Nadine Kaadan - A Syrian Storyteller in London

Author/illustrator Nadine Kaadan began working on stories for children in Syria, before conflict obliged her to move to the UK, since when she's written and illustrated books in Arabic and in English. Here she reflects on the way her background and two languages have influenced her storytelling.

I was lucky to grow up in my favourite city, Damascus, and was even more fortunate to have been able to build a career as a children’s picture book author/illustrator. When it comes to my stories, I simply write about my childhood memories and experiences in Syria- and can’t help but be permanently inspired by the ancient city that I grew up in.  Living in Damascus simply makes writing and illustrating so exciting, there are tales hidden everywhere, and I’m continually fascinated by the rosy side of the oldest capital in the world - especially the architecture and feel of the old city. 

  Towards the end of 2012 however, I left Syria because of the war and moved to London, and then set upon writing about what I knew. Interestingly, I soon realized that my work in the UK would be labeled as ‘culturally diverse stories’. And although I initially never thought of myself as a ‘cultural diversity author’ (because I see my positionality as ‘normal’ and all I know) I’m more than happy to create stories that may help in highlighting under-represented voices in a time of extreme binaries and misrepresentation.

  When I first looked at the children’s books industry in the UK from the outside I thought I would never get published- there were too many ‘horror’ stories circulating among authors and illustrators on how competitive and difficult it is to find an agent or a publisher. I was therefore very lucky that I met my lovely publisher, Alice Curry, at the London Book Fair after an interesting panel discussion that I was part of with Daniel Hahn and Ruth Ahmedzai. I submitted to Alice and Lantana Publishing, and by April 2016 my first book in English The Jasmine Sneeze was published. It’s a story that is inspired by the magic of Damascus and its honorary citizens - cats! I speak more about The Jasmine Sneeze and Answer me, Leila on Picture book Den Blog.

  Many people ask me about my experiences of writing in both Arabic and English, and about what some of the differences between publishing in the Arab world vs. the UK are. With picture books in the Arab world, I feel that there is a much less rigid environment surrounding the process of developing a book- for better and for worse. The target age can vary from preschoolers all the way to 12 years old. In my opinion, this gives picture book authors and illustrators more freedom to be creative and to also have more fun – which is important for the end product. Don’t we all read and enjoy picture books? Then why should an 11 year old be considered too old and not be encouraged to do the same? Can’t they simply read both middle grade and picture books? Of course they can. I believe that images can be as stimulating as words and we should allow children to choose what they want to read without too much pressure of ‘that’s the right book for your age’.

In the UK, it does feel to me there is too often a ‘right way’ to do a picture book: the word count, the style of illustrations, and the topic arc are all part of the parameters that (sometimes narrowly) define what can and can’t make a picture book. Although structure is crucial, striking this delicate balance is not easy, because these rules may stifle some attempts to create picture books that otherwise can be abstract, poetic, experimental, or touch on sensitive but worthy topics. Books that do this are an invaluable addition to children’s literature, and I think it’s so important to have them alongside mainstream books.  That being said, I’ve certainly worked with wonderful editors and mentors in the UK who are very inspiring and open to experimenting and taking risks in the market.

  With regards to my writing, I am always very passionate about the beauty of the Arabic language and consider it an important part of my identity. But when I started writing in English I slowly discovered a new part of myself that I cherish. Writing in English is even developing my illustration style and visual narrative, and I’m embracing that. It has also opened up a new door where my imagination for fiction is going beyond my memory.

  Travelling across languages is such a fun journey and I always try to read my stories in both Arabic and English- even if there are only English kids in the audience, and even if the book is only published in one language. I rewrite the story in the other language and find that this gives it an added dimension when it is performed, especially since children are always fascinated to hear a foreign language alongside one that is familiar. So many kids at the end of a reading ask me how to write their names in Arabic, and some even ask to sign my books in both languages. I love it.

During a workshop that I ran at the V&A where I asked whether the children would like to write letters to Syrian refugees in support, almost all of them wanted to learn at least one word in Arabic to add to their letter. I was very moved, and for me, that is a beautiful example of how books create love and empathy, not just across languages but also across borders.

Another story-reading event where I tried to link the two languages and cultures was my latest event: Stories and Songs for Syrians.

  I’ve also been very fortunate to receive a good amount of media attention surrounding my published books and my other Syria-related activities. Recently, I was featured in a BBC short film under the title Author Nadine Kaadan helps Syrian kids understand war, where I talked about The Jasmine Sneeze and Ghadan (a story in Arabic about a little boy who lives in Syria during the war, with all the anxiety and trauma that that entails).

I feel very fortunate that I get to share some of the positive aspects of Syria (for a change) that I care about with UK readers. When there is little one can do during an ongoing and increasingly devastating war, children’s books are a great way to remind everyone (including myself) that we must not allow the conflict to colour how we see an entire culture, and the way it links to another.


Nadine Kaadan's book Answer me, Leila! an Anna Lindh Foundation award winner, is now being used to teach the Arabic language at Harvard University.  Her latest title The Jasmine Sneeze is published in the UK has been featured in the Guardian as one that ‘…sheds welcome light on Syria…and is beautifully illustrated and enormously entertaining’.
Instagram: Nadine_kaadan
Twitter: @nadinekaadan

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