Have you ever been so angry at the uncivilised state of play in the world, that you have found yourself rushing to pick up a pen, simply because through the act of controlling its motions upon a blank page, you were able to find the release you needed to calm your inner states?
Or perhaps you are a digger, and bury your moments of anger, disbelief, even pain, deep down into the confines of a darkened back room where the heart and memory can’t quite reach it. Only to find it all being released months or years or even decades later, thanks to a story or character or song, which gifts you the moment of freedom or understanding your heart has – despite your attempts – silently been searching for.
The power of stories – whether it’s creating them or consuming them – as a mode through which to grapple with any form of injustice and uncivility created by power imbalances, racisms, sexisms, corruption and greed, has always been a go-to method of activism for humankind. From the Genesis to the Torah to the Qu’ran; from Aphra Behn to Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde; from Hafez, Rumi and Rabindranath Tagore to poet goddesses like Nikita Gill; from Sojourner Truth and Abraham Lincoln to Maya Angelou, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Trevor Noah, and from the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales to Winnie the Pooh to Harry Potter, stories which relate, analyse, confront, teach and even warn their listeners and readers of what the traits of an uncivilised society are and can lead to, run as deep and as far back in time as the very construction of each of our DNA.
Which is why, when it comes to the world of stories, children’s books are, in so many ways, the first line of defence. They are, after all, one of the very first tools we are gifted to understand and dismantle cruelty and injustice in all its forms. If we are what we eat, then we are also what we read. And if what we read lets us know from an early age that there are greedy dragons to slay, and rings of power that need to be thrown into Mount Doom, and silly naked emperors running around professing powers, then the leap into making it as an adult who too can battle the real-life versions of those emblems, doesn’t seem so impossible.
As a child, I was always acutely aware of injustices in the world. From worrying about endangered animals and the Amazon rainforest, to wondering why there never seemed to be any women in any of my school books, questions born of observances of the adult world were always at the forefront of my mind and tongue. They confused me, angered me, and often led me to pick up my (colouring) pens and frantically draw or write out stories.
That urge, that need to create a world which rectified the real one, has never left me. Not really.
Which, I guess, is why I want to write the stories I do. Stories which acknowledge just a fragment of the questions our children begin to carry around inside them when they reach a state of consciousness – a consciousness often born of the failures of leaders to create the kind of society which is truly equal, loving, and just to all. From the unfathomable treatment of refugees upon which The Boy at the Back of the Class centres, to domestic violence (The Star Outside My Window), homelessness (The Night Bus Hero), food poverty (The Great (Food) Bank Heist) and racism (The Lion Above the Door), I know our children are deeply aware and perpetually hungry to understand and actively dismantle them all.
What an honour then, that in a very small way, I get to pick up my pens, and create a story or two that may potentially help them do just that.
Onjali Q. Rauf – Author and Human Rights Activist