Celebrated Kidlit Author and Publisher Amal Farah on Surprises, Processes, and Wishes

The Egyptian Board on Books for Young People (EBBY)’s Yasmine Motawy interviewed journalist and publisher Amal Farah, Egypt’s candidate for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Children’s Literature in 2018:

By Yasmine Motawy

The Hans Christian Andersen Award is perhaps the industry’s most prestigious, given to an author and illustrator of children’s books whose complete works have made a “lasting contribution to children’s literature.” The award, supported by Denmark’s queen, is considered a “Nobel Prize” for children’s literature.

Nominations for the biennial award are made by the national IBBY sections, and award recipients are selected by a distinguished international jury of children’s literature specialists. For the 2018 awards, 33 authors and 28 illustrators have been nominated from 35 countries. In addition to Amal Farah, Egypt has also nominated artist Helmi El Touni for the 2018.

In September of 2015, after a writing hiatus of six years, during which Amal Farah had two small sons to follow her then-teenaged daughter, Farah made a surprisingly risky move. Along with her husband, painter Magdy ElKafrawy, Farah eschewed the comforts of being an author in demand and set up her own publishing house. For the first time, she found herself shouldering both managerial and commercial responsibilities. This move may seem strange. But, she explains, it allowed her more artistic freedom to bring out books that made other publishers uncomfortable.

Shagara, or “Tree,” publishing house was imagined as a place of rootedness with branches that reached to the skies. Farah and her partner intended the house to be an incubator of works that promoted artistic and linguistic appreciation, the values of tolerance and coexistence, and the preservation of what makes us different and complementary to the rest of humanity.

Shagara was a runaway success: In its first year of operation, their young adult novel The Ink Vampires, by Ibrahim Farghali, was longlisted for the Sheikh Zayed Book Award. In 2016, Amal Farah’s own picture book I Want to Be a Turtle won “Best Children’s Book of the Year” from the Etisalat Award for Children’s Literature. To date, this fledgling publishing house has published 39 books and expects to begin publishing translations in 2017.

This is Farah’s first translated interview.

Yasmine Motawy: Many of your stories transport the reader to your village in Aswan. You’ve been traveling a great deal for work these days — have you ever made a trip specifically in search of inspiration?

Amal Farah: I have not yet made a trip specifically to find inspiration. The truth is, I think that inspiration is out looking for me, and I am always available to it. I wait for it in the faces of people, the feel of things, the movement of insects, and sometimes in the dust particles moving in the sun’s rays.

But it so happened that I was on a journey once and was inspired to write A Dot, a Semi-Circle, and a Line (2015), a small system that teaches the Arabic language creatively.

YM: Do you belong to a circle of writers that help each other write?

AF: Unfortunately, I do not have such friendships, although I do wish we had literary groups that supported the writing practice of its members. I love to give critical reports to writers who submit manuscripts that are not the right match for our publishing house. I have very few friends who comment on my texts in draft form, and even those who offer their perceptions are not usually writers themselves.

YM: People always wonder how much writers make, would you mind sharing with aspiring writers how much you were paid for your first book?

AF: I was paid one thousand five hundred pounds for my first book, which I received after one full year from the date of publication of A Gazelle and a Hunter.

YM: How many manuscripts sit in Amal Farah’s office drawer right now?

AF: I have about 8 manuscripts in draft stage and two writers in press right now.

YM: How many hours do you spend writing each week?

AF: It depends; some weeks I write very regularly, for three hours every day, and some weeks pass without any writing at all. But when I am busy with a particular book, I write for more than eight hours a day without actual writing. I meditate on a word, I collect others, I tweak and reformulate ideas several times a day, and then I sit down to write them out. I am also the type of writer who keeps working on a text until it is time for the final layout.

YM: Where do ideas come from?

AF: Ideas come from the “Garden of Ideas,” of course! Haven’t you read my book The Monster?

YM: If you could go back in time, what would you do differently to make yourself a better writer today?

AF: I would read much more in physics and philosophy. I have read a great deal of the books that helped me become the writer I am today, but I would advise everyone to indulge in these two areas to write for children, those amazing and wise creatures.

YM: What is your writing process?

AF: My rituals are very simple; I sit in the nearest place I can rest my laptop, make a good cup of tea, and start. I need the place I work in to be neat and clean; visual clutter bothers me. I can however write in low-level noise. I used to love writing in my mother’s kitchen as she sat beside me; it was a large room that opened into a yard, lined with soft seats. Today I write mostly in my room.

YM: What as a reader said that’s surprised you?

AF: A mother once told me that she had read her son the story The Box, which is about a boy who lost his eyesight but could still catch the moon with his two hands. The mother thanked me because the book helped her son overcome his fear of the dark.

YM: What did you want to be growing up?

AF: I always knew I wanted to be a famous writer! I always imagined myself writing in a study with a great big library, sitting at a huge desk, with papers strewn everywhere.

YM: What are you working on right now?

AF: My personal project right now is to translate Arabic children’s books, where I  attach a copy of the Arabic text with the translation, to maybe show the world the potential of the Arabic language and the value of Arabic literature.

YM: As a publisher, what do you look for in an illustrator?

AF: I look for wonder and style and original ways of using the page. I also look for illustrations that are a parallel text, not a direct depiction of the words.

Other Interviews with Amal Farah:

“Amal’s Shagra Publishing house lights the way to a better tomorrow.” Interview by Ahmed Mosbah. Al-Shuruq, issue. 1287. 11 Dec. 2016: 27-29. Print. (Arabic)

Farah, Amal. Interview by Nagah Amer. Faiz Online Magazine. 21 Mar. 2016. Web. (Arabic)

Yasmine Motawy works in the department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo and is also a scholar of children’s literature and a translator.