Rewriting the Australian identity in compelling young adult books

Randa Abdel-Fattah

Rewriting the Australian identity in compelling young adult books

Photo credit: Jennifer Wong / ABC

Highly acclaimed Australian author Randa Abdel-Fattah has been storytelling for as long as she can remember.

With a love of reading encouraged by a book-loving family, Randa began writing from as early as primary school, a passion strongly supported by those who surrounded her.

I think I’ve always had a really active imagination and I still get swept up and caught up in my own imagination and other people’s stories.

“In year nine, I had a really wonderful teacher who was of English background and he influenced my own taste and I really fell in love with 19th century English Literature from there,” she said.

Now armed with a PhD in Islamophobia and Race, she has an entirely new perspective on the classic genre.

“I fell in love with it as a naive teenager, and I read it now, and physically I still love it and I still get swept away by the landscape and the characters of that era, but I read them now with much more race consciousness, and I also read it a lot more critically now,” Randa explained.

Photo credit: Tamara Abdul Hadi via The Electronic Intifada

Her first novel, Does my Head Look Big in This?, was published in 2005 and has since become a staple in many Australian libraries, winning multiple awards, including the Australian Industry Book Award for Best Australian Book for Young Adult Readers in 2006.

The first chapters of the book were written when Randa was still in high school, and were somewhat a reflection of her own experiences.

“I was using writing as a way to make sense of my identity and my own experiences of racism, so for me, writing was a way of navigating and exploring those experiences,” Randa explained.

“I wrote the first chapters of the book when it was the mid-90s, and there was nothing that had been written from that point of view before, and when I published it in 2005, that gap in the young adult market still hadn’t been filled.”

Randa Abdel-Fattah
Photo credit: Megan Daley / Children’s Books Daily

The response to Does my Head Look Big in This?, and Randa’s other books including When Michael met Mina and Where the Streets had a Name has been globally phenomenal.

“The most wonderful thing about it is that a lot of my responses are from overseas, and also a really even mix between muslim and non-muslim readers, but who are still connecting with the stories,” she said.

You don’t have to be muslim to understand differences and the markers of difference in society and you can connect with that story in trying to find yourself.

“When someone responds in a positive way, it’s not only extremely gratifying and humbling, but it’s also relieving because it means it resonated and connected with somebody, so really there is no better compliment.”

Randa is currently working on a feature film adaptation of Does my Head Look Big in This?, a bittersweet moment for the Palestinian-Egyptian-Australian author.

“We’re in the last stages of the draft for the screenplay, but we’ve actually had to escalate and intensify the Islamophobia because things are worse now than when it was first published,” Randa said.

That is really bittersweet for me, to realise that the book has to be updated negatively to reflect the regression in our political environment, so I feel that my work is not done yet, by all means.

Follow Randa Abdel-Fattah on Twitter HERE.

Anisha Mistry

As the Editor of CulturalPulse, Anisha is passionate about listening to, writing and sharing stories of Australia's multicultural achievement. Got a story to tell? Get in touch: editor@culturalpulse.com.au