Randa Abdel-Fattah was awarded the Writing for Young Adults Award at the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards ceremony in Melbourne last night for When Michael Met Mina. We asked Randa a few questions the last time she visited Booktopia…
Please tell us about your book, When Michael Met Mina.
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 stigmatised 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 of Sydney. I called her Mina. The other person who popped into my head at one of the rallies I was attending 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 took these two characters, Michael and Mina, and threw them at each other.
What do you feel was the greatest challenge you faced during the writing process?
The greatest challenge was writing Michael’s parents. I didn’t want them to be racist caricatures. It was about finding the writing balance and tone and complexity, not reducing them to a one-dimensional racist stereotype.
Do you believe in the idea that opposites attract? Michael and Mina are very different people with little in common, and yet they share a similar sense of humour and similar taste in movies and music etc. Do you think it their differences or their similarities that attract them to one another?
I think all relationships need the right balance of differences and similarities. Too many differences and there’s nothing to share. Too much in common and it gets boring! I don’t know what makes some people click and what makes others run as far away from each other as possible! But with Michael and Mina, I think there’s something beyond their taste in movies and music, and that’s their mutual capacity to question, to learn and grow.
There is a very eclectic mix of film and literary references throughout the book, such as Oscar Wilde, Lord of the Rings, The xx etc. Are these all personal favourites of yours? How did they influence/inspire your writing?
I was happy to indulge my own film, book and music tastes in this book. It was fun! The characters came first and I just felt that those kind of quirky tastes were true to them.
In the book, there are many examples of people defending racist opinions/actions by arguing that “it’s not personal” or that they “meant no offense”. Why do you think this is so often the go-to defence for racism?
Ah yes. It’s about as common as ‘I’m not racist but…’ or ‘I have a black/Asian/Muslim etc friend’. I think it’s important to interrogate and expose these excuses which is why I made sure to use them.
There are some great examples of people changing and growing in the book – in particular Michael’s character growth. And at the same time, you have characters like Terrence who remain stubbornly resistant to change. Do you think everyone is capable of change or are some people too stuck in their ways?
Yes, I think everyone is capable of change. But not everybody is capable or willing to change. I think it’s important to understand that change is hard, that there are structural forces bigger than ‘willpower’ that block people from having the courage to ask questions about who they are and what they believe.
If there is one thing you hope people will take away from the experience of reading When Michael met Mina – what would it be?
Never stop questioning and reflecting on what you have, who you are, and what you know and don’t know.
When Michael Met Mina
A boy. A girl. Two families. One great divide.
When Michael meets Mina, they are at a rally for refugees - standing on opposite sides. Mina fled Afghanistan with her mother via a refugee camp, a leaky boat and a detention centre. Michael's parents have founded a new political party called Aussie Values. They want to stop the boats. Mina wants to stop the hate.
When Mina wins a scholarship to Michael's private school, their lives crash together blindingly. A novel for anyone who wants to fight for love, and against injustice. From the bestselling author of Does My Head Look Big in This?...