An Interview with Sabera Ahsan – Children’s Author

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 Can you tell Alhambra Women’s Network about how you became a children’s author?

In 1996 my first play was performed at the Contact Theatre in Manchester when I was 17. My Little England was about second generation identity, based in a summer school in Manchester. In my early 20s, I began writing a novel called Mothballs and Coconut about second-generation Asian experiences of three twenty-something girls living in 1990s London.  I hid the novel it away in a cupboard for some years but finished it this year.

In 2012 I was a  founding member of a Spanish literary group in London called A Letra Viva Londres. We all met at the Cervantes Institute and every week we would come together and write short stories and share them.  One of my stories was the Christmas Stocking which was originally written in Spanish. Although my Spanish is fluent, it’s not native and so my friends in the group helped me polish the story.

My first career after graduating in Spanish and Politics was a primary school teacher. I worked both in the UK and Spain specialising in English.  I was constantly telling stories to my pupils which was the best way to teach the target language, I returned to the UK in the early 2000s. In 2008 I studied a Master’s in Screenwriting for TV and Cinema at the Royal Holloway University of London. Writing features and series for TV is very competitive, and you’re constantly told you’ll never make it, and as someone who writes from a diversity perspective it’s even more challenging,  but despite these barriers, I am passionate about telling my stories. I decided to convert the Christmas Stocking into an illustrated children’s tale.

What did you aspire to be when you were younger?

The first career I started verbalising as a child was, a nuclear physicist as my dad was a scientist. When I was 10 years old he bought me a microscope for my birthday, and I remember the first thing I looked at under the lens was a snowflake. I soon realised that I was more of an arty dreamer type but also showed an awareness at a very young age of my place in the society around me. My first school project at nine years old was about the Second World War and then Hiroshima.  It was what I researched about Hiroshima that led me to join a local group of middle-class ladies in Cheshire who ran a CND group when I was 11 years old.

Then I realised I wanted to be a journalist until when at 18 years old in the sixth form, a man from the Manchester Evening News told us what a terrible career choice it was, so I decided to study Spanish and politics. When I finished university, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and it was 1992 where there was an unemployment crisis for graduates.  I had been teaching English during the summer holidays, I decided to become a primary school English specialist. It was during those years that I began to experiment with novel writing, and I just didn’t have the confidence at that time to send my novel to publishers. I remember being rejected from a Richard and Judy writing competition and so I gave up. However, leaving England and living in Spain for five years, provided me with enough amazing experiences in life to create a bank of amazing stories that I wanted to tell.

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the Christmas Stocking?

Last year when Tesco ran their Christmas advert showing a Muslim family celebrating the festive season, many people were outraged and shocked that Muslims would contemplate buying a turkey and stuffing and dare to eat it on the 25th of December, yet we have lived alongside our neighbours for over 50 years. Every year my mum has given gifts to her neighbours and my father would host a Christmas party for his staff.

Christmas for many decades has been an important family ritual, and the Christmas Stocking tells that story of how we came to celebrate Christmas in our family.  The story is about my father’s choice to value the happiness of his daughter above his own religious upbringing and convictions. He witnessed his daughter isolated from her classmates, the culture around her and her sense of belonging within the society in which she was born. My father helped me find a sense of belonging when I felt completely isolated and different from other children in my class.

I loved Christmas as soon as I could make sense of the world around me. My cultural and religious background isolated me from the yearly celebrations. I always remember the song from Greg Lake’s “I believe in Father Christmas” playing over and over in department stores decorated with beautiful Christmas gifts, crimson bows and tinsel. My sister and I were obsessed with counting as many Christmas trees as possible while travelling in my father’s car. I was so overwhelmed by the magic and the tales of the wise men and Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. It hurt me to my very core I was not quite part of the celebration. Every year we ran a school nativity, but I wondered why I always played the peasant, the star or the angel but never Mary. When I tell the story today, many of my adult friends laugh and say at least you were given the role of the star or the angel,  they are significant roles.  I seriously did leave some kind of stocking in my room and pray that Father Christmas would turn up and fill it with gifts and not because I wanted presents but just because I wished to be accepted and belong.

It was when I told the class the unthinkable about Father Christmas that I was punished by my teacher in a way that in today’s society, would probably end up in the Evening Standard. However, those were the times back then. From what I remember I must’ve told my father about the incident. The headmistress of my primary school in North Manchester asked him if there was any way he would contemplate celebrating Christmas in our home despite his religious beliefs. And so, Christmas is now part of our family legacy and continues to this day. My mum even orders the biggest most humongous turkey ever from the Curry Mile in Manchester.

What is the reaction of the public to your Christmas Book?

The reaction to the book is always very positive from my family, my friends and my writing group. I’ve also trialled the book with some mums and young people, and they love and connect with the story no matter what background, faith or belief they follow. As the original was in Spanish, I decided to write versions in English, Catalan, Galician, Italian, French, Portuguese and a neighbour has offered to translate the story into Arabic. I do want the Christmas Stocking to reach as many people across the world as possible.  It’s a tale not just about faith and belief, it’s about our common humanity, values, belonging, sacrifice and ultimately parental love. As an independent self-published writer, the book is only just on sale this year, so I’m waiting for my first reviews on Amazon. The book is also on sale in some independent stores in Portsmouth New Hampshire, and I’m also hoping to approach some independent bookstores here in London and the UK.

What challenges have you faced as a writer? 

Even dreaming about being optioned by a publisher is something that I have just given up on now. There were a couple of offers, but I had to pay money upfront, and most successful and self-published writers all told me they do not follow that route. I like the way that I have the independence to publish and market my book on my terms. One publisher didn’t want the illustrations I had commissioned but to me the illustrator Laura who is from Venezuela entirely illustrated the story in such a way that I could see my childhood experiences before me. All my family commented that the illustrations were beautiful, and most importantly Laura had captured the memory of my late father who is sacred to us all. Even if I had decided to go down the route of a publisher who wanted to use their own illustrators, I just don’t think they would have quite understood the story the way Laura did. We also conversed in Spanish which is a beloved language for me, and so it made the experience even more special. Laura to me is a blessing, and I want to use her talent in many more children stories to come.

What writers inspire you?

As a child of the 1970s, I read CS Lewis but only the first two books, Pride and Prejudice in junior school and my very favourite above all books was To Kill a Mockingbird. In my early teens, I went on to read more adult themed books such as Catcher in the Rye and the Bell Jar. They had a significant impact on me as a teen. What I loved about all those books was that I could relate to them even as a Bangladeshi Asian child growing up in the UK.  All the stories held a common thread about being different from the rest of society and yet still finding a way to triumph. But I’ve never really quite found that connection from a BAME writer. A few years ago, I read Leo the African by Amin Maalouf and at last, I felt I had found a book I completely connected with and yet the story was about a male Moorish/Andalucian writer traveller in the 15th century who becomes an adviser to the Pope. Funnily enough, I felt more connection with the character Holden Caulfield Catcher in the Rye than Esther Greenwood in the Bell jar.  However, I still think that it is important the children growing up today to see stories that reflect their experiences and their lives.

Can you tell us about a favourite book when you were a child?

I think it has to be To Kill a Mockingbird.  I just re-read it as an adult, and I cried like a baby at the end just as I had cried when I was 11 years old when I first read the novel. The character I’m most connected with was Jem, again a male character in torment and trying to make sense of the world around him. That may seem strange, but I personally understand why I tend to connect with the male characters more than the female characters, although without a doubt Elizabeth Bennett will always be my heroine until my dying day.

What advice would you give other aspiring children’s authors?

If you have a story within you just write it and then begin to polish your story layer by layer. There are so many ways in which you can find illustrators, editors, proofreaders. Bringing your story to life in pictures is a fantastic experience, and if you want to self-publish, it’s quite easy just to understand the basics of uploading and formatting your images and text and converting files to PDF and then testing them out on your self-publishing platform. I know there’s a whole host of other issues regarding marketing, publicity and sales but it’s all part of the learning process. For me it’s not about immediate success, it’s about the journey, the anticipation, the connection to people you meet along the way and the learning process.  The story and the triumph of selling is just an added benefit that comes with the territory.

What do you think of self-publishing versus approaching a traditional publisher?

I applied for diversity BAME writing competitions and have been rejected many times. I have also sent my books to traditional publishers both in the UK and Spain and have either been just ignored or had my stories sent back to me with the envelope ripped open and the letter not even read so traditional publishers are just not an option at the moment. I’m a storyteller and I feel I have interesting, relevant stories to tell that can make an impact on young children and their sense of self-worth.  I don’t intend to wait for the next century for things to change when it comes to publishers optioning stories from BAME writers.

Technology today is a wonderful thing and as someone from an artsy background, I experimented with a Masters in IT as well as a Masters in screenwriting so for me it’s all part of just applying and practising skills to achieve your objective.  I’ve used Canva, Fiverr, attended workshops hosted by Enterprise Nation and spoken to other independent authors. I learned how to make my own videos while running my Spanish classes for kids where I developed many of my own stories and materials. We are going through a technology revolution where so many skills that once belonged just to a few now can be accessed by many of us if we have the passion and tenacity to just go for it.

I read an interview of how Sunita Shah author of the Jai Jais series published her books and it is truly inspiring to see so many other women from BAME backgrounds do the same. Ultimately because their talent, their world and their culture are constantly being ignored by decision makers. At the end of the day if I have a story to tell I will tell it and if I have an audience who want to read my stories then that’s just an added plus. If my stories make a difference in people’s lives and their sense of belonging and how to better navigate the world around them, then that would be beyond my wildest dreams.

What is your most significant success to date as a writer?

My most significant success as a writer is having completed my writing projects and so who knows what the future holds now.  I feel I have the confidence the passion and the know-how to spend the next years of my life dedicating my time to storytelling and there are so many tales still left to write. Our legacy and our history are being written and narrated by others, and so my goal is to nurture a next-generation of writers whether it’s via novel, TV, feature film, or children’s storytelling. We must leave a legacy for the next generations otherwise they will not know who we were and what we contributed to our immediate and broader society. I never had the privilege of reading stories that reflected my experiences as a child, so my goal is to ensure there are plenty of stories in centuries to come that will tell the story of who we were in the UK and Europe and what we contributed to society.

I also don’t think I would have come this far as a writer if I hadn’t had the diverse experiences as a primary school teacher, police diversity trainer and adviser and government policy officer. All those roles added to the depth of life experiences that I now want to apply to my storytelling.

What literary plans do you have for the future?

After leaving my role as a civil servant in the Home Office just three years ago, I spent my time building my online blogs for women.  I ran a Spanish school for kids where I developed many bilingual stories to help children learn a target modern foreign language. I’ve had the opportunity to run an Internet safety campaign for women, mums and grandmothers which has always been my dream since I held my policy roles in policing and government,  but now I feel a lot of my time will now be dedicated to developing new projects. I have at least five or six novels I will be working on based on my experiences in Spain and my love for Spanish Moorish history.  The children stories I intend to write are mostly based on some kind of 1970’s childhood trauma with a positive, hopeful outcome. It would be wonderful if my stories were used in schools to promote inclusion, friendship, cohesion and most importantly our common humanity no matter whatever our faith, ethnicity belief or background may be.

Alhambra Women’s Network 

The Christmas Stocking Trailer – Available on Amazon and Kindle 

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