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Working with Words: Randa Abdel-Fattah

Read Thursday, 4 Mar 2021

We spoke with award-winning author and sociologist Randa Abdel-Fattah about the joys of writing and battling her inner critic.

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Photograph of author Randa Abdel-Fattah

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

‘River of Dreams’, a stream of consciousness-type story I wrote for a year 8 English class. My teacher encouraged me to submit it for publication and it ended up in OzKids, a children’s lit magazine in the 1990s. My parents and teacher gave me the confidence to put my work out there, but it was my teacher who knew where the opportunities were and how to pursue them. 

What’s the best part of your job?

The messages and mail I receive from readers all around the world. It’s a reminder of how being an author means investing everything into your work, owning every word and sentence, every plot line and character arc, only to then ‘put it on the market’, give it up to be interpreted, received, loved or hated by the world.

I always love hearing from my readers. One of the best messages I’ve ever received was several years ago on Facebook messenger from a woman in Canada. She wanted to know if I was the author of Does My Head Look Big In This? She had seen ‘an old white man’ standing at an intersection with a box of books in downtown Toronto. He was handing out copies of Does My Head Look Big In This? as a Christmas peace/good will gift. Still makes me fit to burst inside when I think about how utterly lovely this is. 

What’s the worst part of your job?

Self-doubt. Imposter syndrome. My inner critic. The thing about writing is you know that there are infinite combinations of words for expressing a thought, an idea, a character, a scene. When I’m in my ‘zone’, working on a mix of adrenalin, intuition and craft, I forget that fact. I know a sentence can be said in so many different ways, but I feel a quiet confidence in the way I have chosen to say it. When I’m not in my zone, I start second-guessing every line, I see less of the art, more of the contrivance.

The thing about writing is you know that there are infinite combinations of words for expressing a thought, an idea, a character, a scene.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Winning the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award (Young Adult and People’s Choice) for When Michael Met Mina was hugely significant for me. The book was unplanned and writing it was a constant process of should I or shouldn’t I?

I was doing my PhD on Islamophobia and racism at the time, and the inspiration for When Michael Met Mina came to me during a particularly ugly moment in my fieldwork, interviewing some unashamed Islamophobes. I decided then and there that I wanted to write a YA book as well as my PhD. So I slaved over a 100,000 word PhD thesis in sociology and wrote a 90,000 word novel, hoping I could bring my creative writing into conversation with the writings and theories of the academics, activists, writers and artists I was learning from through my academic research. I was racked with self-doubt throughout the creative process. So winning the VPLA was a personal triumph and validation for me and taught me to trust my creative instincts.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice: don’t write about community if you’re not part of community. This wasn’t advice about ‘own voices’. It was about being the kind of writer who holds herself accountable to the people she has the privilege to write about and for. It’s advice I always think about when I reflect on the question of integrity in writing. I never want to be the kind of writer who sits in her study, detached from the people, issues and worlds I depict. I want to invest in people and causes personally and through my writing otherwise it feels exploitative. 

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

Oh this one is easy! Almost fifteen years on and it still makes me chuckle. 2005. I had just released Does My Head Look Big In This? and given away all my author copies to family. So I was at a local bookstore buying my book. It was still new and the woman serving me started chatting to me about it. Before I had a chance to say anything she said, ‘Did you hear the story behind the author?’ Obviously, I wasn’t going to reveal myself after that irresistible hook! She then declared: ‘Apparently she didn’t actually write the book. It was her mother who wrote it’. Now I can appreciate a good piece of gossip, but the art of gossip is it has to have some ring of truth to it. This was just plain batshit crazy. I burst into laughter. Then I informed her actually that couldn’t be true given I’d written the book. Her mouth dropped. I left. Was she jealous? Spinning stories behind every book to rack up sales? It remains a mystery.  

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’m doing it now: academia. I love how my academic works compliments my writing and vice versa. I’ve found a lovely synergy. However, to makes things really interesting/frustrating [insert expletives of your choice], writing and academia are both notoriously precarious industries.  

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I’ve never understood the debate because it seems to approach creative writing as some divinely inspired artform bestowed on an elite few. Creative writing is like all art. Of course it can be taught. Some students will be brilliant, some will be average, and some will be terrible. And sometimes the terrible are published and make millions for publishers and the brilliant face rejection letter after rejection letter.

I think it’s important to remember that not all creative writing is done for the purpose of being published. I think why people write has just as much impact on the quality of their writing as a workshop on, say, characterisation or narrative voice. This is one of those debates that opens up so many other debates: who decides what constitutes literary merit; gatekeepers; the politics of publishing and so on. You’re not going to get a complete answer from me with a word limit!

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

To be a published writer is really about negotiating an industry of gatekeepers, from publishers to editors to agents to judges to reviewers. I don’t know if this is good advice, but personally I see that with so many gatekeepers you have very little to lose in taking risks. Submit your work to literary publications (there are so many online opportunities) that you consider a good fit, enter writing competitions in Australia and internationally. If you have a manuscript you’re truly confident you’ve edited and polished to the best of your ability, try and find an agent. If you have no luck, look out for opportunities to submit unsolicited manuscripts to publishers. If all else fails, there is also the world of self-publishing.  

To be a published writer is really about negotiating an industry of gatekeepers, from publishers to editors to agents to judges to reviewers.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both, although nothing compares to the feeling of being in a physical bookshop. Since I was a child, it has always been my happy place. Whether browsing or being seduced into buying something I didn’t plan to, I will always love the magic of a bookshop.   

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

There are too many to narrow down to just one. I do remember, though, a tired, ripped book on my dad’s bookshelf when I was growing up called The Dispossessed. The front cover was a black and white photograph of a Palestinian refugee camp. I was drawn to looking at the cover a long time before I actually took it out to read. I think I was in my late teens, suddenly interested in understanding my Palestinian heritage and the political situation and history. It was the first book I read about the Nakba of 1948. It affected me deeply. I could even say it haunted me, the imagery, the first-person narrative which was searing in its anger and indignation at the denial of human dignity and basic freedoms. The anger and protest were vivid, raw and direct. It was a book that awakened an activist spirit in me. When I moved into my own home I took the book from dad’s shelf. I still have it.

Randa Abdel-Fattah works as a sociologist and is also an internationally published award-winning author. Most recently she published Coming of Age in the War on Terror, in which she interrogates the impact of all this on young people’s political consciousness and their trust towards adults and the societies they live in.

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