Rukhsana Khan is an award winning writer of children's books who seamlessly frames the universal problems of growing up within different cultural contexts. Her books on everyday stories on Muslim children are whimsical, sensitive, humorous and enable people of all cultures to connect with her characters.
Can you share a little bit about where you grew up, and what inspired you to become a writer?
I love stories, especially children's books and I wanted to share the stories that grow in my head with other kids. Basically it comes down to the fact that books helped me survive my childhood.
I grew up in a small town in Canada where my family was the only Pakistani Muslim family in the whole town, so most of the time I was the only brown kid in the class.
This was in the sixties and seventies when the white people didn't know much about brown people. They thought we were brown because we were dirty. So I grew up very poor and feeling dirty.
When I read books, I could escape the bullying and the harassment. I could be someone else, I could be somewhere else. Books gave me hope to keep going. They were a respite. And when my grade eight teacher told me I was a writer, I thought it would be the coolest thing in the world to grow up and write the kinds of stories that kept me going.
What inspired you to write about Muslim characters in your books?
If you visit any Islamic conference and you’ll see instantly that there’s a thriving market for Muslim children’s books. Parents are desperately snatching up titles that will teach Islamic values to their children. The vast majority of these books are heavy-handed lesson-oriented books that don’t translate well for mainstream audiences.
What I really wanted to do was write books that reflect the reality of Muslims here, in North America. I wanted to write the kind of stories kids would call, “Cool!” or whatever the current hip/slang expression for admiration is.
RELATED: See Rukhsana's books here.
Muslim children in particular suffer from a sense of insecurity and inferiority--at least I did. While growing up I felt as though all the bluster of the Muslim leaders in the masjid arose because they couldn’t make it in mainstream circles.
I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to think bigger. I thought, if I’m going to make it, I want to make it in the mainstream because after all, I didn’t want to limit myself to writing only for Muslim children. I wanted my stories to be for everyone.
The only ulterior motive I possess is to try to humanize Muslims and create more understanding. But really I just want to write a good story. And because I’m a Muslim and there’s still a lack of good books about Muslims, I’m called upon to make sure my stories are about Muslims. It’s filling a niche.
Sometimes it’s a bit confining. I’m sure one day I’ll write about other kinds of characters, but for now it’s Muslims.
What is the one misconception about Muslims that you could wave your magic wand and banish forever?
Growing up Muslim in North America was very difficult. The release of each mega-blockbuster depicting Muslims as merciless bumbling terrorists or ignorant taxi drivers as well as the fatwa—or death sentence—called by Muslim leaders against writer Salman Rushdie in 1989 made Muslims "look … like a bunch of barbaric idiots.
Especially after Sept.11, people think Muslims are crazy. And if I can change their mind a little bit, if I can open the door and show them, hey, we’ve got some pretty good stories, and we’re really not like that. The vast majority of Muslims, we’re not crazy like bin Laden. We would never do something like that.
We’re just peaceful, law abiding people, and we have funny stories, we have sad stories. I try to use stories to build bridges of understanding.
What is your favorite story from Islamic traditions?
The first story that pops into my head is the story of Musa and Khidr in the Quran. I think it’s such a beautiful story and it really makes you look at the things that happen in our lives with a different perspective.
But that said, I also have to mention the story of Yusuf. Allah subhanahu wata ala says it’s the most beautiful story and it really is! It has it all: treachery, betrayal, lust, romance, dreams and kings and finally ultimate victory! Lately I keep thinking of how it says that Yusuf’s brothers justified their actions by saying oh we’ll do this bad thing to Yusuf and we’ll repent (be good) later. It’s remarkable how many people live their lives like that.
What is your biggest inspiration from Islam?
Islam is just integral.
A while back I came across that hadith about ihsan, about living your life as though Allah subhanahu wata ala is watching. I think I’ve been having an internal dialogue with Allah subhanahu wata ala since I was about five years old. Subhan Allah. He’s just always there, at the back of my mind, listening. I talk to Him all the time. And when I’m going to do something bad, I even say ‘sorry’ before I do it and ask forgiveness. And then I make an intention to try not to do it again. And I feel bad.
And when I’m dealing with people and I say something I shouldn’t, I cringe inside, and say ‘sorry’ again, and I’m just constantly trying to live up to His expectations for us as Muslims.
I don’t always succeed. But I keep trying.
I constantly keep trying to improve myself, and sometimes I fall flat on my face. I’ll go along for a while thinking, hey I’m doing pretty well, and then something will happen, and I’ll do something boneheaded, and I’ll have a fall, and I’ll realize I was getting arrogant. And I’ll feel like the worst person in the world and I’ll beg Allah’s forgiveness, and then slowly slowly I’ll get over it, and keep right on trying.
Each time I fall I don’t seem to fall right to the bottom. I’m a little bit higher than I was the last time I fell, so bit by bit I think insha Allah, I’m getting better. But I often come across people who are so much better than me. They are so kind, and so sweet and so innocent and so selfless, and I’ll look at their example and try to live up to it.
And finally - Biryani or Kababs?
Depends on how good the kababs are! But generally I’m a rice person!!!
Thank you Rukhsana Khan for being so gracious with your time! Wishing you continued success with your writing! This interview was done as part of KitaabWorld's Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign.