How to make the timeless timely.
This is the challenge that Alexis York Lumbard has undertaken in her masterful retelling of the 13th century masterpiece, the Conference of the Birds. In this work, she has told the timeless story of the Persian Sufi master Farid al-Din Attar in a way that reads as absolutely timely for today’s audience, especially younger readers.
How to take the timeless language of classical Islamic mysticism, and express in it 21st century American English is something that takes heart and soul, intellect and craft, and Alexis York Lumbard’s beautiful Conference of the Birds is indeed rich with all these qualities. Lumbard's work is beautifully illustrated by the incomparable Demi. The result is a stunning work of art that speaks to all who are spiritually seeking, no matter what their age.
To understand how she arrived at this product, I recently conducted an interview with her. Here are some of her answers:
Question: Can you tell us a bit about your self, and how you came to be interested in children's literature?
Alexis York Lumbard: I never knew that I would one day become a writer. Some writers know from very early on. Many have MFAs. I on the other hand have a BA in Religious Studies and while some of that carries over into my work, I wasn't until I became a parent that discovered children's literature. You see, as a parent, I found myself looking for a particular book. But this book did not exist. As Toni Morrison once said, "If there's a book you really want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it" And so I did.
Question: How does a student from West Coast end up writing about a thousand old mystical Islamic poetry? What about that poem of Attar spoke to you?
Alexis York Lumbard: Great question. My early childhood was spent playing on the shores and in the woods of Whidbey Island, Washington State. Even though we moved to VA by my 7th year, the beauty and wonder of the Northwest made a lasting impression. Later, as a high school student, I felt myself being pulled back to the West. I think in some way I felt that
it would be there, amidst pristine nature, that I would find peace and contentment. And return I did, as a freshman at the University of Oregon.
The summer before my first semester began however, my family and I traveled to Turkey. It was at the Blue Mosque that I heard the call to prayer for the first time. That trip was a time of many firsts--my first time in a mosque, my first exposure to Islamic people and Islamic art, but it was that singular moment at the Blue Mosque when the call sounded and something sacred pierced my breast. That experience planted a seed and by the end of my freshman year I had converted to Islam. I then transferred to GWU where I studied Sufism with Dr. Seyyid Hossein Nasr. I remember Dr. Nasr mentioned Attar in one of his classes (Dr. Nasr is after all Persian and Attar is after all a supreme Persian poet) but at that point I still hadn't read the original.
I wasn't until I was married and my husband, also a scholar of Sufism, suggested that I consider adapting this epic poem for children. At long last I read Attar's masterpiece--well a translation thereof. What moves me the most about Persian literature is the strong presence of love for the Divine. As a parent, I think the best way to attract children to God is through love and beauty. So the Conference of the Birds--the original--had everything I wanted as both a parent and a writer.
It is full of adventure, mystery and best of all, love.
Question: What do you think this journey of birds has to offer children today?
Alexis York Lumbard: I think that the most relevant message for children in this book is that they too are on a journey.
This story about a flock of birds journeying to meet a king is really a story about them and their lives.
For no matter what life throws their way, they too can soar.
This story is also an opportunity for us to discuss with our children that there are hoopoes all around, in people, in books, even in nature.
And likewise for parents to remember that they are the most formative guide in their children's lives.
There is a beautiful trailer for the book online here.
Alexis York Lumbard's Conference of the Birds can be ordered on Amazon, here.
The author can be contacted via her Facebook page, here.