The Stella Prize speaks to Sarah Ayoub, a journalist, Stella Schools Program ambassador, and the author of Hate Is Such a Strong Word.
Stella: What were your favourite books as a child and a teenager? What factors or influences shaped your reading habits?
Sarah: I don’t know if I had favourite books as a young child; most of my books were chosen for me by my parents during bookshop visits on family shopping days, or by my mother via the school’s Lucky Book Club catalogue. I would happily read whatever she bought me, and I am so thankful to her for handing me my first hobby – and my resulting career – despite her own non-English-speaking background. As I got a little older, my reading habits were most influenced by whatever I could find in the school library, and by whatever my older cousins were reading at school. When they had assessments I would read the books and tell them what they were about.
It wasn’t until I was fourteen or fifteen that I started picking books out myself. I remember picking up a book about a Greek girl growing up in Australia and it was a little too mature for me. I was just grabbing any book I could find that had a character I could identify with, which really indicates how starved for diversity non-white readers were. That said, this was when John Marsden was my favourite author – and he was a male writing about white kids, so go figure! I actually adored Winter, So Much to Tell You, and Letters from the Inside.
Stella: Do you remember the first character you saw yourself in? How old were you?
Sarah: Josephine Alibrandi, from Melina Marchetta’s Looking For Alibrandi. I know it’s such a typical answer for an ethnic girl, but honestly, when every bit of pop culture you consume depicts characters and experiences that are so different from your own life, you cling to that one bit of similarity. For years, I clung to Josie as my ethnic poster girl, and even though I was only thirteen to Josie’s seventeen, I could relate to everything she experienced: the overbearing (but loving) family, the binding ties and cultural norms, and that ‘outsider’ status that persisted no matter how accomplished you were.
Stella: What gender stereotypes do you see in fiction that you wish you could change? What’s your favourite book that bends the rules?
Sarah: Lately, I seem to be getting bothered by unrealistic romantic storylines in some young adult and new adult fiction. I know they’re strong sellers and readers love them, but sometimes they convey unrealistic expectations about relationships. They can encourage readers to pin all their hopes on great loves and grand gestures that, sometimes, just don’t happen when you’re a teen. Some of these relationships have unhealthy elements masquerading as ‘passionate’ or ‘true’ love and given our issues with violence against women, I find this really concerning. I’d love to see more YA authors create female characters who have relationships that aren’t the defining aspect of who they are.
I’m glad that, in Australia at least, our YA authors are writing multi-dimensional characters whose aspirations involve more than the perfect boyfriend. Even though teenagers today have access to unprecedented opportunities, we still have a long way to go for teenage girls to recognise what their feminist forbears have been through. Personally, when I’m reading YA I love a little bit of a love story, because crushes and first relationships are a big part of the adolescent years. But I also love it when the characters stay true to who they are and don’t compromise their identity for a crush (like Amal, the protagonist of Randa Abdel-Fattah’s novel Does My Head Look Big In This?), or when the love interest isn’t a picture-perfect or cliché guy, but instead has some quirks to him (like Jacob Coote in Looking for Alibrandi, or Josh in The Protected by Claire Zorn).
Stella: How has the YA literary landscape changed? What do you see happening in YA now that you wish had been around when you were a teen?
Sarah: I love the connection between authors and readers that the digital age has fostered. I was one of the only big readers in my grade at school and there was no one to talk to about books. I’ve just discovered hashtags on Instagram that show me what other people are loving and reading all around the world, and as a result, I am discovering new authors and building new connections with fellow readers, and readers of my own books whose passion keeps me going when the struggle gets too much.
Stella: How did your interest in reading and writing develop over time? Was this encouraged through particular teachers, educators or mentors?
Sarah: I was never really an athletic or outdoorsy kid, so I spent a lot of time reading. But despite the fact that I read constantly, I never really thought of writing as a career option until I went to university. Although I initially wanted to be a journalist, I didn’t really want to be writing hard news. I studied feature writing, and I had a great lecturer at the University of Sydney whose tutorials ignited my passion for asking questions. Asking questions meant that I ended up exploring so many scenarios internally.
I started writing my debut novel, Hate Is Such a Strong Word, as a progression from a log of things I hated about high school. But it was my agent, Selwa Anthony, and her colleague, Drew Keys, who really encouraged me to keep re-drafting and gave me the insights and backing I needed to see writing as a viable career option.
Stella: What do you think or hope the benefits of the Stella Prize Schools Program, and the recommended texts, will be for students?
Sarah: In this digital age, we’re so much more connected than we’ve ever been, but in some ways we’re much more isolated. Many of the connections we make in the digital realm can feel artificial, face-value, as though we’re not actually interacting with one another. This distance can breed a lack of empathy for and understanding of people different from us, which has the potential to create stereotypes and heighten already-present tensions.
Reading changes all of that – it allows us to experience difference in a personal, non-confrontational way, which subtly changes our individual behaviour and, eventually, our collective behaviour. Reading gives us great insights and teaches us to look beyond what we see, to discover what’s beneath the surface. It also presents subjects like history in an entertaining format, allowing young people to see how the past shapes the present and the future. I love that the Stella Prize Schools Program showcases stories from across the Australian landscape, reflecting our diverse population and our varying experiences. There isn’t one single experience of being Australian, and there isn’t one single experience of being human, and the Schools Program’s recommended texts highlight that.
Stella: What advice you would give to young aspiring writers?
Sarah: Read. Practise. Connect. Persist.
Read – because it’s by reading that you learn to write. You can identify where people get it right, and where they get it wrong. It also keeps your love of the craft of writing alive, because it inspires you to want to share your own story with people who will devour it.
Practise – because drafting, writing, rewriting and editing allow you to improve and perfect your work.
Connect – because linking up with other readers and writers through writing groups – and even hashtags or websites – allows you to access writing tips while sitting at your desk, and helps you feel supported in what can often be a solitary pursuit. Connections are also instrumental to the publishing journey. Networking is crucial, and some authors attain publishing deals through writers’ groups, workshops and festivals.
Persist – because it’s not the easiest work to obtain, and most writers will inevitably encounter roadblocks and rejections on their journey. I have a series on my blog (www.sarahayoub.com) called First Book Journeys, which I encourage aspiring writers to read so they can see the variety of different paths writers take before they are published. It’s helpful to see that there are many possible routes to a viable career in writing, even if this seems a world away from where they are right now.