Few young adult novels feature a Muslim character on the front cover or are written by actual Muslims themselves, which is what makes Randa Abdel Fattah a breath of fresh air in the industry. Mrs. Abdel Fattah is only 29 and an award-winning novelist with books published around the world. She’s also one of my favorite authors! Her approach to tackling the stories of young Muslims involves humor and honesty, making the experiences connect with both Muslim and non-Muslim readers. She works as lawyer and human rights advocate in Sydney, Australia and lives with her husband and two children.
I found out on her website that Randa Abdel Fattah has recently been invited by the US State Department to participate in the ‘Changing Demographics and Multiculturalism Visitor Leadership Program’. Randa is the only Australian representative amongst 13 other participants from around the world. She will be visiting Washington, Texas, Arizona and New York from 5-25 September 2010. Very cool!
I had the chance to do an email interview with earlier this spring for the Muslim Voice newspaper to learn more about writing non-traditional and ethnic characters in young adult fiction.
Y&W: Your background is in law-how did you transition to becoming a writer?
Well I started writing when I was very young. The writing came first- short stories, essays, poetry. I used to enter writing competitions when I was a teenager and wrote my first novel when I was fifteen.
Y&W: Why did you write Does My Head Look Big in This and do you feel Muslim girls relate to Amal’s experiences?
It became apparent to me that the only time Muslim females appeared as heroines in books were as escapees of the Taliban, victims of an honor killing, or subjects of the Saudi royalty! I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? because I wanted to fill that gap. I wanted to write a book which debunked the common misconceptions about Muslims and which allowed readers to enter the world of the average Muslim teenage girl and see past the headlines and stereotypes- to realize that she was experiencing the same dramas and challenges of adolescence as her non-Muslim peers- and have a giggle in the process!
Y&W: You went to a Catholic primary school. Did that experience open your eyes to interfaith issues or influence your idea of the relationship between Islam and other religions?
Not really. haha I was too young, in my primary years of school. Perhaps the inter-faith relationships were simply part of my life and influenced me subtly. My best friend was Hindu and my circle of friends made up of Catholics and Buddhists. I grew up in my early years just enjoying friendships without judging people according to their religious labels. My interfaith experiences, in a more formal sense, came when I was in high-school and we participated in inter-faith programs with other schools.
Y&W:What was your life like growing up as an Australian born Palestinian-Egyptian Muslim woman? Similar to your books?
Throughout my teenage and university years I felt the challenges of straddling between my Australian/Muslim/Egyptian/Palestinian identities. I did it by embracing all my identities rather than running away from them. By gaining self-respect, I gained the respect of others.
Y&W:Do you find it difficult to write about Muslim characters and Muslim storylines without being overtly preaching or excluding non-Muslim readers?
I did when I gave it a try at the age of 15. The first draft of Does My Head Look Big In This? was very preachy. When I gave it another try several years later I decided I would use humor to humanize ‘the other’, to avoid being didactic and to focus on the story, not ‘a message’.
Y&W: Are you planning to always write about Muslim characters in your stories?
Not necessarily. Noah, in my fourth novel, is half-Egyptian, half-Anglo, but his religion is not mentioned. I just want to write good stories- whether the characters are Muslim or non-Muslim will depend on the story I am writing. But I don’t see myself writing about one particular faith or identity as a matter of course. The point for me it to be able to write about Muslim or non-Muslim characters without it being seen as a deviation from ‘the Anglo norm’.
Y&W:Does My Head Look Big in This and Ten Things I Hate about Me both deal with identity crisis, peer pressure and the clash between Western culture and Muslim culture. Do you think Muslim youth have a harder time growing up?
For Muslim teenage girls who wear the hijab, and are therefore immediately identifiable as Muslims- the main struggle is to live against the perception that you are oppressed, down-trodden. It is not a natural state to live from a position of resistance. It is exhausting and unnatural to always be on the defensive, resisting a stereotype of victimhood. I believe that is the most constant and frustrating challenge because the teenage exploration of identity is made even more difficult when other people’s stereotypes are thrown into the mix.
And then there is the larger issue for Muslim youth, male and female, of defining your identity and sense of belonging as a Muslim growing up, perhaps born in, the West. With the barrage of headlines about ‘Islam versus the West’ this surely has a cumulative effect on how Muslim teens in the West feel about their sense of place and belonging. I guess the hard thing is you can sometimes feel like you’re in a zoo: locked in the cage of other people’s stereotypes, prejudices and judgments, on parade to be analyzed, deconstructed and reconstructed. I tell you it’s exhausting!
Y&W: Your latest book, Where the Streets Had a Name, has just been short-listed for the 2010 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. How excited are you for this recognition?
I’m thrilled. It’s a book that holds a very special place in my heart as it is dedicated to my grandmother who did not live to see her homeland free. I am so thrilled that it is being recognized and a Palestinian narrative is being given a voice.
Y&W: Where the Streets Had a Name involves a clearly relevant issue-the Palestinian and
Israeli conflict. Why did you choose to write a YA book about such a sensitive topic?
My visit to my father’s birthplace, Palestine, in 2000 had a profound impact on me. I suddenly understood the tragedy of my family, specifically my grandmother’s, dispossession. I also saw children and young adults trying to get on with their life despite the occupation- attending weddings, gossiping with friends and neighbors, haggling at the shops, following favorite television sitcoms. My observations of the way the children coped stayed with me. What I found most disturbing was the restrictions on travel. It seemed a denial of such a fundamental human right. The idea of an adventure story started to form in my mind- the idea of a child trying to get from one part of the occupied territories to another, forbidden, part.
It took some years before I started writing the story. All my activism in the meantime was, I suppose, part of the planning process. Deciding what to put in and what to leave out was a difficult task. The temptation to deal with all the human rights abuses, all the facets of suffering, all the political issues was overwhelming. The way I was able to avoid this was with the help of my wonderful editor with the first drafts and a realization that Hayaat’s story needed to drive the book, rather than my passion to raise awareness driving Hayaat’s story. Ultimately I realized that I wanted to write a simple story set in complicated circumstances, looking at the sacrifices best-friends make for each other, sibling rivalry, nagging parents, sparring in-laws, ambitious wedding plans, helpless adults, children who dream big and an occupation that impacts on the minutiae of ordinary life.
Y&W: You are a passionate human rights advocate. How does your writing side tie into that part of you?
It comes from a strong sense of social justice and a desire to write about issues and give voice to narratives that are often misunderstood, demonized or not given due exposure in the arts.
Y&W: What has been people’s reception of your books-both Muslim and non-Muslims?
Alhamdulillah, I have received such wonderful support from readers from all different backgrounds. I have been able to validate the experiences of both Muslims and non-Muslims, people who grapple with their own identity issues, no matter what background they come from.
Y&W: What is the writing process like for you? Do you find it painful or easy?
It is a joy but also hard work. A perfect combination because the challenge is pleasurable and worth it.
Y&W:What advice do you have for Muslim youth who are interested in writing as well? Do you think they should look to their own lives as sources of story material?
The best writing, especially for those starting out, is to write about what you know. Stories that are drawn from one’s own world are more real and authentic.
Y&W: What’s next?
I’ve just finished my fourth book which is a legal thriller/comedy set in Sydney and narrated by a boy called Noah. It’s a book which has allowed me to draw on my legal background and I’ve had immense fun writing it!
UPDATE: Noah’s Law is out in Australia in November 2010. Where the Streets Had Names is out in Australia and the USA in November 2010. I can’t wait to read them!