Lana Sultan: Children’s literature with a conscience

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Updated 15 July 2016

Lana Sultan: Children’s literature with a conscience

As any mother, Lana Sultan, appreciates a good children’s book to read to her son and daughter. As a mother of two as well as an author, Sultan is actively contributing to children’s literature while fortifying her stories with wonderful messages of tolerance, appreciating beauty and culture, and living green. Her latest, “What A Place!” is making positive waves with both children and parents. Born in 1979 in the United Kingdom and growing up in Jeddah, she made homes in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the UK, Spain, and China in the last 15 years. Since 2013, Sultan has been living in Beijing with her husband and two children. In these past three years in China, Sultan has formed an intense desire to learn more about the vast Chinese culture and language.
With a degree in English literature and linguistics, Sultan uses writing as a form of self-expression and to imaginatively explain issues that are important to her in a manner in which children will understand and enjoy. With her “The Amazing Adventures of Echo Boy” she introduces children to living a green life and the idea of being eco-friendly. “Once Upon A Mutant” deals with the concepts of “tolerance, self-acceptance, and change.” With the increase in multiculturalism of our times, her latest book, which is her fifth, creatively mixes English and Mandarin to portray a year’s worth of a young girl’s adventures in Beijing. To explain further, Sultan shared with Arab News her journey to children’s literature, her books, and the latest on her bilingual “What A Place!”

What brought you to a career in children’s literature?
I’ve always loved reading books, but writing allows me to express my thoughts and feelings about topics or issues I feel strongly about in a way that are easily accessible to children. I also enjoy the creative side behind writing a book. It allows me to create the book’s environment, characters, and plot in my own imaginative way without any boundaries.

Please elaborate on your latest book, “What A Place!” What inspired this story and why did you decide to make it a bilingual book?
After living in Beijing our first year, we had the privilege to experience one of the oldest cultures in the world through the four seasons. We lived through the changing colors and the extreme weather patterns. We made friends who introduced us to all the different celebrations throughout the year. Each celebration or festival comes with its own meaning, purpose, and food. The whole cycle also opened my eyes to the generosity and the warmth of the people. I felt that I wanted to capture all of that richness and warmth into my next book through the eyes of a little girl growing up in the city.
In Beijing, we live within a mixed society with friends from both the local Chinese and global expat communities who have made Beijing home. I noticed that there was keen interest from both sides to learn about each other. Everyone seems to have a desire to learn something new. My children were also learning Chinese in school and I wanted to make sure I offer them something that they can explore in two different languages.

Are you considering translating your books into other languages to reach a wider readership?
I love the idea and I am always open to new opportunities. Of course, I would like to ensure that it is not a typical standard translation, but rather an artistic one. I would like the emotion, the feeling, and the rhymes to be translated as well. This is my first printed bilingual book because I was able to work with the publishing house in Beijing to translate the story while keeping the rhyming tone. Artistic translation is much more difficult to do than standard translation. The person must master both languages and understand the subtle references and the cultural quirks behind the writing. Most importantly, the author’s feelings, purpose, and view of the plot must be reflected in the translation.

What inspired the Eco Boy series, and will there be additions to his adventures?
The “Amazing Adventures of Eco Boy” series is very special to me. First of all, it is my first book. Secondly, it tackles a topic that is very dear to me; which is green living. Of course the option remains open to add to the series. However, I wrote three books in that series in a span of three years from 2010 to 2013. I feel that I have exhausted that series. Don’t get me wrong, I love that series and both children and their parents love it, but I also didn’t want to be boxed as an author into that series only. I wanted to explore other creative avenues and that is why I wrote “Once Upon a Mutant,” and “What A Place!”
Every time I venture into a new project, I learn more about myself, and my literary capabilities. It also allows me to expand my horizon as a person. Every new project gives me the opportunity to meet new people, new illustrators, try new ideas, and explore new styles.

You’ve written five books until now, what do you hope children take away from your books?
First and foremost, I hope children simply enjoy the book. Of course, we people are unique in our own way. We all have our own personalities, so people tend to react differently to surroundings, experiences, and books. Therefore, I am sure each individual child will have his or her unique takeaway. To me, all that matters is that it is a positive one.

What sort of feedback do you receive from children as well as parents about your stories and characters?
Overall, both parents and children have reacted in a very positive way to the books. When I first released “The Amazing Adventures of Eco Boy,” children fell in love with him. Some children have told me that “The Amazing Adventures of Eco Boy” is their favorite book ever. Others have dressed up as Eco Boy and Bio Girl during Book Character Day along side other famous and global known characters such as Harry Potter, Cat in the Hat, etc.
For “What A Place!” specifically, Beijingers (people of Beijing) fell in love with the book. The local people loved the fact that a foreigner wrote a book that details their city in a way they have not done so before. Some have said that they take certain cultural habits or norms for granted. Therefore, they no longer see them in the profound way an outsider would do. They also fell in love with the detailed illustrations, which captured cultural details that are very significant and date back to tens, hundreds, and thousands of years.
Expat children and adults living in Beijing also reacted very positively to the book because it sparks certain memories with them of their time in Beijing. In fact, many young college students who are studying Mandarin in Beijing, teachers, and adults have purchased copies of the book for themselves. They felt that the book is a memoir of their time in Beijing specifically and China in general.
My son, my daughter, my husband, and I also feel that this book is a personal diary or photo album of our time as a family in China.

Do you have any updates on “What A Place!” or new projects in the works you can share with our readers?
Beyond my wildest expectations, “What A Place!” has been an instant hit here in China. The book is selling in 10 outlets in 3 different cities (Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu). Of course, China as a country is extremely advanced in e-commerce with a highly developed set of platforms. Therefore, I was able to immediately sell my book through an online shop on the WeiDian platform. The book was featured in a number of publications here in China including a full page in China Daily; which has the widest print circulation of any English-language newspaper in China. It was also featured in both the English and Mandarin editions of “Beijing Magazine.”
As for new projects, I am always ready to move on with writing my next book. People only get to see the final product when it hits the shelves, but “What A Place!” was a two-year project that kept me engaged for quite a long time. Nonetheless, I do have a new idea, which I plan on starting to work on soon.
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For information on Lana Sultan and her books please visit her website or her Instagram @WhatAPlaceByLanaSultan.

Tribal truckers, praying paramedics: mixed bag on last Daesh front

Updated 15 February 2019

Tribal truckers, praying paramedics: mixed bag on last Daesh front

NEAR BAGHOUZ: As destitute civilians stumble out of the Daesh group’s last enclave in east Syria, a mixed bag of unlikely characters are pitching in to help get them to safety.
They include a team of medics led by an American veteran and his children as well as a group of truckers from a remote Syrian town.
Close to 40,000 have fled Daesh’s last Euphrates Valley bastions into territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, in pitiful conditions after weeks of bombardment and food shortages.
Citing security concerns, global aid agencies have kept their distance from the town of Baghouz where the jihadists are making a last stand and the SDF’s limited humanitarian capacities cannot cope with the influx.
Enter the Free Burma Rangers (FBR).
Led by a US veteran and passionate Christian, David Eubank, the team of around 25 volunteers — including his wife and three children — is camped out on a plateau overlooking Baghouz that serves as the first stop for fleeing civilians.
“We’re not qualified to be here. I asked God, what would I do here?” Eubank told AFP, dressed in military fatigues and a fishing hat, a pistol holstered on his hip.
“I felt God say: ‘Give up your own way. Just come help,’” he said.
In the distance, about two dozen civilians could be seen shuffling toward the plateau from Baghouz.
Eubank and another volunteer were the first to descend the sandy bank to meet them, hoisting displaced women’s overstuffed bags over their shoulders and helping children scramble up.

One bearded volunteer tended to a thin boy’s chest wound, shouting for antibiotics in English as the child stared at him in confusion.
Eubank established the FBR in Burma in 1997, with a slogan drawn from a Bible verse calling on people to “preach good news to the poor” and “release the oppressed.”
After Daesh swept across the region in 2014, the FBR expanded to Iraq, where Eubank, his wife and their three children became local celebrities for rescuing a young Iraqi girl after her mother was killed in fighting in Mosul.
What brought them to Syria? Another message from God, said Eubank’s eldest daughter, Sahale.
“We feel like God sent us here, otherwise we wouldn’t have wanted to come,” said the 18-year-old blonde, who usually drives wounded people to the main civilian point further on but was using a quiet afternoon to study Thai in the shade of an armored personnel carrier.
When they’re not treating civilians, the rest of the team spends their spare time jogging through the Syrian plain, praying, and doing “camp stuff,” said 24-year-old volunteer Tyler Sheen.
Sheen, from Colorado, said he felt he was in the right place to witness the end of IS.
“It’s the scourge, the most talked about evil in the world so I think it’s a great place to be right now,” he told AFP.
The volunteers inevitably strike an odd figure in the Syrian plain, surrounded by gruff Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters with whom they can only communicate through translators.
When the SDF’s spokesman visited their outpost recently, Eubank grabbed his hands to lead him in prayer as a translator stood between them, as if presiding over a marriage ceremony.

But if the Eubanks are inspired by goodwill, the truckers who form another key link in the evacuation of civilians from Baghouz are motivated by financial rewards.
Once displaced families are taken to a larger collection point further away, they are screened and guided onto the backs of cargo trucks to be driven about six hours north to the Al-Hol displacement camp.
Their 11 drivers are tribesmen from the town of Al-Shuhayl, hired by the SDF at a rate of 75,000 Syrian pounds ($150) for each round-trip, which usually takes two days.
“Wherever there’s a trip we can earn from, we do it,” said one driver in his forties, Farhan Al-Ali.
Some truckers said they rely on pills to stay awake through the 600-kilometer (380-mile) round trip.
“Sometimes we get to Al-Hol at two or three in the morning, then we drive all the way back to Shuhayl,” said Abu Hamud, a 54-year-old driver with a red-and-white scarf draped over his head.
They are used to shuttling cattle or farming equipment, so the dozens of veiled women and children are an unusual — and fragile — load.
The International Rescue Committee, which works in world crisis zones, said Wednesday that 51 people, mostly newborn children, had died after arriving at Al-Hol or during the “precarious journey.”
The United Nations has called on authorities to provide more suitable transportation like buses.
“My heart aches for the kids. They’re tiny and hungry,” said Abu Hamud. “I had a 20-day-old baby die in my truck.”