Children's literature should never be in-your-face preachy or moralistic: Khyrunnisa A


Sreeshma Eriyatu

Interview

Khyrunnisa A

Khyrunnisa A is an an award-winning writer of children’s fiction who created the popular comic character 'Butterfingers' for the magazine, Tinkle. She carried the character over to publish a series of books by Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin Random House. Her seven books in the series so far include four sports-based novels- 'Howzzat Butterfingers!', 'Goal, Butterfingers!', 'Clean Bowled, Butterfingers!', and 'Smash It, Butterfingers!’. Three collections of short stories are- 'The Misadventures of Butterfingers', 'Run, It’s Butterfingers Again!' and 'Of Course It’s Butterfingers!'.

Excerpts from the interview:

‘Butterfingers’ has made you a world-renowned writer. What made you choose children’s literature to tell stories? How did you start writing?

It happened quite by chance. I didn't set out to become either a writer in general or a children's writer in particular- becoming a writer had never been my ambition. We used to get the Mumbai-based magazine 'Tinkle' for my young son. One day I noticed that the publication was conducting an All India competition for adult writers of children's fiction. Just for the fun of it, I sent in an entry. That was a sports-based fun short story titled, 'Butterfingers!'. I later used that framework for my first novel 'Howzzat Butterfingers!.

The second prize I won made me feel quite satisfied. A few months later, the assistant editor of Tinkle who happened to come to Thiruvananthapuram from Mumbai for personal reasons, paid me a visit because her colleagues in the Tinkle office loved my story and gave her my address, and asked her to meet me to find out if I was as lively as my story. I was thrilled to have an editor visit me. When I told her I wasn't planning to send an entry to the next year's competition, she was quite shocked and said I had 'low ambitions'. She encouraged me to write. She was responsible, or her visit was responsible, for me becoming a writer.

And I went on to win seven consecutive first prizes, and other Children's Book Trust prizes and the Unison 2007 Children's Fiction Award. The writing bug bit me and I began to enjoy writing. And because I had started with children's stories, I found myself stuck in them. But now I have come out with two books for adults - 'Tongue in Cheek: The Funny Side of Life' and 'Chuckle Merry Spin: Us in the U.S'.

What was the reason to choose Amar Kishen and his friends as your characters?

The first story I wrote for Tinkle, the one that got the prize, was 'Butterfingers'. A few years later, when the associate editor of Tinkle asked me to create a regular character for the magazine, I went back to Butterfingers because, though I had written quite a few stories by this time, this clumsy, fun-loving character was a family favourite. He was living in my head. In the original story, his real name is Mukesh. But both the Tinkle editor and I felt the name Mukesh didn't suit ‘Butterfingers’ and I decided to change the name to Amar, which is the name of my son. I invented the surname Sen for the Tinkle stories and changed that to Kishen when the Penguin published it as books. So, Butterfingers's real name as a comic character in Tinkle is Amar Sen and in the Butteringers series of books, it is Amar Kishen. And I gave the names of my son's friends to the names of 'Butterfingers's friends in the comics and the books. But I only borrowed the names. The characters are not based on my son or his friends. I created them out of my imagination.

According to you, what is writing? Have you consciously tried to bring any special ideas or alterations to children’s literature? Do you think there is a need to broaden the horizon of children’s literature in the country?

I think the main purpose of writing is to bring joy and insight to the reader and creative satisfaction to the writer. Writers have different reasons for writing. I love reading all kinds of books, but I have a special fondness for humorous books. So when I started writing, I wrote humorous, fun-filled stories. I want my books to de-stress readers, but interspersed with the humour are serious issues that should make them think.

Children's literature should never be in-your-face preachy or moralistic. That's what it used to be earlier. But now the horizon of children's literature has already broadened, and it is heartening that there are all kinds of exciting books now on the Indian children's literature market.

There is no fantsay in my writings because my writings are realistic. There is no horror either. Or evil. Or tragedy. Or magic. Or sentimentalism. I don't feel comfortable writing these. I think writers should write according to their strengths. I don't wish to write fantsay just to prove I can write it. I choose to write what I feel I am good at. Let others write about fantsay, horror etc.

Has your profession as a professor influenced or helped you in any way with writing?

In two ways. One is that when you teach literature, you are in touch with different kinds of books and you give critical attention to each. You are also aware of the importance of different aspects of a novel, play, short story, poetry or nonfiction. So all this helps when you write because you can look critically at your own writing.

The second way in which it has helped me is that it has kept me in close touch with students and has helped me understand their minds, what interests them and so on. I also get a lot of ideas from observing them.

Generally, people consider writing sports or humour very tough. How do you see it?

As I said earlier, I don't find humour difficult to handle. Being the youngest of eight children, I had to use humour to stand up to my siblings. We used a lot of humour while talking at home and that also helped me hone my skills. And I love sports and have always followed sports. These may be tricky areas for those who are unfamiliar with sports or humour, but writing to a large extent depends on what interests you and what you think you are good at. For example, some writers might find writing horror stories very easy, but I don't think I'd like to try my hand at it.

About your roots in Kerala

Actually my family belongs to Tamil Nadu. My father was a postmaster and he wanted to educate his eight children. When he was posted in Thiruvananthapuram, everyone told him it was an ideal place for education and he chose to settle down here. All of us studied in schools and colleges in Thiruvananthapuram. I married a Malayali and you can call me a naturalised Malayali. I love Thiruvananthapuram and consider myself a native of the city.

Children now-a-days are busy with social media and the digital world. What do you think can be done to attract children to books with the help of children’s literature?

Yes, this is a matter of serious concern. It's getting more and more difficult to take children away from the screen and get them to read the page. They are impatient and want instant gratification which digital media provides. But it isn't impossible to make readers of them. Parents, teachers and librarians have a significant role to play in getting children interested in books. A house that has books in it will encourage children to read. If parents read, children will follow. Small children must be told interesting stories in an exciting, interesting way or have stories read out. Once they are encouraged to use their imagination, they will understand the riches books can provide and will become readers for life. Children love to laugh. So humorous stories can be used to get them interested in reading similar books. Research has proved that those who read become well-adjusted individuals in their adult life and become achievers too.

You have chosen English as the medium for your writing. ‘Butterfingers’ has been translated to Malayalam. How do you feel?

I have chosen English for that is the language I know best, the language I love and am passionate about. I am Urdu-speaking and though I can speak and understand basic Malayalam, I, unfortunately, never learnt to read or write the language. But I've always wanted my books to be translated into Malayalam and other languages so that they can reach more readers.

It gives me special joy that 'Howzzat Butterfingers!', my first novel, has finally been translated into Malayalam and has been brought out by Mathrubhumi. But it has just come out; so I will have to wait to know about the response from Malayalis.

Children’s fiction attracts people irrespective of their age groups. Do you try to present any political or social issues through your writing?

Yes, indeed it does. I know so many older people who enjoy children's books. I don't present any political issues in my writing but as I told you earlier, I am concerned about the environment and some social issues and present them in a veiled way, and often through humour. For example, in 'Smash It, Butterfingers!', a badminton-based novel that came out last year, I deal with superstitions but in a veiled and light-hearted way.

Are you working on anything new?

I am working on my next Butterfingers book and another book for adults.

You have received several accolades for your writing. What are the responses that you receive for your writing? Do these awards serve as an inspiration?

Yes, they are an inspiration because awards are an official recognition of your talent as a writer and inspire you to write more and better.

Can we expect to see any adaptations of ‘Butterfingers’ on the big screen? Have you considered it?

I would love it if 'Butterfingers' appears on the big screen. I am certain it will appeal to youngsters if the novels are made into full length movies. But I also think that the Butterfingers stories can be serialised. If some good publishing house comes forward to adapt Butterfingers for the big or the small screen, I'd love that. But it has to be done well. I'm waiting.

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Khyrunnisa A

Khyrunnisa A is an an award-winning writer of children’s fiction who created the popular comic character 'Butterfingers' for the magazine, Tinkle. She carried the character over to publish a series of books by Puffin, the children’s imprint of Penguin Random House. Her seven books in the series so far include four sports-based novels- 'Howzzat Butterfingers!', 'Goal, Butterfingers!', 'Clean Bowled, Butterfingers!', and 'Smash It, Butterfingers!’. Three collections of short stories are- 'The Misadventures of Butterfingers', 'Run, It’s Butterfingers Again!' and 'Of Course It’s Butterfingers!' A short story collection, Lost in Ooty and Other Adventure stories, brought out by Unisun Publications, was her first book.

Her first book for adults, Tongue in Cheek: The Funny Side of Life (2019), published by Westland, is a humorous take on the misadventures of an urban woman. She has published two collections of animal-based short stories for children, The Lizard of Oz and Other Stories (2019), published by Scholastic India and The Crocodile Who Ate Butter Chicken for Breakfast and Other Stories (2020) published by Red Panda, the children’s imprint of Westland, and a delightful novella, ‘Baby and Dubdub (2021), published by Talking Cub, the children’s imprint of Speaking Tiger.

She writes regularly for the magazine Dimdima, a Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan publication and occasionally freelances for other publications. Some of her stories, for children and for adults, have been published in various anthologies by Puffin, Talking Cub, Children’s Book Trust, Hindu Young World and Unisun Publications. She was a columnist for The New Indian Express and The Hindu MetroPlus.

She worked as Associate Professor of English at All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram, and she is now a full-time writer.

Visit her at www.khyrunnisa.com and connect with her at khyrubutter@gmail.com.

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