Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.
Today we have Randa Abdel-Fattah and not just because she’s a Sydneysider like me. She’s one of those amazing writers who manages to produce novels while holding down a demanding job and looking after her kids. (Little known fact: the majority of novelists have day jobs.) Enjoy!
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Randa Abdel-Fattah is the award-winning author of young adult novels Does My Head Look Big in This?, Ten Things I Hate About Me and Where The Streets Had A Name. She is thirty and has her own identity hyphens to contend with (Australian-born-Muslim-Palestinian-Egyptian-choc-a-holic). Randa also works as a lawyer and lives in Sydney with her husband, Ibrahim, and their two children. Her books are published around the world. Randa is a member of the Coalition for Peace and Justice in Palestine. She writes on a freelance basis for various newspapers and has appeared on television programs such as the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, ABC’s Q and A and SBS’ Insight. You can find out more about Randa or contact her through her website.
A couple of the guest posts have discussed books and race/ethnicity and it’s a topic I feel very passionate about so I thought I’d add my two cent’s worth. I’ve presented some parts of my post below in various talks but have added some more to it as well (once I get started on this issue, it’s very hard for me to stop).
It sounds trite to say this (forgivable in a blog post?) but a love of books transcends race, culture, ethnicity, colour. To be uplifted by words, moved to tears of joy or sorrow by a story, travel through the past and present, knows no nationality or religion. Books have the ability to transform people. As writers we wield immense power and there is something at once magical and terrifying about this. About our power to create subjects and objects; judges and judged. We take our pens (okay, our keyboards) and purport to portray individuals, communities, cultures and races using a frame of reference that can sometimes do little justice to those we seek to portray.
Okay, so it’s no secret I’m Muslim so I’m going to offer my insight into this problem from my personal point of view. That kind of power represents one of the difficulties Muslims have faced in the sea of books that have sought to characterise, sermonise and describe them, as though we’re some kind of crude, monolithic bloc. I mean, how many times do you trawl through the shelves of bookstores only to see that Muslim women only ever feature as protagonists or characters in crude orientalist-type narratives in which women achieve ‘liberation’ because they have ‘escaped’ Islam or are victims of honour killings, domestic violence and oppression because of Islam? I have a habit (I can’t let it go) of checking out bookshelves just to annoy myself. You know the shelves, holding a list of unimaginative but prolific titles: Beneath the Veil, Under the Veil, Behind the Veil, The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Princess, Desert Royal, Sold, Forbidden Love, Not Without My Daughter , Infidel . . .
I’m conscious that the fact that I’m Australian-born, that I’m a Muslim, that I have a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother who have both lived longer in Australia than they have in either Palestine or Egypt, has both closed and open doors for me in my life. I’m conscious that I’m neither part of Australia’s dominant culture nor part of a minority. I‘m conscious of the fluidity of my identity because it is an impossible demand of a country founded on immigration to expect a pure demarcation between citizenship and heritage, between minority and majority.
Despite the fact that I’m Aussie-born, I’m sometimes deemed to be part of a minority because of my Muslim faith and my Middle-Eastern heritage. Growing up, and sometimes even now, I have felt both marginalized and included. I have felt that I belong and I have felt like an outsider. But when it came to the books I read as a child and a teenager, and the movies I watched, I only ever felt that that part of my identity that was Muslim and Middle-Eastern was strictly slotted into a minority status, invariably represented in terms of crude stereotypes. I learned fairly quickly that I would not, as a Muslim of Arabic heritage, survive the country in which I was born and was being raised without choosing how I would define myself. Without demanding the right to self-definition I was a nappy head, a tea towel head, a wog, a terrorist, a camel jockey, a fundamentalist, an oppressed woman, a slave to Muslim men. The negative imagery of Islam and Muslims I saw saturating the arts pushed me to insist on my own self-definition and to take a proactive approach. I was motivated to provide readers of contemporary fiction with an alternative narrative and to give agency and a voice to a Muslim female character who defied the usual stereotypes.
When I wrote my first YA novel, Does My Head Look Big In This?, I wanted my readers to suspend their judgments and prejudices and engage at a very personal level with a Muslim teenager, Amal, and her journey of self-discovery. I wanted to invite my readers to challenge their preconceived notions about Islam and Muslims and encounter a story in which a Muslim teenager explores what it means to come of age in the sometimes stiflingly conformist world of the young.
Using humour to tell Amal’s story was strategic. When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? I was acutely conscious that given the breadth of stereotypes and misconceptions I wanted to confront, there was a real risk that I could sound boringly preachy. I therefore found that Amal’s self-deprecating, humorous outlook on life was the best way to humanise ‘the Other’ and avoid preaching to my readers. Humour enabled me to confront people’s misunderstanding of Islam and Muslims without plaguing my characters with a victim complex (oh, plus the fact it’s rare to think of ‘Muslim’ and ‘humour’).
But hang on a second. Let me make it clear that I’m no apologist and I certainly don’t seek to write novels which selectively present the ‘cream of the crop’ of Australian Muslims, denying the existence of Muslims who distort Islamic teachings to oppress women or who confuse culture with religion to exact an appalling abuse of Islamic teachings (plenty of examples of that happening around the world).
My second novel, Ten Things I Hate About Me, is a novel in which I sought to confront the reality of Muslim teenagers who experience great difficulty straddling between their Aussie, Muslim and Arabic identities and who withdraw to the safety of anonymity in order to achieve acceptance by their peers. The novel also addresses the sometimes sexist rules applied to brothers and sisters by their parents and the dishonest conflation between culture and religion (you know the kind, ‘the girl has a curfew but the guy has no limit to when he gets home’ etc). To write from a platform of legitimacy and to be taken seriously requires an honest insight into what is happening in Aussie Muslim communities (interestingly, I’ve received mail from around the world from teenagers of all different backgrounds, not just Muslim, who identify with Ten Things I Hate About Me).
I’ve always been concerned about identity issues for young people and as an Aussie-born Muslim I feel I am better ‘qualified’ to give expression to young people’s experiences than somebody of non-Muslim background who writes about Muslims through a prism of us/them, subject/object.
A critic once implored me to see the importance of writing about issues faced by all sorts of Australians, rather than limiting them to those of my culture. I reject this. Anglo writers do not attract that same instruction.
Australians of Anglo background are not defined as ‘Anglo writers’ (that applies to any westerner). It almost sounds absurd. And yet I am sometimes described as a ‘Muslim writer’. When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and Ten Things I Hate About Me my objective was firmly set in my mind: I wanted to write about the lives of two Australian girls. I wanted to challenge the typical definition of the mainstream, of dominant culture, and show that these two girls, one who wears the veil, one who is of Lebanese descent, are a part of the mainstream, rather than interesting deviations from the norm. I wanted to normalize their experience, demonstrate that it is embedded in their Australian identity and life, rather than migrant or foreign identity.
There is no doubt that my first three novels have centered on my own personal world (my fourth novel to be released in Oz this year is a crime fiction/legal thriller for teenagers but that’s another topic, with its own issues, altogether).
So far I’ve been navigating identity struggles, family politics, community and relationships. Although works of fiction, I’ve drawn on my own religious identity and ethnic heritage, not because I seek to add another title to the ‘exotic Islamic/Middle Eastern’ bookshelf, but because I believe it is high time contemporary fiction recognised Muslims as human beings and dispensed with the one-dimensional Muslim caricature. For me, it’s about taking ownership over how my faith is represented and narrated.