Rukhsana Khan’s Wanting Mor is a deeply moving story of a little girl who loses her mother and finds herself as she makes her way through a new life in Kabul

Rukhsana Khan is exactly how I had imagined her to be: warm, sensitive and wise; qualities that pervade her powerful prose. Rukhsana, an award-winning Pakistani-Canadian children’s writer, was in the city recently to speak about her novel Wanting Mor and other writings, organised by Duckbill books and Bookalore at Hippocampus.

Wanting Mor, winner of the Middle East Book Award in the youth fiction category, is a deeply touching story of a little girl Jameela, from Afghanistan. The book begins with a heart-wrenching scene of Jameela discovering her mother has passed away and her funeral, thereafter. Left with her “distant and moody father”, Jameela braves her way through her new life in Kabul, where her father remarries, armed with an dauntless spirit and loving memories of her beloved Mor (mother). Set after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Wanting Mor is also a story of triumph amid adversity.

Described as “searing” by reviewers, Wanting Mor is based on a true story. “Some years ago, I used the money from my book The Roses in My Carpets to set up a library in an orphanage in Kabul. In a report they sent me on children in crisis, there was one story of a little girl whose mother died during the war and whose father remarried. Her stepmother didn’t want her, so her father abandoned her. It broke my heart,” says Rukhsana.

I heard a whisper in my ear, ‘I thought she was sleeping’”, says Rukhsana, which is also the first line of the book. The writing touches a deep chord; you can actually feel Jameela’s loss, the loneliness she feels when she loses her Mor (mother). “The first scene is based on my close relative’s funeral,” says Rukhsana. “I call it a Hansel and Gretel story, without Hansel. It’s about how she is going to handle being in Kabul. How is she going to survive abandonment. I keep coming back to the metaphor of the firing which is in the first chapter. What makes a pot strong is the firing, if it is taken out too soon, it will crack and be of no use; my father gave me that saying. The book is about Jameela in her firing.” Rukhsana has a lot of empathy for her characters. “I write from the character’s point of view. I write to understand somebody else’s point of view.” As a child, Rukhsana faced racism and bullying. “It was so bad that only books kept me going.” Rukhsana, today, has many awards to her credit. Her book Big Red Lollipop has been named one of the 100 greatest Children’s Books by New York Public Library. “I wasn’t going to write another Huckleberry Fin or Lord of the Rings. I was going to write my own stories but be as good as them.”

A lot of Rukhsana’s stories are humorous. “Funnier stories are for younger children. The funny stories have a message in them. For instance, Ruler of the Courtyard is set in Pakistan, and is about a little girl who is afraid of the chicken in the courtyard. But then she encounters a snake and she has to face it without making a sound, because she will wake up her grandmother. This helps her overcome her fear of the chickens. The story is about a girl empowering herself. I have included lots of different concepts in the book.”