Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of my favourite authors, started writing early. All the stories she wrote as a seven-year-old child were inspired by the type of books she read from the US and the UK. Adichie’s stories were full of blonde, blue-eyed children, ginger beer and snow, even though she had never set foot outside Nigeria. She speaks about this in her popular TED talk The Danger of a Single Story. Having grown up in Pakistan on a diet of Famous Five and Malory Towers, craving strawberries and fizzy lemonade, her talk really resonated with me. It made me reflect on the importance of giving children access to diverse stories. This is why I am so excited that my (childhood) friend Omer has recently written a children’s book on the Islamic festival of Eid. Here I speak to him about his inspiration, what his daughters think about his work, and his future plans.
Zainab (Z): Omer, how would you describe your book?
Omer Naqi (ON): My Eid Mubarak Storybook is a fun illustrated book that teaches children and parents alike about the traditions of Eid. It consists of nine short stories, each of which touches on a different aspect of Eid. The characters range from infant to pre-teens, with one thing in common: they are all looking forward to celebrating this festival.
Z: A lot of us think about writing stories for children. You did it. How did you get the time?
ON: Yes that has been a challenge! I am, first and foremost, a proud dad of three beautiful daughters, a banker by day, and a fitness enthusiast on weekends. I also love spending time with people—family, friends, colleagues or workout buddies.
The one thing my fitness regimen has taught me in life is discipline and following through on my commitments. So once I committed to myself that I want to write this book, I just didn’t stop. Things got pretty hectic and stressful, but it all came together at the end.
Z: What are your earliest memories of Eid?
ON: I grew up in Pakistan and moved to Canada with my family at 16. My parents made sure our Eids in Toronto were just as festive as back home.
My earliest and fondest memories of Eid are the days leading up to Eid day especially the shopping. I would always try to convince my parents to buy me a matching outfit with my elder brother, same style but different colour. This, of course, would drive him crazy!
On Eid day, I loved getting three tight hugs from my dad which I still get and love to this day. I have adapted this memory and have used (it) in the book.
Z: How is this different from how your daughters experience Eid?
ON: I have three daughters: Emaan (7), Inaaya (3) and Noor (7 months). My wife, Naima, and I are raising our daughters in Canada. We think it’s important to be well connected with our heritage while contributing and being part of a diverse Canadian society.
Naima and I also think it’s important that our daughters grow up creating the same memories of Eid as we did. That is why for my daughters, Eid celebrations are just as special as they would be if they were growing up anywhere else in the world. Eid is a big deal in the Naqi household. There is food (of course!), outfits, bangles, henna, going to visit friends/family and most importantly spending the Eidi!
Z: Is that what inspired you to write your book?
ON: Having lived and worked in Pakistan, Canada, USA, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, I have come to really understand, value and appreciate multi-culturalism. The book is a reinforcement of these and a reminder to us of how important Eid is. Actually, it’s a reminder of how important all holidays are.
The book is about togetherness and enjoying and celebrating festivals together as a family. I want to reach out to parents worldwide to connect with their children while enjoying a good bedtime story.
Z: One of the most important things about your book is to make festivals accessible for a wider audience? Is your book also aimed at readers who do not know anything about Eid?
ON: This book is for parents and children alike. For people who celebrate Eid and for people who don’t know anything about it. The book focuses on what brings us together, not what divides us; it is about Eid, a joyous holiday, the coming together of people to celebrate life.
Learning about different cultures and teaching our kids to be open-minded to diverse experiences is exactly what we need in today’s society.
Z: What other ideas do you have in making Eid more accessible/fun for children today?
ON: My wife and daughters are creating new traditions. We decorate the whole house with paper lanterns and Eid moons. We do hand made Eid cards for each other and that to me is a ‘new favourite tradition’. We also love making Eid shaped cookies. I love the smell of homemade baked goodies!
Z: What do your daughters think of your writing?
ON: My daughters think it’s really “cool” that they are on the cover. They think they are celebrities! On a serious note, it is really fulfilling to see them enjoy the book.
Observing my daughters, I have come to really understand how children learn in such different ways. So my older one Emaan loves to hold a real book. She loves the smell of books. My younger one is a digital baby who loves using the smart device to swipe through the ‘pages’. This is why the book is available as a hardcover, paperback, eBook and now also as an audiobook.
Z: I know you have been doing some readings of the book in Doha and Dubai. What is the toughest question you have faced from your audience?
ON: Recently I was at a school where the headmaster introduced me to the kids as, “Children we have a real life author with us today.” That was a priceless feeling! I don’t think anyone had referred to me as an “author” before that.
I can’t single out a particular tough question, but I am always pleasantly surprised at children’s imaginations and the type of questions they ask.
Z: What’s next for you?
The next few months I am doing book readings in Pakistan, Toronto, Dubai, Singapore and again in Doha. I am very keen to reach out to charities in Pakistan and Toronto to organise book readings.
I am then working on two more titles on the theme of togetherness for publication in 2018.
Z: I can’t end a DWL interview without asking you for advice for aspiring writers who are thinking about writing for children?
ON: I would just say that follow your dream. The feeling of seeing your project come to life has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. So I would encourage you to not let anything stop you from achieving your goals and keep the finish line in mind!
Zainab K. Agha is DWL’s London representative and works in the public sector trying to improve how governments spend money on the choices they make