#WeHaveDiverseBooks: 5 Questions with Randa Abdel-Fattah author of The Lines We Cross

#WeHaveDiverseBooks: 5 Questions is a spotlight on OOM dedicated to exploring Scholastic’s amazing distinct voices. We’ll take a deep dive into the backgrounds, inspiration and works of these authors and illustrators.

Today, we're talking with Randa Abdel-Fattah, the author of The Lines We Cross (Ages 12+).

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Tell us a little bit about your background and yourself as a child.

I was born in Sydney, Australia and grew up in Melbourne, to a Palestinian father and Egyptian mother. I'm a child of the 80s (Kylie Minogue, Madonna, The Goonies, roller skates and The Baby-Sitters Club) and a teen of the 90s (Michael Jackson, praying Allah would one day send me the equivalent of Colin Firth in BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice”, X Men Comics, anti-racism activism). I've loved writing stories ever since I was a child. Reading a good book was always my best muse. It made me passionate about wanting to try to create my own stories, worlds and characters.  

When did you decide you were going to become a writer? How did this decision come to be?

The cupboards of my house are filled with boxes of journals, poems, bound manuscripts and short stories I wrote as a child and teenager. I’ve been writing ever since I can remember. I’ve always loved story-telling. I read through these stories now and I notice they are all stories set in America or England, weaving tales around innocent love triangles in sorority and fraternity clubs or English country-side boarding schools. I wrote tragic tales of summer camps and all-American proms and snow fights at school. My characters ate Twinkies, pretzels and even the occasional ham and cheese sandwich. My characters’ names were as vanilla as they come: Lisa, Samantha, Liz or Kylie. They always had straight blonde hair, blue eyes and “milky white” skin. It was only when I was fifteen years old that I decided I wanted to be a writer who would set out to tell stories that challenged the whiteness of the literary world I was growing up with. This was because at this age I was starting to appreciate how there were no books that spoke to my experiences as a hyphenated Muslim/Arab female. 

Your newest book The Lines We Cross released earlier this year. Tell us a little bit about the book and why you think this story is so timely.

Just over three and a half years ago I quit law and started a PhD to explore racism, specifically Islamophobia, from the point of view of its perpetrators. While I was conducting my fieldwork, interviewing people, attending anti-Islam and anti-refugee rallies, a character popped into my head. Well, two to be precise. One was a young Afghan refugee; a “boat person” we see maligned and stigmatized by both sides of politics. Bright, fierce, courageous, scarred, she wouldn’t budge from my head. I thought about what it would mean for this young girl to have fled Afghanistan, grow up in Western Sydney, only for me to then throw her into a private school in the lower north shore [suburbs] of Sydney. I called her Mina. The other person who popped into my head was a boy called Michael. As I interviewed people about their “fears of being swamped by boats”, about the “Islamisation of Australia”, about the so-called “clash of civilisations”, I wondered what it would mean to be a teenager growing up in a family peddling such racism and paranoia. How do you unlearn racism? How do you find the courage to question your parents’ beliefs? How do you accept responsibility for learning about the world on your own terms? That’s when I decided to write a story that would take these two characters, Michael and Mina, and throw them together. I think this book is important because racism isn't something that we should confine to academic or media discussions. It is a lived experience, a fundamental part of many people's everyday lives, something they negotiate and struggle against. I think it's vital that young people have their stories validated and that those who are born into privilege based solely on the color of their skin understand that privilege and how that differs from the experiences of racialised minorities.

Can you talk more about the themes of tolerance, understanding, courage and friendship in the story?

Racism hurts. Isolation, being judged by your individual quirks or looks, all these things hurt. And I believe that the everyday challenge of coping is made so much easier when you have a friend and network of support. Mina learns this through her friendship with the quirky, sincere and funny Paula. And Paula also learns that she needs Mina just as much. Michael eventually finds tremendous courage to do the right thing and that starts first and foremost through him questioning the people he loves and then turning the mirror back on himself. It takes courage to do that, to admit to one’s shortcomings in behavior and in knowledge. We are living in a post-truth/alternative facts world so there’s an urgency for young people to bravely question what they hear and read.

Can you let us know what you are working on now?

I’m about to start an academic research project that compares the generational impact of the war on terror on Muslim and non-Muslim youth born into a post 9/11 world, especially in terms of their relations of trust at school and how they express their political selves. I’m using writing workshops to help young people explore their experiences. I’m also slowly working on transcribing interviews with my extended family, especially my grandmother, about their experiences migrating to Australia from Egypt.