Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Rina Singh and Farida Zaman

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Nearly Nonsense, by Rina Singh and Farida Zaman

Children's author Rina Singh and illustrator Farida Zaman talk to Open Book about their work habits, their creative influences and their new book, Nearly Nonsense: Hoja Tales from Turkey, published this spring with Tundra Books.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book Nearly Nonsense.

Rina Singh:

Nearly Nonsense is a collection of ten tales from Turkey. They are funny stories but each one contains either an insight into human nature or shows the Sufi way to handle life’s daily problems. On the surface they may appear nonsensical, but the reader must dig deeper to get to the kernel of wisdom.

OB:

What is a Turkish Hoja Tale, and what purpose do these tales serve?

RS:

Nasrudin Hoja was a teacher in Turkey in the 13th century. His wit and wisdom are so legendary that many countries claim him as their own. He is a combination of a Sufi saint and the archetypal fool. His stories are anecdotal in nature and are told all over Turkey as jokes.

Let me tell you a Hoja story: A first-time visitor to Hoja’s town came upon a funeral procession. He tapped Hoja on the shoulder and asked, “Who died?” Hoja looked at the stranger and said, “I’m pretty sure it was the man in the coffin.”

The moral of the story is — if you ask a stupid question, you’ll get a stupid answer. So I would say a Hoja tale is to Sufism what a koan is to Zen Buddhism.

OB:

Why did you want to bring these Hoja Tales to a North American audience?

RS:

Hoja stories are already a favourite in storytelling circles in North America and they are much-loved throughout Asia. I felt they deserved a wider audience. I also think we can all use a little more wisdom, a little more laughter in our lives.

OB:

How did you decide which Hoja tales to include in Nearly Nonsense?

RS:

That wasn’t easy because there are countless stories. I had to obviously let go of the very short ones. I guess I chose the ones that would make me laugh and teach me a lesson or two.

OB:

Farida, how did you determine the style for the illustrations to the tales?

Farida Zaman:

My goal was to make these rich timeless tales from Turkey appealing to the North American audience by giving the illustrations a bright, humorous and contemporary look, contrasting it with patterns and colours inspired by Middle Eastern and Islamic art and architecture.

OB:

Is there a particular illustration in the book that is your favourite?

RS:

My favourite illustration is on the back cover where Hoja is sitting backwards on his donkey. It’s such a Hoja moment and Farida captured it perfectly.

FZ:

I like "The Pumpkin."

OB:

Where do you do your best creative work?

RS:

I work best when I’m alone at my desk. I’m in love with the idea of writing in a coffee shop but it just hasn’t worked for me. I don’t drink coffee and there is too much distraction.

FZ:

I prefer to work in my own home studio.

OB:

What books did you read as children that had a lasting impact on you?

RS:

My favourite childhood memory is of me falling off a couch laughing while reading Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. He has to be the funniest man of his time. Twain’s writing style continues to inspire me. He said that humour is mankind’s greatest blessing and genuine humour is replete with wisdom. Like Hoja, like Twain.

FZ:

I remember reading Alice In the Wonderland, Aesop's Fables and Enid Blyton's stories, as well as Beatrix Potter, Roald Dahl and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

OB:

Who are your favourite authors or illustrators?

RS:

I love Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein. I’ve always loved nonsense that makes a lot of sense at a deeper level. I admire writing that is humorous, spiritual and poetic with a touch of nonsense.

I like Jane Ray’s illustration style because it’s rich and decorative. I also like Ed Young because his illustrations are lyrical.

FZ:

Jane Ray is one of my favourite illustrators too. And I love the work of Ludmila Zeman, Ruth Ohi, Bill Slavin, Beverly Cleary, J.K. Rowling, Margaret Brown and Eric Carle.

OB:

What are you both working on now?

RS:

I just finished editing a biography which is coming out later this year. I have an idea humming in my head. But like Hoja would say — it doesn’t have a name yet.

FZ:

I am working on developing some of my own stories and illustrations for publication — in particular children’s stories and folk stories, and writing to reflect contemporary kids and their current interests.


Rina Singh was born in India and immigrated to Canada in 1980. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Concordia University and a teaching degree from McGill University. Before moving from Montreal to Toronto, she taught creative writing to gifted children. She has since written several critically acclaimed books for children. Her book A Forest of Stories has been translated into several languages and her poems and short stories have appeared in several Canadian literary journals. She has also exhibited photography in many Toronto galleries. Rina Singh teaches art and drama in Toronto, where she lives with her restaurateur husband and their two children.



A graduate of the Chelsea College of Art in London and London’s Wimbledon School of Art, Farida Zaman has been an illustrator and designer for over two decades. Her work has been used in print advertising, consumer packaging, websites, greeting cards and stationery. She has illustrated numerous children’s books and textbooks, and her illustrations have been used in national newspapers and magazines throughout Britain, Canada and the United States. Farida Zaman lives in Toronto with her husband and two children.

For more information about Nearly Nonsense: Hoja Tales from Turkey please visit the Tundra Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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