In 2020 Jamila Rizvi is the force behind two books pitched, written and published during the pandemic. The first is Untold Resilience: Stories of Courage, Survival and Love from Women Who Have Gone Before - an anthology of life stories from 19 older women. The second is I'm A Hero Too - an illustrated story for children about living during a time of pandemic.
Jamila is the Chief Creative Office of the Nine Network’s Future Women, and a weekly columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. She has previously published two best-selling books - Not Just Lucky (2017) and The Motherhood (2018). Jamila is also a regular commentator on The Project, Today, The Drum and Q and A.
Jamila first appeared on The Garret in 2018, and you can listen to that interview here.
ASTRID: Jamila, welcome back to The Garret.
JAMILA: I cannot think of anywhere I would rather be.
ASTRID: Jamila, we first met back in 2018 when I interviewed you and we'd never met before and we have since become friends and we do a book podcast together, Anonymous Was A Woman. And obviously I don't normally do this on The Garret but Jam, what do you remember of that interview?
JAMILA: Oh, that is such a good question. I remember exactly that. I remember having been on a book tour which is exhausting and relentless and repetitive and having been asked the same questions again and again and again and I'm not trying to throw shade on the interviewers. That's how it goes, I'm one of those interviewers sometimes and I'm sure I ask the same questions. But you my dear, do not. You never ask the questions that other people do, and my main recollection of that interview was how many times I paused and thought, oh, I don't know. And I didn't have that pre-prepared line to throw back at you to promote the book. I genuinely had to think about my answers which is what makes you such a great interviewer and this such a great podcast.
ASTRID: Oh, thank you very much. I didn't ask that question to get praise Jamila, I asked that question because we literally had become friends and I am going to try ask you lots of hard questions today. So, you can obviously shut me down at any point.
JAMILA: Oh, this is exciting.
ASTRID: But I really want to understand your work ethic in terms of writing and publishing because you have done something that I think, you're the only person in Australia to pitch, write and publish two books during lockdown in 2020. Like, literally the only person in the country.
JAMILA: I don't know if that's true. I feel like if it is, I've cheated by one of them being a children's book because it's a bit shorter and less hours required. But it has been my main activity in lockdown other than doing terrible craft with my five-year-old. But working on these two books has kept me sane, I think.
ASTRID: All right, so let's just introduce the two books to everybody. So, firstly there is I'm a Hero Too. Go for it. Tell us about I'm a Hero Too, the 30 second pitch.
JAMILA: Absolutely. I wrote I'm a Hero Too for my little kid who was four when the pandemic began. And being a very eight type personality who likes to do things properly including parenting, I quickly went searching for resources that would help me in describing the pandemic to him. And all I could find were YouTube videos of spiky green balls with angry faces and that was not the vibe I was looking for whatsoever.
So, I wrote it. I wrote what I thought was missing and the book is not about the science of the virus, not at all. It's not about pretty euphemisms or metaphors. I talk about the fact that the kid in my book's life has been turned upside down and changed and Arty can't go to footie anymore or kinder or visit granny or go to the coffee shop with dad. And that the grown-ups kept closing the doors and talking in whispers and it's scaring Arty.
And I suppose the book's about grief. It's about helping kids grieve and then quickly moving them through grief to a place of feeling powerful, feeling like contributors because that's exactly what they are. Because this virus mostly affects older people and people with underlying conditions. Doesn't affect little kids.
So, all these things that my kid and kids all over this country have given up, they gave up because they were being heroes, because they were protecting other people, they weren't protecting themselves. And I wanted to recognise that in a book.
ASTRID: So Jamila, my six year old niece is getting this book because she is in Sydney and she keeps asking me how I'm going and when will the border open because she knows that the coronavirus is bad for poor Victorians. And I kind of want to help change her language and her thinking about this. But before we go any further, before we actually talk about the differences between... This is your first kids' book, so before we talk about how you have entered an entirely different way of using words and market for selling books, tell me about Untold Resilience.
JAMILA: So, this has been my other pandemic project and you're going to sense a pattern here which is that I tend to write the books I wish existed or that I would have really needed at the time. I kind of meet my own emotional needs of the past when I'm writing.
Again, in March when COVID began, I really wanted to talk to my nan. I really wanted the reassurance of a very wise and very practical no nonsense woman who didn't speak like as she would say, ‘Those Americans with all their fluffy stuff’, but was very to the point.
And she survived the polio epidemic and in fact she was sent home from school at around 14 and she was sent home for almost a year to look after family. And she as a kid who loved school and her world was turned upside down by pretty much having to isolate for a year around the polio epidemic to keep herself and her siblings safe.
And that wasn't a pandemic, but people were terrified. People were terrified of what polio might do to their kids. I just wanted to draw on what it was like. I wanted to be reminded that people have done this before. That this moment in history is of course unique and that this virus and the way it is ravaging the whole world at once is a first.
But the human experience of isolation, of quarantine, of feeling out of control, of being scared of losing friends or family, of being scared of what an ensuing recession might do to us and our work, that's not new. I think we all like to think we remake the world anew for every generation but we only do a bit.
So, not being able to talk to my nan, I went and talked to other people and I worked with a team of journalists at Future Women. And we interviewed 19 Australian women mostly aged in their 80s and 90s, about their experiences of war, of pandemics, of depressions. There are refugee stories, stories of the stolen generation. Stories of national and global upheaval and how they affected these women at a very personal level and how they got through.
ASTRID: One of the stories that stuck with me was some of the women describing the rationing that they experienced during the Depression and then also World War II and how they used to not have butter or make their own butter. And my nan even when I was a kid, and it was the 80s and the 90s, her most favourite dessert was just butter on white bread because she didn't have it for so many years that it was just the height of decadence to eat really thick slab of butter on some white bread.
But anyway, Jam, that is two books. Now, they are very, very different. Untold Resilience was done with Future Women. I'm a Hero Too is just from you. I want to ask you a strategic question. I talked to a lot of writers and they don't put two books out in a year but more to the point, sometimes particularly with fiction, someone can take years to write a novel and it almost feels like, it is a creative process that their heart and soul is into. And sometimes when I talk to writers who are in that mode, I feel like they're missing chances to publish because they are pursuing this creative vision that has got nothing to do with the actual getting the book into readers' hands which I think is what everybody wants. So, you are a person who can get a book into people's hands. And so I guess, that is such an impressive and unusual skill. How do you have this idea and then actually make it happen? The research, the contract, the late nights, the marketing, all of it?
JAMILA: That's very kind. I don't think I'm the typical creative. I'm quite a business minded efficiency focused... I studied law and economics at university. I don't think I'm the typical artist and I think there are some real advantages for me in that regard. And then there's probably some real disadvantages in that I read the work of authors in Australia who I would say are true artists and I often go, ‘Oh my God, I'd give my left arm to write like that. If only I could bring worlds together like that. If only I could bring words together like that’.
And I feel a deep sense of envy for authors who not necessarily have that process because I'm sure that process is incredibly frustrating but the end result is often a thing of true beauty. And I think I'm a lot more of a practical writer.
I don't think I'm a how-to writer, but I am someone who notices an emotional need in a population whether it's my mates or from going through a particular experience and I'm a believer that words help in those situations. And so for me, I think the ideas for work tends to come from that space of there's a group of people feeling like this, how can we both resource them and support them emotionally to get through it? Whatever that requires. And that's where my ideas tend to come from.
I think also, I'm a working journalist which means I'm used to daily if not hourly deadlines on things so I tend to write fast and I tend to work fast and I don't think I hang out for perfection the way that some authors do. And part of me doesn't like that because I don't think I'll ever create the one great beautiful work that I can stand back from and say, ‘That is my life. I created that’. Because I don't have the time and patience for that. I think I'm much more of a, I don't want to say a churner but I move quickly and I don't stick with a single project for more than a couple of years. I sense a moment, I write to that moment and then I move on.
ASTRID: All right. So, let's go deep into Untold Resilience. You and Helen McCabe of Future Women are the overall editors of that collection. You did have journalists as well as yourself do the interviews with the 19 women. Just talk to me about the process of putting an anthology like that together.
JAMILA: I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. I've edited an anthology before where I worked with lots of different writers to put together their stories of new motherhood. And I think in my head I thought it would be a fairly similar process except the journalists would be interviewing people rather telling their own stories.
I didn't realise the complexity of having journalists tell someone else's story in a book like this because they were being natural journalists in that they were being curious about the parts of that story that were the most interesting.
But the parts of someone's life story that I think are the most interesting and the most important aren't necessarily what they think is the most interesting and the most important. And trying to cut down someone's story to three, three and a half thousand words when they're deeply invested in the fact that I'm trying to cut aunty Astrid and just erase her from the story for the sense of, because I want the story to flow and to have simplicity. That's very different when you know Aunty Astrid, and you care about her deeply and you know she's going to read the book and be offended if she's not in it. So, there was a real balancing of priorities between the interview subjects and the journalists doing the writing and we were adamant that we were more committed to the women being proud of this book than we were to the final product being what we thought was marketable and sellable and a beautiful piece of work. So, we decided unashamedly to prioritise the women, that this was their story. And occasionally, there were things that were disclosed that didn't make the book that were extraordinary because those women said, ‘Oh, I've changed my mind. I don't want anyone to know that’.
So, from a journalistic perspective, it was a lot harder than I expected. We had the obvious challenges of dealing with subjects who were a lot older and who couldn't do interviews for long periods of time. Often we'd just do an interview for half an hour and we'd just start again the next day or start again a few days later. A lot of our interview subjects were battling ill health. A lot of them were isolated from their friends and family. So, simple things like setting up Zoom was hard because if they were in isolation from their family on the other side of Melbourne for example, they couldn't just have their daughter around to fix their Zoom and I couldn't go around and fix their Zoom either. So, there were huge challenges in just the practicalities of pulling the book together. And then at the more editorial level, it was really enjoyable to do that work and to delve into more women's stories because I interviewed four of them but then I got exposed to the other 15.
There were certainly some challenges in just dealing with layers of bureaucracy of having to talk to the journalist then talk to the woman involved, talk to her family, make sure everyone was happy. Check dates, check facts especially with people who sometimes forget things or sometimes say one thing and then says something else that contradicts it. So, there were some challenges there but the actual editing process I found quite joyful. I've been an editor for a lot of my career and I genuinely enjoy editing. So, I liked bringing the stories together in that way.
ASTRID: It's always difficult for a journalist to probe into someone's life. It's a stranger asking intimate questions. And that's made more difficult because it's a time of COVID and people are in isolation and maybe lonely. But most of the women are in their 80s and 90s as you said and unfamiliar with the technology and suddenly essentially seeing some random 20 something, 30 something, 40 something journalist who they've never met before who's asking them about their marriages and about their triumphs and their tragedies and the deaths of their children or their partners or chronic ill health. All sorts of really intimate secrets in some cases. For the four interviews that you did, how did you create that rapport that couldn't even be in-person?
JAMILA: I think by being honest. I think trust requires vulnerability and not just on the part of the interview subject. So, I was asking some of these women to tell me the most extraordinary stories and one woman, [Bee Ha 00:15:04], was a refugee from Vietnam, she's been living in Australia for decades now. But her journey to Australia was incredibly harrowing. There were over 100 people on a 10 foot boat that was supposed to be at sea for a week and ended up being at sea for almost three and a half weeks. They had no food and water when they were rescued. They were attacked by pirates, literal pirates, twice. Their captain was murdered. To get her to tell me that story, we had to be close and I had to be vulnerable to her in order for her to be vulnerable to me.
So, I ended up becoming quite close to most of the people that I interviewed partly because we spent so much time together, partly because I was honest about my own life and what I was finding hard and my own vulnerabilities and failings. It had to feel more like a conversation between girlfriends than it did interviewer and interviewee. I had to recognise that often there were times where someone would disclose something enormous and there were moments when I needed to ask more and I needed more detail. And often, I would just have to think, ask that later, now is not the moment.
And in some of those conversation including with Bee who I just spoke about, we actually made a date for the day that we would talk about her journey to Australia and it was well into our interviews because she needed to work up to it. And we talked about that, we ended up doing that in big hit and then she said to me, ‘Okay, I'm done. I don't want to talk about that again’. And so I think a lot of it was about managing people's emotions and managing their fortitude and recognising that delving into your memories can be really enjoyable and really painful. And some memories are fun to recount and some of them are those polished stories that we know are a good yarn from our childhood or earlier in our lives and we bring it out all the time at dinner parties. It's practised. I didn't want those stories. I wanted the stories that these women didn't usually tell which made the task probably more complex and I imagine at times, more painful.
Another woman, Val, I spoke to her about one of her daughters took their own life. And I think she gave me about 30 seconds and then said, ‘That's it. I don't want to talk about that anymore. It's too hard’. And I think some journalists who perhaps would have got a better story would have pushed at that point and pushed for the next bit, pushed for another few sentences, pushed for more description and I chose not to. And I suspect the story is less compelling in pure book form because of that but I cared more about the person I was talking to than I did about the reader at that point.
ASTRID: I think that is a good call. So you mentioned before Jam, that you went back and obviously made sure that the women and their families were comfortable. You fact check dates that everybody was happy with what was going to be the final product. Now that the book is out in the world, how are the women feeling and are they proud, are they excited? What is the feedback I guess, from readers but I'm really interested in how these women are now feeling.
JAMILA: I'm sure it's a range of emotions for different women involved in the book. I've probably spoken to half a dozen of them either on the phone or on Zoom so far and the others we've corresponded by email. Of course we've sent everyone copies of the book. They're all being involved in the book launch that's coming up that unfortunately will have to be virtual but at least they'll get to see each other on screen and their families will get to come along. I think for the most part, they're all really happy with what's come together. They all got final sign off on their story so no one got a shock by what was published. I think a lot of them have been shocked by the publicity. I got a very confused call from a couple of them the other day saying, ‘My story was on ABC News Breakfast’. And I was like, ‘Yeah. We're talking about this book everywhere we can’. One of them was telling me she'd never watched Today Extra on Channel 9, it was the first time she'd ever watched it. And that she loved hearing her story related on Channel 9 and then she also bought some weird vacuum cleaner. So, it's wins across the board. So, I think for the most part at least, those I've spoken too, they're really happy with the stories.
One of the women who shared her story for the book, Lakshmi, she died between telling her story and the book being published. So, the book is now dedicated to her. She shares the dedication. And I think for her family, it's been really helpful, genuinely helpful in their grieving process to see that their mom's story was captured before she died. She died quite unexpectedly and that the story is receiving the attention that it deserves because she had an extraordinary life and extraordinary things to share with people. But also speaking to audio with a podcast like this one, obviously we recorded every conversation we had with these women and we were able to give Lakshmi's family hours of digital tapes of her speaking. And I know having lost people myself recently, gosh, what I wouldn't give to have that.
ASTRID: That is such a gift to hear her voice and for them to always have her telling her own story.
JAMILA: Yeah. I think it's meant a lot to that family and they're all coming to the book launch so that'll be lovely.
ASTRID: In terms of publicity, you had, was it two of the women, as guests on one of the world's biggest podcast, The Guilty Feminist. Now, please tell me about that. 80 year olds on The Guilty Feminist.
JAMILA: This was just last night actually and we've been involving some of the women in this book who wanted to in media where possible. A lot of them were a bit nervous and then some came to be stars. So, last night, Coleen and Val joined me for a recording of The Guilty Feminist podcast with Debra Frances-White and Sindhu Vee. It's probably one of the biggest podcasts in the world. I had to explain what a podcast was before the recording. One had a daughter on hand for tech support and a granddaughter. Val was very confident on her own, she's really good with tech. And it was really, for those of us who do a lot of media all the time, you get used to it and it's not a big deal doing some television or some radio particularly when you're doing it from home like we are at the moment. It's almost relaxed because you've been doing it for so long but you forget when you see a friend or a family member have to do some media or they come across the media for the first time and they're like, ‘Oh, this is weird. How am I supposed to talk? Suddenly I'm nervous. How do I deal with this?’
I think that is magnified when you're someone who is in their 80s or 90s and you've never done something like this and you're doing it on a show that moves very, very quickly, is very, very particular. Both of the women asked me before the show last night, how are they going to make my life during the Depression and my experience of being a tuberculosis nursing aid and me getting sick with diphtheria as a child funny; which was a very valid question given it's a comedy podcast. But they did really well. I watched them warm up as we went through, become more and more confident and these women have such knowledge and experience to share including knowledge of previous epidemics. Hearing Coleen speak last night, she's the first story in the book. Coleen was isolated for, I think six weeks with diphtheria as a nine year old. Couldn't see her parents, wasn't really told what was happening, was bathed in disinfectant, which we would not do today, completely cut off and alone and scared. And her talking about how that shaped her childhood and how that shaped her understanding of what's going on now is incredibly compelling.
And for me, such a reminder that we live in a world that doesn't value older people's stories and doesn't value women's stories. And when you combine the two, you become invisible in this world very, very quickly. We don't pay a lot of attention to women aged over 60. I'd argue we don't pay a lot of attention to women aged over 45 probably. And our history books and most of the world's knowledge of those who lived through World War II or lived through the Great Depression or lived through the Indian-Pakistani war for example like one of our participants. Knowledge of those periods of time is mostly seen through the eyes of men because men wrote the history books at those times. And so we have a, for one of a better word, a male gaze on history. We have a male lens on history. And hearing these women's stories, it actually took quite a lot of work to get them to tell the story where they were centred in the story because they all told the story with reference to husbands and brothers and fathers. And a lot of them actually, it took quite a push to say, no, no, no, I don't care about them. I care about them as a side character but this is about you and I want to know about you and how you survived and women's experience of these periods in history. And this book's a teeny tiny contribution to setting that balance a little bit further towards equal.
ASTRID: It is such a pleasurable read not because the women have had necessarily pleasurable lives, they have had over the course of their lives, extremely difficult moments, months, years, events that happened to them. But the point is, they got through them and something happened afterwards and that is an honest pleasure to read in a year like 2020.
JAMILA: I'm very glad to hear that.
ASTRID: Turning from stories of women in their 80s and 90s, let's think about kids' books. So, you wrote a kids' book Jam and that's a whole different world. It is different publishers, it is different marketing, it is different rules, it lives in a different place in the bookstore, everything is different. So, you who are experienced with anthologies and non-fiction, how do you even begin to put the words on the page?
JAMILA: I think this has been the most challenging book I've been involved with just because I didn't know what I was doing. I completely didn't know what I was doing. I know how to talk to my kid and I know how to tell stories that will excite and compel him and I know how to talk to adults. Trying to talk to other kids was definitely a challenge and these 700 words or so, went through so many rewrites. So many complete rewrites and I definitely had my hand held by the people at Puffin. The editorial team in particular were amazing.
And look, there's a bit of cheating that goes on with writing a kids' book because you have the power of an illustrator. And Peter Cheong who's a first time kids' book illustrator who did the beautiful drawings of Arty and Arty's family in this book did such an incredible job and just brought to life the little person that I had in my head and brought to life things I didn't have in my head that made it even better.
But it was, I felt like the whole experience was a learning process for me because I really went in blind in terms of talking to children. And I think I had quite confected the ideas in my head of what I wanted to do with syncopation and rhyming and how it was going to be very grand on a literary scale I suppose, and then realising actually, this just has to be a joy to read for little kids. And remembering that when it comes to little kids, you don't read a book once, you read a book 40 times. And that in that case you're also writing for parents or carers or whoever's reading that book to them. So, there's a lot going on. There's a lot to think about. I think the layers involved in writing a kids' book are much more complicated and every word has to work really hard because you don't have many.
ASTRID: Would you do it again?
JAMILA: Yeah. Oh, I really would. I actually really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. I don't think I've felt so joyful from start to finish writing a book. Partly because I like learning and my editors were just so Frank and Phyllis because I hadn't done it before. They were like, ‘Okay, you can't do that’. And the way we would think about words, like in one page in the book, the protagonist Arty says, ‘Since the virus arrived, everything got ruined’. And I remember my editors were saying, ‘No, I don't think a four, five year old would use the word ruined’. And we spent a good week talking about the word ruined. Which it just feels extraordinary having written books that are usually in the 90,000 word range. But we nutted that out and we decided it stayed.
And so I think just, it was so unusual to me and it was so novel to me that process. And I had some amazing advice from you, from Zoë Foster Blake who's written children's books herself that have been wildly popular. I talked to child psychologists, I ran it past early childhood teachers, I ran it past my own kid who was definitely the highest bar. I tried to do way too much on the first draft. Oh, way too much. I tried to be too clever and do too much to the point that the book just felt confected and didn't quite work. It was too sad I think. My earlier drafts were too sad. They kept kid readers in the place of grief for too long and I very quickly learned that I needed to move them along very quickly. We had to feel that sadness and then we had to move to action on what we were going to do and positivity and owning the space faster than you would for an adult audience. And it's a book about a big topic and a sad topic. So, I think there was a lot of creative thinking involved from the whole team. I've never had a book that was such a team job as this one in trying to keep it light and happy and joyful for kids. Because while you want them to understand that they've been through a hard thing, you don't want to leave a child sad at the end of a picture book. You want them to feel excited and powerful.
ASTRID: This is a weird question but your face lit up when I asked if you would do this again. As you just said, you tackle the coronavirus in this kids' book. So it is a huge topic that we'll all be unpacking for a very long time. Could this be like a series, COVID normal and how we live in 2021? I don't know, this is a strange reaching question but is this a space that you'd want to stay in or would you like more joyful topics?
JAMILA: I hadn't thought of that so I honestly don't, I don't know. I think it depends on what happens to the world a bit and saying what happens. I think I had certainly envisaged this book as something that would help kids process after the fact and I think for kids in most of the country, that's the case now. They're processing something that happened to them that was a bit weird and I know myself from watching my son process difficult things that have happened in his life, often the processing happens quite a way after. Kids often seem totally fine, totally normal when something happens and then two years later, they're asking questions and as a parent you're stumped. So, I'm hoping this book will be useful for that and for Victorian kids who are still living with significant restrictions, I hope it helps them feel sane.
One of my girlfriends sent me a text the other night. She read it to her child who said, ‘Oh my gosh mom, that happened to us! Those things happened to us!’ And there was such excitement of seeing their experience validated on the page. Remembering when playgrounds got closed and remembering when you weren't allowed to go to granny's house and visit anymore and when you weren't allowed to touch things at the supermarket. I think there's joy into retreating into our memories even the difficult ones and I think that will really help little kids. I do like the idea of supporting parents to talk about complex subjects to their children and I enjoy the idea of helping children to process things that have happened to them or come to grips with changes in their life. The idea of providing a joyful, happy way to do that and there's enormous power in the fact that you know a children's book if it's good, is going to be read again and again and again at bedtime till as a parent you're like, ‘No, no, anything but that book’. But that's pretty powerful right? You can have a lot of influence with a child and their emotional development if they're going to read a book, 50, 60 times.
ASTRID: If a kids' book sticks, it sticks with that person even as an adult. They'll remember the story, remember the rhyme, remember what the pages look like, remember how they felt even just for those few moments opening the book or getting lost in the pages. At least that's how I feel about the books that I read when I was back in single digits, Jam.
So Jam, this might be a really obvious question but it's important what you include in a kids' book right? The concepts and the words. You mention the word ruined. This whole book talks about the coronavirus. The virus. Sometimes people don't want to talk about things like that with a really young kid. Why did you do it?
JAMILA: I think you're right and it's probably one of the things about the book that's a little more divisive or surprising. I'm a Hero Too is for kids three to six, three to seven. So, it's for young children. It is for young children. Something that a child psychologist told me when I got sick myself and we were talking, my husband and I about how to talk about it to our child, was to use the word not to beat around the bush. That you didn't have to give every particular detail. You didn't have to go in-depth about what a surgery or what a treatment involved or what degeneration looks like. You don't have to do anything like that. You don't need to scare a child. But giving children the words, saying cancer for example or saying brain tumour in my case is actually a good thing to do. Because if you say to, my son was about two and a half, three at the time, mommy's a bit sick, mommy's going to hospital to get fixed up, then the next time he gets tonsillitis and he's a bit sick, he thinks he's got to get his head cut open. That's a lot for a small person. And that actually you've got to differentiate for little people between things. You've got to give them a word for something. And I think for a kid's world to shift the way it has this year, whether it was for a shorter period around most of the country or for a longer period in Victoria, to shift without giving them a reason and without giving them the dignity and the respect of giving them a word for what's happening, I think it might make it harder to process.
So, every kid's different of course but certainly in our house we've talked about a virus, we've talked about a virus that's very infectious and can hurt people and can kill people but that we are very safe. That we are being very careful and that the only way to beat this virus is to wash our hands, stay away from people, to not touch things when we're at the supermarket, throw our tissues in the bin, to cough into our elbows, to get tested. My little boy's been tested a couple of times now. And as soon as he does it, he turns around and goes, ‘I'm a hero’. And you're like, ‘Yes you are. You really are’. And I think giving kids things they can control, giving them a sense of the problems that they know they're not being lied to but then giving them a sense of control is really important. Giving a kid something to do, they're just like us. All of us, when a fried gets sick or there's a situation, we're like, ‘What can I do? How can I help?’ When we all know the most useful thing would be just to help or do something, not ask. Kids are the same, they just want a job to do. They just want a task. I think giving kids a way to feel like they're contributing, like they're helping, I think that makes them feel indestructible and that's how you want them to feel.
ASTRID: It's actually a reminder that words matter whether you are in your 80s and 90s or you are three, four, five, six years of age. Having a word to describe what is happening or having a place to share your story, everyone should have that.
Jam, as I'm... Look, I am your friend but I am always slightly awed by your ability to get shit done and your ability to get stuff done in really hard times like 2020. And as you know, I teach at RMIT and I have a chronic illness and I have a lot of students who have chronic conditions and chronic illnesses and they often ask me, how they can move from studying at university which is a pretty safe space all things considered, to being in the world. And being in the world and having a career and writing and publishing whilst having an illness. That gets in the way of things sometimes. And sometimes I feel like I have a good answer and sometimes I feel like I don't have a good answer. So, on behalf of my students and possibly on behalf of myself as well Jam, I want to ask how you balance ill health with putting stuff out in the world and it has deadlines.
JAMILA: Yeah, it's not easy. I won't lie, I wrote my first book as a healthy person. It was hard enough. It's hard enough writing a book when I was perfectly well. And now I find any kind of work harder because my body fatigues faster, I have periods of disruption whether that's through appointments that are planned or surgeries that are planned or through unplanned arrivals at emergency which happened last week just before the book tour started. I think we live in a country and I suspect we live in a world that isn't very good at talking about being sick. And to touch on Untold Resilience, isn't very good at talking about being old. I think we're all scared of impairment and we're all scared of being forgotten and we're all scared of dying. And that combination means that people who are unwell or people with disabilities or people who are older, will get a bit nervous if we don't talk about it. We just avoid it and we just fake our way through it.
And I have seen that firsthand. I remember having 57 staples in my head after a brain surgery and catching up with friends who just didn't mention it. And I think they thought they were trying to be kind and I get that but we all knew, I knew, I could feel it. I wasn't going to get a shock if they reminded me.
And I think if we were better at talking about it all at a social level, we'd be better at accommodating people's different needs in workplaces. And all credit to my boss at Future Women and all credit to my publishers at Penguin and Puffin. They get it and they have never flinched when I've called and said, ‘I'm working today but I'm working in bed. So, if we're doing a Zoom, there's going to be pillows in the background, get used to it and I'm not going to be embarrassed no matter who's on the call’. And, ‘I'm out today, talk to my husband’. Or, ‘It's just not possible for me to concentrate today’. Or, ‘I'm on television and my memory's not working and I can see the Prime Minister's face but I don't know his name and I am a political junkie and I promise I know who the Prime Minister is’.
I think the world needs to be more candid and more willing to talk about things that are hard. And there are so many things that make work hard for people. Work became harder for me when I had a child that came way harder. We talk about that because so many people experience that. So many people do. Now it's a smaller group of people who experience disability or chronic illness or who are working in older age but there's still a significant proportion of the population so let's talk about it. Let's think about the specific needs of every employee.
And I think I have always had a really high work ethic. My grandfather is I think a big part of it who says, ‘You came to this country, you got a shot, you work real hard’. And I don't think you escape that. But at the same time, I'm learning to not feel like I have to hide things and not feel like I have to pretend. That my body works the same way as other people's. And to be honest, when I can't do things and say, instead of coming up with excuses or putting a veil over it and saying I'm not feeling great today, I would just use the words. I would be really, really honest and say, ‘My memory's not working right today because I had radiation last year’. And usually when you say that, people go, ‘Oh’. But then they give you what you want. So, I'm just going to push through till it's normal.
ASTRID: Jam, I love you so much. You are a wonderful, wonderful friend and you are a wonderful, brilliant writer and I highly recommend Untold Resilience and I'm a Hero Too to everybody listening. Thank you so much for chatting to me on The Garret again.
JAMILA: Oh, thank you. That was so much fun.