Sunday, May 24, 2009

Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan

Rukhsana Khan's new YA novel, Wanting Mor, deals with the life of a girl in post-Taliban, American-occupied Afghanistan. Here's what Rukhsana (author of picture books such as The Roses in My Carpets, and Silly Chicken) told me about the creation of this work.

[UK] How long did this take you to write?
[RK] Wanting Mor took me five months to write (and only three months to revise). It literally poured out of me.

[UK] You've talked about what sparked this story in the afterword (a news report about a real girl). Will you tell me what kept that spark alight for you?
[RK] As I say in the author's note at the back of the book, I read this report on children in crisis and this girl's story broke my heart. Her mother had died during the war, father got remarried, new stepmother didn't want her so the father took her to the marketplace and left her there and she ended up in one of the orphanages I sponsor.

I think the story really affected me because a similar scenario was playing out with a friend, where she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her husband had run off with another woman and when she died the kids were left with a dead beat dad. And I thought, wow, same story, different continent. And I thought, how many kids go through this kind of scenario!!!

At first I tried to write the story as a picture book, but I quickly realized it was way too complex. It wasn't until I was going down to visit my Mom that the spark to write it actually came. I heard this girl's voice--in my right ear--and all she said was "I thought she was sleeping." I started crying, even as I was driving, knowing that she was talking about her mother, she had just discovered that she was dead. And she just sounded so devastated and so desolate, I had to find out what would happen to this poor girl. I pushed aside all
other projects and started writing Wanting Mor--basically just to find out how she'd come through this.

Finding out what would happen to this poor girl kept the spark alight for me.

[UK] There is a streak of severity in Jameela that I found oddly touching--as if maintaining her own set of inflexible rules and judgments about others is the only way she can survive. And yet she has to break through this because people around her are not all good or all bad. This book in fact is a lot about shades of gray and judging others, from Khalaa Gul who is not above using the pitiful girls' faces to get money for the orphanage, to the Americans who come with gunfire and arrogance but also pay for medical care. Talk about that. How much of that was intentional and how much evolved as you wrote?
[RK] I'll tell you that I found Jameela's judgmental attitudes quite alarming, and yet that was her character. She had no opportunity to be anything but the way she was. She had lived such a sheltered confined existence. I actually found the writing of Wanting Mor to be a very claustrophobic experience. At some points I wondered if people would think that I shared her severe views!

I felt sorry for Jameela because she'd never had the opportunity to understand the beauty of other faiths and cultures, and within the scope of this story, she never would.

As for the shades of grey, I'm so glad you picked up on that. None of that was exactly intentional. It just felt right to put it in the story. It was something she'd come up against and reflects my own nuanced approach to other cultures and circumstances. I think she necessarily takes any help she can get.

As for the father, I had to figure out why he would do such a thing too. And I worked backwards thinking that he could only have done that if his whole family structure had been demolished, because Afghan cultural family ties are so strong, they tend to keep people within the folds of a kind of propriety at least publicly taking care of their responsibilities towards their children.

So I started to research, and I came across a news story about a wedding party that had been bombed by American forces. And the army issued a statement of regret, and then it happened again, somewhere else, and again somewhere else, different wedding party, same end results. And it was all so casual. And I thought what if this was an inciting event in his life. In my research I also discovered that so many adults had succumbed to drug addiction, and I thought it made sense that having gone through what he did, the father would have been one of those.

[UK] The music of Arabic and Pushto can be felt in this narrative. Exclamations like Subhanallah and Asthaghfirullah. The term Khalaa used for auntie and even the titular Mor for mother. You have a glossary in the back but really, the contextual meanings are remarkably clear. Talk about the process of weaving those words in so they feel natural within the text and don't need translation.
[RK] I wondered at first if I should allow Jameela to express herself in such religious terms all the time, but I found that they were just part of her vocabulary. She couldn't help it. Then I thought of how I approach books with a lot of foreign words in them. Most of the time I just gloss over them if I'm hooked on the story. I thought the word 'Mor' would be easy for Western readers to become accustomed to, but I was worried about the other phrases, but then I thought if we can get used to other culturally grounded words like '"chutzpah", "gezundheit", and "schlep" why should I balk at including culturally appropriate words that my character would definitely say and think under the circumstances? And I made sure it was never absolutely crucial that the reader knew what they meant. I wanted the reader to be able to get the gist of them without bothering with the glossary if they were lazy about things like that--like I tend to be.

[UK] Why does this girl don the chadri (burqa) in the last third of the book? That is such a powerful and yet controversial symbol of Muslim women. Why go there?
[RK] When I begin a book, I often work backwards to find out about the characters. In this case I heard Jameela say, "I thought she was sleeping." I had the basic synopsis of the story, that she would be abandoned by her father in a marketplace and end up in an orphanage, but that was all. I had to work backwards to find out what Jameela's character and her father's character were really like.

Part of Jameela's wearing the chadri/burqa was a bit self-serving on my part. All three of my daughters, despite being born and raised in the West, have made the same decision to cover themselves completely. I never approved, but I respected their decision.

In figuring out Jameela's character, I looked at some of the other books coming out of Afghanistan. Books like The Kite Runner and the Breadwinner. And I thought that these books are all written from the perspective of people from Kabul, and Kabuli people do not accurately reflect the majority of Afghan culture. Kabuli people tend to be more westernized and educated and secular. The world is getting a skewed perspective of Afghan culture. They're only hearing one side of the story. I thought that Jameela would be from Kandahar.

I felt confident that I could write accurately about Kandahari and Kabuli culture because I am quite familiar with both. My son in law's family is from Kandahar and my sister in law's family is from Kabul, and I've seen first hand the differences.

Jameela would wear the chadri for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to show an alternate reality of Afghan culture, and the second reason was more personal, I wanted to better understand the reasons why my own daughters had made the choice they had--and I know no better way of really understanding other perspectives than by writing from them.

I was absolutely surprised when the chadri/burqa actually worked its way into the plot!

[UK] Without giving anything away, I can say that in the end Jameela finds a way to pass on the gift she was given by her Mor. What's the gift you want to pass on in this book?
[RK] Simple! An engaging story that happens to be set in Afghan culture!

Thank you Rukhsana. All the best of luck to you with this book and future projects.


  1. This is wonderful to read - thank you. I've just written a review of Wanting Mor for our June/July issue of PaperTigers!

  2. Thanks, Marjorie. I look forward to seeing your review.

  3. It's so great to learn more about how Jameela's story came about! Rukhsana is a very talented and insightful writer, so it's always a joy to read her words, whether in books or interviews.

  4. Hi Marjorie, Uma, Doret and Aline and any other readers,

    Thank you for the kind words Marjorie, of course I loved your review in papertigers and quoted from it on my website.

    And thanks Aline for your kind words!

    It's so cool that you guys got it! It's a book close to my heart!

    And Uma, thanks a mil for doing this interview! You're a peach buddy-o!