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Society: A question of colour

Updated March 02, 2014


“Authors can only be white people, so I must grow up and be something else,” ruminated an eight-year-old Rukshana Khan, growing up in a small town in semi-rural Canada.

Khan immigrated to Canada with her parents and older sister in the mid-1960s.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she and her siblings were the only brown kids in an all-white school.

After finishing high school in Dundas, Ontario, Khan, like most teenagers decided on a career path. However, in her case it was neither aptitude nor passion that determined her choice of career. It was the colour of her skin that drove her decision.

“I decided on a diploma in bio-chemical engineering, as that it where I thought people of my colour would get a job,” she said matter-of-factly in a quick telephone interview on the eve of her departure on a multi-city book tour across India.

Married off at 17, Khan did not like the career she had forced upon herself. The moment she had kids, she quit, to become a stay-at-home mother.

Four kids and 14 years later, Khan emerged as a writer. Khan, who now lives in Toronto, tells stories that resonate in the multicultural mosaic that is Canada.

Her 2010 book Big Red Lollipop was recently included on the New York Public Library’s list of 100 great children’s books of the last 100 years.

“I have been writing for 24 years, but the way it works here is, it takes the US recognition for others to follow suit,” she laughs. “It’s only when I made it on this US list, which also includes giants like J.K. Rowling and Dr Seuss, that I got noticed in Canada and now with this interview, in Pakistan.”

It did not come easy as a lot of her own experiences are reflected in the stories she tells. Khan was three years old when her parents decided to immigrate to Canada in 1965. Early in life she realised she was the ‘other’.

“Children in my school used to say brown people are dirty and while my siblings would take up to five showers a day to scrub off the dirt, I was a bit vain. I would tell my sister, I am not brown, I am pinkish-beige. I simply was not ready to accept that I was the ‘other’.”

Her father who was a licensed tool and die maker would often be referred to as the ‘black bastard’ at the factory where he worked. Khan remembers the humiliation he faced and that he had no choice but to accept it. “With six mouths to feed there was not much he could do,” she adds.

A mother of four and grandmother of eight, Khan is the author of 11 books, most of them exploring the immigration experience through the lens of children.

“I get invited to give book talks in many schools. My stories explore coping mechanisms that help children from vastly different cultures integrate into a society which is as racially diverse as Toronto. The children see themselves reflected in the characters and that draws them into the story.”

“I have been through this experience not very long ago. Immigration is tough, especially if there is a language barrier to overcome. If I can make life fun even for a few hours and take them to a happy place, then I think I have accomplished my mission.”

“Getting recognition is good, but that my stories are getting through these children is even better.” She adds as she rushes back to check on the three lasagnes she has baking in her oven. n

Link to her website