Samar Mezghanni: Children's book writer takes on the literary scene at an early age

Tunisian children’s book writer Samar Mezghanni is only in her early twenties and has published more than a dozen books. In 2000, at the age of 12, she was named the "Youngest Writer in the World" by the Guinness book of World Records. Two years later, she was crowned "the Youngest Most Prolific Writer in the World" by the leading compilation of world records. MENASSAT sat down with Mezghanni in Stockholm, Sweden, where she is currently participating in a leadership-training program.
At 12-years old Samar Mezghanni was named "Youngest Writer in the World" by the Guiness Book of World Records.

STOCKHOLM, June 10, 2009 (MENASSAT) – At age seven when most children are just starting to learn how to read and write, Samar Mezghanni had already penned her first story. Entitled "A wedding ceremony" the story is about a "multicultural" wedding between two cats, as Mezghanni describes it.

Mezghanni went on to publish her first book when she was ten-years old and had six short story compilations out by the time she was fourteen. Altogether, she had written more than thirty short stories by the time she entered her early teens.

So how did the saga start? MENASSAT asked the young writer.

"It began around the time when I was four years old, when I was starting to read. I remember getting jealous of my father when he was reading newspapers because I didn’t understand what they said. Then I started reading stories and would stop reading halfway through and imagine what would happen next in the story. We used to also read the instructions for the games we were playing and come up with stories out of that, " Mezghanni told MENASSAT.

One of the greatest inspirations in her writing, Mezghanni said, was her father who always "encouraged" her to read and write.

"In the Arab region, it’s hard for a ten-year girl to produce. It was a challenge for me. My father was one of the few who always believed in me," she said, explaining that a ten-year old girl publishing a book was quite revolutionary at the time in Tunisia.

Debunking her critics' claims

While many praised her efforts as a young writer, she was also subject to fierce criticism.

"They criticized me for being a girl and for being too young. 'Who are you' and 'How dare you' went the talk. My father who was a lawyer used to jokingly tell me that I was the criminal he defended the most," said Mezghanni with a smile.

A few years later, Mezghanni won the Tunisian national prize for children’s books at the age of twelve, debunking the argument of her critics that she was too young to be able to write.

Building on that, the writer stresses that those who perhaps understand children the most are children themselves.

"People who talk to children the best are the children themselves. You adults might have a lot of experience but we kids should be producing what we are consuming in life," she said.

Yet Mezghanni’s critics continued to raise doubts about her writing abilities, some of them saying that it was her father who was writing the books and not her.

Mezghanni proved them wrong in her book "Let me Dream," when she wrote about her father’s death a couple of years ago.

Calling it the book she is "the most proud of," Mezghanni describes it as a story about three children who tackle issues concerning racism and inequality.

"People were saying that it was him (my father) writing and not me so it was a big moment for me. I proved them wrong and proved myself as a writer," she said.

Arab youth empowerment

And as for her two-time nomination in the Guinness book of World Records, Mezghanni believes it is a metaphor for those who have the will to succeed.

"I used to read it and think it’s possible (to get into the book). But of course it’s not. It’s proof that if you have the will you can do anything.  It’s possible," she said.

According to Mezghanni, several other young writers have emerged in Tunisia after her revolutionary literary debut back in the late 1990s. When asked whether she thinks she has made an impact among young people in her country, Mezghanni stresses the need for younger Arab role models and for youth empowerment.  

"I feel that there is a lack of inspiration and self-esteem among many of us. We don’t have enough young Arab role models. We just look to the Americans. Young people need to be inspired. They need to be involved in decision-making. Don’t bring 50-year olds to a conference about youth empowerment, for example. Bring the youth instead. Make them feel it’s about them," she said.

As for the future, Mezghanni hopes to continue her writing, whether as a full-time or part-time project. But she also admits it’s hard to make a living as a writer in the Arab world.

She is currently studying psychology in Tunis.