RANDA ABDEL-FATTAH: Words. Language. Perspective
I was first introduced to Randa Abdel-Fattah through her book Does My Head Look Big In This? (2005) I had changed schools and made the conscious decision to stop straightening my hair and embrace more traditional ways of African hairstyling. Though I am not Muslim, the story captured a lot of themes I could relate to as a biracial teenager growing up in Australia. Most important amongst these themes was the female voice.
THE PIN. What was it like in your household growing up? Did you have another culture to the outside world?
RANDA ABDEL-FATTAH. I grew up with Palestinian-Egyptian heritage and a Muslim religious background. Being Australian born, there are some aspects of that culture that naturally got diluted from growing up in an Anglo dominated culture, but others endured. It was very much a hybrid culture with a strong sense of my background in terms of language, values, religious practices, celebrations and stories that were really important. Having that connection to my parents’ birthplaces and of course, being surrounded by extended family, with some people who don’t speak English, means you’re constantly exposed to several worlds at once.
What was it like attending a Catholic school as a Muslim?
R. It was the early ‘80s; at that time, Muslim Arabs hadn’t really captured the national imagination as the “other”. I really didn’t feel that I stood out or that I didn’t belong, but I think it was also probably because the school I attended had a large Italian migrant population. So we were all so called “wogs” together. Identity wasn’t a huge issue for me then.
Was there a writer or a book that ignited your passion to write?
R. In primary school I had always been enthralled and captivated by books. I still remember the visceral feeling of joy when I would walk into a bookshop or library. I loved Roald Dahl, his cheekiness and wickedness. I’d try and imitate his storytelling style in my own stories as a kid.
I vividly remember going into bookstores and really yearning to have a book of my own on that bookshelf. I still remember now how much I wanted it...how badly I wanted it for myself. There was no one particular book, rather the world of storytelling that really captivated me.
In your books, the reader is introduced to the characters at a turning point in their teenage life. Is that a conscious choice or something that comes out with the flow of the story?
R. Characters have to go through challenges. As writers, we put characters through trials and tribulations so they’re forced to change or discover something about themselves. Being in the world of adolescence, you’re constantly faced with turning points.
I try and capture that micro-moment in a larger setting because of the nature of my characters’ identities. They have to negotiate in the larger framework called politics. It is very deliberate and conscious that I try and put them in a situation where they’re going to be uncomfortable. It’s cruel - but that’s the fun of being a writer.
In When Michael Met Mina your exploration of both characters is quite empathetic to the political sides they each represent. In particular, your writing is empathetic to Michael’s parents and the reasoning behind why they are starting their political party. Was it hard to write with opposite views to your own, and humanise these characters over simply writing them as the baddies?
R. It’s not hard. I realised through my own PhD research into Islamophobia that there’s a very strong misconception that racism is something only perpetrated or expressed by people who are evil or bad. A lot of people take comfort in distinguishing themselves from racists. They imagine a racist to be someone who is drunk, on public transport, uneducated, uncouth, violent and the far-right extreme. People take comfort in that and don’t realise that racism comes in all forms and is deeply embedded in the most liberal, sometimes multicultural, language of tolerance and accommodation. A lot of what we hear in Australia, the real problematic narratives against asylum seekers (for example), is very much touted in a language of Australian values that sound like assimilation policies.
It was really important for me to try and not paint a picture of Michael’s parents on the extreme far-right end of racism, so that people reading the book could not easily dismiss them as “the exception”. I really wanted to disturb some of the more common arguments out there about multiculturalism using the language of liberalism, reasonableness and common sense. I wanted people to really unpack and identify some of the things Michael’s parents are saying in their own views and ideas.
Certainly, when I first started writing the book, Michael’s parents were a lot easier to poke fun at because I did make them more extreme. But then I felt that was actually a cop out. It’s not that I sympathise with his parents at all. I think it’s false for people to think we can “humanise” racists, because of course people who express racist views have a good side to them. That’s not the point, you know?
The point is that you can be a very good person, a morally upstanding citizen and you can still hold these contemptible ideas. I think that is really confronting for a lot of people.
You write a lot of strong female characters into your books. What does it mean to be a woman in Australian society today?
R. It’s not really for me to decide what kind of woman people need to be. I think it’s a matter of having the freedom and choice to be able to choose the sort of person you want to be without being judged. The way that men can, without having to think about implications or stigma. For me, that’s really important.
I do tend to write strong female characters because it’s so important for me to champion those voices, and give girls a sense of confidence and validation. Girls can chose life paths that go against what society expects of them. That’s what I try to write in my books. I think that comes from my subconscious but I do tend to navigate towards strong female characters.
When you’re writing, do you have an intention of what you want to write about or do you have a person in mind?
R. Usually, it’s people. I am not the type of person that plans my plots. It’s not the most efficient way to write a book, but I do tend to be drawn to characters as they pop into my head. Michael and Mina popped into my head while I was attending an anti-asylum seekers rally for my PhD research.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
RANDA ABDEL-FATTAH. I should have embraced my curls earlier.
-This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: provided by MacMillan Australia