• Melina Marchetta's YA novel 'Looking For Alibrandi' was made into a film in 2000. (AAP)
First-generation Australian author Sarah Ayoub reflects on how young adult fiction is giving minorities a voice.
By
Sarah Ayoub

25 Feb 2016 - 9:43 AM  UPDATED 25 Feb 2016 - 9:46 AM

Right now, I am loving my social media feeds. This love is a rare occurrence: normally my social media feeds put me in a bad mood – they’re always a cultivation of status updates, images and links that seem to highlight all that is wrong with the world, with the occasional animal video thrown in for good measure.

But lately, they’re filled with #StellaSparks: snippets of people’s reflections on books written by Australian women that have shaped a reader’s life or their way of thinking. The ‘sparks’ are part of a new initiative by The Stella Prize that celebrates Australian women’s writing and champions diversity and cultural change – and following the #StellaSparks hashtag has called to my attention books and authors I’d never heard of, broadening my horizons and making me realise how much of a contribution female voices have made to our literary landscape.

For the record, my #StellaSpark was Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi. I read it when I was 13 and it was the first book that I ever saw myself in. And for a long time, it was the last. And it wasn’t until I published my debut novel Hate is such a Strong Word (and became a part of the Australian Young Adult community) that I realised why this mattered.

Throughout my entire adolescence, I grappled with my identity. I was a first-generation Australian girl born to migrant parents, who grew up in what I saw as an ethnic enclave and went to a mono-cultural school. Outside the little world that my circumstances had fashioned for me, there was a whole lot of ‘White’, a whole lot of racism and a fair bit of stereotype. Sensationalised reportage of Middle-Eastern crime didn’t help, and by the time I finished school and went out into the real world, I wasn’t entirely convinced I was Australian, or that I belonged here. Ironic, considering how much I loved my homeland, and how much my parents taught me to appreciate it.

It was the first book that I ever saw myself in. And for a long time, it was the last. 

Suffice to say, I was caught between two very different worlds, and there was so much distance between them, I found that I couldn’t mesh the two aspects of my identity into the person that I was. Basically, I was torn, and my feelings weren’t exactly aided every time I read a book or turned on the TV and realised I couldn’t see myself reflected in the stories I was consuming.

Fast-forward 12 years or so and I join numerous other Australians in championing diversity in literature and the arts. In a social climate that’s dictated by race relations and questions of otherness, giving a platform to minority voices does a lot for cultural change. It gives minorities a chance to challenge (outside) existing representations about them and highlight the things that make their communities special. But mostly, it gives young people grappling with their own questions about identity a validity that they lack everywhere else. A validity that allows them to feel like they have a valuable – and welcome – contribution to make to society. 

Australian authors are leading the charge in diversifying our national stories.

Thankfully, Australian authors are leading the charge in diversifying our national stories, and I am chuffed to be among a long list of authors and creatives who are weaving real Australians from all walks of life into their work. They’re challenging the norm with stories focusing on dynamic families, rural experiences, gender, sexuality, illness and disability. Stories like Fleur Ferris’ Risk, which raises questions around the way young people use online spaces and Kirsty Eager’s Summer Skin, which challenges the narrative of female sexuality are just the tip of the iceberg. Helen Chebatte’s Bro looks at the school yard fights among interracial groups, and Randa Abdel-Fattah’s yet untitled release of late 2016 was inspired by her research into Islamophobia.

Next week, my second novel, The Yearbook Committee, will hit bookstores. Unlike my first novel – a coming of age of a Lebanese girl in south-western Sydney, very much inspired by my adolescence – this one is about five different kids in a posh school in Sydney’s inner-west. This time, my ethnic characters are in the minority, but it’s not because their stories don’t have value. It’s because sometimes, championing real diversity needs to go beyond token criteria and accurately reflect our changing world – its different people, its different families, its different experiences. 

Sarah Ayoub's second book, The Yearbook Committee (Harper Collins) is in stores from Monday February 29.

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