author of Promising Azra
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Perth, Western Australia, but didn’t stay there very long as my family moved to Sao Paulo in Brazil for a few years. Before I started school we moved to Sydney, and I went to school at Roseville and Artarmon Public Schools, then Chatswood High School. One of Booktopia’s founders, Tony Nash, was at school with me there.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
A writer, a writer, and… a writer. I’ve always loved words, and how they can make you feel.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
That when you are asked a question, that you need to give an answer. Now I know that kind of naïve co-operation can get you into trouble. You don’t have to do something just ‘cos someone asked.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: A strange little tale, with lovely whimsical illustrations, and no tidy conclusions. His drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant is an image no child should grow up without. I also loved that the little prince had three volcanoes on his planet. Who knows what this book is really all about? Whatever you like.
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen: Another rule-breaker, though this piece of music has a distinct story (and a lack of volcanoes and boa-constrictors). The reckless mix of musical styles, and the complete over-the-top delivery, made this a dizzying experience in the 1970s. Opera in rock music! It has a fabulous theatricality that still inspires, and Freddie Mercury’s voice is unforgettable.
Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio: A film without language. Full of arresting images of humanity, accompanied by powerful music from Philip Glass. Mesmerising. It gave an experience for you to make up your own story and meaning.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
A novel has enough space to develop and explore an idea from different perspectives, as well as over time. I love to read novels for the immersive experience, and how that also allows you to grow in empathy for the characters (if you are so moved). Novels have changed how I think about people and places and issues, largely through the emotional journey of the story. I wanted to see if I could work that magic too.
6. Please tell us about your latest novel…
Promising Azra is about an Australian schoolgirl (Azra) who loves studying chemistry. She’s won a place in a state science competition, and is hoping to go on to university. Meanwhile, her family are planning her wedding to a cousin in Pakistan, just after her seventeenth birthday. The story is about competing aspirations and responsibilities, and how these impact on Azra’s life.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I want to highlight that the forced marriage of teenagers does take place in contemporary Australia, but that it is often hidden because of the cultural sensitivities around it, and a reluctance to challenge that. However, it is not simple to resolve.
I hope that readers of Promising Azra better appreciate the complexity of reconciling traditional cultural practices with the opportunities and rights available in a new country. Both Azra and her parents want to do the ‘right thing’, but that is not clear-cut or easy.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
Helen Garner. While my work is fiction, she writes about politically sensitive and usually high profile real events with such skill and compassion, always presenting different ways of seeing the situation. Her writing is elegant, incisive, and clear-sighted. It must be so difficult, because unlike fiction there is no freedom to make up the bits you’re not sure about.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I’d like to complete a novel every two years. I have at least three ideas I’d like to explore right now. Promising Azra took me the best part of four years from start to publication. I hope that now I have a better idea of what I’m doing so it shouldn’t take as long. But I could be wrong…
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
There is no prescription. You need to do your own work in your own way. Of course be open to improving your craft, and to trying new things. But there is no short-cut or easy way. You need to start writing, all by yourself. And keep going.
Thank you for playing, Helen!
Azra's dreams of finishing high school in Sydney and going to university are threatened by her uncle's plans to marry her off to an older cousin she has never met - will she have to choose between her family and her happiness?
Azra is sixteen, smart and knows how to get what she wants. She thinks. When she wins a place in a national science competition, she thinks her biggest problem is getting her parents' permission to go. But she doesn't know they're busy arranging her marriage to an older cousin she's never met. In Pakistan. In just three months' time ...