A Feverish Desire to Possess
How did Randa Abdel-Fattah overcome her adolescent fixation on Sweet Valley High to find her own voice as a writer? In this piece, from the essay collection The Book that Made Me, she describes the impact of Melina Marchetta's Looking for Alibrandi.
I have vivid memories of spending Saturdays with my mother and sister, moving from one wholesale bookseller to another in the suburbs of Melbourne in the eighties and early nineties. My mother, a senior teacher and administrator at Australia’s first Islamic school, was tasked with building the school’s emerging library. As she browsed each warehouse I would pore over the books lining the shelves in the children’s section: the Sweet Dreams series, Sweet Valley High, the Baby-Sitters Club, Nancy Drew, Judy Blume, Robin Klein, RL Stine, Christopher Pike, Caroline B Cooney. My bedroom walls were lined with photocopies I’d made of the covers of The Baby-Sitters Club (alongside my Kylie Minogue and Michael Jackson posters).
Almost every second Sunday my father would take me to the Caribbean Gardens and Markets in the Melbourne suburb of Scoresby to visit a particular second-hand bookseller who stocked the Sweet Valley High series. I remember the long drive down Spring Valley Road, the anticipation building inside me. What books would I find this weekend? Would I come closer to completing my collection?
The Sweet Valley High series was set in California and offered readers stories about love, friendship, proms, jocks, sibling rivalry and romance. Girls with names like Jessica and Elizabeth fell for boys with names like Todd, Paul, Bruce and Michael – boys who had 'sandy hair and piercing blue eyes', and were either the 'rich boy next door' or a sports coach at a summer camp.
The stories I read filled me with a feverish desire to possess them. I wanted so badly to be part of these books – as their reader, as their writer. The only way of assuaging this desire was to write my own stories. And so I did. My father made me a writing desk and I threw myself into storytelling. The stories I wrote were all set in America, focusing on scandalous love triangles, sorority and fraternity clubs, tragic tales of running away from home, chaos at school camps, proms, snow fights during school. My characters ate ham and cheese sandwiches and snacked on 'Twinkies', even though I had no idea what a Twinkie was (this was pre-Google days after all). Their names were invariably Lisa, Samantha, Liz or Kylie. They always had blonde hair, blue eyes and milky white skin. The cliché machine was working overtime.
The stories I wrote were all set in America, focusing on scandalous love triangles, sorority and fraternity clubs ... proms, snow fights during school.
Why should all of this be so strange?
Because I’m an Australian-born Muslim of Palestinian Egyptian heritage with an unpronounceable surname (the phlegm inflection is necessary), curly dark hair (blow-dried and tamed now but electric power point out-of-control as a kid and teenager), who spent Saturday mornings at Arabic school among boys called Mohamed and Ahmed and girls called Fatma and Aisha. During the week, I attended a Catholic primary school. It was located in Bulleen, Melbourne, and many of the students were of European extraction, so the boys I spent hours writing 'Dear Diary' entries over had names like Nicholas Papadopolous and Eddie Bonnachi. My school was filled with eucalyptus trees, tanbark and creepy-crawlies; we had water fights, not snow fights, and we bought our lunch from the tuckshop, not a cafeteria.
Much like the teenage fiction I grew up with, my Arab and Muslim identity is invisible in my early writing. Although my life offered a potential rich tapestry of racial tropes and ethnic fetishisms – the stock-standard roles of cab driver, convenience store owner, terrorist or tyrant, oppressed Muslim woman – I couldn’t manage to exploit them for the purposes of telling a good yarn. To think I could have written the habib version of Sweet Valley High, set in Bankstown, Sydney, featuring twins Fatima and Jamilah. Sadly, my characters’ names were all pronounceable, everybody’s hair was Brylcreem-free and lunch consisted of sliced white bread, not kebab leftovers that stank out the locker room. (Oh Mum, what were you thinking?)
The absence of diversity in the popular fiction I grew up with was, I believe, symptomatic of a collective imagination that equates mainstream with Anglo, and which casts Indigenous people, minorities and migrants as exotic, fascinating deviations from the norm.
The only exception to this that I can recall from the childhood books I read is Claudia Kishi in The Baby-Sitters Club. Subverting stereotypes, Claudia is Japanese-American and – wait for it – not academically inclined! Claudia was perhaps one of the first encounters I had with a non-Anglo character who did not reinforce popular stereotypes. While this was perhaps not a particularly sophisticated example of anti-racism politics, it should be credited as insightful given the time and context.
And then, against this backdrop of Anglo-centric fiction, came along a book that turned my life upside down. Aged 13, my 'coming of age' coincided with a particularly difficult time for my minority community: the first Gulf War which began in 1990. Australia, supporting the US, deployed warships to the Gulf. In the public imagination, Arab-Australians and Muslims were suddenly cast as the archetypal folk devils, made to feel like outsiders and suspicious Others because of events overseas over which they had no control. It was assumed that all Arabs and Muslims in Australia supported Saddam Hussein and that their loyalty to Australia was therefore in doubt. Media representations insisted on representing Muslims and Arabs in homogenous, monolithic terms, associating Islam with violence, fanaticism and fundamentalism. I felt this personally. Identified as a Muslim by the hijab I wore, I was called a wog, terrorist, nappy-head, camel jockey and sand nigger. My faith and identity were the subject of interrogation and discipline. I was spat at on the street and told to 'go back home'. ('Postcode 3109, morons!' I would yell back.) When you’re 13 and feel as though you’re locked up in a cage of other people’s demonising rhetoric, totalising assumptions and crude stereotypes, your already precarious sense of identity and belonging threatens to unravel. You are made to walk the plank – a plank hitched up by people who politicise your very existence at a time when you simply want to get on with the business of being a teenager and worry about acne and schoolgirl crushes and big dreams and fierce friendships.
To think I could have written the habib version of Sweet Valley High, set in Bankstown, Sydney, featuring twins Fatima and Jamilah.
I poured myself into books, searching for escapism. I did not dare to hope for validation, a cultural point of reference that spoke to me, and all the identity hyphens I straddled.
And then I read Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi.
There are books you read that make you hold your breath. It’s only when you get to the end that you realise you need to come up for air. In fact, the origins of the word 'inspiration' stem from the act of inhaling. There is something sensuous and visceral in the experience of being inspired. I felt it with Looking for Alibrandi.
I read it in one sitting. And then I read it again. And again. Something inside me changed.
For the very first time in my own life, there was a book that didn’t fetishise a migrant upbringing. Josie wasn’t somebody to pity or consider 'exotic'. I identified with her world, the pressures and challenges of straddling what I considered at that age to be identities in competition with each other. I loved Josie’s gutsiness, her insistence on making up her own mind about sex and not giving in to peer pressure. I loved her loud, vibrant, complicated family, and the fact that her experiences with racism vindicated my own. Even the cover appealed to me. Defying the quintessential blonde and blue-eyed Aussie girl, this girl had long, dark, curly hair and olive skin. Believe me this was no small matter. I regularly placed my head on the ironing board and allowed my friends to iron my hair (risking scalp burns and singed locks) in a perennial effort to attain smooth hair. Sun In (a spray-in hair lightener) was also a popular choice among my friends at the time and allowed one to circumvent the parental prohibition against hair dye by spraying the hair to lighten it (my hijab served more than just a spiritual function; it also allowed me to conceal evidence). Here was Josie with curly hair and not an iron or Sun In spray bottle to be seen.
I couldn’t believe I’d opened a young adult book that spoke to my life. It was wildly empowering and gratifying especially because the author was of Italian background. While I had always wanted to be a writer, the stories I was dabbling with continued to be set in American or English towns and cities. Although I’d graduated to writing mysteries involving kidnappings and murdered friends, a prom or English boarding school always managed to slip their way in. I was writing stories about white people, for white people and as if I was a white person. Was it possible that my own story might have some worth?
Above all else, this is what Melina Marchetta offered me: a light bulb moment, illuminating crevices and corners of my imagination and creativity that had been kept in the dark. The books I’d read had socialised me into subconsciously discounting my story. Suddenly I realised that my own experiences just might matter.
And so it is perhaps no surprise that when I set out to write my own novel based on my own experiences at the age of 15, I placed Looking for Alibrandi in a prominent position on my desk. Whenever I felt weary of my writing, lost confidence in my voice and felt plagued by self-doubt, Alibrandi would gently remind me to celebrate my identity, seize the chance to insist on an alternative story, one told on my terms and through my own agency. And for that I am indebted to Melina Marchetta who, in bringing Josie to life, in some way managed to do the same to my story too.