Quill and Quire

Rukhsana Khan

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Tales of diversity

Since she was a child, Rukhsana Khan dreamed of being a writer. There was just one catch: “I thought writers were white, and I was brown,” the now 46-year-old Khan recalls with a laugh of her days growing up in small-town Dundas, Ontario, in the 1960s.

Three decades later, Khan has managed to turn her early struggles into a career as a well-known Canadian children’s author who focuses on telling tales of diversity. By next year, she will have published 11 books with six different publishers (including her first YA novel, Wanting Mor, to be published by Groundwood Books in spring 2009). She’s managed to carve out a niche largely on her own, learning how to navigate the industry along the way – but her path to getting published was anything but straightforward.

Faced with racism at school, Khan, an avid reader, turned to books for comfort and scribbled her own stories. When she was 16, an English professor acquaintance sent one of her stories to an editor at a publishing house in New York. The story wasn’t published, but Khan did receive an encouraging personal rejection letter, which pushed her to keep writing. After marrying early, she studied to be a biochemical technician and worked in that industry for a time, but following the birth of her children, she began writing again while staying at home. She sent out some of her work, but the rejection slips kept piling up.

Courses at the Canadian Children’s Book Centre gave Khan’s nascent stories the structure they needed, and she sold her first two picture books, Bedtime Ba-a-a-lk and The Roses in My Carpets, to Lester Publishing in 1997. Lester folded soon afterward, but the manuscripts ended up at Stoddart Publishing, which put out both books in 1998. Those books proved to be the breakthrough Khan needed to kickstart her career.

“It took me eight years to get my first book published. And then by my ninth year, I had five contracts,” Khan, who has been shortlisted for several national children’s books awards, says from her Toronto home. “I was definitely one of the people who was picked out of the slush pile. It was just tenacity.”

While Bedtime Ba-a-a-lk was a straightforward kids’ picture book about counting sheep, Roses, aimed at a slightly older audience, was Khan’s first book to focus on stories of Muslim children. Inspired by Khan’s visit to her own foster child in Afghanistan, it’s about a young Afghan refugee who finds solace in the colourful roses in the carpets he weaves. The book received glowing reviews for balancing poetic storytelling with stark realism, and continues to be featured on the curriculum in elementary schools across Ontario as an anti-racism resource.

Roses also helped Khan break into the American market, as the book was co-published by U.S. children’s publisher Holiday House. For a time, she was represented by New York literary agent Charlotte Sheedy (the two recently parted ways when Sheedy scaled back her roster of authors), and has published books with Viking in the U.S.

“I have noticed some differences when working with American publishers,” Khan says. “Since they don’t have to rely on grants, they have to make sure their work is highly marketable, which leads to a dumbing-down sometimes.” She recalls that an American editor wanted her to remove the main character’s disability in her 2001 book King of the Skies (published here by Scholastic Canada) so as not to turn off potential readers.

As she continued to write and develop relationships with various publishers, Khan learned how to market and sell her work on her own, pitching her books to those houses she thought would make the ideal home for each title. In recent years, however, Khan has been content to work with a handful of select presses rather than send out her work widely. “I used to think having lots of different publishers was the way to go, but these days I feel that if none of my [current contacts] are going to buy something, then it’s probably not publishable!”

Right now, she’s excited about working with Groundwood. Khan began working with the publisher earlier this year on Coming to Canada, a book commissioned by the federal department of Citizenship and Immigration that is to be given to new immigrants to Canada with young children. Faced with a tight deadline, Khan raced to finish the text for that book in under a year. (She usually takes two to three years to complete a book from initial concept to final edit.) The project was so well received that Groundwood will be releasing a trade version for sale (the text will be slightly less “sanitized” than the governmental version, Khan quips) in early 2009.

“I was making more money at the American publishers, but I’ve always wanted to work with Groundwood. It has been a dream come true,” Khan says, noting that she wrote Wanting Mor somewhat as a reaction to Deborah Ellis’ The Breadwinner, another Groundwood title. (Khan felt the Ellis book painted a narrow view of Afghan life.) “And a publisher that has enough integrity to publish the other side of the picture, well, I have a lot of respect for that,” she says. At first, Khan tried writing the work – about an Afghan girl who ends up in an orphanage after being abandoned at a market – as a companion picture book to Roses, but the complex subject matter lent itself better to a novel.

While working with different publishers has meant that Khan’s career (she’s also in demand as a storyteller and educational speaker at schools across Ontario) has been a merry-go-round of editors, illustrators, and publicists, the one constant over the years has been her choice of subject matter – Khan’s books all shed a light on what it means to be different. But while Khan, whose books featured young Muslim protagonists long before interest in Islam was a blip on the mainstream radar, is keen to debunk the popular myths about her culture, she’s not interested in being pigeonholed as an “ethnic” writer.

“I’ve actually had people tell me, ‘You’ve been published because you’re the flavour of the month,’” Khan says. “But I still get lots of rejections – I have to make my work really stand out. I’ve just learned not to take criticism personally – after all, if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t be publishing it.”