#tbt Author Interview: Randa Abdel-fattah

For #tbt, most people share old pictures, but since this is a writing blog, I’m going to share an old interview I did with a fantastic Sydney-based author, Randa Abdel-fattah. She was a litigation lawyer and is now a Ph.D candidate, exploring everyday multiculturalism and racism in Australia. I don’t know if I ever shared this interview on the blog so I dug it out of my archives. Check it out!

Randa Abdelfattah

1. How would you characterize your journey as a writer since your first published book, “Does My Head Look Big in This?”

I’ve been writing ‘fast and furious’, so to speak. I’ve always got a novel in the works and been fortunate enough to write widely and for a range of audiences. Each novel has presented me with different challenges- whether that’s plot development, writing a male protagonist, setting a story in a country I’m not physically in at the time of writing or seeing the world through the eyes of a Grade Five student.

2. Your latest books have been targeted towards a little bit younger crowd. What made you decide to do that?

I’ve always wanted to write from the perspective of a younger character and for a younger audience. I can’t offer you a reasoned and thoughtful analysis of why this is the case. It’s just been an instinctual, ‘gut-feeling’ kind of impulse that drew me to write for a younger audience. I know that my very vivid and fond memories of primary school have probably been a factor in drawing me closer to that age.

3. What is the literary community like in Australia and how do you see yourself in it?

The writers’ world I float through is mainly young adult and children’s writers and they truly are a wonderful, friendly, warm, open and brilliant group of people. I love attending writers’ festivals and being amongst such an amazing circle of writers who all invariably share a passion for getting children excited about books and reading.

4. Do you feel like your identity as a Muslim and Egyptian-Palestinian still dominates people’s impression of you and your work?

When I first started writing my background certainly had a major influence in people’s impression and interest in my work. But as my work has grown to involve all sorts of ‘issues’, stories and characters, I think I am being increasingly accepted as a writer in my own right, not as a ‘Muslim’ writer or niche writer. As long as people don’t box or label me, I’m happy to talk about writing, about my identity, about politics, about human rights! I make no apology for the fact that these are all things I am deeply interested in.

5. Are you satisfied with the narratives that are being disseminated about Muslims globally?

No. We are in the midst of an ongoing and systematic campaign of Islam and Muslims being demonized, otherised and stigmatized- represented through the prism of negative imagery and stereotyping. Rather than elaborate, I would like to share with you a poem I wrote last month. I wrote it during my lunch break at work, at a time I and other Australian Muslims were dealing with a barrage of media interviews regarding the ‘burqa’- which inevitably turns into a wider conversation about Muslims in the west, identity politics, ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Poem- I am Not Negotable

It was published on different sites but this is one of them:


6. How involved are you still with interfaith dialogue, Palestinian human rights or media engagement on Muslims and Islam?

I no longer engage in interfaith work simply because I’m so time poor. But I’m still deeply committed to Palestinian human rights campaigning (especially the boycott, divestments and sanctions – BDS- movement) and media engagement. I give a lot of talks and media interviews pertaining to Palestine, Muslims, Islam and identity politics. I also use my opinion writing for newspapers and journals to address such issues.

7. How are you balancing your job as a lawyer and writer, as your career in writing is rising?

There’s only one word to answer that question: caffeine.

The difficulty is not so much balancing law and writing. It’s adding my two young children to the juggling act. They’re the biggest balls to juggle (but also the best). Ultimately, I am passionate about what I do and blessed to have the choice and opportunity to purse my passions. So while it’s challenging and exhausting and the balls sometimes seem about to spill out of my hands, it’s still worth it! And, really, no matter how difficult it can get, the whole ‘time-management/brain fried due to work/life/childcare balance’ thing is so in the ‘first-world problem basket’. When it gets tough, I remind myself of how blessed I am and get some good old-fashioned perspective (and caffeine).

9. What kind of feedback have you gotten from youth or readers in general about the various books you’ve written?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive and humbling to read emails and letters from readers here and around the world who tell me I’ve changed their lives or perspectives.

10. Have you toured outside Australia for your books? If so, what has that been like?

I’ve been to the UK (twice), the USA, Palestine, Sweden (twice), Brunei, Malaysia, Qatar and Egypt. It’s been awful…just kidding! Every trip has been transformative, fun-filled and stimulating. More please!

11. What is your favorite speaking engagement you participated in this year?

Oohh, this is a tough one! I’m going to be cheeky, ignore the parameters of your questions and name my top three!

  1. A one-week writer in residence in Palestine in April where I ran writing workshops focused on writing for children and young adults in Ramallah, Jerusalem, and by video link to Gaza.
  2. Speaking in Brunei in March to an audience of ambassadors and dignitaries from around the world at an event organized by the Australian High Commission on the 100th anniversary of international women’s day. I offered my perspective on human rights, women and Islam from my perspective as an Australian Muslim lawyer.
  3. The Melbourne Writer’s Festival last month where I ran writing workshops and presented an author talk at the Immigration Museum’s identity exhibition.

12. How can aspiring young writers who want to write about Muslim characters avoid being categorized narrowly in “multicultural fiction” or simply “Muslim fiction” and be accepted in the mainstream book community as you have?

I suppose a lot depends on the tone and approach of writing about Muslim characters. A book that is preachy and clearly aimed at selling a message will always have a narrow audience (and probably won’t do very well anyway). The point is that books that contain Muslim characters need to have mainstream appeal because the writer is writing with a non-religious/non-ethnic, ‘neutral’ audience in mind. If, as a writer, you don’t see your character is a deviation from the norm but in fact part of the mainstream then I believe that kind of confidence and attitude is infectious and will impact on your reader too. For example, I wrote a book for younger readers called Buzz Off. It’s about a boy who discovers he can hear flies talk- a useful skill in Australia’s summer heat when flies threaten to ruin a good picnic or game of football in the park! The entire book is about this boy’s ability to hear flies talk and discover the secret to getting rid of them. That this boy happens to be Muslim is never stated in the text. It is implied through one simple image of his mother wearing hijab. I wrote a story that involved a character who happened to be Muslim in a story that had nothing to do with this character’s faith or identity. So young writers need to find creative and subtle ways to challenge our definitions of mainstream fiction so that a book containing a Muslim character doesn’t necessarily have to be an ‘issues-based’ story.

13. Is there any kind of writing you would like to branch off into, like poetry, screenwriting, short story…?

I’ve tried my hand at screenwriting (just experimenting on my own) and found it required a different skill set and approach to writing than fiction. It’s something I might be interested in developing in the future. I’ve also just finished my first adult novel (No Sex in the City– a cheeky spin on the traditional chick lit genre). But my main passion is writing young adult and junior fiction.

14. Have any of your books been optioned for movie adaptations before and would you be interested in that avenue?

Two books- “Does My Head Look Big In This?” And “Where The Streets Had A Name” have been optioned for TV series. OF COURSE I’D BE INTERESTED IN THAT AVENUE. Any writer who tells you otherwise is lying. Seeing one’s book on the screen? Could it get any better?!

Be sure to follow Randa on Twitter: @RandaAFattah