The Stella Prize chats with Randa Abdel-Fattah; human rights activist, award-winning author of young adult novels, including Does My Head Look Big in This?, and a Stella Prize Schools Program ambassador.
Stella: What were your favourite books as a child and a teenager? What factors or influences shaped your reading habits?
Randa: As a child I was obsessed with Roald Dahl. I still have my original collection of his books, although most of them are tattered and worn. The inside jacket of George’s Marvellous Medicine says in my childish writing: ‘RANDA! DON’T TOUCH. GRADE 3.’
I also loved fairytales. I was utterly captivated by The Enid Blyton Book of Brownies, and I wanted so badly to find a Magic Faraway Tree.
In upper primary school and early high school I moved onto Nancy Drew, Sweet Dreams, Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club, and read authors such as Judy Blume, Robin Klein, RL Stine, Christopher Pike and Caroline B Cooney. Looking back on this now, it’s quite clear to me that the books I read as a child reflected my unconscious desire to be a white American girl. In high school my bookshelf was, thankfully, more varied: from John Marsden to Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy to Stephen King.
Stella: Do you remember the first character you saw yourself in? How old were you?
Randa: When I was in primary school, one book that stood out for me was Nadia Wheatley’s Five Times Dizzy. It was one of the rare occasions when a book reflected people in my own life. The young Greek protagonist, Mareka, lives at the back of a Newtown deli with her family and her homesick, non-English-speaking grandmother. I had Italian, Greek and Arabic friends living in intergenerational homes, and the milk bar at the end of our street was owned by a Palestinian family who lived on the floor above. But it was an aberration from the norm, and a rarity among the fiction books on offer. I had internalised such fiction as ‘other’ and therefore less important than Jessica and Elizabeth from Sweet Valley High (ouch).
Of course, between then and now there have been many books and characters I have identified with. Recently, I was blown away by how strongly Felicity Castagna’s depictions of Western Sydney in The Incredible Here and Now resonated with me. There is something really quite magical and visceral about connecting with character and place in a book.
Stella: Why is it so important to find characters that are familiar? Why is it important to find characters that are unfamiliar?
Randa: Throughout my childhood and most of my teenage years, I was reading stories about white people, with names like Jessica and Elizabeth who fell for Todds, Pauls and Bruces – boys with ‘sandy hair and piercing blue eyes’ who were either the ‘rich boy-next-door’ or a summer camp sports coach. I fantasised about being a white girl even though the books I read had nothing to do with my life.
I spent Saturday mornings at Arabic school among boys named Mohamed and Ahmed and girls named Fatma and Aisha. During the week, I attended a Catholic primary school in one of Melbourne’s more multicultural suburbs. The student population was largely of European background and I studied Italian as a second language.
That I could not recognise myself in the books I read growing up is not problematic in and of itself – even if it did unfortunately propel me to write (badly, I might add) as though my own experience and identity did not exist. I do not believe that writers of fiction should be burdened with the responsibility of validating the lives of each of their readers.
In popular fiction, the absence of diversity is arguably symptomatic of a collective imagination that equates mainstream with white, and casts migrants, minorities and indigenous people as exotic, fascinating deviations from the norm. Even when we ‘do diversity’, we do it in the manner of a beneficent Anglo, masculine gatekeeper allowing a minority limited space for expression, on terms that often reinforce their minority status. So for me, the key question is: how do we define ‘familiar’ and ‘unfamiliar’? The answer says a lot about how we fetishise some experiences and render others as normative.
Stella: What gender stereotypes do you see in fiction that you wish you could change?
Randa: Can we, pretty please, have a moratorium on books with Muslim women in desert landscapes or war zones, or belonging to royal families, accompanied by cover images of women in veils, their haunted eyes beseeching their ‘white saviour’ reader to rescue them? In other words, that bestselling, sexy genre that fills airport bookshelves and bestseller lists and simply cashes in on the reductive stereotype and fantasy of the Third-World-woman-as-victim?
Stella: Why should boys read books about girls? Why should girls read books about girls?
Randa: To read is to cultivate empathy, to open yourself up to the possibility that the way you experience and navigate the world is different from the way other people do so. When I read John Marsden’s Dear Miffy as a teenager, it had a profound impact on me in terms of understanding the point of view of the male protagonist. So the simple answer is this: read books by and about the opposite gender so you can gain some understanding of the other 50% of the population.