Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Interview with Medeia Cohan, author of Hats of Faith

As a mother of a small child growing up in a complex world, teaching tolerance is part of my educational priorities. Besides the personal examples from the family, and interactions with people and children belonging to other religions, books and movies are a good tool for teaching the lessons of tolerance. But finding the right books with a straightforward message is not always easy. A couple of months ago, I've been offered the chance to read and review a quality book about head-coverings in different religions, Hats of Faith. As I enjoyed the book, I wanted to further explore the topic, through an interview with the author, Medeia Cohan. Here is the result of our exchange, shared via e-mail. The title and inter-titles are my selection. 
Photo from the personal archive of Medeia Cohan (left). 

'There simply isn't enough diversity in books'

How did you decide to write Hats of Faith?

I never really decided to write this book, it sorted of decided on me, rather than the other way around.
I really just wanted to buy it for my son, but it didn’t exist. Normally with something like this I would have thought, “Oh well” or “Too “bad” and moved on with my life, but I just kept thinking how important it was, at this moment in time that a book like this existed. In this time of increased intolerance and faith and race based hate crimes, the world really needs something secular and factual and mainstream; something that wasn’t preachy and is beautiful to give children an early familiarity with head coverings.
The more I spoke about the idea with other parents, the more I kept hearing stories of children reacting badly or making embarrassing gaffs when they’d encounter someone in a head covering, like my neighbour’s 2 year old daughter who called a women in a grey niqab a ghost. I also heard stories from those who covered their heads about never seeing themselves in mainstream books and the impact that had on them.
Stories like these fuelled my belief that there simply isn’t enough diversity in books and children aren’t getting important interfaith and diversity education early enough. It’s the lack of these things that lead to fear and ultimately negative views of the unknown.
Motivated by a drive to make a difference and encouraged by other parents, I decided it was my job to write this book. Before I knew it I was in talks with my now publisher and long time friend Hajera Memon to bring this book to life.

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

A subject like this you are never going to make everyone happy but I wanted to do the best we possibly could to pull together generally agreed upon accurate information that we could stand proudly behind. This proved harder than I thought.
People are passionate and thus sensitive about their faiths. Getting the tone and information in this book right was a total challenge and we still occasionally get complaints. But on the whole I think people see the effort we’ve made and are supportive.
Writing this book was a huge and very time consuming responsibility and at times working with so many experts to get it right threatened to ruin the entire project. Something like this can only be done as a passion project as we’ll never financially cover the hours we spent researching and rewriting to get it just right without compromise.

The research took over a year...

I've read that the writing process took a long time, as the opinion of various religious experts was requested. How did this consultation process work?

The research for this book took just over a year and as I said, it was not an easy process. We made a commitment from the beginning to make sure that we were writing something as accurate as possible and to do that we need to consult with experts, faith leaders, curators and professors of theology from around the world. It was a grueling process where we’d write something based on loads of on and off line research and then send it out to experts from every faith and it would come back covered in red. And then we’d start again. It was truly painful, but in the end I’m proud of the work we did and the end result.

Projects for the betterment of future generations

What are your recommendations for anyone embarking on a journey writing about such a topic?

It’s so important that we realise these projects for the betterment of future generations, but this kind of thing will not make you money. You must do it because you believe in it and you need to see it reaslied, otherwise you’ll end up resenting how much time of your life it takes.

I’m proud of what we’ve achieved and overcome and I see the difference it’s making when we run workshops or parents or teachers post pictures on social media. I hope one day religious or race based persecution is a thing we read about and can’t imagine. And I don’t mind that it’s taken a huge part of the last few years of my life and eaten into my income because I love it and I believe in it.

What are your favorite multi-cultural sources of inspiration when it comes to children books?

At our house we read a lot of books on repeat. Some of the favs include:
The Colour of Us
Last stop on Market Street
Ganesh’s Sweet Tooth
The Journey
Hanukkah Oh Hannukkah

What are your next writing plans?

Oh god, I can't even think past this project at the moment. We've just finished our FREE Interfaith Education Kit and are embarking on our first UK wide workshop  tour. That is currently consuming every minute of my thoughts.

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