Alexis (Rabiah) Lumbard York is an author of mostly children’s picture books that are aimed at younger readers, but reach readers of all ages. Many of York’s tales have Middle Eastern origins but transcend religious labels, conveying an ethereal sense of the divine that is be accessible to children of many religious and non-religious backgrounds. For more information about York, please visit her website or her featured author page on Wisdom Tales.
Interview Questions were compiled by Ariana Hussain and Hadeal Salamah
- If you feel comfortable with this question, how do you identify yourself? (i.e. religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual identity, gender, etc.)
I feel most comfortable identifying myself as a simple human being. I like the Quranic word nafs, or soul, because it is related to your mental state and character and that is what I’d like to be identified the most with–at least that part of us which strives be more–the higher nafs. Outwardly we can be any ethnicity, nationality, gender or orientation–none of which I think matters all that much. It’s the stuff on the inside which matters. But outwardly, yes, I’m American, white, heterosexual and female. My inward life is very much defined by my religion (Islam) but it isn’t the only expression of truth which speaks to me. I guess you can say I am a human trying to enjoy life and not leave too much of a trace, except for those traces which are beautiful and harmless.
- You say on your blog that if it weren’t for motherhood that you would not have become an author and that the books that you wanted to read to your daughters did not exist. Could you expand on this?
Sure! Over a decade ago, when I was expecting my second daughter and my first was old enough to move from board books to longer stories, I was searching for titles which could expose her to Islam or Muslim characters. I was especially looking for something to teach her about the life of the prophet (peace be upon him) and apart from Demi’s book there was nothing of quality in English. And while Demi’s book is beautiful, it was too mature (too long and too complex) for a young child. So I thought I should write one myself! Haa! I soon realized that writing was difficult. I also realized that I loved the process and kept to it–attending SCBWI conferences and reworking the story. Because it was faith-based I decided to self publish it as an app. It is still one of my favorite books, but it never really took off, I think in part because we chose to illustrate the Prophet visually (face covered, though). At any rate, it was a valuable experience and I hope to resurrect the story in some form shortly.
- Two of your books The Conference of the Birds and When the Animals Saved the Earth are illustrated by Demi. Demi’s illustration are a perfect pairing to your text, which is so lovely, lyrical and spiritual. Was this a choice that your editor made alone? Did you have any input or was it just a lucky pairing?
Great question. Typically speaking, books are first accepted by a publisher in manuscript form. A writer painstakingly creates a story, submits it to publishers and hopes someone grabs it. It is then the responsibility of the publisher to find an illustrator. Most larger publishers do not seek the input of the author. They have a design team and the design team executes the choice. There are exceptions, though, especially with smaller publishers. In my case this book had many exceptions to the rule, for after I wrote a final draft for The Conference of the Birds, I first contacted Demi and she pounced on it (having always wanted to illustrate the book). She told me to sell it and I did (Wisdom Tales Press, 2012). It was an unusual pathway to publication.
- The Conference of the Birds and When the Animals Saved the Earth are both based off of Persian Sufi poetry and a century old fable respectively. How did you come to select these works to interpret?
My husband is an academic. His speciality is Islamic studies, especially classical Islam, so he often feeds me interesting story ideas. Sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t! I have to be able to first wrap my head around the original story and feel compelled to adapt it for children (and then to figure out how exactly to do that!). I also enjoy browsing academia.edu for ideas, which can lead one in fascinating directions. The site posts more articles than full books, which I find easier to digest.
- Your books are very spiritual and sophisticated, yet Conference of the Birds is labeled as being for readers ages 4-8. There is a sense of love for God, humility, and longing. When you have presented the story to younger readers what has their perception been of the story, especially the trials of each of the birds (i.e. the hawk and the partridge)? What do they take away from the book and its message?
It is true that there is a vast world of difference, cognitively and developmentally speaking, from age 4 to 8. This is one of the challenges of picture books. How do we create a story that can be understood and enjoyed by such a wide range of little people? Honestly, when I adapted The Conference of the Birds, it was easier in my mind to focus on the higher end of that age group. But as I toured schools and mosques and read the book to audiences who were closer to the younger end of that spectrum, I realized that little kids can and do understand–though it is more visceral–less “academic.” We stop and talk about the size of the bird or the speed of a bird and how or why that might symbolize some of the ideas presented in the book. They get it. You can see it in their eyes–the way they light up and widen. It is magical to see and has taught me to never underestimate your audience.
- We talk a lot about windows and mirrors for marginalized readers and readers of color. Where and when did you first see yourself in literature? We recognize that identity is intersectional, so please do list multiple titles, if applicable, that coincide with your identity.
As a child I wasn’t an avid reader. I read what I needed to–for school and homework–but I didn’t read freely and spontaneously as my own children do. Most of my memories are of playing outside and getting dirty in the creek behind our northern Virginia townhome or as a teen hiking in the Shenandoah mountains. Nature was my favorite book and nature never discriminates. Once I actually converted to Islam (as an older teen–18), I was focused more on academic books–on learning my new religion. So the issue at that time was moot to me. And that was pre-September 11th. The world has changed a great deal since then. But now, as a parent and an author, I’m undoubtedly passionate about intersectional books–fiction and nonfiction–which speak to the wide experience of American Islam. There are more books coming out which reflect this, but it is still a small percentage (then again we’re a tiny group). I’m curious how my own kids would answer this question. Only my eldest, now a teen, remembers what it was like growing up in the states. We currently live outside Dubai and are moving soon to Doha. Both countries are very international. My kids are third culture kids. Back home they are religious minorities. Here they are ethnic minorities. Most of their classmates (who are mostly Arab or South Asian) cannot believe they are “actually Muslim.” Because they are “white” and ‘American.” In a way, we are constantly “explaining” ourselves (overseas and at home). On that level our identities are flexible and I think that is a healthy approach.
- What other authors and titles in the area of “spirituality” for children do you appreciate or recommend reading? How does their work impact your own?
Sometimes I find the word “spiritual” to be off-putting. So rather than recommend books which are “spiritual” I think it is much easier to speak of books which are written from the heart (so much less pressure on the writer and the reader). To that end, I highly recommend picture book author and illustrator Leo Lionni, middle grade authors Kate DiCamillo, Pam Munoz Ryan and Sharon M. Draper, and YA authors John Green, Renee Watson, A.S. King, and Jacqueline Woodson. A book which recently brought tears to my eyes is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I love it when a book compels me weep. I also have to give a shout out to Canadian author Rukhsana Khan and British writer Naima B. Roberts–for they write with soul and are true survivors (of this crazy industry called publishing). They give me hope.
- Do you feel that books featuring Muslims are being created and marketed in a positive way? Are there trends you like or hope will change? For children?
Yes. On the whole the direction is positive. Children’s book editors are generally speaking some of the kindest, most thoughtful people you will work with–much like librarians! They’re our strongest allies. The only caution I’d give editors and the kidlit world in general is to be careful not to tokenize. Islam is not monolithic and Muslims are complicated human beings just like any other group of people. We are nuanced and diverse–in our beliefs, practices, and make-up. Demographically speaking, the majority of the American Muslim community is not of an recent immigrant background. The majority is 24% white and 24% black–from convert backgrounds. I’d like to see more of their stories, too. I’d also like to see more non-fiction coming out–especially the forgotten history of American Islam from old slave narratives to contemporaries stories about the influence of indigenous Muslim Americans on contemporary American culture.
- What is the best feedback that you have received from a reader? What is surprising (good or bad) feedback that you have received about your books?
I have a really simple concept-book called Angels. I wrote it for toddlers to comfort them before they go to sleep, but I’ve had a quite a few people write to me and tell me how much the story meant to an elderly person in their life–someone who felt alone and was approaching death. If I can bring someone comfort at the end of their life, too, then mashallah…I feel like I’ve done something meaningful… something good.
- As a child what book helped shape your sense of spirituality or your sense of God? As an adult, what books help you to reinforce and grow in spirituality?
I grew up in a secular, Protestant household. There weren’t many books in my home which shaped my sense of the divine. I was, however, raised on a steady diet of the Berenstain Bears. I still have some of those books. They’re not very well written and can be both hokey and didactic, but something about them always resonated with me. Maybe it goes back to the nature-thing and how I’ve always wanted to live in a tree. They also present a world that is wholesome and family-based and I think that is wonderful. As an adult, my go to spiritual books are often collections of poetry–usual Persian. I love both Rumi and Hafez, but so, too, my namesake, Rabiah (not Persian).
- What are you reading now?
I’m finishing up my first YA novel and I’ve been reading a ton of academic journals and online blogs about the history of religious and white supremacy in the United States. It’s very depressing. On a positive note, I’m reading Betty Before X by Ilyasah Shabazz and Renee Watson via my kindle. Strong women who have known struggle give me hope. Hope and strength. Such qualities are needed. Especially in our current political climate.
- What books are on your #Muslimshelfspace?
I read and support everyone, especially the ladies. In no particular order here’s a sampling: Samira Ahmed, Randa Abdel-Fattah, S.K. Ali, Sadiya Faruqi, Karuna Riazi, Nayyirah Waheed, Uzma Jalaluddin, Ilyasah Shabazz, Hena Khan, Intinsar Khanani, G. Willow Wilson and Jamilah Thompkins Bigelow. Now these are the contemporary kidlit authors. We’ve got lots of books in Arabic, too. Mostly from the past. For that I’d have to take up a lot more of your time!
- What do your children think about your books?
They are wonderfully supportive and age-wise they span all the genres I love working with from picture book to Middle Grade to Young Adult. My eldest is a teen and she’s a fine critic of everything–my own work included.
- What are you working on next?
Big secret! But it will be my first non-fiction series and the main character is a horse. A very, very smart horse.
- What is the best way to support Muslim authors, agents, editors, librarians and those involved in creating Muslim literature?
Read, read, read. Seriously, put your money and your time where it matters the most–the future of our kids.
- What do you hope the literature world looks like for Muslims in the coming years? In 20 years?
I hope it is thriving. And I hope a Muslim wins the Newbery Medal and another the Caldecott (seriously, where are all the Muslim illustrators?) and that we become heroes and role models for non-Muslims, too. I’d also like to see Muslims putting money toward writing grants and scholarships. Writers need all kinds of support. Mosques should support these endeavors, too.
- How do you hope your work can impact the Muslim community? How do you hope your work can impact perceptions of Muslims?
I few years back at RIS (Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference) I met a young Somali girl who wanted to be a writer when she grew up. She also wanted to take a photo with me (and I with her!). I hope that I meet her again, in ten to fifteen years, and see that she has made it. In short, I’d love to see that work that I do and others like me continues to inspire younger Muslims to share their voice and their stories. I hope this has a ripple effect with society at large so people stop seeing us as boogeymen.
- Are there any words of wisdom that you would like to pass on to young writers?
Don’t limit yourself to one genre. Try your hand at a genre you don’t even read. The best parts of life are “accidental” discoveries. You are capable of so much more than you think.
- What is something that you would like your readers to know about you?
I know what it is like to approach a group of strangers and to have them give you the cold shoulder for no reason at all (at least not a valid one). I know what it is like to learn a second language and to be laughed at when you’re struggling to communicate. I know what it like to move far from home and start over–broken and hurt. But I also know that all of these things can make you stronger…even if it doesn’t feel like it. Don’t give up. Don’t quiet down. Always be you. That in itself is a wonderful gift to the rest of us. We need your story–all the bits–good, beautiful and still-in-the-making.