Randa Abdel-Fattah is a lawyer, human rights activist and a doctoral candidate in the Centre for Social Inclusion at Macquarie University, researching Islamophobia. She is regular guest commentator on radio and television. In 2010, she was invited by the US State Department as the Australian representative in a three-week program across the United States to investigate multiculturalism and policy. She is the third writer in Sydney PEN’s ‘Free Voices’ series. Alex Johnson reports.
In introducing herself, Randa Abdel-Fattah says she “expects to get a full night’s rest sometime after 2020”; it may seem like a whimsical statement until you realise that she might not be joking. Since 2005, Ms Abdel-Fattah has written seven young adult and children’s novels, recently released her first adult novel, No Sex in the City, contributed opinion pieces to various national newspapers, worked tirelessly as a human rights activist and forged a successful career as a lawyer. To top it all off, she has just put law on hold so that she can complete her PhD at Macquarie University. To describe her as busy is probably an understatement.
“When I chose to do law, I thought it would be an arena where I could really explore my passion for human rights but it didn’t work out,” she says. Finding that her legal career was increasingly being sidelined by other commitments, Ms Abel-Fattah decided to take the leap and change paths. “I thought, ‘Why can’t I just revert to my passions as a career?’”
So, which passion is she referring to – writing, or her ongoing commitment to social justice? For Ms Abdel-Fattah, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Both are about stories.
“When you’re open to stories, it means that you’re open to other people’s perspectives and experiences, and that is at the heart of being an engaged human being and someone who cares about other people’s lives,” she says.
“When you are able to broaden your perspective from your own limited experience and actually care about what other people go through, I think that develops an ability to empathise.”
From an early age, Randa Abdel-Fattah felt an urge to talk to older people, using their tales as inspiration for her own works. While she views her novels as capturing a broad audience, there is an obvious young adult appeal in her work. She spends a large portion of her year speaking at Australian schools about her novels and the themes that arise in them.
“I really love the fact that I am able to connect with younger audiences. I love the fact that I’m able to offer them a window into stories that they might not have thought about and increase their awareness about social justice, from a personal perspective as well as within wider context.”
The opportunity to share her knowledge and experiences with a younger audience provides a necessary counterpoint to the recent rise in Islamophobic rhetoric, both within Australia and globally.
“It just seems that it’s become almost acceptable to say things that people would have said behind closed doors before,” she says. “Maybe social media has played a part in that. It’s mobilised people and given them a platform, an anonymous platform in some cases, so people are able to vent more without necessarily being subject to a rebuttal.”
By filling a significant gap in the representations of Muslim women in Australian popular culture, Ms Abdel-Fattah breaks down the negative stereotypes associated with Islamic culture. “It’s still very difficult to find Muslim characters who aren’t represented in a very tokenistic or very stereotypical way,” she says.
“We still have a very white-washed popular cultural content manufacturing in Australia. Which is why, even though the reality of our day to day existence is pretty much diverse and multicultural, when we try and create drama to reflect what’s happening in Australia, very often there’s a huge gap.”
She says she does not like to be categorised as a Muslim writer. “I find it so patronising. Just because I write some books that happen to contain Muslim characters, I’m sometimes branded in that way. Or there’s an assumption that all the books are autobiographical. It’s as though Muslims don’t have an imagination, it must be about our own angst.”
Having her writing and identity categorised in terms of her Egyptian/ Palestinian heritage is something that Ms Abdel-Fattah is intimately familiar with. “Being the daughter of migrants, and being part of a misunderstood and maligned minority faith and ethnicity, has meant that my identity has always been defined in terms of resistance; resisting people’s stereotypes and feeling like you’re on probation in the country in which you were born and raised,” she says.
Rather than defining identity as a static element based on faith or ethnicity, she believes that identity is fluid. “Identity crises are not just the monopoly of people who come from non-white ethnic and religious backgrounds. You can have an identity crisis and be white and fifth generation Australian and still feel conflicted about your identity,” she says. “My identity changes all the time. Sometimes I question my role as a mother, as a lawyer, as advocate, as an Australian.”
However, given the current political climate, she accepts that sometimes she has to start over at square one. “I am forced to forget the liberation that comes with thinking of my identity as fluid and go back and talk about these very frustrating questions about what it means to be an Australian,” she says.
“Frankly, I don’t buy into that idea that we can define Australian values. I want people to embrace human values and stop thinking of Australian identity in ethnic terms.”