Teens Who Straddle Cultures: As Readers and as Protagonists
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Sue Stanley: This is Sue Stanley from the WriteOnCon team. I’m very excited to talk today to Young Adult author Sabina Khan about teens who straddle cultures as readers and protagonists. Sabina, thank you so much for being here.
Sabina Khan: Thank you, Sue. And thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited my book comes out tomorrow and this is the first time I’m doing anything like this so I’m really thrilled. And I hope listeners will get something useful out of it.
Sue Stanley: I’m sure they will. For those of you who may not know, Sabina is the author of The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali coming out as she said, tomorrow. So the fact that she was able to make time for us today is fantastic, from Scholastic. So Sabina, can you tell us a little bit about yourself. Maybe a little bit about your writing journey or your experiences in this process.
Sabina Khan: So of course. So I was born in Germany and I lived there till I was about 8. And then my family and I moved to Bangladesh which is where I’m from. And I spent most of my childhood and teen years there. And I moved to the US for university. And lived in Illinois and Texas for a while. And then our family moved to Canada, to Vancouver. Which is where we’ve been living for 20 years. And I have two daughters. They’re 20 and 24 and they inspire my writing heavily. And then of course my husband and our little dog. But to talk about my book Rukhsana, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali, was inspired when my daughter came out to us a couple of years ago and we were really proud of her for knowing exactly who she is. And we used to have a lot of conversations about other teens who came from different communities.
Not just South Asian Muslim communities, but pretty much any, you know, any community across cultures who were having a very difficult time coming out to their families. They didn’t feel safe or comfortable and were you know, getting depressed. Some were suicidal and so that kind of prompted me to thinking about a young girl from a conservative South Asian Muslim family who may not be able to come out. Like some of these kids. And what the repercussions would be if she was caught. And at the same time, I was reading articles about some, a couple of brutal murders of LGBT activists in Bangladesh. And just all of that sort of came together for me in this story.
I also wanted to really address the issue of teens, that teens face when they live sort of between cultures. You know so their families are originally from different culture. They’re being raised here, so it’s this sort of in-betweenness. That you know, you don’t quite fit in into one thing. But there’s no real like, space for you where you can fit in. So yeah, so that’s pretty much what inspired me to write this book.
Sue Stanley: Well thank you for writing this book. As a parent of daughters in their 20s as well, I can greatly appreciate your experience and your need to tell those stories because it is really profound as a parent when you watch a child go through something difficult. It’s profound. well I think it’s different for a parent but it’s profound for anyone who loves someone who’s going through that kind of change well the change for the parent the life for the child and the fears that are intrinsic in that on both sides.
Sabina Khan: Absolutely. And I think my hope really was that you know, even if one or two readers can find some sort of you know, some sense of hope and a little bit of courage and just not feel quite so alone. I think that would just be like, very rewarding for me. And I think that would really mean a lot to me. And so I just thought stuff. Yeah and at the time, when I was writing it almost three years ago, I honestly didn’t think. I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to read about a queer South Asian Muslim teen but I have to say I’ve been extremely overwhelmingly, I’ve been overwhelmed with the positive responses I’ve been getting. And not just from South Asian Muslims.
As I said, from like you know, many teens across cultures. And it’s just been the most rewarding. And just like, it’s given me so much hope. And you know, it’s made me so excited for other stories that I want to write. And I hope that it encourages writers who you know, we all experience doubt to various stages throughout the process. And so I hope that you know writers who may be at this very moment are going through what I was going through just a few years ago. Wondering if this will ever happen or if anyone would be interested. I hope that they can get some measure of just positive reinforcement from that.
Sue Stanley: That’s very important. So how do you the experience of protagonists in a story with characters that straddle different cultures contribute to supporting teens when they read those about those types of characters?
Sabina Khan: So that’s a really great question. So when I was younger, obviously I never found any stories that had anyone that was straddling cultures or was even from a different culture. And so I think the biggest thing would be, first of all, just to see someone whose lives so closely mirror yours in that you know, their parents would be, you know you’re, you know, the reader and the protagonists are growing up. So let’s say North America and in this culture but their parents could be from South Asia East Asia I don’t know, Africa, Middle East, anywhere. And so that, that sort of existence in that reality it’s so it’s it has such a strong impact when you’re reading.
The food they eat, the language they speak at home which is most likely is not English. Or you know, like English and another language. Their traditions and their celebrations would be different. Their conflicts would be similar to what you’re going through. So you know, you might want to go to sleepovers but in your, you know, in your family they don’t allow sleepovers. So that’s, like sleepovers are such an American thing. Like kids go to sleepovers. And you know, they have fun. It’s a thing. It’s a harmless fun thing for kids to do. So I know a lot of families who you know, you can, they allow their kids to stay late but not sleep. You have to sleep at home. That our children don’t sleep outside. So that’s like a thing. And so you, nobody else would get that, you know? Like when you tell people, it’s like yeah I’m sorry, you know. Like, why can you never come to a sleepover? Well you know like, how do you explain that? You know, to somebody who does, who’s not familiar with it?
And so there’s lots of things like you know, the kind of food you bring to school for lunches. It’s so different than what everyone else is bringing. That whole thing about having two sets of expectations. So you have you know, your family has a different set of expectations. They, depending on how traditional they are, or even if they’re not super you know, traditional or conservative. There, it’s still different. Like I for example, I don’t consider our family to be very traditional or very conservative at all. but still my kids do things a little bit differently than their American friends or their Canadian friends did. And not in a good or bad way. They’re not, I mean, neither is good or bad. They’re just different. And so sometimes that difference can make you feel, as a young as a child, can make you feel sort of out of place. That you know, you don’t quite fit in or nobody quite understands you know, certain customs you follow. Certain, a certain way you speak, certain expressions. So you can’t always translate everything and you know, you something funny happened, but when you try and tell your friends, they won’t, might not find it funny because it has a cultural context to it. Right?
So there are also I mean, there’s so many good things about being from, you know, having a different culture than the one we’re coming from a different culture than the one you’re being raised in. But there’s also some difficult things. And it really depends, I mean, I’ve heard people my age and younger have often said that you know sometimes they’re embarrassed because you know their parents maybe have an accent. Or you know, the food smells different. They dress differently.At the same, and so you know, you go through this age or this phase in your life where you are a little bit embarrassed because of those things. But then you know, often teens are embarrassed by their parents frequently.It’s not in, regardless of culture, right? Like just because teens are teens. But it’s just, it makes it so much easier to feel that you’re not the only one when you can read, at least in the books that you’re reading, the stories that you’re reading, the protagonist has similar struggles.
Whether they’re serious struggles like Rukhsana’s facing, where you know, it’s like almost like, a life and death issue type thing. Or if it’s just silly things that are not really like, they’re not like life or death thing or extremely serious. But they’re so important enough that it makes you feel like, and not like an outsider necessarily, but just a little bit on, marginalized. You know, you feel like okay, you know, I don’t want to have my friends over because I don’t know like, you know. Somebody might be there or they might be cooking something that you know, my friends might make fun of. Or so things like that. And so it makes it very difficult to feel that you’re just like everybody else. And sometimes at a certain age in our lives, we want to be just like everybody else. We don’t want to be the one that stands out, you know? And then later, on when we’re more mature we like that. We embrace that. But in that school age, I feel like there’s a quite a few, and of course I mean not everybody has that same experience, but I know like a lot of kids might have had that experience.
And so I think it’s really important that we have more and more stories like this. And not just for say, American kid or you know not just for say white kids to learn about brown kids or things But also for South Asian kids to learn about East Asian culture. You know there’s a difference within all these cultures. So I would love to read books, I don’t just want my kids to read books about only South Asian Muslim kids. I want them to read about Buddhist kids. Hindu kids. You know, Sikh kids. Everybody. I mean, it’s what makes us more empathetic. And also it just, it opens up so many windows and doors. I mean, it’s just so amazing to read about these cultures because then you know, if you look at a classroom and you read something you read a story about a struggle that some kid is going through on a daily basis. And if you have a classmate like that, it makes a world of difference when you look at them in you’re like wow, I had no idea this is what they’re going through at home.
That you know maybe, I said something and I made their lives, their day more difficult. So that’s such a great thing for kids to learn at a young age to have empathy and understanding. And just to be willing to give that person like a second and third thought. And say, hey you know what, I didn’t mean that. Or I, you know, like sometimes you make a comment you don’t mean it to be hurtful because you didn’t and you don’t realize what you said might have been hurtful. But it’s so amazing if you can kind of get inside into their lives, you know, or somebody like them. And I think that’s what readers would benefit from the most. Just knowing that and in readers again across cultures not just the reader from that culture. But the reader who’s not from that culture can benefit just as much. So even if you are not straddling cultures, it’s really important I think for especially for someone like that to kind of read about a character like that, right?
Sue Stanley: Yes. The themes of fitting in go across all cultures especially for young adult literature. So in this, in the talking that you just did, are there ways, you talked about the way that the books can help to move that forward. Are there ways that characters, the way characters are developed, or the way characters are portrayed can actually hinder that movement that authors need to be aware of and careful of.
Sabina Khan: I’m sure. Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think if you don’t do your research properly. If you don’t you know, if you represent badly. Poor representation can do more harm than good, right? So for example, if I’m not a Muslim writer and I’m writing a Muslim character, so you know, and let’s say, I’ve done some basic research. Mostly superficial research. And I’m writing something, and then a Muslim reader reads that and they might just absolutely horrified at something I’ve written because I didn’t research it properly. So for example, for me because I’ve been raised a Muslim and I was you know, I lived in a Muslim culture most of my life. So for me, that’s not as not a problem. But even within that, so for example, I would not want to write, I mean, I wouldn’t easily or lightly go about writing or say a hijabi character, right? Because I don’t wear hijab. And I can’t speak to the experiences of someone who does. And I would have to do deep, deep very thorough research before I would attempt to write anything because I would hate nothing more than causing any harm with the stories that I write, you know? So to make somebody’s life even more difficult. Or just to say something that is not accurate, you know?
And unfortunately, there are books like that where you know, someone takes on a subject which maybe they shouldn’t without proper research or things like that. But it’s, I just think it’s really, so that would be in my opinion, that would be the major thing that would hinder any kind of progress is if you’re writing about something that isn’t really your, your own experience. And I’m not saying that we can only write about things that we’ve experienced personally. But I think we have to be very, very careful. If we do want to write about another, you know, an experience which we’re not personally familiar with. I think it is, it comes with its risks. And so, and not to say that you know, you can’t of course do an extremely good job. But there’s a lot of work to be done before we can attempt that kind of writing.
Sue Stanley: It sounds like authors, any author who is looking to add diversity especially if it’s outside of their experience, needs to be very, very thorough in their research. And to be very thoughtful about making the decisions to write characters that are diverse in that way if that’s not their experience.
Sabina Khan: Absolutely. I mean even in my own, like you know, I don’t identify as queer. And my character’s queer. But she’s also South Asian and Muslim. And you know, she’s a daughter of an immigrant. So I do identify with the South Asian and the Muslim and the immigrant part. But and also again, she’s, this is one character. I’m not writing all, this one story is not, I’m not trying to, you know, represent every single queer Muslim immigrant South Asian character at all. This is just one story. There are many. There’s a hundred variations of the same story in my opinion. You know, so based, like from so many things, the family could be less or more conservative. The character could be less or more religious, you know? There’s so many different variations of that. The outcome could be completely different. There’s so many different combinations and variables here.
But I, because I wrote the story very much inspired by my daughter. And also the discrimination part of it. And the homophobia part of it is a lot of it is very similar, is very similar to my experience with it and of my interfaith marriage, right? And so those feelings I feel were genuine because I felt them. I experienced them. So I was able to portray her feelings that way. But I spoke to my daughter extensively and had her read drafts of it you know, very thoroughly because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t saying anything that may be construed as offensive. Or that I just didn’t realize was offensive you know. So I wanted to make sure that because the character is her age and from a similar background that I was portraying her accurately, you know?
But the thing is, that I mean you know, some somebody may you know, they’re have been comments where people say, oh you know, but her parents seem too strict. It doesn’t seem realistic that you know they would react like this and to that. I have to say again this is only one story.And very unfortunately and sadly these kind of things are happening all the time in real life. Enforced marriages. LGBTQ people being killed for being LGBTQ. Being part of the you know, part of that group. and so those things are unfortunately very real. They’re not things that I made up for shock value. They there are things that I was shocked by because they happened. And so and you know, that they make it into the plot for that reason. Because they’re happening and not enough people are talking about it. And they’re horrifying things that should never happen, you know? And so, and parents you know, there have been cases of forced marriages for reasons other than their child being gay or bisexual. They just, they’ve been forced to marry someone else because they just fell in love with somebody and the parents don’t approve. I mean, these things happen on a very frequent basis. And I’ve been reading about them for years. But I can understand how if someone is not familiar with that, they might think, oh you know, so you know, the author added this for shock value.
But the thing is, we have to see, I mean, yes it is shocking but that doesn’t mean that it’s unreal unrealistic, you know? That reaction from the parents that they whisk her away to Bangladesh as soon as they find her, they catch her kissing her girlfriend. And in their minds, their first thing is, we have to get her out of here and married before anybody finds out otherwise we can never get her married off, you know? That’s not at all a far-fetched thing. That is pretty, that would be a pretty common reaction. But not every single family will react like that. Certainly I didn’t. My husband didn’t. So there’s multiple families like ours, I’m sure. But at the same time, there’s also the other extreme. And everything in between. I mean, there’s so many, like I said, there’s so many variations, right? Just in one, in this one theme.
But I just, I just think we have to be really careful. Just you know, you have to do, you have to do the research. You have to be thorough. You have to make sure that you know, sensitivity readers are available to us, right? And so, you can talk to people. You can have multiple people read it. And so before you put it out there. And you know, that’s something that can be done. It just takes extra work but it’s certainly worth it if you want to make sure that you’re not hurting anyone or writing anything harmful, you know? That you missed, you know. So I think that’s extremely important.
Sue Stanley: It sounds like it is. So our time is about up. But I do want to remind our listeners that the book is The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali and we have talked a lot about it coming out tomorrow, but tomorrow is January the 29th, 2019. So when this is aired at the WriteOnCon conference, the book will be available in bookstores everywhere. So I really appreciate your time today, Sabina. It’s been a fantastic experience for me and I really hope that everyone will read your book to expand their own experience. To walk through your character’s experience. To have it reflect themselves or also learn something new. So thank you.
Sabina Khan: Well thank you, Sue for having me. I really enjoyed our conversation as well. And I’m so happy that I could be a part of this. And I really hope that readers and listeners will, you know feel inspired hopefully. And yeah, and I’d love to hear from them. So you know, if anyone wants to, I’m on Twitter and my website has all my contact information. So I would love to hear if people have questions. If they want to know maybe a little bit more about my journey. If I can help them in any way I would be extremely happy to do that. So it’s sabina-khan.com and also on Twitter as well, I’m @sabina_writer on Twitter.
Sue Stanley: Okay. Enjoy your day tomorrow. Good luck to you. And I wish you well. I wish you much publishing success.
Sabina Khan: And all the best to you as well. Thank you.
Sue Stanley: Have a wonderful day.