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Burhana Islam & Jasmin McGaughey

Read Monday, 29 Nov 2021

As part of The Stories We Tell Ourselves, we invited six pairs of emerging and established writers, from the UK and Australia, to each pen a letter to their past or future self. Across a series of six videos, these writers respond to the theme ‘Who are we now?’ by speaking directly to versions of themselves that are still familiar, curiously anticipated or completely mysterious.

Here, children’s and YA writer Burhana Islam, author of Amazing Muslims Who Changed The World and the My Laugh-Out-Loud Life series, and writer and black&write! junior editor Jasmin McGaughey take turns reading each other’s letters aloud and then discuss the points of connection and difference in their responses. 

You can watch the video, and read along with their letters, below.

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From Burhana Islam

To the little girl I once was,

Like you, I’ll never forget that quiet afternoon in middle school when we walked into assembly in silence. Neither of us knew back then that we’d never be the same again. We sat in rows at the front of the hall and something just felt off. It was like we were underwater. It was like the air was heavy. 

The date was September 11th, 2001. 

Growing up around that time wasn’t easy for either of us. Within a few hours, the concept of race, being the ‘other’ and what it meant to belong confronted us head on and nothing could have prepared us for that. Even now, 20 years later, I can still close my eyes and find myself back there, wanting to be invisible, wanting to disappear. It was the first time I had heard the headteacher utter the word ‘Muslim’, quickly followed by ‘terrorist’, ‘murderer’, and ‘cold-blood’. I can still remember it. I just wish I could shake it off. 

So to my younger self, if I could rewind time, I’d give you a big hug and I’d tell you to have faith – to have hope. I’d tell you to hold onto that part of yourself that the world tries so hard to take away from you. I’d tell you that it gets easier and that you’ll find your voice in the end. 

So to my younger self, if I could rewind time, I’d give you a big hug and I’d tell you to have faith – to have hope.

My younger self, don’t ever forget that you are the eldest daughter of immigrants. That’s a blessing, not a burden. You are the middle child, one who knows that you don’t have to raise your voice to be heard. You are generation 1.5, meaning home was never in the concrete jungle of the Western world nor the golden shores of the East. Home, for you, is where you’re at peace.

So my younger self, be at peace. The path laid out for you means that deep inside you is a teacher, a leader, and a woman with power. You are not judged by the words of people who don’t understand you. You are judged by your actions and intentions. My younger self, know that you are a Muslim with both agency and influence. You will demand respect, know your self-worth, and finally find a home that no one can take away from you.  

Yours,

The woman you’ll become

From Jasmin McGaughey

Dear Jazzy, 

Hello, past self! I want to be optimistic in my words to you! I want to gush and tell you all the opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to access. The past five years have been a learning curve within the literary world, and you have enjoyed most of it. 

In this letter, I am seeking to answer the question ‘who are we now?’. And I believe my sense of self begins, as always, with ancestors and family. In my writing, I am attempting to trace culture in conversations and research (the research that means tracing steps back to islands and connecting stories from family members and memories from my own mind). 

But what am I doing now? 

Writing has been both cathartic and an investigative method to learn about myself. I’ve narrowed my non-fiction into writing about place – specifically the climate crisis and how this impacts the Torres Strait Islands. I’ve tried to stop ignoring the anxiety the state of the climate causes in me. Now, I am trying to learn how I can play a part in saving lands and waters. And how I might bring awareness to this urgent, current problem.

The sea has crept closer to homes in the Torres Strait Islands. Sandbags have been put in place to defend against the rising tides, but it’s not enough. There is currently a case being brought against the Australian Government by the Torres Strait Eight to the United Nations. This is huge and it fills me with hope.   

This is huge and it fills me with hope.

I wish I could give you the confidence to begin this writing journey earlier in life. Even now, sometimes it seems flimsy and not very powerful. But maybe, for me, writing is the biggest strength I can rely on and learn from. Trust that the journey you will experience will shape your writing and therefore your joy.  

The stories of the past, the present, and the future are what we need to tell ourselves to flourish. These stories can tell us how to take care of land and how to survive. They can tell us how to pave the way forward sustainably. All these stories we tell, circle in on themselves. They are the base of our being, our past, and our future. 

Family is teaching me always. I am (slowly) attempting to learn language, place, and being. Culture has been woven into my words more often now – and it builds my writing and my sense of self. 

I am excited to see what I will have the chance to learn next. I know that the knowledge I have access to (in the form of family and friends) and the opportunities at my fingertips are a privilege. I can’t wait to start paying it forward. 

Love,

Jasmin

The Stories We Tell Ourselves is presented with Spread the Word and the Melbourne City of Literature Office, supported by the UK/Australia Season Patrons Board, the British Council and the Australian Government as part of the UK/Australia Season.

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