Friday, September 14, 2018

Writer Spotlight: Fatma Al Lawati

Writer Spotlight: Fatma Al Lawati

How did your early life shape your present-day writing?

Early childhood experiences have a considerable impact in shaping our lives, and I believe my father greatly influenced mine. The education system was officially introduced to Oman in 1970. Most did not have the opportunity to receive a formal education prior to that year. 

However, a few people had the chance to receive a limited education through either private schools in the capital of Oman or Quranic schools across the country. Unlike the fathers of most of my friends, my father was among the few who was educated in a private school. We had a modest library in our house, with books written by well-known authors. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to explore them from a very early age. 

As we did not have access to any children’s books, my father resorted to telling us stories about history and historical/religious figures. Storytelling played a substantial role in my upbringing. It was the late seventies before there were any bookstores Muttrah (the city I grew up in) and we started receiving children books from Egypt and Lebanon. 

Being the first child, I received a considerable amount of attention from my father. He was always reading to me and encouraging me. All of my books were part of his library. After he passed away, I found out that he was collecting all my published newspaper articles.

What obstacles did you face in the pursuit of your doctorate?

This is a hard question to answer now. Coming to the United States with four children, my husband and I were both looking to earn our higher education degrees. It was really a big challenge. All the obstacles that we faced, either social, cultural, financial and linguistic, are now good memories that we cherish. Weighing the obstacles at that time, many of our friends thought that it was not a wise decision to make this move. But now, we have many stories to tell. We are glad that we all overcame all those obstacles and are also happy that a new member was added to our family! So instead of four children, we now have a fifth child who joined us while I was finishing the first year of my Ph.D. He is now in a college student!

You’ve published a number of educational studies on gifted students in Islamic-American schools. What attracted you to that subject?

My adviser, Dr. Scott Hunsaker, at Utah State University suggested that I explore the field of gifted education in the Islamic-American schools. He was a great help to me, and he told me once that he is now considered an expert in the Islamic Education field and is often approached by colleagues.

There are a limited number of people who specialize in the area of gifted education in the Arab World; as far as I know, I am the only Omani. It is important to have people in this field as there are gifted students in every country and every culture who deserve our attention. Also, the field of gifted education from the Islamic perspective had not been explored much at that time. Despite the limited research in this field, I think I came up with quite unique Islamic theories; however we need to continue focusing on it as it continues to require ongoing research and attention.

Cover art for "Does the Moon Still Play with Children?"

In your blog you’ve also written numerous articles about children’s literature, Oman and cancer (?) How do all of these various topics intersect in you?

I used to write a column on different topics related to social, educational, and national matters in a few Omani and international papers. I recently wrote about children who suffer from cancer. This two-part article was the outcome of my visit to the children’s cancer ward in a governmental hospital in Oman. In the column, I focused on the social and educational needs of children suffering from cancer in Oman. 

To answer your question, I feel I have an obligation to write about hope, and to spread awareness about any matter related to the suffering of children.  My blog contains a collection of my written work and includes the titles of my children’s books, with the exception of recent publications.    

Your first picture book featuring Majid (Majid’s Teeth) was published in 2013. You followed that up with 2015’s Majid Goes to the Beach and 2017’s Majid Doesn’t Like Waiting. What do you find so compelling about your character, Majid?
Cover for "Majid's Teeth"

I chose the name “Majid” because it means “glorious” in Arabic. It is also a name that  is easy for Arab children of different age groups to pronounce. The character Majid in my books enjoys exploring things around him which lead him to learn new things.

In 2016, you started publishing numerous picture books. That year saw the birth of Layan Plants a School, Ola Wonders, and Why Did the Birds Fly Away? In 2017, five new titles were published! What caused the explosion of creativity?

Cover for"Maryam's Journal"

I had stopped writing briefly, then began pursuing my PhD and had no plans of publishing. However, I continued to write on my own periodically. In 2004 I returned to Oman after earning my degree and began writing my first novel, The Call. I noticed then that there was a demand from parents for good children’s books. I also realized that some publishers selected books based on their relationships with the authors rather than the quality of the material.
In 2015, I realized that there was an increasing number of children who were affected by war in our part of the world; the idea of “Project Peace” came to mind. The mission of this project is to provide free books to children with the hopes to plant ideas of peace in their minds through creative, imaginative, and fun ways—ways that bring smiles to those young readers. I found it a challenge to find a publisher who was willing to support this cause as it would result in marginally low profits. 
So, we decided as a family to start our own publishing company- Mayaseen Publishing LLC, in order to create and support “Project Peace”. The company was established in Michigan, USA and all but two of the books were printed in two versions — one for “Project Peace” and the other for sale. The large number of recent books was motivated mainly by this project that enabled me to provide good quality books for children in need and has resulted in continuous efforts to publish books. Recently, we published our first English book written by an American author.

You’ve had a different illustrator for each picture book. Which artists came closest to capturing your vision?
Cover art for "The Bubble"
I believe each book has its own uniqueness. I am also of the opinion that we need to give children opportunities to experience different illustrations. Therefore, I try to involve several illustrators, while making sure that their style flows with the type of story.   

2017’s The Obtuse Angle was edited by Husain Al Lawati. Any relation?

“The Obtuse Angle” is based on the life of my second cousin who suffered from diabetes at a young age. Husain Al-Lawati, my husband, has always been my number one supporter. He is always the first to read and edit any book/chapter/article that I write, and this book is no exception. He always provides me with valuable feedback and has invested greatly in editing this book. We also hired both a professional editor and designer, with whom my husband worked closely, to oversee anything that he may have overlooked. I could not have done all of this without my husband’s support, dedication, and continuous help.

These picture books are published by Mayaseen Publishing and are available on Kindle. What have been the challenges and rewards of publishing on Kindle?

The picture books have all been published on paper in Arabic. However, I wanted these books to reach out to a wider audience. They have since then been translated to English and published on Kindle. This is a completely new experience for me and allows English readers the ability to explore books originally published in Arabic.

Mayaseen Publishing participates in what it calls Project Peace. “Our mission is to provide free books to children who have been affected by war. We wish to provide a sense of hope through these books, a hope that could allow these children to grow up carefree, in a world they deserve to grow up in.” Are you or your books part of this humanitarian action?

Mayaseen Publishing was formed with the idea of “Project Peace”. With the start of wars and instability in the Arab world, I wanted to be able to provide children with creative and educational books. After numerous attempts to work with various publishing companies to make this happen, I realized that I would be charged unreasonable prices. I therefore decided to start Mayaseen Publishing and have since been able to distribute more than 8,000 books to children in affected areas within one year.

You’re featured in a 2016 YouTube video of a conference with photos featuring some of your books. What conference was this, and what part did you play in it?

The You Tube video was created for a 4-day workshop that I conducted through Abjad Center covering the most important elements in writing for children. This workshop was supported by a few local businesses. As a part of this workshop, a total of three children books written during the workshop were selected, edited, and later published. Publication costs were a part of the workshop budget.

In the midst of these multiple picture books is one novel, titled The Call. According to the description, it appears to be a supernatural thriller featuring Ahmad and Lamya, two university students transplanted to the United States with their family, who hear a strange voice which changes their lives.

Published in 2012 by Dar al-Fikr, this seems to be your first published work. Was this a one-and-done, or might you write other novels in the future?

Yes, this is my first and only novel for young adults. I currently have no intention of writing any novels catered for adults. However, I have in mind another novel for teens and plan to begin writing soon.

When and where did you find SCBWI?

I became acquainted with SCBWI in 2009. At the time, I was at the University of Virginia as a Fulbright scholar and had hopes of meeting authors of children’s books. I contacted some and became aware of SCBWI. Unfortunately, this happened only shortly prior to my departure. After a number of attempts to attend SCBWI conferences, I finally joined SCBWI last year and attended the conference in Los Angeles earlier this month. I had a spectacular time and am truly grateful for becoming a part of this community.

What’s next for you?

In addition to writing books for children and youth, I plan on working to increase Mayaseen
Mayaseen logo: Salam in Arabic and Peace in English
Publishing LLC book sales by focusing on our marketing strategies to ensure that we can continue supporting “Project Peace.” Secondly, we are working on expanding outside of the Arab World. We have decided to open our doors to two children or youth stories in English every year through Mayaseen Publishing LLC. 

Fatma Al Lawati has a PhD in  Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on Gifted Education. 

Of Mayaseen Publishing LLC and "Project Peace," she writes:

We do not  accept any direct money, however we welcome any help with distribution of books to children in affected countries, or help with the illustrating, designing, writing, editing of books; and of course the purchase of books is always welcome! All of this will ultimately support Project Peace.

The best way to reach us will be by email: 

Charlie Barshaw is proud to be an editor for The Mitten, a member of the SCBWI-MI Advisory Committee, a PAL, and part of the Michigan Reading Association Board. Yes, he's still revising  the YA novel, "Aunt Agnes."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post! I met Fatma and her husband at SCBWI LA and enjoyed hearing a little bit about Fatma's mission and work. She brings valuable experience and passion to our community.