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from the May 2015 issue

Both Freedom and Constraint: An Interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah

Randa Abdel-Fattah was born in Sydney in 1979 and grew up in Melbourne. She has written nine young adult books inspired by her research on racism, including Does My Head Look Big in This? Ten Things I Hate About Me, Where the Streets Had a Name, Buzz Off, The Friendship Matchmaker, The Friendship Matchmaker Goes Undercover, No Sex in the City, Jodie and the Book of You, and Rania and the Book of You. She worked as a litigation lawyer for ten years and is currently pursuing a PhD exploring everyday multiculturalism and racism in Australia, and remains passionate about my human rights activism. Abdel-Fattah is frequently sought for comment by the media on issues pertaining to Palestine, Islam and Australian Muslims. 

Nathalie Handal spoke with Randa Abdel-Fattah at the Sharjah International Book Fair in November 2014; their conversation continued over email in the course of January through April 2015. This is an edited version of their talks.

NATHALIE HANDAL: What was it like growing up Palestinian in Australia?

RANDA ABDEL-FATTAH: I don’t think I ever identified as or even felt “Palestinian in Australia.” Sometimes I felt a hybrid of Australian and Palestinian. Sometimes I felt neither Australian nor Palestinian, tired of identity politics. What was always present, however, was a sense that I was connected­—personally and through a strong sense of principles—to an ongoing injustice and that raising awareness about it in Australia was an uphill battle. That was my political consciousness. As for my cultural consciousness, my mother is Egyptian and I grew up among her family in Australia and probably absorbed more Egyptian culture as a child. The older I get, the more I realize how hybridized my cultural identity is.    

NH: You’ve said that you grew up with a strong Australian Muslim identity—can you elaborate?

RAF: I think I found myself, in terms of a sense of purpose and the coordinates for how to navigate and negotiate life, through a spiritual path. I resisted patriarchal traditions in some aspects of my Arabic cultural heritage (never imposed by my very equal-opportunity parents) and found that my faith reinforced my instinct against injustice and double standards. I felt that my Muslim faith and identity empowered me to seek to live to my fullest potential. I was born and raised in Australia, and this is home; this is the site of the most formative, important memories for me. 

NH: You are a regular contributor on Palestine in the Australian press and you write young adult novels about Palestine and Australian Muslims—what can you achieve in one medium that you can’t in the other? What has that experience been like for you?  

RAF: Writing opinion pieces and essays in the Australian press affords me the opportunity to counter hegemonic narratives about the Israel-Palestinian conflict—narratives that often grossly misrepresent the nature of the struggle and perpetuate Israeli propaganda. I am able to counter the idea, for example, that this is a conflict between two “equal” sides or that, as another example, the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement is “anti-Semitic.” In that sense, I am contributing to the public discourse, challenging dominant narratives and giving a voice to Palestinians.

Writing fiction is incredibly powerful, too. As a writer, I invite readers to suspend their judgments and prejudices and enter the lifeworlds of the misunderstood, the misrepresented, the mistreated. There is nothing so personal as that. It requires trust and courage on the part of my readers. Because the world and characters they will temporarily inhabit is, if I am a good enough writer, hopefully going to change or affect them, even in some small way. The relationship between reader and writer in fiction is steeped in vulnerabilities. It really does require trust and faith because some books have the power to transform people. You feel like you can never go back, look at the world in the same way again. And that grand ambition is what I hope to do with my books because at the heart of my writing is a passion for telling stories of the oppressed, the marginalized, and the misunderstood.

NH: You are also a litigation lawyer and a doctoral candidate exploring racism and multiplicity in Australia—how have these undertakings influenced your creative process and writing?

RAF: I worked as a litigation lawyer for ten years and then left law to pursue an academic path, which I am relishing. The people and cases I encountered in my legal career often provided me with inspiration: a character, a name, an outlook on the world, a conflict. My PhD research has changed me dramatically in terms of my understanding of racism and everyday multiculturalism. This has undoubtedly made me a more mature and nuanced fiction writer.  

NH: How does the press cover Palestine in Australia?

RAF: We have seen a marked shift in press coverage. Some years ago, we struggled to have our voice heard. Minorities will always encounter difficulties in gaining a platform in mainstream media simply because the gatekeepers of Australian media (white, middle-class, often male) reinforce their privilege. For me, as a Palestinian, the gates were often tightly shut. But with social media now exposing, without doubt, Israel’s belligerence, oppression, and crimes against Palestinians, Palestinians and their supporters have access to other forms of media, and mainstream media are recognizing the futility in suppressing their voices. We are seeing a very positive shift.

NH: You have worked with interfaith groups—do you still?

RAF: I no longer participate in interfaith groups simply because I have no time, given all the other work I am doing. I did this during my university years and found it refreshing and soul-building. I think religiosity is increasing across the board, across many faiths, as a response to our neoliberal, uncaring, profit-driven societies. People have given up expecting the state to care for them and offer them a dignified future, and more and more people are turning to a spiritual existence as a way to understand the world and their place in it. 

NH: What is writing in your life—activism, a creative need, a spiritual act?

RAF: First and foremost, the impulse that drives me to write is the creative one. I love the stuff and material of writing: words. The games you can play with them. The rhythm and lyricism in a good passage of writing. The power of a simple sentence. I also love the paradoxical bind of writing as both freedom and constraint. You start creating characters and scenes out of thin air. But if you do it well enough, that freedom constricts, because your characters are no longer inside you. They become their own people, agents on the page who need to act and think and feel in ways true to who they are. There is something quite transcendental in the moment you, as the writer, realize this has happened. That your character is now a person in her own right. I often know this moment has arrived when I cannot contemplate changing a character’s name. I feel exhilaration rather than separation anxiety. When I wrote the first draft of Where the Streets Had a Name (set in Palestine), a friend read it and commented that one of my characters, a Christian boy, had a Muslim name. It was a terrible oversight on my part but I had to change his name to ensure the credibility of the character. It gutted me. I felt like I had killed him. To this day, I still find myself slipping and revert to his original name when I refer to him. 

NH: What has writing revealed to you about being Palestinian?

RAF: That even though I am in the diaspora, writing about Palestine and Palestinians gives me a vivid, almost spiritual connection with my father’s homeland. Writing is bottom-up. It is street level. It is about the everyday, the daily rituals, the stuff and essence and micro-dynamics of life. Through writing I experience Palestine as if I was there. I am not a tourist or the returning daughter of the dispossessed. I am my characters as they walk its streets, pass through its checkpoints. I am in Palestine, as an embodied subject, even as I sit at my desk in Sydney, Australia. 

NH: Tell me about your experience(s) in Palestine?

RAF: I’ve been to Palestine twice. The first time changed me forever. I saw first-hand my father’s homeland and understood how tremendous, how gut-wrenching dispossession, exile, and occupation are. I felt an inexplicable connection to Palestine and a devastating sense of nostalgia for what it would have been like during my father’s childhood. But I’m not going to romanticize it. The strongest feeling I experienced was anger.

NH: What is the Australian literary scene like for ethnic and multi-cultural authors?

RAF: The Australian literary scene, much like the literary scene in other Western countries, is still dominated by the “White as universal” story. We are, however, seeing some truly remarkable writers smash through this scene, forcing, through the power of their stories, the “mainstream” to take notice. The tide is turning.

NH: What are you working on?

RAF: I am in the last stages of editing my latest young adult novel, which is set in Sydney and explores Islamophobia and racism from the point of view of two characters: a young teenage boy who is being raised in a racist household, and a young teenage girl, a refugee from Afghanistan.

NH: In one word, what is it like to be Palestinian at this moment?

RAF: Hopeful.

© 2016 by Nathalie Handal. All rights reserved.

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