Zeinab Merai, Sada al-Mashrek
"… I have hosted authors for many years. I’ve never had anyone come with whom people connected so much. From the children in kindergarten to the early teens of the 7th grade, including their teachers, I heard rave reviews and praise. I couldn’t keep your books in the library. You’ve warmed the hearts and minds of so many during your visit to the west,” says teacher and librarian Janet Mumford at Kathleen McNeely Elementary School in Vancouver, BC, and this is only one of the numerous pleasant testimonies that have been made about Toronto’s author and storyteller Rukhsana Khan, who’s shared her stories in 14 countries she’s visited.
Having left Pakistan at a very early age, Khan went back in 1991, 1992 for a personal visit that launched her writing career.
And with the Canadian High Commission sponsoring her visit to Pakistan in 2016, the storyteller says, “I had an incredible experience and did the keynote at a children’s reading festival, telling one profound simple story from grade 5 that really illustrated why I knew I could become an author.”
Interviewed by Sada al-Mashrek, the humorous and engaging award-winning Pakistani Canadian has communicated a variety of profound themes.
Khan reminisces about her fifth-grade teacher, Mr Harrison, “He was cool and handsome and had chocolate-brown hair. He was one of those funny teachers that all the kids wanted to be around. I didn’t like when we went out for recess, but when Mr Harrison was out, I didn’t mind.”
Recounting that one day she and other kids were hanging around their teacher, trying to get “some of his coolness,” Khan adds that a boy named Joey ran up to Mr Harrison, telling a funny joke at first but then making two very similar jokes that eventually turned unamusing.
At the time, the way child Khan interpreted the incident was paralleled by her teacher’s. “I couldn’t believe that Mr Harrison and I had seen the scene play out and had the exact same reaction; that proved to me I could be a writer. We look different on the outside, but on the inside we actually have the same feelings. That’s what you have to tap into if you want to be author,” emphasises Khan.
An intersectional identity
Asked about the way the Pakistani and the Canadian cultures have contributed to her work, Khan says, “Being a Canadian focused on multiculturalism has allowed the Pakistani side of me to blossom. Back in the 60s, it was Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau who coined multiculturalism for Canada, so we were actually going to be a mosaic… We try to respect each other’s differences and personal identities. That allowed me to blossom and really own the fact that I am Pakistani.”
“In terms of identity, the stories I write often come from that perspective. They’re welcomed to the mainstream culture because people want to know about other cultures and validate the experiences of Pakistani Canadians or Muslim Canadians... My books have a home, especially in the school system,” explains Khan, who’s now working on an adult novel. The author adds that her books are “welcomed into the school community because they fill a need and help represent kids who might otherwise be marginalised.”
And though Khan says she feels “more Canadian than Pakistani,” she prefers to wear the traditional shalwar kameez, “It’s more authentic to who I am and more comfortable.”
Asked about the reaction of the Pakistani community and the wider Canadian community to her books and storytelling, Khan says the Pakistani community is proud of her. “My books reflect more my intersectional identity, which, in terms of priority, might be Muslim first, then Canadian and Pakistani. They’re all aspects of who I am. I’ve basically written what I’m interested in and what moves me as a Muslim Canadian… My most famous, Big Red Lollipop, is based on my Pakistani culture; my mum didn’t understand the concept of birthday parties because we didn’t do that back in Pakistan, and it creates a great fodder for misunderstanding and humour.”
Bridging cultural gaps
Khan shows concern for persecuted communities all around the world and reflects that in some of her books. Does she see that this contributes to early political and social awareness among young generations? She says it does, “A book from another culture can bridge that cultural gap… We try to reason with people and to give other marginalised groups their rights, but that’s on an intellectual level, and most people don’t really operate on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level. They might know intellectually that everybody is the same and that we all have rights, but they might not want to give them because they have their own biases and emotional prejudices.”
“When you write a story from another perspective, and you do it effectively, that transcends that emotional bias, and you tap into the emotion and humanity that’s in everybody. That’s why stories can work better than intellectual arguments when it comes to ‘de-otherising’ other people,” maintains the author and storytelling judge.
Reaching out to unhappy souls
Khan recounts when a stranger approached her while she was sitting in a cafeteria. She had been invited to Iran to judge a storytelling competition. The woman looked at Khan and said she had been watching her and noticed that Khan was at peace with herself. A beaming Khan says the woman was right; Khan feels at peace with herself after overcoming her turbulent youth and a great deal of difficulties. “I like who I am; God has been kind to me,” says Khan, who also points out that she believes there is a reason for her to be invited to different places.
Contrary to what her first name means – a girl with rosy cheeks – child Rukhsana had tears dripping over her cheeks, for she faced a lot of racism. Her family was the only Pakistani family in Dundas, Ontario at the time. “It got so bad that when I was eleven, I almost committed suicide,” she remembers.
But two things allowed child Rukhsana to overcome that difficult time. “My faith – Islam – my belief in God, helped me, because I trusted in Him, I didn’t think it would get better, but it did… And the other thing was books because when I was reading I could escape and be someone else and somewhere else,” explains Khan, adding that “people don’t realise how important having an escape route for children is. I tell kids, look, it doesn’t have to be books, it could be art, music, drama, sports…”
The veteran storyteller and author cautions that “a lot of children are struggling, and it’s got even worse with the pandemic, so I wanted to show kids that hey, you can survive… That’s the theme of Surviving Pleasant Valley. It’s a graphic novel for children about getting past the idea of suicide. One thing people don’t realise is that Canada is actually the fifth highest in the world in terms of child suicide. I’m hoping it’ll give kids the courage to keep going.”
The friendly multiculturalist advises kids not to “make it drugs because that will take them down faster, but to find some other way to keep going, because chances are it’s going to get better… I never imagined my life would be the way it is now.”
Thanks for taking the time to read this part. Please keep an eye out for part 2.