By Khadejah Khan
Today we’re pleased to welcome author Anoosha Syed to the WNDB blog to discuss her debut picture book That’s Not My Name!, out July 12, 2022!
Mirha is so excited for her first day of school! She can’t wait to learn, play, and make new friends. But when her classmates mispronounce her name, she goes home wondering if she should find a new one. Maybe then she’d be able to find a monogrammed keychain at the gas station or order a hot chocolate at the cafe more easily.
Mama helps Mirha to see how special her name is, and she returns to school the next day determined to help her classmates say it correctly–even if it takes a hundred tries.
Welcome to the blog! Tell us a bit about your background. You’ve lived in multiple places, no doubt that shaped you. So tell us who you are and where you’re from.
Hi, I’m Anoosha Syed. I’m 28 years old. I’m Pakistani-Canadian. I grew up living around the world because of my dad’s job, so I grew up mostly in Saudi Arabia, then Dubai, then back to Pakistan. I was there for high school. I did my bachelor’s in illustration in Switzerland at a French-speaking art school, so I’m also fluent in French. I hopped back and forth between Canada and Texas, but now I’m living in Toronto with my husband and cat, Link.
You have a very unique name, Anoosha. I can only imagine that this served as inspiration for the book. What’s the meaning behind your name and your experience growing up with a unique moniker?
According to my parents, my name is a Turkish word that means happiness. I’ve had a complicated relationship with my name because people get it wrong constantly, which is a pretty universal experience. There are moments in the book which directly draw from my experience, like when Mirha gets called the wrong name by her gym teacher. That happened to me when I was in fifth grade; my gym teacher called me “Anooshka,” and I was a really shy kid, so I didn’t say anything for six months. And even though I grew up in the Middle East, it was a very white school, so people got my name wrong all the time. I had insecurities about my name and felt so “other.”
My name is not one that I can turn into a nickname, either. I tried to change it up as I got older and rebranded myself as “Annie,” which stuck for a while. I have a complicated relationship with my name—I still don’t love it—but eventually, I realized that this is the name that my parents gave me. They loved it for a reason, and I do feel like it fits me. It’s also helped me in my career: there are very few “Anooshas” out there and very few “Anoosha Syeds”—I’m the first, maybe only one if you Google my name!
Upsides to a unique name! So what inspired this story? Why did you want to write this particular story for your author-illustrator debut?
I knew that for my author debut, I wanted it to be something deeply connected to me, something really personal. I brainstormed different ideas about my culture, etc. Then I had a conversation with my husband, and we talked about names and identity. We’ve both had similar experiences but took different approaches. His name is Danyal, but growing up in Canada, everyone called him “Daniel.” I don’t know anyone who calls him by his real name, to the point that I feel weird calling him Danyal! He took the approach of integrating, I guess, and discarding that cultural identity. For him, he said, “I guess it’s fine. You do what you can to fit in.”
I felt really bad about that for him, and I wondered about all the kids from the diaspora living in the western world who have his experience, too—feeling like they have to shed their identity to fit in, or they won’t get anywhere in life, and they have to change themselves to make it easy for other people. I felt that was wrong, and that isn’t the message kids of the diaspora should receive while growing up. So I decided that this is what I want my first story to be about.
I agree completely—that’s a great message. One of the overarching themes in the story is acceptance. How important is it for young readers to see their uniqueness accepted for themselves, but also accepted amongst others?
I think it’s really important because it’s one thing for you to embrace your own heritage and identity. But if the entire world keeps mispronouncing your name, doing all these microaggressions, eventually it is going to wear on you. Like when I’m at Starbucks I think, “Is it worth it? Should I give my real name if it’s going to be such a small interaction?” But I think you do have to stick up for yourself at times. The message of the story is two-part: one, you should stand up for yourself and be proud of your name. Two, it’s a message for other people to be respectful of your name and take the time to learn how to pronounce it correctly. Because the onus is on both people, but more so on others to have that respect.
You’re known for illustrating beautiful, award-winning books that you’ve collaborated on with different authors, but this is your debut author-illustrator picture book. How meaningful is it to bring your story to life both lyrically and visually?
I’ve had a lot of joy illustrating other people’s stories, but it’s a collaborative effort: I work with a team to create someone else’s vision, and sometimes I get hampered with notes from writers and art directors, etc., so I can’t fully express myself one-hundred percent. But with this book, I had full control of the writing, and I could express myself freely and participate in every part of the creative process, and that was really exciting. That wasn’t something I did before as solely an illustrator—once I handed in the art, my job was done. Now, I get to market the book, do interviews like this, and interact with kids at school visits. That’s been really exciting, too.
How has the response and reaction been from kids?
It’s been really good! I read to them, and because I’m an artist, I draw and explain my process and share what it’s like being an illustrator. I want to show them that I’m a brown girl, I draw, and this is what I’ve done. I think it’s inspiring for little kids to see that, especially in Desi culture. And after I visit these schools, I’ll get emails from parents or students telling me that they were inspired and that they didn’t know this is a job they could have.
Bouncing off of that, take us through your creative process as an author-illustrator. What comes first the writing or the drawing?
It’s pretty interesting because I started brainstorming and writing the manuscript for this book, but I was having a lot of trouble with it. Then my agent suggested that because I’m an artist first, and I have a bit of the writing concept in mind, why not try drawing the story and see how it goes? And that was really helpful. Since then, my process is I’ll brainstorm text with a big word-vomit of ideas, then I’ll draw the art—that’s where I find my storytelling really shines. After, I’ll go back to the text and refine it. That’s something I like about this process: because I’m both an author and illustrator, the art affects the text and vice versa, and I’ve never had that experience before. It’s pretty cyclical—it’s nice.
Who are some of the artists whose work inspires you? Has that influenced your art and storytelling?
Sure. I have an animation background, so I’m very influenced by artists who are working in both the animation and illustration industries, like Mary Blair, Stevie Lewis, and Brigette Barrager. I really love animation and because of my animation background, I have that additional sense of story, and I find I end up creating more cinematic illustrations. I’m really drawn to that. Secondly, mid-century illustration influences me because those were the kinds of books I grew up with. I’m drawn to the vintage, 1950s, retro look–artists like, again, Mary Blair, M. Sasek, and the Provensens.
Besides being an author and illustrator, you also have a successful vlog series on YouTube: a how-to guide for illustrators looking to thrive in the publishing industry. What prompted you to start this and what’s been the response you’ve received?
It originally started as a podcast between me and fellow illustrator Vicki Tsai. We both didn’t have the best art school experiences, and we trialed and errored our way into our careers. Our podcast talked about things we didn’t learn in art school. It was a successful run, and we did that for about a year before we both got sidetracked with other projects. I always wanted to pick it back up again, but I never had the time. And then the pandemic hit, so I started a YouTube channel.
When I started to message people to get ideas for this channel, I found that most people I talked to didn’t have the best art school experience, especially in the US. I was fortunate that my fees weren’t that high in Switzerland, but in the US—my God! Those fees—the student debt is incredible! It’s really bad. But technology has allowed information to be accessible that maybe you don’t need to go to art school. That’s something I want to show, that there are online resources available even if you don’t have the means for formal school.
Also, a lot of information about the illustration industry isn’t shared because it’s an independent, very insular working environment—you’re mostly working by yourself. So pricing, business tactics, etc.—it’s really hard to find that information. I want to share everything that I learned through trial and error on how to be a successful illustrator—not in the drawing sense, but in the business sense—because I think that it’s not widely taught, both online and in school.
That’s amazing, to create an all-encompassing resource for budding illustrators everywhere. What projects are you working on right now?
I’m working on my second author-illustrated book for Fall 2023, hopefully. I’m touching up the manuscript right now and will start drawing soon. I’m really excited about this one; it’s a funny picture book. That’s Not My Name! is very much rooted in identity. It’s an emotional, personal, cultural story with a message. I love comedic books and that’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but unfortunately, I’ve been typecast into doing “message stories,” when all I want to do is comedy. I figure if no one is going to give me the job, I might as well do it myself. So the second book is a goofy little comedy, and I’m really excited about it. Of course, I also have my YouTube channel—that’s the main thing that I’ve been working on. That’s all I can share for right now!
Awesome, I can’t wait to read more of your stories in the future! Thank you so much, Anoosha, for speaking with me for the blog.
Khadejah Khan is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books. Like Grandpa Joe, she lives in pajama co-ords and never leaves her bed, where she is wrapped burrito-style in her blankets. She has an insatiable sweet tooth, as well as a voracious appetite for fiction, children’s stories, and historical non-fiction. In her free time, she’s quoting SpongeBob, rewatching classic whodunits and reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, roller-skating, or tanning like a rotisserie chicken poolside in Florida. She is currently an Editorial Assistant at Luxe Interiors + Design. You can find her on Twitter @khadejah_k.