Randa Abdel-Fattah interview

Tuesday, September 12, 2017
The Garret

Randa Abdel-Fattah interviewed by the Garret
Randa Abdel-Fattah

Randa Abdel-Fattah has a very impressive CV. She is a lawyer, a human rights advocate, a community volunteer, and a researcher – she has a PhD in sociology. And of course, she is a writer. Randa studies Islamophobia, racism and multiculturalism in Australia.

As part of The Garret Podcast, Nic Brasch interviewed Randa at the State Library of Victoria, and started by talking about her earliest experiences with books.

Randa Abdel-Fattah: I have very vivid memories of going to bookstores with my mother, who was setting up a new school library they were establishing in Melbourne, and sitting in these big warehouses where she was getting these big discount packs of books, and just getting so excited about that. And my father would take me to second hand bookstore markets, and we would go and buy ‘Sweet Valley High’ at discount rates, and ‘The Babysitters Club’.

Nic: Ah, OK. So those are the sort of books that first attracted your attention? Who were your favourite authors when you were ten years old?

Randa: Roald Dahl, yeah, I loved Roald Dahl. I loved John Marsden and Enid Blyton. I had a very strong attraction to books from the UK and the US as well. And those series, they were… as a girl, I loved them.

Nic: What about as you progressed through your teens and you went through school, what sort of books and authors and genres were attracting you?

Randa: I was really eclectic. I had a fantastic Year 7 and Year 8 English teacher – there is always that affinity between loving a certain genre with a really good English teacher, and she got me into nineteenth-century English literature. And so, I just absorbed myself into that world of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. And at the same time, I loved John Marsden, his books really spoke to me. And ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ was a particular book that really had really a quite profound impact on me as a teenager. So I was very eclectic.

Nic: So, your interest in Jane Austen – that’s why ‘Emma’ appears in ‘When Michael Met Mina’ and they are studying at school. Do you put those references in when you can?

Randa: Yeah, I do. It’s funny how often these things are subconscious. You don’t really recognise them until somebody points them out or you read your work later, these sorts of inspirations that you are not conscious of until they are pointed out to you.

Nic: So in regards to John Marsden, I imagine in was the ‘Tomorrow’ series that got you in. Is that right?

Randa: Yeah.

Nic: What was it about it that really got you intrigued?

Randa: One of the things was the diversity of characters. You know, that for me was a really refreshing deviation from the fiction I had been reading, which was very, sort of white normative in the characters. There was a Greek character; there was an Asian character …

Nic: Sure.

Randa: It really spoke to me, that sort of diversity. And it wasn’t that their backgrounds were an issue, it was just incidental to who there were. And just the fact that there was such a strong cast of women. Girls, sorry.

Nic: Yeah.

Randa: And the lead character. So it was very exciting to read.

Nic: You have an Egyptian Palestinian background, but the way you are talking, you grew up with the Western canon of literature, if you like. Were you exposed to Egyptian, Middle Eastern, Islamic literature and works?

Randa: They were in my parents’ bookshelves, but my enduring regret is never having learnt Arabic well enough to be able to read those books. And until now it is something I regret, as I am cut off from this amazing world of literature. I can only read it in translation. So, my parents had those books there, and I’ve read them in English translation, but I lost that opportunity to read them in Arabic. When I Was in Year 12 I was learning Arabic, and part of the curriculum was these masterpieces of Arabic literature, and I struggled so hard with it. So, for me, it’s always been a shame that I haven’t been able to read it in Arabic.

Nic: I find it a crying shame that we do put so much emphasis on the Western canon of literature. Do you think we are missing out on something great?

Randa: Oh yes, it’s something I am very passionate about, the fact that we use the idea of diversity mainly as a buzz word, when it really needs to be a process of, I guess I could say decolonising literature so that we are actually truly reflecting the world, and actually really representing different cultures, and not just in a tokenistic way, but truly upholding principles of equality and recognition and value. And so, for me, that’s very important.

Nic: Well, you’ll be pleased to know my favourite work of literature in ‘One Thousand and One Arabian Nights’, and which I’ve read in its entirety several times and which I drum into my students. Have you read the entire work?

Randa: I’ve got a beautiful version of it that my grandfather gave to me as a child. That was always very special to me, it had the most amazing illustrations, so that was something that was part of my upbringing.

Nic: Yeah. What do you read now? What is on your bedside table?

Randa: I’ve got several things always going at once, I’ve got my fiction and non-fiction. I’m reading ‘Liberalism: A Counter-History’ at the moment, and I just finished ‘The Underground Railway’. So, I’m finding now, particularly in the last eight or none years, that I’ve really started trying to push myself to read outside what is just on the bestsellers list, and to really … I guess I want to try and understand the world not just from my own Western perspective here in Australia, and to read books that are outside of that white canon of literature.

Nic: Did your parents encourage you to pick up those sorts of books?

Randa: They just encouraged me to read, they were never prescriptive about it. I guess for them it was important that I just be a reader. They never censored anything I read, they never said, ‘No you can’t read this until you are a bit older’. They just gave me the freedom to explore and to embrace that world on my own terms.

Nic: At what point did you discover you were actually good at writing? And tell me about through from there up to publication of your first novel.

Randa: I kept a journal as a kid. And I always… It was something I loved to do. And in Grade 6 I wrote a complete rip-off of Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’. It was called ‘Ronald’. I even traced Quentin Blake’s illustrations. But my teacher, she was really impressed and she let me read it in front of the class. And for me, I can still really remember that moment, of seeing kids laugh and respond to my writing. And I had always known I wanted to be a writer, but then in Year 7 I won a writing competition, and I had a short poem that I had written published. And after that I continued to enter writing competitions. It was something that I knew I had a passion for.

What happened was that I wrote my first book when I was in Year 9, it was the first draft of ‘Does My Head Look Big In This?’

Nic: OK, wow.

Randa: Yeah, it was about 90,000 words and I worked on it for a year. I had ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ up on my desk as inspiration. And all of the rejection letters I’ve kept because they were so sweet, they were really positive.

The writing was very didactic, and I put it aside. I ended up studying Arts/Law. I kept … You know, the craft of writing is something that you’ve just got to keep doing, so that I always did. Probably not so much fiction, you know while I was studying law I was doing a lot more non-fiction, op-eds and essays. But when I moved from Melbourne to Sydney I got married and was in my first year working as a lawyer, and I had about an hour train ride, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go back to that manuscript and rewrite it’. And that’s what I did.

Nic: Tell me about the process of going back and rewriting. Firstly, how did you feel rereading it, and then how long did it take to get finished and send to a publisher?

Randa: Oh look, within reading the first page I knew that the whole thing had to be rewritten. It was a very, sort of, junior voice. But the concept and basic plot, well, the basic plot was still there. It took about a good year of writing it, and then at the end of that process – and a lot of that writing was on the train, and then I’d go in to work and then at lunch time I’d type up what I had written and I’d print and edit it on the way home.

Nic: Wow.

Randa: Yes, I did a lot of the editing on public transport. You just lose yourself in the words, in all the hustle and bustle around you, and so a lot of that process happened there. And then I went to Borders, I remember, in Pitt Street Mall in Sydney, and just basically looked at how to get published.

Nic: Yeah.

Randa: And I found that most advice was to find an agent first.

Nic: Right, OK.

Randa: And I just sent it out to as many agents as possible, and it was the lucky last agent that took it on.

Nic: Wow.

Rand: Actually, even before I did that there was a strong recommendation to get a manuscript assessment. So, I did, I paid the money and I did that, and then rewrote the whole thing based on their recommendations.

Nic: Do you remember what some of those recommendations were? Because that will show us what sorts of mistakes you were making then and what you needed to fix up.

Randa: Sure. So, it was in the third person, and they said, ‘Write it in first person’. They recommended certain characters be taken out. Some of the advice I kept, I adhered to and listened to, some of it I didn’t. But I did rewrite the whole book and change the tense. And then there were certain plot things that they recommended I do. But the main thing was in terms of the voice. And so, that was quite a lengthy process again.

Nic: Of course.

Randa: You know, even receiving the report, there is a moment of hesitation where you think, ‘I’m going to have to rewrite this whole thing after a year’. But it was never even … I never had any doubts that I would do it, because it was something that I just so wanted to see it through. Even if it didn’t get published I wanted to make the manuscript the best I could.

Nic: So you got an agent, did you then have to work with the agent further on the manuscript before it was sent out, or were they happy to send it out based on what you had sent them?

Randa: Yeah, they sent it based on what I had sent them.

Nic: Was it the case that the first publisher that saw it picked it up and went, ‘Yes, we want to publish it.’ Or was it harder than that?

Randa: It was surprisingly not as hard as I thought it would be. There were two offers.

Nic: Right.

Randa: And I always see publishing as well as being in the right place at the right time. You know, there hadn’t been a book about a young Muslim teenage girl written by a Muslim.

Nic: Sure.

Randa: It was close after September 11, it was around 2004, and I think that constellation of things, you know, together …

Nic: Were you surprised by your success?

Randa: Yes, definitely. I was very surprised.

Nic: What drew you into the young adult area, or audience? Do you think it might have been because you had written it when you were a young adult and then went back to it, so it was already like that? Would it have been different if you had picked it up at the age that you were and decided this is a great idea. Would you have written it for an adult audience?

Randa: It is such a good question, because I keep thinking about it because you get asked this a lot at festivals, ‘Why young adult?’ And I think young adult chose me, because it was something that I had written as a teenager, and I still felt so connected to that story, even though I was an adult now. That world was so visceral to me, growing up as this ‘other’ as an adolescent, how difficult that can be, was still so raw and I felt that exploring it in an adolescent world would just be so much more powerful.

Nic: And I ask that because as I was reading ‘When Michal Met Mina’ I thought, when I think of the current generation, my observation is that they are very accepting of cultural differences. And I wonder whether it may not have been better to write for an older audience, where they are not so accepting. Do you feel as if you are preaching to the converted to some extent, or you are not trying to change minds?

Randa: I kind of feel sort of … And this might sound offensive, but there is a certain level where you’ve just got to give up and say, ‘They are a write-off, nothing is going to change’. It’s the new generation, really, because it’s not just so much about living with difference and living with the ‘other’, it’s about really understanding the consequences of racism, the consequences of hate. You know, people actually looking up and accepting their privilege, but not just recognising it, then realising it has a responsibility. So, what are they going to do next? I feel that speaking within, to and for that generation think is still very necessary.

Nic: How do your ideas come to you?

Randa: The idea usually comes to me at a random moment, and then…

Nic: Do you remember the random moment for ‘When Michael Met Mina’?

Randa: Oh yes, I was at an anti-refugee rally doing fieldwork for the PhD, interviewing people who were against refugees and multiculturalism and Muslims. Because the PhD looked at Islamophobia and racism from the perspective of perpetrators, it was as I was attending this rally I started to think about what it would mean to grow up as a teenager and socialise in that kind of environment where that is the sort of rhetoric you are hearing. And so, the idea for Michael came to me at that point, and sat with me for a while as I was talking to people. And then I thought to make things interesting, what if he was challenged by somebody who is the epitome of everything his family had taught him to hate and to reject. And Mina came to me.

Nic: What I find fascinating about this is that I recently heard John Safran talking about his latest book. He had exactly the same idea. He was at a far-right rally, and that is where he got a similar idea. Of course, he has written something completely different – non-fiction for adults – but exactly the same idea at the same rally … two such completely different books, which I find fascinating.

Randa: Yeah, because in those environments, I think the best ideas come to you in moments when you are completely uncomfortable.

Nic: Sure.

Randa: And that level of discomfort and shock and almost fear about what you’re hearing, it takes you to another level creatively I think. Because for me, I know, when I intellectualise that moment because I’ve thought about it so often, it’s because I’ve felt so challenged, I guess, in terms of ‘What am I going to do about this? This is happening, there are consequences to this’. And for me the arts and writing is the best form of activism, and the best form is what people say is ‘artivism’.

Nic: Sure.

Randa: And that for me, I guess, that gets the creative juices going, and that is when the moment came.

Nic: To make the story work you have got to get rid of that intellectual approach, and tap into that emotional …

Randa: Oh yeah. Definitely. And it was very interesting to me as a process, because I wrote the work of fiction alongside the PhD. And so, for me, that was an incredible process because everything I was learning at a scholarly level I wanted to be translated into this fictional world. And the risk of that is being didactic and preachy and forgetting the characters.

Nic: Sure

Randa: So sometimes you have to hold back, and that comes through constant editing. But I let the idea sit with me for a while before I started to write it.

Nic: So, going back to the drafting process, do you plan it all out, or do you just see where the characters take you?

Randa: I was actually at the State Library of New South Wales when I wrote the first scene. I was waiting for a function, I think, or a talk panel, and I had my laptop and I just felt at that moment, I had about an hour, I had a coffee and I thought, ‘I feel like writing Michael’s voice, seeing what his voice is about.’ Because the idea had sat with me for several months, which it usually does. I let it cook away there.

Nic: Ok. Yeah.

Randa: And I just started to write. And at first the whole book as written as a series of letters from Michael to Mina, and Michael’s section was a letter and hers was just straight prose. But then I realised when I finished the book it didn’t work, so I went back and rewrote the whole thing.

Nic: So, at the library, were you writing, just the very basic level again, do you write with a pen, paper, tapping away at the keyboard? When, and in terms of changing things, do you do that as you are going? Or do you wait till you just get the first draft out?

Randa: I don’t know how to write anymore by hand, to my shame. I could as a teenager, but now it is all on the laptop. So, I wrote that first scene at the rally, and I don’t move on until I have perfected it in my mind. You know, I go back and I edit and I edit, just as much as possible. And then I move to the next scene, and then I go back and edit both, because the next scene of course impacts on the first. And that’s how I move … I suppose it’s a slower process, but for me it’s just what works for me. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I like to know that when I look back there is something that I am happy with, and then I can continue forward.

Nic: Have you always done that with all of your books? Or have you tried different approaches?

Randa: I’ve always written like that. I don’t tend to plan. The only book I ever really plotted out was ‘Noah’s Law’, because it was a mystery. But I tend to be the sort who meanders her way through a plot.

Nic: Did you know where you were going with this book? Did you know where you wanted some of the key plot points? Did you know what you wanted to have happen at that very early stage?

Randa: Yes.

Nic: You knew about the TV show and all of that stuff?

Randa: Yeah. What I do is, I don’t plot each chapter or each scene, I just know there are certain moments and plot points I want in there, and the story can unfold around each of those. So, I do always have a general idea of what is going to happen in the book.

Nic: You are a very busy person with everything you do and four children. How do you actually find the time to write? Do you have a set routine, or is each day different, or do you make time at a particular time of the day?

Randa: Look, I have been doing this now … with either having a law career or a PhD to write or four children, and I can honestly say if you want to be a writer you’ve just got to write. You’ve got to be a little bit less precious about where you are going to write, having a space where you go to the Zen. I have taken a laptop to children’s play centres, sat in the car while the kids are asleep and got the laptop out. I always see it as getting from A to B, and the only way you can is actually taking those steps, each step, and at the end of the day I’ve found that is the most effective way, just being disciplined about it, and very flexible about where I’m going to write.

Nic: Do you have another writer or a group of writers who read your work and give you feedback? How does that work? How do you know you are on the right track? Who do you use?

Randa: My sister. Usually they say don’t trust family because they’ll always …

Nic: Exactly.

Randa: She’s incredibly ruthless and critical, and so I know I can usually trust her. And she’s got a very sharp eye and picks up some real stupid mistakes. For example, in a book I wrote set in Palestine, the family, that father, has lost his beautiful farm and olive groves. He is a farmer. But when I am describing the apartment they are forced to live in, there was a small pass away reference to a pot plant that was dying on the front step. And she said, ‘You idiot. How can a farmer have a pot plant that is dying?’ And I said, ‘Thank you Nada, that is why I need you.’

Nic: At what stage do you first give her your work to look at? Is it the end of the first draft, or do you give her stuff while you are going?

Randa: Oh, sometimes I get really excited, or sometimes I get really depressed and I think I need her advice. But generally, I keep it quite close to me until it is ready and then I give her the whole thing. And then she’ll also … She knows it’s going to change a lot, because that’s the thing about writing: most of the writing happens in the editing process. She’ll say to me, ‘Just wait until you’re convinced that it’s done, so I don’t have to read it five hundred times.’

Nic: How old is your oldest child?

Randa: Eleven.

Nic: Ok, so at the age where you can start putting ideas past them. Do you do that? Do you use your children at all for bouncing ideas off?

Randa: Not yet, but I have written for them, for their age group, and also used their names as characters in the books, which they love.

Nic: Could you write a novel on subject matters and characters that you are don’t feel strongly about or are not emotionally tied to?

Randa: For me it is more a question of what is my investment in that story, and always questioning my position. Am I going to be exploiting somebody else’s story? Am I going to be co-opting their story? Particularly in the area I’m passionate about, which is race.

I’m conscious of the fact that when it comes to fiction that we consider diverse, sometimes it is a checklist where, ‘Oh, we’ve done Muslim, we’ve done Japanese’, or whoever. So, there isn’t a lot of space there for that spectrum of diverse voices, and sometimes when you do encroach on someone else’s space, you possibly give them the chance to miss out on something. That’s unfortunately the way the literary world works. So, for me, it’s questions of power. Am I exploiting? Am I co-opting? Why am I writing this story? And there are some stories I won’t go near, at least in terms of the main character voice.

Nic: So, have you read stuff from non-Muslims or Australians depicting Muslims in a way that you’re … you know, riles you in some way?

Randa: Oh yes, oh yes.

Nic: Any specific examples that you want to give, maybe without mentioning names, but particular things which you just went, ‘Woah’?

Randa: Well, I recently write a piece, but like an academic piece, about this tendency of the white woman rescuer narrative to come in, and there is a whole genre of that.

Nic: Sure.

Randa: I could have been rich a long time ago. And that opportunity has been there, you know, to write a book, a tell-all, you know, tell us about the inner secrets in the club of being a Muslim woman. And there’s that whole genre there, of white women speaking for and on behalf of Muslim, usually Muslim girls or women. And this book I felt did that, and did it without any awareness of consciousness of issues of positionality, of power, of co-option, of voice. And also there is this weird thing that happens when you have books written about Muslim characters and the Muslim world, the so called Muslim world, is even if it is a work of fiction, it is quickly presented as a work of fact and social commentary and expert analysis, and they become an expert on a certain topic, in this case it was arranged marriages. And you get that from the way that the book is marketed and reviewed, and how interviews take place. And for me, and for other writers of Muslim background, and I think it applies to writers, people of colour whose stories are often co-opted in that way, it can become very frustrating.

Nic: So, on the flipside then, which Australian Muslim writers do you most admire, and that you really enjoy?

Randa: We’re seeing so many more voices coming out, and not necessarily just in terms of books, Amal Awad is someone who is self-published. She writes for adult audiences, a lot of sort of romantic comedy, cheeky looks at life as a young Muslim woman. Sarah Saleh has written a beautiful poetry collection. I loved ‘Good Muslim Boy’. I’m put on the spot here, but there’s more and more voices that are breaking through those barriers and in a non-stereotypical way.

Nic: When you’re invited to festival and panel events, do you find yourself up there because you are a Muslim-Australian writer, or do you find yourself up there because you are a writer?

Randa: Yeah, this is a fantastic question, because it goes to the heart of being a writer in a white-dominated society, where you’re writing about issues that affect your circle and community. What is your position then? For me, I don’t … This is, I suppose, what it means to be a writer with all of these hyphens. It’s not so much that I resent the tag of Muslim writer, it’s more that I just want the fluidity to move between my own self-identification, and not to be labelled and boxed in like that. And I think that it is changing now. When I first started, it was very much … I remember a review in which the reviewer said, and it was a review of a book by Melina Marchetta, she said ‘We hope that Melina and Randa can write books about normal characters now.’

Nic: Normal? Normal?

Randa: Yeah, like ‘You’ve done the wog fiction, are you going to do the rest?’

So, for me it is sometimes that frustration of being pigeonholed. And there are times when you’re on a panel where your identity and politics is not commented on or brought into question, and you feel frustrated because you do have something to offer. It is just this oscillation between different states that can be part and parcel of who we are in that context.

Nic: In what way do you think you are a better writer, or a different writer, than you were – not when you were a teenager – but when you were working properly on your first novel? I mean over the years, what have you learnt?

Randa: I’ve learnt that your confidence erodes with each book. Sorry listener.

Nic: That’s not what people want to hear!

Randa: I’m so sorry. But it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop. Because, I guess, it’s one of those professions where you are never going to get it perfect.

Nic: Yeah.

Randa: And that for me, that adventure and – to use a really reality TV word – journey …

Nic: Journey, I knew you were going to say that.

Randa: I know. That’s the exciting thing. How much more can I push myself? I do … I go back and I read my books and I forget them as well, you know. I think I could have done that differently. Of course, you can, because every story can be told in a million different ways. You’ve just got to find what story is going to work from you. What can you bring to it that’s authentic and different?

Nic: Well on that score, I have no doubt like all writers you have a million ideas. At what point do you realise ‘This idea is going to make a good novel? But on the other hand, this idea I’m going to scrap.’ Have you worked through books and done a whole draft, and then never gone back to it? Or have you just completed every idea you’ve ever had?

Randa: Since I’ve started writing books, I have, because I’ve written the book that has come to me. But that’s because I allow that idea to sit with me for a while.

Nic: OK.

Randa: I really do think about it and sit on it for a while in my head. And usually it is in my head as I’m editing the last book. Because these things time-wise as well overlap.

Nic: That’s interesting. So, you don’t actually start writing until it has been in your head for quite a while. Because a lot of writers get this idea and ‘Wow, I’m just going to start getting it down’. But you let it fester and you ponder on it.

Randa: Yeah. The character, not necessarily the plot.

Nic: So, it starts with character.

Randa: It sounds so cheesy, but I need to know that character a bit more intimately before I feel courageous enough to embody their voice. In the beginning when you start writing, it’s very self-conscious.

Nic: Yes.

Randa: There’s a moment every writer will experience when the voice takes on its own character. For me, the moment that I realised that was in my third book, when I’d written the whole book and one of the characters was Rashid, and when I gave it – set in Palestine of a Christian background – and when I gave it to a friend she said, ‘Oh, Rashid is a Muslim name’. I should have known that! And she said, ‘You have to change that name’. And I honestly cried, it broke my heart, because I knew him as Rashid. Until this day he is Sammy now, but he was Rashid to me first and it felt… And that when I knew characters take on a life of their own.

Nic: So you always start with character?

Randa: Yeah.

Nic: And then move on, create the plot around them.

Randa: Yeah, and I think I have to, because the issues that I write, they are these grand themes, particularly around race and war and conflict. Otherwise it is just going to be a book that uses its characters just as a plot device for me to make a statement. I could write an op-ed then! It has to always come back to the characters.

Nic: The YA market is very popular. It’s extremely crowded, and so good on you for being so successful within it. What advice would you have for writers trying to enter that market?

Randa: You’ve just got to believe in that story and get that story in the best shape it is. Of course, all genres are hard to break into. I think YA is particularly hard to break into, as you said, also because YA competes heavily with the US YA, and UK. And that’s huge. I mean, they really take up a lot of the market. So, it’s very difficult to get an opportunity for a publisher to go out on a limb and take a risk. The only thing you can be true to and the only thing you can control is your writing. You have to let go of thinking you can control anything else. And you just get in in the best shape possible. That’s the only daggy advice I can offer.

Nic: You mention international markets, how do your books go outside of Australia? Are they seen as Australian-Muslim stories or are they more generally Muslim, Christian or Western stories?

Randa: Well, I’ve been really surprised by how they have been received overseas. They have been published quite widely, and some of them come out of left field, like some of my younger ones have been turned into graphic novels in Japan, which is so exciting.

Nic: Wow, that would be.

Randa: For me, the main books that been done quite successfully are the books that deal with issues of identity. And particularly in the US and the UK; the US is probably my largest market after Australia. It is, yeah, and very comparable to the sales in Australia. And most of the fan mail I receive is not from Muslims.

Nic: Right.

Randa: They are people who are straddling different identities, so that is very comforting and reassuring.

Nic: When you sit down and write are you, in your mind, writing for an international audience? Or is it still just an Australian story and let’s see what happens?

Randa: Yeah.

Nic: Because it’s universal messages anyway?

Randa: Totally. Still very Australian. And that editing process for the US is always very amusing.

Nic: Yes, yes.

Randa: Very amusing. But yeah, for me it is still the world of Australia.

Nic: In terms of the American editing, can you give an example of something you fought against or struggled with or just laughed at couldn’t believe?

Randa: With my younger books, and I think because it was with Scholastic and they publish at all the book fairs, they were so much more conservative. I had the world ‘hell’ in there, not as somebody swearing but it was a noun, and I had to change it, so they were very conservative around issues like that, which I found very funny.

Nic: It is bizarre, isn’t it? They are so conservative with their educational based texts, in a country where, you know, kids can take guns to school and access the most outrageous things on the internet.

Randa: Exactly.

Nic: But you can’t put the word hell in.

Randa: With the book that was set in Palestine, it was really about making sure it was edited in such a way that there would be no potential for it to be slammed as anti-Semitic or to have that slur thrown at it. Not that it was, but they were a lot more conscious in the States. But the beauty of it was that my editor is Jewish and her husband was an ex-IDF soldier, but he refused to serve, so it was fantastic insurance.

Nic: Are you aware of that issue when you are writing the book, or it just doesn’t enter your mind?

Randa: If I was aware of it I wouldn’t write, it would be paralysing.

Nic: Yeah.

Randa: I guess part of the reason I write is to challenge that sort of censorship, to push back against it.

Nic: Would you like to get to the stage, in say ten years’ time, where these sort of books are just … it’s not talked about, it’s just a part of the Western literary landscape?

Randa: Yeah, and I mean I want to get to a point where race isn’t an issue that we need to discuss. But we are nowhere near being post-race, as much as politicians think we are, and these issues are still so urgent.

Nic: Do you think there are, I mean my view is that in America they do diversity in the arts so much better, and always have done. There are no token characters, whether it is on ‘Sesame Street’ or whatever, compared to here. Do you think there is a difference in the countries as to how diversity is represented?

Randa: Oh yes.

Nic: We are well behind, aren’t we?

Randa: Definitely, definitely. And not just in the YA scene either.

Nic: No, no. Absolutely.

Randa: I mean, every controversy that happens at every writers’ festival is a testament to that, they really are. Our understanding of race is so behind and so dishonest, we are not really willing to face up to it and to tackle it head on. But in the YA scene, there is really a lot more consciousness now of it. And we’ve got hashtags #LoveOzYA and diversity is now being really pushed in the YA world, so I am really proud to be part of that community, who are really trying to make changes there.

Nic: Randa Abdel-Fattah is a strong and important voice in Australian literature. Here’s hoping the ideas continue to come to her, and the characters continue to drive her to share her stories.


About The Garret

The Garret is a podcast celebrating the best writers writing today. These writers represent many genres. The common thread is success: these writers are the top of their fields. This is not a podcast about individual books or to promote a writer's latest book. It is a series exploring how the best of the best start, draft, complete and market their writing. Every episode is published alongside show notes and transcripts to increase educational value and access.