Mum-of-four and bestselling author of I Love My Dad’s Long Beard and My Own Special Way, Maitha Al Khayat talks about what inspires her.
How did you become an author?
I never thought I’d become a writer. I’ve always loved reading and I’ve always shown interest in authors. But even then, I never had the urge to become an author myself. I used to work in the library at the Higher Colleges of Technology, but when I became a mother, I wanted to stay and home and be with my kids. Then later on, my sister said, ‘You’ve got to do something – how about becoming a teacher or the Arabic answer to JK Rowling?’ I didn’t take her seriously, but the idea of writing did appeal. Then I saw the movie of about the life of Beatrix Potter and I was totally enthralled. My husband, who was watching it with me said; ‘Maitha, when are you going to write some stories for us?‘ And then I thought, ‘Perhaps they are right.’ It began from there.
How are your children instrumental in the stories that you write?
I have four children aged nine, seven, five and three, so it’s not easy to find the time to write! The first book I wrote was inspired by my kids. One night when I was putting them to bed, they were whining and complaining, and I said: ‘What’s up?’ and they said; ‘We want daddy to put us to bed.’ I said, ‘Why? I do everything for you guys. Why do you want Daddy?’ and their reply was, ‘Well Daddy’s got this big cool beard – and we really like it!’ So this is where I Love My Dad’s Long Beard came from. I’m also a huge fan of children’s picture books. Whenever we go to bookshops, I’ll spend longer in the children’s section than my kids will. So writing books for my own children, about our Emirati culture, traditions and our lives today, just made sense.
Your books are available in English and Arabic. Which version came first?
I Love My Dad’s Long Beard was first published by a UK publishing house, and it was only a year later that it was translated into Arabic. I actually write in English first and the Arabic comes later on. I learned the English before my mother tongue – and I think it’s just easier for me to write creatively in English rather than Arabic. But I’m working on that and I am trying to change it. I’d like my children to be fully competent in both languages.
You illustrate your own books, too?
For my first book, I did all my own illustrations. I took my text and my drawings to a publisher, but unfortunately, they only wanted my stories and not my illustrations. So, I decided to do my own research, and I went around visiting lots of children and showing them my drawings. Their reactions were always very positive. When I told the publisher I’d had a lot of positive feedback, they still rejected my artwork, so I cut my losses and visited another publishing house. Thankfully, they loved my illustrations and the stories, and they wanted to take it all as a package.
What are the reactions from your own Emirati community?
It’s been wonderful. I’ve had so much encouragement from my family and people in the community who are really proud that an Emirati is writing and publishing these kinds of books with a degree of success. Telling stories, and sitting in gatherings so that elders can tell stories and pass them down from generation to generation, is very much part of Emirati culture. But these days people find it so much easier to put the child down in front of the television or the computer rather than taking the time to read them stories. Now, there are far more Arabic authors writing children’s picture books, the industry is mushrooming if you like. It is improving all the time – and I’m so happy to be part of that.
Ages 4+, March 10, 10am-11am, Al Majlis.