali Khan.

Haranguing the kids, I realized, had become another hobby. Instead of talking to them nicely, and asking of them politely, and punishing them in moderation if they didn’t listen, I nagged, nagged, nagged. That produced no results, leaving me the archetypal bitter, angry woman.

Blood Diamond mirrored many parts of the world, as they exist today. Darfur is not some far off concoction. It’s a living breathing people being made homeless, living in fear. Babies, women, kids, men are killed as a matter of fact, while others die of starvation and diseases, even as I write this minute. Bosnia, wasn’t some piece of fiction. Boys and men were slaughtered by the thousands. Palestine is littered with cluster bombs, just as Afghanistan is a bed of landmines. It’s no secret. “One of the most deadly legacies of the 20th century is the use of landmines in warfare. Anti-personnel landmines continue to have tragic, unintended consequences years after a battle and even the entire war has ended. As time passes, the location of landmines is often forgotten, even by those who planted them. These mines continue to be functional for many decades, causing further damage, injury and death.” Cluster bombs are no different. “These are bombs that contain many little bombs. When they are detonated, the bomblets explode, spraying shrapnel in many directions. The small pieces are not effective against armored personnel but are devastating to civilians. Many of the bomblets do not explode, however, and are left to lay on the ground until someone, often a child, comes along and sets them off accidentally, like landmines, litter the ground with the potential to explode years later. There are said to be thousands in Kosovo.”

These aren’t things that took place thousands of years ago. This is today, yesterday, the day before. How could I have lost perspective, so truly and completely, of the value of focusing on the positive instead of the negative in my life? I, who grew up in India, seeing shanty hunts in the shadows of skyscrapers and beggars at doors of restaurants asking for mere coins when the people inside splurged like there was no tomorrow? I, who see the challenges refugee families face, as the grapple to piece their lives together? How had I allowed myself to turn into an auto-pilot grump when life was so good to me, by God’s grace? Women need at least three daily glasses of milk, or its equivalent in calcium supplements, to keep mood swings at bay. Apparently, I was running way low on my quota.

Well, it’s better late than never and I hope my eyes stay wide open. My heart, too. I hope I will continue to have friends who will tell me to get a reality check, instead of fueling a pity party. I pray, too, for peace. I pray that I can donate to every cause that rallies against war, injustice and the killing of innocents. I pray that every person who is able, does the same whether in words or in monetary support. I pray that every parent can sleep at night, knowing that their children are safe and will have enough to eat.

In scripture, there are verses that speak of us being accountable for our gifts, be it talent, wealth, health….. I have come to see clearly, that we who have been gifted with peace and security, we will be questioned by God, as to how we used those gifts for those who suffered without. Watch ‘Blood Diamond’. You’ll see there is no way we won’t be held accountable, on the day of Judgment, as to what we did with peace and security when the rest of the world was aflame. .