Hiba Masood, more commonly known as Drama Mama is a storyteller, a feminist writer and an educator, who is an advocate of homeschooling and play-based learning and is breaking a lot of barriers in the education system in Karachi. She is also an author of two picture books for kids and her book Drummer Girl has won two gold medals from the Literary Classics Committee in the United States (you can read my review here)Hiba also runs a family/kids enrichment center in Karachi called Happy Place, which focuses on a play based approach to early childhood education. She is a mum of three, with her eldest son being on the Autism spectrum and talks about it (breaking a taboo right there!) and even offer consultations for families in similar situations.
What I love about her writings is that she is brutally honest! She is as real as it gets! She talks about her life, her struggles and how she makes the most of whatever life throws at her. She is a true warrior and an inspiration to many – including me!
On my recent Pakistan trip, I had the chance to meet her and take my kids to her Happy Place for 23rd March celebrations. Needless to say, the kids had a great time and I got to meet the woman who is making a HUGE difference in the life of kids and parents in Pakistan.
So let’s get to the interview and let her do the talking…
Q: Tell us something about yourself? Who is Hiba in real life?
Hiba: Hiba is just a regular person trying to take the difficult circumstances of her life and make something beautiful out of them. Since hitting adulthood, I’ve got a lot going on in my life that’s not, let’s say, ideal, and both Drama Mama the online persona and Happy Place, the creative space, is my answer to that. It’s my ace to the hand I’ve been dealt. Life is a tricky game but I’m in it to win it.
Drama Mama used to be just a person – me. Over the last four years, though, its somehow morphed into a full-fledged creativity and community organization and no one is more surprised about this than I am!
At this time, under the Drama Mama umbrella, my team and I are doing lots of different things. There’s Happy Place, the story+art enrichment space for kids and families. We host awesome classes and events there year round and apart from the upcoming Ramadan Moon one of my favorites is the pioneering work we’re doing with Pakistani fathers in our Me and My Dad sessions. There’s the picturebook publications, inclusive of the recent award winning Drummer Girl. I work with Liberty Books as a consultant/reviewer and with KDSP as a storyteller. My team is collaborating with local schools to develop a literacy-rich curriculum. I host women’s circles, conduct female-centric corporate trainings and consult for autism-spectrum families.
So yeah, a bunch of stuff, but hopefully with one unifying, underlying theme: Using my writing, stories, art, heart and everything I’ve got to better the lives of kids and families here and across the world.Q: What’s your dream or plan when it comes to your work?
Hiba: To do more of what I’ve already been doing which I think has already been game-changing for the Karachi educational/parental circuit. Things around here have changed drastically in the last two years and I’m giving myself a little pat on the back for it.
Did I plan or envision any of this? Nope. Not even a little. As far as entrepreneurs go, I guess I am a dismal failure because I have no 5 Year Plan or 10 Year Golden Vision, which people tell me you’re supposed to have. Sorry, no plan here. I have no idea what’s next and I’m just as excited as the next person to find out what it’ll be. Pretty sure, it’s going to be amazing!
My plan, if you want to call it that, has always been and always will be the same: I will follow my curiosity wherever it takes me. I’ll go down rabbit holes and back alleys and winding yellow brick roads chasing my curiosity. And when it brings me to the very edge of a new adventure, a new project, a new possibility for my professional life, if my heart says jump, I’ll jump.
Q: Please tell us a little about your educational background.
Hiba: I was born and raised in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I went to an all-girls British-Islamic school from 1st to 12th grade. For university, I went to Canada.
But, in the interest of full disclosure, I feel I need to say here that even though I was a pretty good student, I generally consider formal education a waste of time. This is why I’ve homeschooled my kids right up till this year. This is also why every time I speak to parents or give a talk to educators, I tell the adults to ease off on the kids. Pakistani parents are obsessed with school. And seriously, which school or, even crazier, which preschool, your kid goes to won’t make your kids. Homework, tests, exams, grades, medals – these things aren’t going to be what makes them either. Or their future. Let the kids read. And paint. And play. And get bored. Let them just be. Their ability to be – with others, with themselves, with the stillness (which is where every good idea is hiding) – is going to make their lives.
My education did very little for me. Every single thing I’ve learned I’ve learned from reading. I’ve been a reader all my life and its taught me everything I know (and also, how little I know).
Q: Drama Mama and Happy Place are now hugely recognized names in Pakistan, especially Karachi. You are considered an authority on children’s fiction. What tempted you to start this venture?
Hiba: I adore children’s literature. I mean, seriously, I love it to the point of it becoming a bit of an addiction. I tell my husband and family that it’s for my kids, but that’s a lie. It’s for me. All of it. The fact that Happy Place, and the work I do there, is positioned around KidLit is a bonus.
Look, here’s what I believe: Books and words can change lives. We’ve all got that one book that when we read it, we were almost stunned at how understood we were. How it felt like to have some unknown writer, reach directly into our hearts from across the world or across the arc of time, and pluck out of there exactly what we were too afraid or too confused to express ourselves. It’s magic. Nowhere is that magic more frequently or profoundly encountered than in children’s literature. With the added delight of gorgeous illustrations, the best picture books cover everything from love to loss, hope to grief, the importance of courage and shining our light to the acceptance and exploration of the darkest recesses of our very human hearts.
I enjoy reading picture books immensely but it is when I had kids and students of my own that I really understood the power of KidLit. To encounter all kinds of children with all kinds of concerns, and to have that one moment, during one storytime, where there is a spark of connection is something indescribable. Connection is the Golden Snitch for educators! When I read to kids, it’s the bright, eager look in their eyes, the sneaking hint of a knowing smile or even their righteous indignation at the antagonist that, can, on any given day, lift me. It’s electric.
I became, I think, not so much an authority, but perhaps the loudest champion around currently, because the more I interact with parents and children, the more convinced I am of how much people here need books. Families and schools aren’t reading enough and it’s showing. It’s showing in everything from the kids language and writing skills to their emotional intelligence and expressive, empathetic abilities. There is a massive gap in creativity and EQ between the kids I’ve worked with here and the ones I’ve worked with in Canada or Saudi Arabia and even though there must be a bunch of other factors at play to explain this, as an educator and a child advocate, I consider it my responsibility to at least push for what I do know to be unequivocally, unquestionably true: Books, art and opportunities for real play. Pakistani kids need them desperately. Q: What are some struggles you have faced as a mother who is also active professionally?
Hiba: Behold my privilege when I say it actually hasn’t been much of a struggle so far! This is entirely because of two factors:
1. Till just this year I’ve had the luxury of homeschooling my kids. Being free from the rigors of scheduled education has meant that my kids and I are around each other all the time. They see my work as a part of their lives. It, naturally, helps that my work is very kid-friendly. So they go with me to all my public events. They are with me at Happy Place. They are used to me asking them to “Freeze! I need a picture for my Drama Mama page!” Having life and work overlap in such a significant way has eliminated a lot of struggle I imagine other working moms face.
2. I have an excellent support system in the shape of my mom. I abuse her love and home shamelessly. Because I know I can dump the kids on her at a moments notice, call for food at any random time of the day and even outsource some work to her “Ma! I need this sofa reupholstered!” – it’s saved me from all the difficulties that working mothers without support systems face all over the world.
I am hugely blessed but always cognizant of that blessing because I speak to enough women on a daily basis – I know how hard, hard, hard way too many women have it. For those who persevere in the face of all the hardships – a salute. You guys are warriors. But here’s to hoping and praying that things change, society discards its patriarchal ways, becomes more accommodating to the unique challenges women face and celebrates their achievements. So that women can stop the business of fighting the saas, fighting the system, fighting the culture, fighting the machine all the time and get on with the business of living. Less striving, more thriving, you know?
Q: Also, what have you learned so far?
Hiba: As mentioned above, I don’t separate work and life:
My professional life and my personal life are equally important to me. They are both non-negotiables for me, they enrich and embolden each other. I like to imagine that throughout my mad days, my work and life are in conversation with each other. And I so refuse to think in terms of work or life. Work is life and life is work. They both fulfill me, grow me as a person, enrich me intellectually and emotionally. Choosing to view it as an overlap helps takes away the angst and anxiety. At any given point in time, whether I am in a meeting with my business partner or coloring with my girls, I am doing something to enrich my life and make the world a better place.
I also make my balance picture very personal:
I think one of the important mindset shifts is personalizing what our lives should look like. To step away from the magazines and the social pressures and create a life that you love. Like I used to feel that we should be going out on Friday nights. Cuz that was the cool thing to do and that’s what all the couples do. But I realized that I don’t really like spending my Friday nights like that. I would much rather stick the kids in bed and then curl up with my husband on the couch, eat ice cream and watch some shows. Or when it came to work, I felt the ideal thing to do was what everyone said, don’t bring your work home, set boundaries, nothing work related after 6pm. It sounds lovely but it doesn’t work for me. I work in small bursts, short snippets of time, throughout the day.Q: What would you say was a turning point for you professionally?
Hiba: About 5 years ago, I stopped giving a shit what anyone thought of my work. I crossed the river! Since then, it’s been great. All of it. The successes, the failures, the poor judgment calls, the lucky breaks, all of it.Q: Would you like to give any advice to women who are balancing work and life?
Hiba: Work hard. Really, really, hard BUT…don’t take any of it too seriously
This might not be a very socially appropriate thing to say but I’m just gonna go ahead and say it. Could it be possible that we women have just started to take everything way, way too seriously. Can we all calm down? Like seriously. Let’s laugh at ourselves a minute. The work we are doing is important, sure. But, I think its fair to say the vast majority of us aren’t at work curing cancer or solving the refugee crisis. Right? Let’s talk about our kids. How many of us experience mommy guilt? You know what, I’m all for being an invested, involved mom, I mean for gods sake, I homeschool my kids and they all sleep in my bed still, so clearly I’m not one to cut the umbilical cord too soon, but seriously, I’d like to tell every guilt wracked mom: Next time you’re feeling guilty, just look at your kids. They are in a safe, comfortable house, more or less well fed, surrounded by toys and gadgets, and secure in the knowledge that you, along with a whole bunch of other people, love them dearly. The kids are alright. Once you know your kids aren’t suffering cuz of your work and the world isn’t suffering cuz of your kids, you can get on with doing good by both of them. Good is good enough. I promise you this.
Secondly, be kind to yourself.
Everything we women do must come from a place of love. I am the most worthy person of my love and so I insist on being fundamentally kind to myself. Do whatever you’re doing for the love that rises in you. When I do things from a place of love, when I see myself with love, I find my efforts utterly delightful. Its one of the best side effects of being a writer by the way. There’s always one side of me who is looking on at the circus and thinking hmm that’s some good material there. Which means that even when things fall apart, I don’t let the internal voice turn into a raging critic. I keep my internal voice the same way I would speak to a child. “Aww, you fell down. It’s okay. Get up again. You can do this. I believe in you. Shabaash, shabaash.”
At the end of every day, you’ve made it. In every way, you’ve made it. So, no matter how shit the day was, pat yourself on the back for a job well done today, and try again tomorrow.
Q: You identify as a feminist. How does this affect your approach to books as a reader and a writer?
Hiba: This is an essay unto itself!
As a feminist reader, my approach to books is always with a critical lens. I encourage my students to be skeptics, to see things not with cynicism per se, but rather, with an openness to the other side of the coin. Everything we read has an agenda to it. Identifying that agenda, seeing the power structures or privilege that holds that work up is important. Thinking critically about narratives and how they are very often formed solely by men (which automatically reduces their fullness) helps us question things. Things should be questioned. Everything. “Why?” is the single most terrifying word to the patriarchy. The patriarchy needs the status quo and “why” shakes that up. I think the subservience to authority that’s bred into Pakistani kids (either through the parent-child relationship, or teacher-student) is dangerous and detrimental. Its creating generations of close-minded sheeple, mindlessly doing the same old things without asking why, because “loge kya kahain gay” and “this is how its always been done.” Way to kill creativity and progress, huh?
As a feminist writer, it is my hope and effort to produce work that either centers women and their concerns as universal or supports feminist ideals of kindness, non-competitiveness and intersectionality. We’re all connected on this planet and we’re all sharing the same energy, the same vibes. As a producer of art, it is my job to put out truthful, light-ful vibes only. Actively identifying as a feminist helps me to remember that.
In a nutshell, feminism informs everything I do. It shouldn’t be any other way.Q: What is a skill you’d like to learn and why?
Hiba: I’d love to learn graphic design. When I’m out and about in Karachi, I find myself, in my mind’s eye, constantly tweaking advertisements, storefront signage, standees and the like. I wouldn’t want to do it professionally but I think I would enjoy playing around with ideas on the computer.Q: You are now a published author with your debut book ‘Drummer Girl’. Congratulations! Tell us a little about the book and what inspired you to write it.
Hiba: When I was living in Dubai, about two years ago, my friends and I started a writing club. We were all moms of young kids, bursting with creativity and the desire to change the selection of Islam-centric reading material available to our kids for story time. Out of one club assignment, where I had just a few hours before I was meant to read any of my work aloud to my friends, Drummer Girl was born. I get how that doesn’t sound very inspiring…like there’s no story here of a hardworking artist, me suddenly being struck by brilliance, researching into the night and then working feverishly on a manuscript, honing it, editing, re-editing over the years and then clutching it to my heart in search of a publisher…nope. I randomly read an article on BBC related to this drummer tradition, opened up Word and just banged out the whole story. I think it only went through one edit round before being picked up by Daybreak Press.
A few months after being published, its been reviewed by some amazing, talented people from around the world and recently won two gold medals from the Literary Classics Committee in the United States. I’m still a little speechless about it all. Truly just a wild, lucky break, Alhumdulillah.Q: Can you walk us through a typical day for you?
Hiba: I won’t bore you with a blow by blow breakdown but will say, I work in sporadic spurts throughout the day. I sometimes announce that I wish I was disciplined enough to put in three solid hours of work in the morning while the kids are in school, but the truth of the matter is, I know that’s never going to happen. Firstly, I barely send the kids to school. And then even the days they are in school, there is still sick and aging parents, a Hums who works out of home, books to read, things to think, life to live. I work when I can. When I can’t, I do other stuff.
Q: Do you have a writing process that you follow? What does your writing process look like?
Hiba: I have three, demanding kids. My process for anything writerly I achieve usually involves hiding behind a closet door, consuming copious amounts of chocolate and typing on my phone with my thumb. No, but, more seriously, I’m generally a fly by the seat of my pants kind of writer. I write only when inspiration strikes (this is why editors hate me). I rarely edit what I’ve written (this is just awful, I know, because if I were to ever write an actual grownups book one day, it would be terrible.) And worst of all, I don’t save what I write. This means I have written many lovely anecdotes and essays straight onto Facebook and have had them eventually disappear into the yawning pits of the Timeline. So, like, there’s no process. Which reminds me, I should work on my process.
Q: What are some of the other books you have written? What books can we expect to see in the future?
Hiba: I’ve written Aiza and Alina which is a book on friendship and Down Syndrome published in Pakistan. It was solicited by the local Down Syndrome organization, which is just doing fantastic work, and I’m glad I could contribute in a small way towards their very important campaign for acceptance and inclusion. I’ve got four other stories written and ready lying in my files, but I guess Drummer Girl, with its lovely reception, awards and whatnot, has spoilt me, because I’m just sitting on them, not sending them anywhere or doing anything with them, just waiting for destiny to strike and some publisher coming on their own, ready to publish them at the drop of a hat! There is a fun little, Julia Donaldson-esque story about a Muslim farmer. There’s another one about a boy and his grandmother. And a third about Karachi. Very different flavors and styles. Maybe you will see them very soon. Maybe never. Its all a great mystery to me.
Q: Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Hiba: The pleasure is in the journey not in the destination. I love my book and am so grateful that it is being lovingly received but when people like me who dream of becoming writers are growing up, we tend to dream of the publishing. The day our book hits the world. The moment we see a real life book spine bearing our name. We imagine that nothing will ever be quite the same after that moment. That that moment will be an epoch. But its actually not like that. Sure its lovely to hold your book…but the delight of writing is far greater. Of musing over a turn of phrase or choice of word. Of seeing a fresh and completely perfect sentence emerge onto the screen. That’s where the thrill is. And the joy. Its what keeps me writing. Every day.
Worrying about the sentiments of the audience or the reception of the work is probably the most common trap writers fall into and one I’ve muddled through myself. I’m thankfully on the other side of that little river though and I do believe every artist has to do the hard work of crossing it for themselves. Some will swim quickly. Others will sink entirely. Many (and this is the group you want to be part of, ideally) will tread water for a bit, see the river for what it is (really, just a quagmire of self flagellation, despair and never feeling enough) and then make their way across. Spoiler alert: The other side holds freedom.
Look, fretting over who will read your work and what they will think of it will freeze you into producing no work at all. Or worse, it will propel you in to producing stilted, uncertain, superficial level work packaged solely for the sake of public approval. Screw approval. Screw the public. Cut your heart open and bleed onto the paper. Then, walk away from it. Your job was to produce the work. Once its out in the world, its not yours any more. Its not your job to explain it or defend it or anything else. Your job is to produce. So get back to writing.
Q: What’s the best and worst part of being a writer?
Hiba: The best part is that you get to write about everything you experience and get to go through the process of understanding your emotions and growing with them. The worst part is that you have to write about everything you experience and have to go through the process of understanding your emotions and growing with them. A little cryptic perhaps, but this will turn into an essay, if I go too deep into it so I’ll leave it for the readers to work it out.
Q: Do you ever experience writer’s block?
Hiba: No. Why would I? I write about my life. Until my life is going, my writing is going. I assume once I’m dead, I’ll have lots of writers block.
Q: What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
Hiba: I don’t care for any sentiments of the general public but when close family members feel betrayed by something I’ve written, that’s hard. I never want my work to be a cause of hurt or harm and any time that has unintentionally happened, its been painful for me.
The best compliment generally is when people give me duas. I love duas. But also, my secret favorite moment in the day, and it happens almost daily, is someone will inbox me and tell me in very specific ways how their life has changed since they read something I wrote. That’s impact. I am a sucker for impact and grateful Allah has given me an opportunity to create it.
Q: What’s next for Drama Mama?
Hiba: Ramadan Moon! It is the first and only event of its kind and my most favorite event of the year. I’m besotted with this month and have been all my life (thanks dad!) and I am so, so excited to bring the spirit of this season to people in Karachi. There’s going to be art, play and of course, story time. There’s also an all new, curated bazaar and food, because everything is better with food.
Q: I know Drummer Girl will be available at Ramadan Moon. Congratulations! What is the message you hope people reading Drummer Girl will take away from the story?
Hiba: Oh, loads of things! I hope the very obvious message that girls can do anything will, of course, click. I love Ramadan and I hope my love for the month shines through the book. I love my dad, the book is dedicated to him, and he died recently, so I hope that the story compels people to either be grateful for or aspire to becoming supportive dads themselves. I hope it encourages people to be brave and chase their dreams. Heck, while I’m at it, I hope this book brings about world peace and everyone just loves everyone else, always. Because, why not? Allah Kareem.
Drama Mama’s Favorites
TV Show/Movie: Currently enjoying House of Cards
Children’s Book(s): Drummer Girl, because my favorite person wrote it! But also a huge fan of Elephant and Piggie, Pete the Cat, Brown Bear and at least a hundred more.
Children’s Author: Mo Willems
Book: Anne and Emily series
Author: L.M. Montgomery will always have a special place in my heart
Working with younger kids or teenagers? I’ve done both and would like to do both. Because of time constraints, currently work with young kids because it means my own kids benefit too. I assume when my kids are teenagers, I’ll transition to working with teens.
Pen, Pencil or a Keyboard? Pencil and notebook for making lists.
Keyboard for all my writing.
Paper Back or E-books? Paperbacks. I don’t think I’ve read a single book electronically yet.
Activity to do with your own kids: Anything to do with paint
Women who inspire you: Any woman who takes the difficult circumstances of her life and makes something greater out of it.
Thank you, Hiba for taking the time out for doing this for my blog.
You can follow DRAMA MAMA to find out more about her upcoming event Ramadan Moon, which is a festive family play day to build excitement for and welcome Ramzan.