Australian award winning Author Randa Abdel Fattah speaks to Mspiration about the power of story and the inspiration behind her award winning novels.
I was born in Melbourne. My mum is Egyptian and my father, a Palestinian. I was the bookworm since I was a kid. I have photos where the family is playing and I am sitting there reading a book. I was writing since primary school, entering writing competitions and writing plays for our school class. The writer and reader came first before any activism.
When it comes to me studying law and moving on to become a lawyer, it came from me being more politically aware and generally being a daughter of migrants in Australia. You have that underdog mentality and you want to aim high, dream big and be a high achiever. I was good at debating and public speaking so law seemed like the natural career path and I lasted ten years.
I hated nearly every minute of being a lawyer. You should have seen the stuff I was dealing it; cases involving insurance litigation. I look back at it and think at least there were human stories involved but not the human rights and social justice I wanted to do. The writer in me made me survive the legal world. I could never switch my creativity off. The thing is, I really believe I could have been a very good lawyer and have a good career if I continued. But it was never me, instead of the cases I was more interested in the people behind them.
I wasn’t very aware of identity in primary school. It became an issue when the Gulf war started when I entered high school. Then my identity became in crisis; it was these ideas such as Arabs are terrorists and Muslim women are oppressed. I became very aware of what was happening and I became very political. My activist spirit started then.
I wrote the draft of my first book Does My Head Look Big in This when I was in high school. I was 15 years old and the Gulf war started and there was a lot of anger in my writing. About eight or nine years later, when I went back to read that draft I couldn’t get past the first few pages because it was awful. When I wrote it again as an adult that anger slipped away and the humour developed. The motivation is the same, that message of empowering someone who doesn’t have a voice is still there, but not from a place from anger.
The success of Does My Head Look Big in This (published in 2005) had a lot to do with being at the right place at the right time. I couldn’t believe when I was writing the book that there was no other books featuring a teenaged Muslim protagonist. There was a lot of oppressed muslim women’s books which became is it’s own sexy genre and making a lot of money. So when this book came out the reaction was huge and beyond my wildest dreams. I did a national tour for two weeks, I spoke to almost every media outlet in Australia and it was the same thing when it was published in the United Kingdom.
No Sex in the City is my eighth and latest book and is my first book for adults. It is my cheeky spin on chick-lit. I wrote it because from all the chick-lit books that I read and romantic comedies I watched, a very particular view of marriage, relationships and love was presented and what was ignored was this rich diversity of experiences. If these books did manage to look at the way traditional Indian, Greek or Muslims navigated love it is always in this deep exotic deviation from something they considered normal. What I wanted to do was explore that and give a voice to those sorts of experiences.
When you are doing these kinds of stories, you do try in someway to find some common ground. For me, for example, the idea of two people being introduced through family. You don’t know each other but you know there are here for the intention of getting to know each other. What’s the difference between that and a western blind date? Most westerners look with disdain at an arranged set-up scenario and think it’s something so different to their experience where in-fact the blind date situation is the same. It’s the same nerves of not knowing whether he is The One or a complete psycho. A lot of my readers from different backgrounds identified with those stories, it proves finding Mr Right has the same risks and challenges in all cultures.
Sometimes I start writing with these worthy noble intentions but that slips away so quickly. The writer in me takes over and then I have fun with character. I start to see these characters as individuals and not as messages. I wrote characters such as the farting grandmother in Where The Streets Had a Name or the Arab mom who doesn’t know how to cook. I love them because it gives me an opportunity to turn stereotypes upside down. That’s the impulse driving me, that of storytelling and the crafting of it.
I talk about my writing as humanising the other. Initially I resisted that because I asked myself why do I have to prove that Palestinians and Muslims are human beings? Unfortunately that’s the world we live in. The basic premise that these people are not some homogenous mass and instead that they are complex nuanced societies and communities has failed to grasp people’s imaginations. So I have to talk to people in a language they understand and that’s what I try to do: humanise the other.
I left being a lawyer last year. The plan is now to become a full time academic and continue my writing. I am working on a PHD now and researching Islamophobia in Australia. What is so amazing about academia is it is so diverse and dynamic and you can do so many things with it. I can’t believe I didn’t do it sooner. Getting up there to talk to students about race, discrimination, feminism and society. That is so me.
For more information on Randa Abdel-Fattah click here
Randa Abdel Fatteh is appearing in the Muslim Writers Festival in Brisbane from on August 17. For details click here.
To get updated with the latest interviews from Mspiration Like the Facebook page.