At home with Randa Abdel-Fattah

Randa Abdel-Fattah is a prominent Australian author, academic and human rights advocate.

She seeks to translate her academic work into creative interventions which reshape dominant narratives around race, human rights and identity in popular culture - and she does this well in her 2021 non-fiction work Coming of Age in the War on Terror.

Her debut novel Does My Head Look Big in This? has sold more than 100,000 copies in Australia, is published around the world and was performed on the stage in America. Randa is currently adapting the world as an Australian feature film.

Randa has also published eleven novels across a range of genres. In 2018 and 2019 she was nominated for Sweden's 2019 Astrid Lindgren Award, the world's biggest children's and young adult literature award.

In this interview Randa mentions the anthology After Australia. You can listen to an interview on The Garret with Michael Mohammed Ahmad, the editor of After Australia, here.

At home with Randa Abdel-Fattah


ASTRID: Randa, welcome to The Garret.

RANDA: Thank you for having me Astrid.

ASTRID: I am very excited to do talk to you, and you have appeared on The Garret before many years ago, actually Randa. Firstly, congratulations on Coming of Age in the War on Terror. This is a new work and I have to say it stopped me in my tracks.

RANDA: It's lovely to hear you say that. It's a book that I felt very vulnerable writing and nervous about putting out in the world. So, that means a lot.

ASTRID: So today I really do want to talk mostly about your new work, but it would be remiss of me to not remind our listeners what you've achieved so far. You are a very well-known advocate. You have published more than 10 other works and they are both fiction and nonfiction. So, you have a wide repertoire. And what I got most excited about when I was researching you once again for this interview, Randa, your first book, Does My Head Look Big in This? Which was published about 15 years ago, you are now adapting for the big screen. That's very exciting.

RANDA: Yeah, it's very, very exciting.

ASTRID: I'm going to come back to that, but let's start with Coming of Age in the War on Terror. This is a new work and most of our listeners won't have read it yet. Can you introduce us to the heart and the impetus behind this work?

RANDA: This is a book that I wrote based on three years of working with young people in schools, in Sydney, people who were born around 2001. So, born into the war on terror, having only ever grown up and known a world at war on terror. And I wanted to compare the generational impact of growing up in the war on terror between Muslim and non-Muslim youth. And I wanted to look at it in terms of their trust relations, especially at school, in terms of the political agency and expression and identities. And in terms of the way that they interacted with the politics of fear. And the book is really looking at what it's been like for this generation to grow up at this time only ever, either being constructed as a suspect community or in terms of the normal since students growing up in a climate where they're Muslim peers, friends, kids that they play soccer with have also been exposed to this idea of Muslims as potential radicals, as potential terrorists.

This book is really looking at that 20-year history in terms of the impact of policy of media, of political debates as it filters down into classrooms, into friendship dynamics, teacher, student relationships, and really looking at it in terms of a comparison between Muslim and non-Muslim youth. And the idea, the inspiration for the book actually came to me when I was at a school just as an old thought, in my capacity as an author. And it was a school in Southwestern Sydney, it was about 2015 and I was giving a talk.

And that was a particularly difficult time 2015 for the Muslim community, a lot was happening politically. And a boy named Bilal came up to me after my talk and said to me, something along the lines of that, when he was at school, he used to feel it was a safe space. Outside people would look at him, he would be stereotyped, cops in his suburb, but at school it was a safe space, but now he was second guessing everything he said, because he was worried how teachers would interpret it. And that got me thinking on the car drive home. What does that mean to be a student at that school? You can't talk freely and experiment with your ideas and be radical. That's the time to really throw yourself into new ideas and to really push your imagination about the political possibilities of the world. But if you feel muted and silenced and policed, what does that mean for young people? And that's really how I can say to the project.

ASTRID: I am an educator and the educator in me had my heart broken several times as I read this book because I see people often who don't finish school and they come into the TAFE and vocational education sector. And I think that sometimes education continues to fail people in the fact that there are young people in Australia who don't feel safe in school is horrific. In this work you are obviously dealing explicitly with race and racism, Islamophobia, bigotry, and hatred.

And I feel that I want to acknowledge that we are all the same age Randa. I've been googling you. I think we have very close in age and I'm a white woman and Anglo woman and our experience despite the fact that we have lived in the same cities is a very different one. And I think that I want to acknowledge that might call of my questions. And so, I just really was affected by a book and I really appreciate how each should and I hope it does, I hope things change in our schools and also of course in our society more broadly. But my question is, I think that your book has multiple audiences. Someone like me as an example, is one person who should be reading this book, but who did you sit down and do the work for?

RANDA: I think first and foremost, when I started the project and particularly as an academic, you're encouraged to write for academic journals and write with academic publications. That's what's good for your CV. And as I started to think about how I was going to publish my research, the idea of putting all of this into some academic book just felt so wrong to me because I knew that it would be an academic audience. And for me, this book was about the young people I wanted to send to their voices and their experiences. I wanted to make it accessible so that it would be read more widely than just an academic audience. And for me, it was about honouring their voices. I don't know if these young people will read the book. I hope that the people who make decisions that impact on young people's lives, read the book, not to hear my words, but to hear the words of the young people whose voices speak in and of themselves and in their own right convey the issues that we need to address so urgently. So, they were first and foremost in my mind.

ASTRID: You give prominence to the voices of young people and you actually include in the work a lot of their poetry, the poetry that they composed in writing workshops with you and some of these poems are exceptional. As a reader, I didn't pick up this book thinking I was going to read some poetry because clearly this is a nonfiction work, but they were really enjoyable. And I guess I wanted to ask you about how did you create that safe space where students who I assume you hadn't met before were suddenly writing you poetry about how Australia works? And to be honest, doing a better job than a lot of adults could do.

RANDA: Well, the poetry workshop was something that came halfway through some of the other writing workshops and the idea came to me. I was sitting in the car – I had arrived early to a school – and Childish Gambino's ‘This is America’ had dropped. And I just listened to it in the car and it was completely transfixed. I just listened to it on repeat. And it was at that point that I thought, ‘Oh, rather than get students to write narratives and responses to some of the prompts I was putting up on the board, why don't I get them to experiment and write some song lyrics?’ And I thought sometimes the best way to create a safe space is to create a space where young people can be most fluid in their creativity, not give them such a constraining exercise, but something where they can really have fun with it.

And I think that lends itself the most to... Then young people really giving themselves to it, to the idea. It's not easy. Sometimes that workshop worked better in some settings than others. There was a lot of feelings around, well, I don't know what to write and feeling a bit of writer's block about it. And so, the way that I would always set it up is with a conversation first, a class discussion where we would workshop on the board, what myths and stereotypes around Australia existed, because that's always so much fun. And so, everyone didn't matter which school was that would always have the same barbecues and shrinks. And it was funny to be talking to 16- and 17-year-olds and they referenced in Crocodile Dundee, 1980s references. That's how prominent and pervasive that this is. But that usually sparked a lot. What I found was interesting was that it was very difficult sometimes for young people to think about Australia beyond their local suburbs. And I said to them, ‘That's fine’. Your world, your politics is very much as a young person often limited to your geographies because you're not mobile in the same way adults are. And so right about the world that you know which is usually your local shops, the local parks, the school that you're in and giving them that freedom to write without having to think of the big picture, go to a lot more detail in their lives about what Australia meant to them.

ASTRID: This is an incredibly well-researched book. And of course, that is because you are an academic, but it in no way reads like an academic textbook, this is a very accessible work and a very engaging work about all that contemporary Australia in one sense. In the work you discuss how you workshop with students and went into schools, but you also note that you were denied ethics approval by the department of education. And I found that quite distressing, the idea that this wasn't considered relevant research or good research that should be happening, and you printed this in the book, but can I ask you to talk to that point?

RANDA: Yeah. I got ethics approval from my university, which is a very long process in and of itself and very rigorous to go into public and private and independent schools because I did not want to just go into one kind of school. Well, I knew that I was more likely to get very skewed or similar responses. And for me, it was more important actually for me to go into public schools, then private and I was already in, I am already in public schools, invited in my capacity as an author. And I had schools who wanted me to come in to do this project. But the ethics process through the department of education went for a lot longer. I had to keep chasing them for a response. And then eventually it was denied on the grounds that, there was a potential for the students to be distressed or it wouldn't be safe.

And I thought, ‘Oh my God the irony I'm trying to get in there to talk about whether if they consider school as a safe space’. And then they construct me as the risk, never mind the fact that I'm already in the school. And so, if I had gone in with my authors hat, that's fine. I'm not posing a risk, but with my academic hat, suddenly I was. That was really frustrating for me because it meant that I was left with private and independent schools. And I couldn't interrogate class as much as I could have pushed them. I do interrogate it in the book, but I think that the results would have been even more nuanced if I had gone into those public schools. I did manage to do work, writing workshops and some interviews with public school students through local libraries. But I think that it would have been very different if I had been in those schools running this as the actual project

ASTRID: As you pointed out, you are already in schools because you are an established author who is invited in regularly and repeatedly to talk about your other works. Can you foresee a time that you will be invited in as the author of this nonfiction work to talk to the students, even if it is maybe the older students?

RANDA: Yeah. I don't think that's going to be an issue because the schools themselves are inviting me in as the author of this work. But going in, it's very, very sort of artificial and just really stupid and strange, but going in with an official seal of approval from the department of education, to me, it speaks to the conservatism and the patronising way that we manage these conversations. And the whole point of my research was to see, well, can students talk about race and about Islamophobia and about being political safely without feeling constrained. And I wasn't allowed to ask them those questions. For me, that spoke volumes.

ASTRID: It is something that I'm actually struggling to get my head around because as an educator, but also just as an adult citizen in Australia, on our schools, the perfect place to have these discussions. So we raise, informed, politically engaged, independent thinking adults who can then participate in our system, isn't that the point we teach people in schools in order to help them develop their identities to go on and become adults who changed the world for the better.

RANDA: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that most of the schools ... I had letters in support of me coming in to run the project from the schools themselves and they were still rejected by the department. For me, that speaks volumes about the lack of respect that the department showed towards the agency and autonomy of public schools to decide whether or not they would want to run this project. And inevitably the supportive letters I was receiving were from schools where they were, there is really diverse populations and they felt there was a need to have these conversations. And yet there was stifled and prevented from doing things.

ASTRID: I still think your work is excellent, Randa. And I want to make that very clear. You've done a wonderful job and I'm interested in how you got the research and the words on the page. If you were doing these workshops between 2015 and 2018, I think of the two dates that you've mentioned it out talk so far, 2019 was a normal year. 2020 was a difficult year for everybody. When were you writing and how did you deal with such a volume of contemporary and new research?

RANDA: The project idea came to me in 2015, the project itself started in 2018. And so, I started the workshops and the interviews I did for the most part of 2018. And the writing took place in 2019 and the copy editing and editing in 2020. The book was finished before COVID and yeah, gosh, it's such a process to... I had so much more material to work with. I've got so many more pages of transcripts that I had to put in a file to use later, or just to sit there. There was so much more material, so it's always a difficult process to know what ultimately is going to end up in the book.

ASTRID: For the writers listening, they know that you don't just go to workshops and have a great idea and then sit down and come up with a great manuscript. It is an intricate and involved process. And I just want to say a minute on your research, obviously you are highly trained and an academic and you have made this book very accessible, but how do you take that vast volume? I know you just mentioned that you were leaving some to the side for future projects and to use one day, but how did you approach the structure of your book and reading the argument in such a compulsively readable way?

RANDA: I saw that. This is the best compliment you can pay to me because I just [inaudible 00:15:28] I've gone through thinking, is it going to be not academic enough for academics and true academic for a general audience and therefore just fall right in the middle. So, that's just music to my ears. It was harder to write this book than it is to write academic articles because academic articles, it's very specialised, you're working with a particular vocabulary and you assume a level of background reading and knowledge. There isn't the same level of self-editing that I had to do with this book. It was harder to write this book because you can't assume that everyone has read Foucault, but you have to be able to explain it in a way that's not patronising, condescending and accessible. That was a challenge for me. That was a challenge I loved working with, but it meant, I can't tell you how many draughts.

In terms of the structure that was the most fun that I had because the structure came to me once I had worked with the actual transcripts and workshops. What I first did was the best part of the process is when you take all the actual raw material, the data that you've got and you start to find these categories and overlaps and themes that emerge from it. And so, I'd go to one school and then I would pick apart the transcripts and workshops and what I would find themes that were overlapping. I would create these categories. I would cut and paste from transcripts under certain themes, for example, one thing would be tone policing women. Another thing would be Muslim Hijabi girls versus Muslim boys, bodies which are feared or class and geography, it was a meticulous process of actually cutting and pasting from transcripts and workshops into those things.

Then I would go to another school and I would tease out whether these things were there or whether there were new themes or whether the students were actually challenging what I was finding in other schools. So that was that kind of a process. And then the structure came to me by thinking logically, when I'm looking at a book like this, when I'm looking at a project like this, and I want to understand what it means to be Muslim and non-Muslim in this time where it's normal for neo-Nazis to be on Sky News, where you had Trump, we you had basically young people who were bookmarked between Obama and Trump. You had a world at war on terror as normal as completely the way that life is the hyper securitization around Muslim youth, the increasing misogyny and racist, white supremacist hate speech, all of these things, I wanted to understand why and how did we get here?

And that meant having to look at policy and political debates and media. So I initially structured the book in three parts and it's still loosely there. The first part was, how did we get here? So really analysing as forensically, but accessibly as occurred, some of the major policies that set us up for what, the language that we use now. And then looking at how those policies impact on young people in their schools, and then looking at the education curriculum. So really ending I was looking at what are we teaching kids. Initially the chapter with the poems was a second last chapter.

Right before we'd finished copy editing we were almost going to print. I thought I just can't ... This poems for me were magnetic. There was something so powerful about them. And I thought, I need to send to these young people's voices. And I want to actually start the book with their voices and poems, and then ask the question, why are they writing these themes about these themes? What has led to them to this moment that these are the issues that matter to them? And then, so let's trace that back. So that's how I ended up structuring it.

ASTRID: It was incredibly powerful. And I think you mentioned a little while ago that you hope the students who participated read the work, are you aware of any of them picking it up? I know it's just been released, but have you heard from any student or even a school that you did go into?

RANDA: Yeah. So, some of the students who are now at university because they were in year 12, when I interviewed who are reading it and sending me text messages and trying to guess who they are because I've used pseudonyms. So, being quite pleased when they can guess who they are and how I've interpreted their words and how I've contextualised what they're saying, for me that's been the most satisfying part of it.

ASTRID: I have potentially an unanswerable question for you, but I find myself interested. I read a lot of contemporary nonfiction published in Australia and around the world, but particularly Australia. And you're obviously very well read yourself, Randa. I'm interested in where you place Coming of Age in the War on Terror in that contemporary sweep of nonfiction being published in Australia today.

RANDA: Oh, what a question. I don't know, for me, it's very difficult to pinpoint the kind of genre that I was working with. For example, The Anthology after Australia, I thought was just so gripping and the political imagination in there is the kind of book which I think speaks to what the young people here are craving and are working towards having the ability to imagine a different kind of Australia. Books like Ruby Hamad…

ASTRID: White Tears Brown Scars.

RANDA: Yeah, that's all right. Those books that are about the most ... These sorts of issues, urgent issues, but I'm not sure. I think ultimately, it's up to booksellers to put it where they want and how they want to frame it, but I just hope it gets an audience that isn't just an academic audience and that it gets into the hands of teachers in particular and university teachers. Because for me, that's probably where the heart of this book is. I don't have much interest in politicians, rehabilitating, 20 years of a very dangerous and destructive policy landscape, which suits the interests.

What I have most hop in is a revolution in our education system. And I'm not the first person of course to say this. And I'm building on the work of indigenous scholars mainly that we need to recenter. We need to really address the whiteness of the core of our education systems, because that's how you build those critical thinking skills in young people when they can then take on these myths and histories and lies about who we are and therefore find the courage and have the racial literacy to understand how we can tackle these massive issues about time.

ASTRID: I could not agree more with you Randa. I am 40. And if a child is studying the books that I studied in primary school and secondary school, there is a problem on the curriculum.

RANDA: Yeah. Did you say that? Say in the book when I listed some of the books that were part of the hate to say curriculum and Oh my God, I studied them in year 12 in 1996.

ASTRID: As if nothing has been written since then. Oh, anyway sorry. I have a bad [inaudible 00:22:20] about that Randa, oh my goodness. I do have a serious question for you. You have been an advocate for Palestinian rights for many years and you are well-practised at receiving negative feedback on Twitter or hatred online. But when you are about to publish a book like this, if you do, how do you prepare for some of the negativity that might come your way?

RANDA: I'm not the Palestinian activism and anti-racist activism that happens when I write saying I'll pay it or I've done something that's a bit more public. The trolling I've managed the way I deal with it now, because I don't think I'd get it as much as other people do at this point. And if I do, I've been able to manage it so far.

The kind of response that I find to be more patronising and this person I've already received it a little bit through some friends letting me know what they've heard from other people is it is going to annoy people in the CVA industry because I do without mentioning names. And I'm not interested in individuals because there is a structural issues. I do take aim at the way that certain academics have created a cottage industry have very much capitalised and opportunistically been riding the wave of the CVA landscape.

And I know that that has offended a couple of people who think that I've got it wrong. And that for me it's more, I want to say frustrating because none of them are going to dignify that, but it really speaks to the way that we can get mansplained and whitesplained because that's usually what's happening here about something where clearly I've been speaking to the people who are directly affected by this cottage industry. So to have their voices invalidated, and this guest sliding, to me shows that the people who are making these decisions and financially benefiting from this industry are not holding themselves to account or critically reflecting on the impact of the projects and the grants and the papers that they publish and the CVS that they fastened up without thinking about how that impacts on young people.

ASTRID: It's a reminder that nobody should own these debates and everybody who has done the work should be welcomed. And we should always preference the experience of our young people and the people who it affects.

RANDA: Yeah, absolutely.

ASTRID: Randa, I want to commend your latest work to everybody listening to the podcast. I'm going to be giving it to my students. Get ready everybody. But beyond that, can we turn to your other writing and the fact that you are adapting your original debut worker fiction for the big screen? That is, I think the goal of many Australian writers. What are you allowed to tell us?

Well, like as soon as COVID hit, it smashed through that dream. We had Screen Australia funding and support for a lot of draughts of the script, which was amazing because it's very difficult to get that kind of funding and at the level that we did, but then COVID hit. And I think I'm not the only one, but the entire industry has been impacted. And of course, the government has pretended that the Arts is not an industry and people don't have jobs or livelihood. I'm not sure what's going to happen with that. The film world is not my world. The world of writing and books is enough to negotiate and navigate. So, the film world is another beast altogether and the structural issues there in terms of the gate keeping, being networking that you need, the connections, Oh God, that's another struggle in and of itself. I'm not sure where it's going to go. We've got a great script that's sitting there, that's had institutional support and now we're at a stage where it really comes down to money and funding. So fingers crossed, we can push it over the line eventually.

ASTRID: And were you involved, how involved were you in that script development?

RANDA: Yeah, I've co-written the script and it was crazy. To take your book and adapt it as a script when you have no script experience is a wild ride because you see your work in a completely different way. Everything has to be what's the visual here, how can you show this? The main thing that I would say out of that experience was how sobering it was for me, because that book was published in 2005, we were writing in 2016, 2017. We had to amplify and escalate the Islamophobia and racism that the main character was dealing with because things were so much worse. And that was incredibly sobering for me but the fact that the book was even more relevant than when I first published it and that things were worse and reading the initial book, I thought this is so tame.

RANDA: And that book was written in a post nine 11 post boggle bombings world to think that things had escalated and so much. And that meant that we had to really change a lot of the scenes, increase the stakes, and yet there was some things that hadn't changed. There was a real lesson there that galvanised me in terms of ... And also informed some of my research because I was writing the script as I was doing this research as well. And the lovely part about it was that I would go to schools and talk to students about these issues. And then they inspired by some of the things I said and put it back into the script. It was just a lovely triangle there.

ASTRID: I really hope Randa that this film gets up and I hope that Does My Head Look Big in This? Becomes one of the contemporary Australian works of literature that I'm making it to the screen. There's been a few lately, mostly made before COVID, but I hope yours is one of the next of the book.

RANDA: Thank you so much.

ASTRID: And thank you so much for speaking with me today, I have been looking forward to this interview. A great deal.

RANDA: Thank you so much, Astrid. I'm a massive fan of your podcast. It's been a real honour and privilege for me.