Rania Amin on Untying Authors’ Hands When Writing Arabic Literature for Young People

For a more in-depth look at current trends and debates within Arabic literature for tweens and teens, check out “The new wave” on Qantara, written by ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey, or, for a more basic librarian-focused introduction, there’s “Translations for Teens,” on the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative site:

Here, we have a talk with 2016 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature winner in the Young Adult category, Rania Amin, who is also the pioneering creator of the Farhana books. Rania, who took the prize for her Sorakh Khalf al Abwab (Screaming Behind Doors), talks frankly about how she writes and what’s working — and isn’t working — in Arabic literature for young people.

photo-rania_400x400This is your first book for 12+, right? Before thism, I believe, you’ve written for younger children and for adults? What made you want to write for this age?

Rania Amin: I started out writing short stories for adults, then when I had my first child, I got interested in writing for children, like many young mothers do, and so I started writing for children my daughter’s age, and then for older children the older she got, because you get more aware of the needs and likes and dislikes of a certain age-group when you watch your own children and their friends interacting.

But recently, now that my daughter is 19 and out of childhood range, it doesn’t work this way with me anymore.  I have a certain idea that occupies my mind and a message I so much want to get through to people, old and young, and I start thinking:  How can I get the message through and how can I simplify it for children?  And the story starts forming in my head.  Depending on the story that happens to pop up in my mind I will decide how complex it should be and for which age group it is more suitable.  This last story should have been for a slightly younger age-group than 12+ (for 8 to 12 year old children), but that’s how it was categorized by the publisher.

What did you like reading when you were that age? Did you try to channel your younger self when you were writing? Or kids that you know now? What do you think is most important in trying to reach young readers?

RA: At the ages 12 to 14 I was reading a variety of books.  I loved comic books, I loved romantic stories like Ihsan Abdel Qodous’, I liked detective stories like “El Alghaz” and Enid Blyton’s stories for teens especially her stories about boarding school girls’adventures.

When I write though I don’t usually consider what I liked at that age, but I always choose from the experiences I lived at that age. For example a lot Farhana’s stories actually happened to me when I was Farhana’s age, and also in my new book Sorakh Khalf al Abwab (Screaming Behind Doors), I lived pretty much a very similar experience and it influenced me a lot at that age.

I also sometimes get ideas for stories when I observe kids at school.  If their experiences touch something in me & remind me of my own childhood or youth, I am always motivated to start working on a new story.

If I want to reach young readers of course I have to address their problems and needs and talk to them in their own language.  I have to create characters to whom they can relate, in other words I have to be “them” all through the process of writing for them, so they really feel that the character is one of them not something fake which they will immediately refuse.

What do you think about the movement to create a new teen literature in Arabic? What do you think the books need to do to really grab young peoples’ attention? If there was a film version made of “Sorakh Khalf al-Abwaab”? 

RA: Of course we DO need such a movement, but then there are a lot of things that have to happen before writers actually get started to write new stories.  We have to get the green light from publishers that there will not be a strict censorship on new and different ideas, and that there will be real measures on what is harmful for kids and teens and what is harmless and what is beneficial.  But our measures are totally messed up.  Teens need to read about what they care about most, which is love and relationships, and we, as writers, are not permitted to go near that area, or at least we cannot be as honest and realistic as we should or would like to be.  So when teenagers don’t get the stories that address their real problems and needs, they start looking for adult books about those subjects and maybe get more information than they need at that age, instead of getting a more suitable portion of information from books written especially for them.  Also books about kids who misbehave (or in other words about “normal” kids) are not very much approved by publishers, in spite of the fact that kids relate easier with such characters and could learn better behavior more from them than from a story about a goody-goody, too well behaved child.

So I believe that if writers were given more freedom to write for children and teens and not write for publishers and for competitions, we are going to do a much better job and we will actually also find an audience of children and young adult readers.

A film version of my new book?  I wish.  Yes, transforming children’s books into films or cartoons will definitely help the publishing business, because kids will get attached to the characters and will be more tempted to buy the books, which will encourage them to later buy even more books of all kinds of genres.

Have you read other recent books written for teens, in Arabic or English? Are there any that you enjoy?

RA: I love the style of writing of such stories like Clarice Bean, Daisy, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Middle School, etc. They are simple and funny and very easily related to by the young reader.  I also read the book Wonder lately of the physically impaired boy and his problems in school which was not as funny, but in spite of the fact that his impairment was not realistic (in order not to offend any of the physically impaired readers), the emotions were very real and this is what the reader needs and enjoys.

What was different about writing for this age? Did you start with the characters or with the plot conceit (the battle between the neighbors?)

RA: In Farhana I started with the character.  She was very clear in my mind when I started thinking about plots.  But here it was different.  The first idea that came to my mind is to write a story about the friendship between the Bawab’s daughter and the daughter of one of the residents, because I had a similar relationship when I was young and it was not a very typical relationship in the sense where you expect that the poor girl would be fascinated with the rich one, but it was totally the other way round.  So starting from the relationship, I proceeded to work on the story.

Why did you have Magdy (al-Shafie) illustrate vs. doing the book in your own style?

RA: The reason is that my style of illustration is more suitable for younger ages and I know how at that age the kids’ prestige matters a lot, and they wouldn’t want to be caught with a book with kids’ illustrations, so I felt that Magdy’s style works really well for that age.  It’s free and dynamic.  He made a sketch of the characters and I felt that they were just what I had in mind so I didn’t hesitate to make this choice.

What was the process like? Did you finish the text and then give him the book? Or did you work together?

RA: I prefer finishing the story first, then thinking about illustrations.  Sometimes I do my own sketches which helps with the process of writing, but then when I give the text to the illustrator, I am flexible, and do not insist on the images in my head.  So he worked on his own.  I did not interfere much.

About the language of the book… I guess most of the time it felt natural to read in a simple fos7a because it feels natural to read in fos7a and I liked how straightforward and clear it was. But sometimes I thought, ohh, the story is so Egyptian, and I wanted it to sound more Egyptian. Did you ever think of writing it in Egyptian Arabic?

RA: Of course I did!  I am all for writing conversations in the language they are spoken in.  Actually originally the conversations WERE in the Egyptian language but then the publisher changed it into fos7a, because we have to consider competitions (such as the one I won in, for which I am very thankful of course) plus consider the market in other Arab countries, which I believe is sad, because somehow writing conversations in fos7a is a big drop in the story, and it’s not really MY work anymore, but my hands are tied, unfortunately.

Have you met young readers and talked to them about the book?

RA: No, I haven’t, not yet.  Yes, maybe I should have done so before publishing the book to find out how much they are interested in such a topic.  But I believe that even if the topic was not very interesting for them initially, if you write the story in a style they would find attractive, and have characters they would like, they WILL eventually care about your message and give it a thought.

Are you tempted to continue writing books for this age? What about a series of them, like the Farhana series?

RA: I have actually thought of creating a mystery-detective series with those characters, and I AM working on this at the moment.  It’s a new genre for me, it needs a lot of research and studying before I plunge in, but I am excited about it.