Saturday April 1,2017
By: Iman Refaat
Rania Hussein Amin, children’s books author and illustrator, won the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in the Young Adult category, for her book Sorakh Khalf al Abwab (Screaming Behind Doors). This was the first book she wrote for children above the age of twelve.
Born in 1965, Amin, a veteran in the field of children’s books, is best known for her collection of stories Farhana, which she also illustrates. Amin’s audience are children between the ages of 4-7, whom she addresses through her character.
A psychology graduate from the American University in Cairo, Amin participated in countless children writing and illustration workshops and art courses. She also worked with children with special needs.
Women of Egypt had an exclusive interview with Rania Amin to learn more about her writing journey and her future plans.
WOE: What attracted you to get involved in writing?
RA: Since I was a child I used to write in my diary. I wrote about how I felt and what I did. I wrote about movies I watched and books I read yet I never thought I will become a writer. By the age of twenty I started to write short stories and after studying psychology I considered writing for children and the idea of Farhana emerged.
WOE: What inspired you to write for children?
RA: My daughter. Turning two-years-old she reminded me of my childhood and how I used to enjoy it. I created the series of Farhana to tackle real life and day to day situations and gradually the female character kept evolving.
WOE: What’s the age range of your target audience?
RA: I started with children at the age of 3 to 7 years old, then I moved to elder children. As my daughter got older, I started targeting older audience.
WOE: Why did you choose to write for children not parents?
RA: I studied psychology and being a parent I wished to write for parents, however I found it challenging and I didn’t want to write direct messages for them. Hence I decided to write to children as if a child writing to another child, using simple language and avoiding direct preaching.
WOE: Does this age implies the usage of a certain language?
RA: Yes. I try to simplify my language as much as I can. The language was another reason for not writing for parents. Though I have ideas for adults’ books, yet the language is an obstacle. I envy people from other nationalities who don’t struggle between formal language and the colloquial one.
WOE: What are the genre you specialize in?
RA: I like to write about everyday life. I don’t like to write about magical worlds and fantasies, as I think children, till the age of five, need to know more about real life.
WOE: As a writer, how do you choose your topics?
RA: It started by recalling memories from my childhood and the events that where truly remarkable. Then afterwards people and publishers suggested some topics.
WOE: Why did you create your main character as a girl?
RA: I believe that girls are chained in Egypt and don’t live their lives the way boys do. Don’t speak loudly, don’t play, don’t walk barefoot, are some examples. I wished to have a character which would encourage girls to reveal their own identify and to act freely. To become free.
WOE: Ending your books with “What would you do” is it a call for reflection and/or action?
RA: It’s a call for thinking that I addressed in my books for children above the age of seven, when Farhana grew older. I invited children to reflect on matters they experienced in their daily lives, such as bullying and listening to others, in order to adjust their own behaviors.
WOE: In your book ‘Farhana and the Evening Dress,’ Farahana took off her uncomfortable dress in front of the guests. What’s the story behind the harsh criticism it received?
RA: The USAID selected several books to distribute to schools and mine were among them. A publisher accused me of propagating for American values, though I meant to write a funny book and didn’t mean any hidden message it. I ended up in the court and it was a scary experience. I felt embarrassed back then.
WOE: How did this experience affect you as a writer.
RA: First of all, the book was banned and was withdrawn from bookstores. I spent a week thinking and considering not writing again. Then I decided to keep writing and just to be more careful about what I write and how it might be perceived.
WOE: What are the other challenges you face as a writer?
RA: Well, first of all I wish to write for teenagers about real life and this might cause me problems, hence I need to be cautious. Publishers are quite a problem in Egypt. In some of my books I had to compact the story in less pages for financial factors, which affected the depth of the story. This was the reason behind founding my own publishing house, through which I published two books, one was a comic book about bullying and the other was a parents’ guide. However, I ended up shutting down this house as I am not really a good business woman.
WOE: Did your choice of topics change after the revolution? How?
RA: I did receive call from a publisher asking me to write about Farhana and the revolution however I didn’t. I don’t think children at such young age should be involved in politics.
WOE: Can anyone become a writer?
RA: Well, it’s a mixture between talent and practice. In order to become a write one needs to read a lot and learn. Joining on line workshops was a key factor which helped me develop my writing skills. Especially that the writing exercises opened for me new horizons by writing and thinking about topics I didn’t consider before.
WOE: What is the difference between a writer for children and a writer to adults?
RA: From my experience writing for children was a lot easier especially when it came to the language. In order to reach the target audience, the writer needs to consider the style of writing and the use of language and words.
WOE: What differs one writer from the other?
RA: The good writer needs to be close to the readers by addressing them as if he’s one of them. When I write for children I let the child in me talk and write for them. Moreover, the writer needs to be wise with the language he’s using. It’s important to consider the style of writing and the language, yet writers need not to overdo it to ensure that their writings will reach their audience.
WOE: Which is harder writing or illustrating?
RA: Illustrating for me is harder. I know I am not the best illustrator and I might not be that creative. However, I preferred to do the illustrations myself, instead of hiring someone, to make sure that they match exactly what I had in mind.
WOE: What type of workshops did you participate in?
RA: I led many workshops. I worked as a school counsellor for four years during which I held several workshops on how to build your character, how to be happy and how to deal with bullying. I also led workshops for children teaching them to write and illustrate. Also, I organized workshops for Comics among school students and their work got published in their schools.
WOE: Did you ever think of featuring Farhana as a cartoon character or a movie star?
RA: I did. However, the costs were very high, yet, this is one of the things I will reconsider in the future.
WOE: What type of work did you do with children with special needs and have you considered portraying them in your books?
RA: I worked with autistic children as a part of my work at schools and I got so attached to them. I wished to write about visually impaired children and Farhana as a teenager. I believe I need to study and learn more about them and to get in touch with them in real life first before including them in my books.
WOE: What are your plans for the future?
RA: I have many plans. First of all I plan to write books for teenagers in colloquial Arabic. Moreover I plan to write more books about Farhana.
Apart from writing, I am considering starting a campaign for parents encourage them to read more for their children.
WOE: What’s the message you wish to address to Egyptian women?
RA: I wish to tell women you are doing a great job. You need to care and pamper yourselves more. You need to believe in yourselves and stop carrying all the responsibility. Start involving men and stop them for taking you for granted.