Posted by: Kathy Temean | September 22, 2011

Writing Muslim – Rukhsana Khan

Rukhsana Khan was a  speaker at the Sunday luncheon at the summer SCBWI Conference in LA, where she accepted the Golden Kite Award.  She is an excellent speaker and kept everyone riveted to her every word and laughing at her humor.  In the last few years New Jersey has added quite a few Middle Eastern members and most have been asking me questions on what steps they should take to get published.  I figured Rukhsana would have the answer so I called her and she said she would be happy to write something for my blog.  It appears we can all learn something from her post.

Here is what she shared:

When Kathy Temean, the SCBWI Regional Advisor for New Jersey contacted me about writing a guest blog post about what it was like to write Muslim stories I thought it would be a great idea!

I’ve been writing seriously for over twenty-two years now, and coming from a Muslim perspective there are certain lessons I’ve learned that I can definitely share!

But these aren’t just lessons about writing from a Muslim perspective. These are lessons that anyone writing about any culture can benefit from!

In writing this blog post, I’ve combined ideas I elucidated in my speech “Writing about Other Cultures” . I’ve given this speech a couple of times now, the last time being at the SCBWI convention in L.A. just last August while I was there to accept my Golden Kite Award for my picture book Big Red Lollipop.

So here goes!

Ms. Temean said:

I am getting a lot of questions about where to submit or what publishers would be interested in Muslim stories.

This question’s easy! Any publisher that says they’re accepting multicultural stories will be interested in Muslim stories, and that would be most publishers—as long as the story’s GOOD!

What makes a story good? Interesting characters, interesting predicaments, a fresh and interesting voice that tells the story! In fact the very same ingredients that make ANY story good will make a Muslim story good!

It is extremely tempting to read a Muslim/multicultural children’s story and think, “I could write that!” Especially if the story’s not that well written.

Many beginning authors compare their writing to the worst out there. Thinking if *that* could get published, then surely the publishers will jump at my story! But that’s the wrong attitude to have.

You need to compare your work to the *best* that’s out there not the worst because the worst probably got published at a time when there were no other choices available in terms of Muslim/multicultural stories.

It might have been marketable then, but it isn’t now.

As for publishers who accept stories about Muslims, if you want some more specific suggestions check out the Muslim booklist that I mention below. Look at the publishers who’ve published these books, they’re a good place to start submitting.

The children’s field has gotten a LOT tougher in terms of quality and there are a LOT of good Muslim writers out there now, which brings me to the next point that Ms. Temean raised:

These writers feel there is a hole in the children’s market for stories for and about Muslim children.

Actually that’s not as true as it once was.

In fact I made it my business to prepare a Muslim children’s booklist on my website (that I’m constantly updating) where I’ve listed books being published by mainstream publishers, about Muslim and related cultural themes. You can find it here: http://www.rukhsanakhan.com/muslimbooklist/Muslimbooklist.pdf

I am constantly amazed by the caliber of writing that is showing up. When I first started the list it was dominated by titles about Muslim holidays like Ramadan and Eid. And a lot of the books were didactic—clearly produced to educate about these foreign customs or customs of foreigners (depending on how you want to look at it).

It’s understandable. Many teachers are looking for something that will be inclusive towards any Muslim kids in the class and yet not be too controversial for the parents of other kids. You can’t go wrong with holidays.

Besides, it’s a part of some school curricula.

Having written some Eid and Ramadan stories, I actually gravitate to more meaty issues.

Randa Abdel Fattah’s international bestseller, Does my Head Look Big in This showed that stories about Muslims could have popular appeal.

The sky’s the limit really! But remember that when you write your story there will have to be a reason it takes place in that particular culture.

You can’t just make the Muslims so ‘ordinary’ that they might as well be Caucasian—unless somehow that’s your point. And personally I’m getting kind of tired of ‘super spunky’ heroines with the dweeby guy friend sidekick, and the poor oppressed Muslim girl who dresses up like a boy and runs away!

Write what you know! Write what moves you! If it makes you laugh out loud or sob into your pillow then chances are it’ll make other people feel that way too.

At this point Muslim books seem to be in a kind of ghetto category.

That’s because Multicultural children’s literature is a subcategory of children’s literature, and books about Muslims are a niche within Multicultural literature.
To make your book stand out, you have to keep certain things in mind.

The ‘So What?’ Factor

Whether a reader says it aloud or not, the first question they have when picking up a book about another culture is: ‘so what?’; ‘why should I care?’ or ‘how does this affect me?’

I first heard this term with my editor: Such and such a story doesn’t pass the ‘so what?’ factor. And her saying that made me stop in my tracks and think, “Yeah!” You have to make the reader care about what this character is going through and that means your story has to be ‘universal’. It must deal with problems that appeal to all kinds of people. It can definitely not be some random anthropological exercise to elucidate the quaint customs of a nomadic tribe, etc. ex. Tulku by Peter Dickinson (it’s a book about some far off tribe in the himalayas that is incredibly boring! I bought it because an editor mentioned it and then I couldn’t even finish reading the darn thing! Kept asking myself ‘so what?’)

Remember that People read about other cultures for various reasons.   Make sure your story satisfies one of the following reasons:

a. It’s a GOOD story that just happens to be set in a different culture.
b. To be informed about other cultures
c. To experience other cultures vicariously
d. To feel enlightened, share in the commonality of the human experience

If you can combine all these four characteristics, your chances at success will increase manifold! You also have to be aware of agendas! They will directly impact your success!
Most Muslim authors want to write about the ‘ordinariness’ of Muslims. They want to show that Muslims are just like everyone else. They also often want to counter the stereotypes that exist about us.

That’s called propaganda! And I advise you to steer clear of it!

Propaganda gets in the way of good story. It stinks of an agenda, and both kids and adults can sniff it a mile away.

Ironically the books about Muslim culture that seem to do the best are the ones that paint Muslims in a negative light. These are books that contribute in subtle and not so subtle ways towards the stereotype of the lunatic terrorist/abusive father who wants to honour kill his oppressed daughter (who secretly wears lipstick, gets drunk and wants to run away with a boyfriend) etc.

The fact is we are the ‘other’. And this is what mainstream society mostly knows about us. These are the stories they read about in the newspaper. These are the things they *believe*.

There is no point in arguing that MOST Muslims aren’t like that. There is no point in showing them statistics of how many women in North America are killed (though not honour-killed) by their boyfriends or husbands or ex-husbands. And there is no point in telling them that this is basically the same disease of misogyny that exists all around the world.

They will not believe that Islam as a religion has nothing to do with this. They will think you protest too much.

By the way, Non-Muslim authors who write about Muslims often hone in on these very subjects and make a killing on the bestseller lists! Which leads me to my next point.

Be aware of what appeals to mainstream audiences:

a. Books that focus on the negatives of other cultures—the more shocking and barbaric the better! Books that do best by ethnic writers often ‘air dirty laundry’
b. These are books that enable western readers to feel superior to these other places. These are books that leave them thinking: Thank God I live in a civilized country! This is ‘escapist’ fiction in the guise of realistic fiction: ex. Sold by Patricia McCormick
c. Westerners don’t want to read about functional societies that are not their own. They don’t want to read about the middle class of other cultures: give them the poor and downtrodden, and if the story arc involves being saved by Americans you’ll probably win the National Book Award! (I’m being facetious but two examples: Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan and Sold by Patricia McCormick!)

After realizing all these things, I decided to take on the stereotype as a challenge. Don’t write to an agenda! Write to find the story. Learn what happens to the characters.
Start with the stereotype, then deconstruct it, get beyond it, flesh out the characters. (ex. My book Wanting Mor starts with the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim heroine and then I turned it on its head!)

I could go on but I think I’m running out of room. If you want to read more about my thoughts about writing about other cultures you should read the plenary speech that I gave in Denmark at the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Congress in 2008. You can read the whole thing here: http://www.rukhsanakhan.com/articles/Freedom%20of%20Speech.pdf  but pay particular attention to the last part of the speech. It starts on page 13.

Good luck with it!!!

You can visit Rukhsana at:  http://www.rukhsanakhan.com

Thank you Rukhsana.  It was very nice of you to take your time to help guide us.  I hope our paths will cross again.

Talk tomorrow,

Kathy


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