Randa Abdel-Fattah is an award-winning author and has published ten novels including Ten Things I Hate About Me and Noah’s Law. Randa practised as a lawyer until 2012 and is currently completing her doctorate at Macquarie University, researching Islamophobia and everyday multiculturalism from the point of view of the perpetrators. While conducting her PhD, Randa was inspired to write a novel, enabling her to translate some of the theories and academic themes she was researching into a fictional work for a young adult audience. The novel is due for release in 2016. Randa is also working on the film adaptation of her first novel, Does My Head Look Big in This? and is keen to use her intervention into popular culture to reshape dominant narratives around racism and multiculturalism.
Can you tell us about your writing?
I wrote the first draft of Does My Head Look Big in This? when I was fifteen. I was in Year 9 and I felt very passionate about being an Australian Muslim girl who felt a sense of being misunderstood by the wider community because of my beliefs and also because I wore the hijab as part of my school uniform. I felt compelled to write a book that would somehow allow readers to look past the veil and see the person within and realise I wasn’t a walking stereotype. I wrote the first draft and sent it to publishers and they were interested in the concept but ultimately turned it down. They felt it was a bit too didactic and preachy.
When I returned to it in 2003 I thought this time I was going to do something different, which is use humour and I really wanted to write a funny book about just an average Australian Muslim girl who is trying to negotiate her place in the world and figure out the age old question ‘Who am I?’ But at the same time she’s got the added burden of having to deal with people’s prejudices because of her decision to wear the veil while she’s at a snotty private school in Melbourne. So I guess it’s a book about her longing to belong and to be accepted for who she is.
After writing Ten Things I Hate about Me in 2006, looking at what it meant to be Lebanese in Sydney, I felt passionate about wanting to explore the Israeli occupation. So I wrote Where the Streets Had a Name, looking at the occupation from the point of view of a 13 year old girl growing up in occupied Bethlehem. It’s a story that I wrote because of my heritage as the daughter of a dispossessed Palestinian, and it’s a cause that I’m deeply passionate about.
And after those three books I felt “Wow! They’re quite weighty topics”, even though I tried to inject comedy into them. I wanted to do something different, so I wrote Noah’s Law, which is a legal thriller and the protagonist this time is a 16 year old boy. I’ve now started writing for children, and have just started a four-book low-fantasy series. I’ve also written my first adult book, called No Sex in the City, which was enormous fun to write and is a spin on the traditional chic lit with a Muslim/Jewish/Greek/Indian twist!
What do you hope to achieve as a writer?
One of the things I hope to achieve when I write in the mainstream media is to counter a lot of the misconceptions about Muslims and Islam, about Palestine and about refugees, and provide an alternative voice. I don’t ever represent myself as the Muslim voice. I’m not speaking on behalf of a monolithic community and I suppose part of my writing is to reinforce the idea that there are many voices within Muslim communities. I also like to challenge people’s idea of what we mean when we say mainstream. Is a Muslim voice seen as some deviation from the norm, or can we accept that Muslim voices contribute to the mainstream space and are part of the mainstream? They are not just a sexy niche voice, an exotic other but are actually part of this ‘us’ collective. Or are we constantly going to be referenced as ‘them’?
My human rights work has become more about writing and using a platform in the media when I have the chance to try and raise awareness about issues that don’t get enough attention. When it comes to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, we don’t often hear the Palestinian point of view. When I first started it was very difficult to even get an editor to entertain the idea of having a Palestinian write an opinion piece. We are getting more space now. There is still a long way to go but that’s what I try to do, use my writing and media interviews to bring across a voice that’s often stifled. As for my novels, my first and strongest impulse is the sheer joy of story-telling.
What does Islam mean to you?
Islam to me is many things, but first and foremost it’s about a relationship with God. For me Islam nurtures my spirituality and I believe that having that God- consciousness and one-to-one relationship with God in turn affects my lifestyle, the choices that I make, my ethics, the way that I interact with people and the environment, the way that I go about my work, my citizenship. It’s ironic, but people often see being Muslim and Australian as somehow mutually exclusive, but I really believe that if I am practising my faith to the best of my ability, then really what I am trying to be is the best human being I can be, trying to ornament myself with the highest virtues and ethics.
What do you see as some of the challenges of being an Australian Muslim?
I think the major challenges for Muslims — especially young people — living in the west, and in Australia in particular, is overcoming the tendency to define your identity in terms of resistance: you need to be able to find who you are in Australia and make a contribution, to ignore the media and the so called war on terror and the way it feeds into how people perceive Muslims, to overcome the Islamophobia, and still make something of our contribution to Australia that’s positive.
What I mean is to be able to create rather than just react. We are seeing that happening a lot more now. We are seeing more comedians and artists and writers and poets and poetry slam artists and people who are using something that is potentially quite negative, which is the stereotyping and prejudice, and channelling that anger into something positive and creative. I think that’s really exciting and something that gives me a lot of hope about what Muslims are going to bring to Australia.
How would you describe your style?
I’m not the sort of person who follows fashion. I just wear what I feel comfortable in and meets my standards of modesty, and makes me feel good as well. My modest dress is a personal choice. I will decide what is shown in the public space and what isn’t and I think, frankly, it’s no one else’s business why I eschew certain fashion trends because I feel they’re too revealing.
I think speaking to Muslim women and girls, the sense I get from the vast majority is that it can become quite draining to have this constant preoccupation what we wear at the expense of who we are and what we are doing and what we want to achieve. To constantly have a focus on our dress as something that defines us can be quite frustrating. When you look at the bigger picture it’s almost as inane as asking a woman why are you wearing short sleeves today, and long sleeves tomorrow.
The flip side of that is that more and more people are recognising that we are making our own choices, that we are not being forced to dress a certain way to appease a male guardian; that these are choices that we make and that we are embracing modesty and having fun with it. I think that’s really exciting, that we can create this space where our choices aren’t belittled, that they are actually respected and we can talk about them comfortably and freely in a discourse of choice, not oppression.