Western Sydney is home to a new festival celebrating Indigenous and culturally diverse Australian literature.
Boundless, a free day of performances, readings, panel discussions and workshops for children and adults, will be held on October 28 at the Bankstown Arts Centre.
Markus Zuzak, author of New York Times bestseller The Book Thief, will appear in ‘Boundless Plains’, a panel discussing how diverse voices become part of the national story. Benjamin Law, whose writing credits include SBS series The Family Law, will join three other writers to examine the sensitive task of writing about families – without offending your own – in a panel titled ‘All in the family’.
Sarah Ayoub, a Lebanese Australian author who has written two YA novels, will lead a workshop for teenagers on how to develop publishable ideas and take part in a panel looking at how to write about difficult and uncomfortable issues, a challenge she confronted when writing her first book.
Set in the aftermath of race riots reminiscent of the violence that erupted in Cronulla in 2005, Hate Is Such a Strong Word tells the story of Sophie, a Lebanese Australian schoolgirl living in Sydney. “I wanted to write about what it was like trying to navigate the two different parts of my identity and different aspects of my life,” she says. “It's all about belonging and finding your place in the world.”
The book was inspired by Ayoub’s childhood in south-western Sydney, where she attended a school whose students were all from a “monocultural” Lebanese Christian background. “I never really experienced racism and I never really felt like I was different,” she says.
As she got older, she came to question the insularity of her upbringing. “I started to think about how ethnic enclaves don't really do much for cultural cohesion. I found that there were so many stereotypes that white people had about my community and there were so many stereotypes that my community had about white people.”
Ayoub remembers a few years ago talking to a group of high school students at a writers’ festival about the reasons she wrote Hate is Such a Strong Word. She was angry so many people presumed that because she was Middle Eastern she was Muslim. The error revealed the ignorance in the community of the complexities of Middle Eastern identity. “I spoke about what it was like always having to correct people who made an assumption about my identity,” she said. “Then the teacher put up their hand and said, ‘so, do you ever wear the hijab?’”
Yet Ayoub, who is currently researching people of colour narratives in Australian YA fiction, believes Australian publishing is at the forefront of diverse storytelling. “Ten years ago, you'd be hard pressed to find novels that accurately depicted people of colour in a way that wasn't superficial,” she says. “In the seventies and eighties the characters that came from multicultural backgrounds were often portrayed by a white writer, so the portrayal of them was superficial. Now there's more of an opportunity for people of colour to write and their stories are more valued.”
Social media movements like WeNeedDiverseBooks (@diversebooks) and festivals like Boundless showcase the depth of talent among writers from diverse backgrounds, and are advancing the cause of literary diversity, she says.
When I ask Ayoub to name some of her favourite authors who write about multicultural Australia, her voice sparkles with enthusiasm as she reels off a list of names: Alice Pung, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Tamar Chnorhokian, and Melinda Marchetta, who she says writes diverse characters without being tokenistic. “When I read her characters, I can imagine them being people that I see on the train…or at the local shops. They're real young people.”
Ayoub also singles out Michael Mohammed Ahmad, founder of Sweatshop, a literacy movement based in western Sydney, and author of The Tribe (Giramondo, 2014), for his honest depiction of Muslim boys from south-western Sydney. Ahmad, who is also appearing at Boundless, “writes the boys that he grew up with as he sees them,” she says. “I really love that authenticity.”
Boundless: A festival of diverse writers, presented by NSW Writers’ Centre and Bankstown Arts Centre, takes place on October 28. Visit boundlessfestival.org.au for more information.