The interview> Rukhsana Khan
Pakistani-Canadian author Rukhsana Khan (51) was at the Bookaroo Festival of Children's Literature held last week, to launch her book, Wanting Mor, in India. Already published in six countries, it is based on the true story of an abandoned Afghan girl who ended up in an orphanage in Kabul. It delves on issues of loss, abandonment and addiction. We caught up with the Toronto-based author who’s been writing for 24 years now, and is looking forward to her twelfth book, King for a Day, which is set for a January 2014 release.
Excerpts from an interview:
How did you take up storytelling?
I grew up extremely poor in Canada. It was a time of persecution and racism and I escaped my tormentors through books. They were my refuge; I read through the entire children's section of my town library. It helped me survive the brutal bullying of other children. There was a point where I thought of committing suicide, but my faith would not allow it. I used the books and stories I read to get me through those difficult times! I learned or read my way out of poverty. When I grew up I dreamed of being a children’s author, writing the kind of books I liked to read, books that would do for other children what my favourite books had done for me! It was while I was waiting for my book to get published (it took eight years) that I discovered storytelling. I went to a festival in Toronto and was captivated by the storyteller on stage. I knew that I could be just as good. There were so many stories within my culturalexperience that lent themselves to oral tales. South Asian culture is a largely oral history culture. So, I pursued it, actively.
Could you share with us a few anecdotes about the positives ofstorytelling?
Storytelling can reach some of the most troubled children. I was once presenting stories to a school in the mining city of Sudbury, Northern Ontario. I encountered a 13-year-old boy, who had been suspended for beating up a teacher and was in trouble with the authorities. I had been told this was a difficult class, and yet, I had no problems with discipline. If you’re interesting enough, even difficult children will behave. By the end of the presentation, the boy was listening as attentively as the others and even wrote an impressive story. During the storytelling assembly, I saw my reflection at the window and noticed my hijab and Islamic dress. I had forgotten that I dress differently, according to my cultural roots. The students had forgotten it too. The story united us; that’s the power of a story.
Your books tackle issues such as addiction; do children need to read such content?
Children need to read books that interest them. Parents and educators do children a disservice when they think that children will not be interested in grittier topics. Children start with light, amusing books, then they go for mystery and adventure, and if they’re hooked, they start gravitating towards grittier works. They read books to figure out their world and that’s the role a lot of edgier books serve. There will be kids who give up on books by the time they hit that stage, but for those who continue they’re worth the read.
In the news
Wanting Mor won the Middle East Award in Texas and was nominated for 14 awards around the world. Of all my books, Wanting Mor is Khan’s favourite. Her eleventh book, Big Red Lollipop, was chosen by the New York Public Library recently, as one of the 100 greatest children's books in the last 100 years.
The bookaroo browser
A haiku a day...
Contemporary haiku poet, Kala Ramesh was a Hindustani Classical musician (she pursued Kumar Gandharva’s gayaki) before she turned to the 400-year-old art of Japanese Haiku in 2005. She is presently the editor of the World Haiku Review in India. When she started teaching haiku in 2008, there was little awareness about it. Today, her works feature in the CBSE curriculum, and she will host a session for students of Symbiosis, later this month.
“Haiku is a form of poetry that uses the space element (like ikebana and bonsai) and silence. It says a lot in a concise way,” she says. Ramesh works in genres like tanka (five line poems) and haibun (prose embedded with haiku). She admits that the advent of Twitter could have, unwittingly, benefitted haiku, due to its limitations on characters.
“Like any art, it requires you to observe and use your senses. It teaches you to edit and write concisely. Haiku is slowly blooming in India, though poetry doesn’t sell much or pay. Publishers don’t want to touch it,” she rues.
Green poetry in bloom
‘Green Poet’ Martin Kiszko has composed and orchestrated 200 scores for film and television in the UK. The author of Green Poems for a Blue Planet, Kiszko observes that children understand and respond to environmental issues: “It should be done in a fun way and not an ‘eco-doomed’ way. They switch out if they are told to do too many things.” The quirky poet, used props such as a crown made of cola bottles, broccoli and a blue ball made from junk in his session.
Kiszko was always interested in wildlife, and he combined his love for poetry (he wrote his first poem at 10) to create green poems. “I wrote a poem a week and had 54 poems in a year. Poetry is like sending a postcard or a text / Facebook message. Itis fun, easy to understand and remember.”
“There is a humorous illustration of Antarctica in my book. I was there in 2001, on a ship, wearing a short-sleeved shirt; we barbequed on the deck of the ship. But the fact remains that there was an ozone layer problem (which led to global warming),” he explains. In his sessions, he encourages children to write on junk like plastic bottles and waste paper (writing about waste on waste materials).
Tell me a story
The Storywallahs, a Bengaluru-based organisation, was started by Ameen Haque, an advertising and theatre professional. “Stories have great power to influence human beings. Our religion, customs, practices, choices, are influenced by stories. However, this power of stories to entertain and influence remains under-utilised. I started The Storywallahs to revive storytelling as a performance art,” says Haque.
The Storywallahs narrate stories minus props, with voice and body language. “In its purest form, the story is the hero and nothing else comes between the teller and the listener,” he adds. They help businesses and schools to leverage the power of stories through workshops and also tell stories at orphanages and hospitals. She shares about the revival of old forms of storytelling like Villipattu (a Tamil form where stories are sung) and Kavaad (from Rajasthani).