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Randa Abdel Fattah spins Islamophobia into Aussie teen romance

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Randa Abdel-Fattah was researching Islamophobia from the point of view of perpetrators when she wrote her 11th book.By day, she'd interview people with Islamophobic views for her PhD. At night she'd imagine what would happen if two teenagers from opposite sides of an anti-refugee rally met and fell in love.The result was When Michael Met Mina, which went on to win the 2017 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Writing for Young Adults, and the People's Choice Award.It is the only book in the world with "NO TO TABOULI. HALAL FUNDS ISIS?" in tiny letters on the front cover.The humour in the book comes from those interviews."One guy was so against multiculturalism and Muslims and he felt very strongly that Australia needed to return to the White Australia Policy, and then during the course of the conversation revealed his wife is Japanese," says Abdel-Fattah, laughing.Abdel-Fattah has a particular affinity with students in western Sydney.In the western suburbs, she says, students have an inherent awareness of issues of race and class that makes their questions very different to those being asked in the east.And when she first arrived from Melbourne, she immediately appreciated the eclectic mix of people."They were not people who were walking around thinking: 'Oh, is this a multicultural project? How is it going?'" she says. "It was just part and parcel of who they were and the faces that you see and people that you mix with.""You just can't write this stuff, or make it up, you know?"At first, Abdel-Fattah felt quite depressed when the people she interviewed expressed Islamophobic views."It was only as I started to read the scholarship around race and Islamophobia and history that I realised that if you see racism as an individual thing, nothing's going to change," she says.She compares it to investing all her anger at patriarchy at the guy who catcalls at a construction site."What on Earth is that going to change? When you fight patriarchy, you fight the systems of misogyny, and it's exactly the same with race," she says."It's a whole constellation of things that we really need to tackle — the political system, media — rather than just pick on the person who says 'go back to where you came from' on a public bus."From Sweet Valley High to Auburn and Lane CoveIf Randa Abdel-Fattah went back to where she came from, it would be Sydney, where she was born.The Palestinian-Egyptian Australian grew up in Melbourne in the 1980s, reading books set in California and Connecticut, not Carlton or Caulfield.She was obsessed with Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitters Club, and wrote stories which all took place in the US or the UK."My imaginative world was never Australia," she says. "It was rare for me to see my world in a book."Fast forward to 2017, and When Michael Met Mina — set in the Sydney suburbs of Auburn and Lane Cove — has just been released in the United States as The Lines We Cross, where cross-cultural relationships, high school romance, racism and Islamophobia are as relatable as in Australia.When Abdel-Fattah was in Year 9, she wrote her first novel and sent it off to publishers. Aged 15, she was already politically active and doing anti-racism work."Being Muslim and Arab was no longer a description, it was an accusation, because of the Gulf War and 9/11," she says."That's when I started to realise the power of story to make change, and that's when I felt that yawning gap in literary fiction when it came to people of my sort of background."Publishers rejected the novel. "But they were lovely about it," says Abdel-Fattah, noting that they steered her away from being too didactic in her writing.Years later and after many rewrites, the novel became her best-selling first book Does My Head Look Big In This?, which is now being made into a film.Changing her approach to fighting racismIn many ways, this 15-year-old self is still very much a part of Abdel-Fattah's current life — rejection slips aside.These days, when students at writers' festivals and school visits ask her about racism, she explains how her thinking about racism has changed since she was at school.When she was younger, she would speak back to racism and try to prove her humanity. Now she realises that this is the wrong approach."Not only is it not going to work, it is dehumanising and it is also emotionally draining, the emotional labour that you invest in always proving yourself to other people," she says."It means that you have an identity that's completely carved in terms of resistance and there's nothing left for yourself."She encourages students to decide on their own terms who they are, and to create spaces that are away from racism so that their lives aren't dominated by it.

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