Hena Khan: Changing the Narrative For American Muslims

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#BoldAndInspiring South Asian Women Series: Honours Hena Khan, Follow our hashtag, #mminspire for the conversation

Children’s author, Hena Khan grew up with her nose in a book. She and would often visit the library to stock up on new reads to keep her busy. She writes on her blog, “My mother believed children should be seen reading and not heard whining about boredom, and regularly took us to the Rockville Public Library with grocery bags to fill with books. Along with grabbing new titles each visit, I often chose the same ones over and over again.”

Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim born and raised in Maryland, has always enjoyed sharing and writing about her culture and religion.  Five years ago, she wrote a book about an 11-year-old girl named Amina. She was not only dealing with the start of middle school, friendship drama but also family conflict—all while being a Pakistani American Muslim. For Khan this book was a labour of love and the story was a ‘window into her (Amina’s) faith, culture, and community.’

A WASHINGTON POST BEST BOOK OF 2017

An NPR BEST BOOK OF 2017

A CHICAGO PUBLIC LIBRARY BEST BOOK OF 2017

A KIRKUS BEST BOOK OF 2017

A TEXAS BLUEBONNET AWARD MASTER LIST SELECTION

A GOODREADS CHOICE AWARD FINALIST

Today, in a period when racism and religious bias are at an all-time high for much of our community, Khan’s stories of young people are told through the lens of a diverse perspective, culture and family–leaving an impact on readers everywhere she goes.

Children's book author, Hena Khan

Photo Credit: Havar Espedal

As a parent of two sons, she says motherhood is closely tied to her experience as an author.

Motherhood is so closely tied to my experience as an author, since it was soon after becoming a mother for the first time that I started writing for kids. It’s hard for me to separate the two in my mind now. Both are so challenging and rewarding, and true labors of love! I fell in love with children’s books while reading to my kids, recognized the need for more books to represent them, and learned to see the world through their perspective as a mother.

Not far behind her passion for writing children’s books is the fact that she never felt she saw herself in books she read as a young girl.  It was a chance meeting with a friend she made in second grade that turned into a long term friendship that she credits as the reason her career is what it is today.

“I owe my entire children’s writing career to a dear friend, who I met in second grade and have been close to ever since. She was working for Scholastic as an editor, for their continuities department, which created book clubs back in 2001. She needed help with a series called Spy University and turned to me since she knew I loved writing, even though I had zero experience writing for children. It was her faith in me that allowed me to try it out and realize I enjoyed it and wanted to keep doing it!”

Photo credit: An Open Book Foundation

Early in her career she says one of the biggest lessons she had to learn was owning her identity as an author and standing up for what she believed.

“Even after I had a handful of books published, I still felt awkward referring to myself as an author or promoting my books. I’ve seen younger, less experienced writers be a lot less shy about it, and realized I need to be too. I’ve had to learn that there’s a serious business side to being an author, in addition to the creative part, and that you can’t afford to ignore it or sell yourself short,” says Khan. “Some of my biggest challenges have been related to standing up for myself and what I want, negotiating terms and not feeling guilty asking for fair compensation or turning down offers or invitations that aren’t a good fit for me, and balancing the demands of marketing and promotion with writing.”

And once she gets writing, her creative process, Khan says, is still quite painful. More of an editor than a writer, Khan says she often tinkers with language to improve her work to get it just right.

“I wish I was a writer who could turn off the world for a few hours each day, get into the zone, and churn out a few thousand words a day,” says Khan.  “But the reality for me is that I write in fits, start and stop, get easily distracted, go lie down or fold laundry, or pace as I write. I work on my laptop in various places around my house. I do find, like many writers, that some of my best ideas pop into my head when I’m doing something like washing dishes or showering. So my house gets cleaner when I’m actively writing, along with me!”

Today Hena also the author of several Muslim-themed books, including “Night of the Moon,” “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns ” and “It’s Ramadan, Curious George” and her latest project is a three-part series of books featuring a young Muslim boy who likes to play basketball.

Photo Credit: MV4NY

“I was largely inspired to write the Zayd Saleem: Chasing the Dream series by my two sons and my husband, who are all basketball obsessed! Basketball is a big part of our lives, our free time, our conversation, and our television! Some the storylines come directly from their lives, practices, and games, but the overall theme of chasing your dream is bigger than a specific sport or activity. Whatever their passion may be, so many kids share the experience of wanting desperately to achieve something, struggling to be good at something they love, and reaching for a goal.”

Zayd Saleem, Khan says is a deeply personal story for her and says his character is very relatable for kids today in our community.

“Zayd is a third generation Pakistani American, whose grandparents immigrated to the US, so he’s like my kids and others like them. It was so satisfying for me as a writer to explore the culture through the lens of a kid who isn’t struggling with his identity, but instead actually enjoys things about his background that are unique, funny, and sometimes even weird. It was a blast to write about things like desi dramas and Bollywood, cricket and carom, biryani and paan, and a big fat Pakistani wedding through Zayd’s perspective and that of his big sister, Zara.”

She says, although the series is sports based, she’s built in themes around learning from mistakes, standing up for yourself, dealing with unwanted changes, and more.

“There’s a lot of friendship, family and culture in the books, along with humor, and I drew heavily from my own life and the lives of my family members when writing. Several of the characters are drawn from real people in my life, especially Zayd’s Urdu-swearing Naano and his goofy uncle, Jamal Mamoo. And many of the specifics come straight from mining my kids’ experiences at school and with their friends, and thinking back on my own childhood.”

The series isn’t designed to explain who we are or who we should be. She says these aren’t ‘issue’ books like so many of the stories out there for children of South Asian backgrounds that may focus on oppression, discrimination or pain.

“I strongly believe that all kids deserve to see themselves as the heroes in books, and, just as important, to be seen as heroes by others. But I also believe that their struggles can be limited to the everyday challenges that come with just being a kid. This is a fun, lighthearted series that I hope all kids will enjoy and genuinely look forward to reading.”

A discussion guide is also available for the first two books in the series which asks some thought-provoking questions around the themes of family dynamics, managing parental expectations, leadership, dealing with stress or anxiety, the importance of honesty, and more.

Khan’s success can be attributed to her passion and skill for storytelling, ability to resonate with children and depth of knowledge of her community as well.

She says compared to other ethnic minorities in the US, the South Asian literature is experiencing great strides in bringing diversity to children’s lit.

“It’s exciting to see the variety of books that have recently come out, or are coming out over the next year, that tackle different themes and aspects related to a South Asian American identity. I’m particularly glad to see books that feature South Asian American kids doing all sorts of typical kids’ things, in addition to those where they are celebrating holidays or struggling in some way, that all kids can relate to.”

So, what are some of her favourites?

“I appreciated the lighthearted romance and fun cultural components of the young adult novel, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon for that reason, and am looking forward to reading the sequel. I was really excited by the modern take on Indian mythology in Sayantani DasGupta’s hilarious and exciting middle-grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret. And there’s an adorable new early reader series coming out in August with a character named Yasmin by Saadia Faruqi that is filling an important gap. There are so many good ones! But we still need more—a lot more. And that means South Asians from all backgrounds have to step up and tell our stories.”

 

For more about Hena Khan visit: www.henakhan.com

For more on her releases, visit her page on Amazon: www.amazon.com


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