In 2018, Onjali Q Rauf published her first children's novel, The Boy at the Back of the Class. The book, about a "refugee kid" called Ahmet who is trying to fit in at an English school, was inspired by the author's experiences of working in camps in Calais and Dunkirk.
It quickly became a prize-winning bestseller, with many young readers praising the British author and campaigner for opening their eyes to the refugee crisis. For Rauf, such weighty concerns have never been off-limits in children’s fiction.
“Children’s literature does so much more than entertain,” she says. “It’s the front line and the foundation of our grasp and understanding of what is good and what is bad in the world.
“I honestly believe that every children’s book, whether it is clothed in fantasy, has flying dragons in it, boy wizards, hobbits and girls who can move objects with their eyes, or is situated in the ‘real’ world – every single one of them incorporates issues and messages that children have to deal with in the wider world.”
How Rauf's childhood experiences shaped her writing
Rauf, who was in the UAE for Hay Festival Abu Dhabi in February, conveys the urgency of Ahmet’s plight while charming her reader with the character's acts of kindness and a child’s-eye view of the world. For instance, “bombs and bullies” forced Ahmet’s family to flee Syria; on a map, the country resembles “a woman yawning and wearing a tiara and whose hair was being blown in the wind”.
At one point, the narrator tells us “the best books leave you with more questions than answers”. This inspiring novel is one of them.
Rauf grew up in a council flat in Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs in east London. Pocket money and holidays were out of the question. Luckily, she had books. “My mum made the library one of our shared universes,” she says. “It was thanks to her that I never felt story-deprived, even though I hated returning the books I really wanted to keep.”
She devoured the works of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie. “Also, there was one book of Indian tales my mum found in a shop and bought for us. That book is very clear in my mind, because it was the first time I had thought about other countries having fairy tales of their own, and characters in stories wearing what my mum and her friends loved to wear at their parties.”
Rauf says, through her childhood reading and her own real-life experiences, she became acutely aware of how unfairly girls were treated.
"From the character of George in The Famous Five, who was a tomboy and a character I could identify with, to me wondering why Miss Marple was not a professional private detective too, to the names me and my girlfriends would get called at school for coming first in exams – all of it undercut confidence and made us feel silly in our own personal ambitions."
However, in 2011 that sense of injustice hit home to a soul-crushing extent when Rauf’s distant cousin was murdered by her husband. The tragedy formed the basis for Rauf’s second novel, The Star Outside My Window, which was published at the end of last year.
Like its predecessor, the book combines emotional drama and adventure, employs the gaze of a young narrator (Aniyah, 10, who dreams of being not an astronomer but a “Star Hunter”) and engages with a social issue – in this case, domestic violence.
'We are a kind of a Band-Aid to the front line'
A year after her cousin’s death, Rauf founded the non-partisan advocacy organisation Making Herstory in her memory. Its core aim is to raise awareness about how prevalent violence and discrimination against women and girls remains, and what people can do to combat it.
“We do what we can,” says Rauf, “from simply highlighting stories impacting women’s rights, to working with shelters to supply urgently needed goods, to conducting our own research, and forging partnership to do all the above.
"We are not the front line – we are a kind of a Band-Aid to the front line, and want to strengthen links, communication channels and our existing shelters. Maybe one day, even create new shelters and systems of our own.”
The organisation started out as a humble book club and has since come a long way. But running the non-profit has its challenges. Rauf and her team have no office, they are funded by donations, they are made up solely of volunteers, and they refuse to accept government funds or grants – “because I don’t think you can honestly and openly fight the root cause to a problem if they are funding you, too”.
Rauf says she no longer looks to government with the same hope she used to. This disenchantment took hold when she headed out to the refugee camps in Calais in 2015 to deliver aid packages.
“I was deeply naive,” she says. “I honestly believed that what my eyes were seeing – children and old people swamped in mud with injuries and unfathomable traumas, women struggling to keep their kids alive, men looking utterly hopeless yet fighting on – that none of that could go on beyond a year.
"I believed that every government in our 'civilised', educated world and every large charity would work together and house the very catastrophes our governments had a hand in. It devastates me that none of that has come to be.”
Now, instead of governments, Rauf looks to people – “the amazing souls I have met who are giving their life over to helping refugees get through each and every day”.
She is also buoyed by the way her charity has transformed lives. “We still go by the motto that if we can help even one woman escape or steer clear of any form of abuse in the course of our existence, then it will have been worth it. I would not be able to go on doing it if the rewards, no matter how tiny, did not make every challenge worthwhile.”
Rauf also still finds the time to write. For World Book Day this year she published The Day We Met the Queen, a short and sweet follow-up to her debut. Writers are usually wary about revealing too much about projects, but not Rauf.
"I'm working on a new book called The Night Bus Hero," she says. "It features a bully named Hector, a homeless man Thomas, and some pretty outlandish jewel and art heists taking place across London. I'm three months late with finishing the first draft though – so I'd better get back to it."