Ask any Lebanese parent to define the word ‘writer’ and I’m most certain we’d say that a writer means tah hanek, a waste of time. ‘Go study Law or Medicine or Dentistry,’ we’d advise. ‘What is this nonsense you’re dreaming of?’
Like hundreds of other Lebanese-Australian children, from a young age I was encouraged to become a doctor or lawyer, but for some reason every time I heard this I’d just laugh and say, ‘You can’t make me.’ I guess this must speak to the stubborn streak lurking in our Lebanese blood. I would be whatever I wanted to be.
As a kid, I loved writing and illustrating stories, but soon forgot about such tah hanek when I grew up. I didn’t feel like I was good enough. I was the hairy wog that the White kids made fun of. Yeah, I did have my little group of Lebs that I felt safe with, but we were still laughed at by the Aussies and hated by our teachers. It wasn’t until I elected the unit Writing Children’s Literature at university that I rediscovered my love for writing. During that time, I also discovered that not everyone would enjoy my writing. My lecturer at that time would make the only three Lebanese-Muslim students in the class repeat assignments and then barely pass us. Was it my writing that was so bad or was it the Lebanese-Muslim part of me that was offensive?
For years I obsessed over whether I should change my name or stick with Meyrnah Khodr. Did it sound too Lebanese? Would people know I was Muslim if I changed it to Mary Khodr?
My experiences at university may have left a taste in my mouth as bitter as Lebanese coffee but it wasn’t enough to give up on writing. I’ve always been stubborn. But looking back, I wish somebody had told me how White Australian publishing was before I quit my teaching job, before I struggled with sending picture book submissions through to major publishing houses or put myself through torturous literary speed dating sessions. For years I obsessed over whether I should change my name or stick with Meyrnah Khodr. Did it sound too Lebanese? Would people know I was Muslim if I changed it to Mary Khodr? Publishers always asked for an author biography and I worried about including all my writing experience. Would they think I was a terrorist if I told them I had written several articles for an Islamic magazine? I attended a few literary speed dating sessions where I had the opportunity to pitch my picture book ideas to publishers. I would make myself sick with anxiety about why my ideas were rejected. Was it my bad writing or the hijab they saw first?
This anxiety seeped into my struggle to accept my identity as a Lebanese-Australian Muslim writer from Bankstown. I would write drafts for many children’s stories but could never bring myself to give the characters Muslim names. I was blind to the privilege White writers had. I just thought I wasn’t good enough or my stories weren’t wanted. C.S Lewis could write a whole children’s series with an underlying theme of Christianity but here I was, worried about what publishers would say if they read a story starring a Fatima or Aisha. After all, where was the Lebanese-Muslim representation for picture books in Australian publishing?
Go ahead, Google published Lebanese-Australian Muslim Women authors. How many can you find?
I wish somebody had warned me earlier that I needed to find my own writing community if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer as well take myself seriously. Sick of being rejected for my picture book stories, I turned to Young Adult novels and decided to write one of my own after reading, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. At the time, I fell in love with her writing and felt her story was unlike many of the Australian YA novels, which were mostly centred around booze, drugs and beaches. I wanted to write a story filled with magic but one I could call my own, with Lebanese-Muslim characters. I wanted my children to be able to pick up a Young Adult novel and see themselves represented. Why can’t they read about Lebanese-Australian Muslim characters from Bankstown doing ordinary things or struggling to deal with the same problems that they deal with? Diversity and representation in Australian publishing is slowly beginning to increase as can be seen with brilliant works by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Randa Abdel-Fattah, Sarah Ayoub and Omar Sakr, though overall the publishing industry is still lacking. Go ahead, Google published Lebanese-Australian Muslim Women authors. How many can you find?
Luckily, in 2018 I discovered Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement through one of Sarah Ayoub’s tweets. I joined the newly established Sweatshop Women’s Collective and they truly helped me to understand my own identity as a Lebanese-Australian woman from Bankstown. I found my writing family and a safe place to tell my stories. I learnt that my stories were worth telling. At Sweatshop, I was able to develop my short story for the anthology, Sweatshop Women: Volume One. A story that, even though set over twenty years ago, touched on the struggles with sisterhood, dating and faith, that my own daughter currently faces as a young Lebanese-Australian Muslim woman in 2019.
As with any writer from any cultural background, I continue to have my own struggles. I constantly ask myself, ‘am I good enough?’ Or, ‘why am I being kicked out of my local library for whispering with my friend even though only minutes earlier a White lady was yelling on her phone?’ But I know I have a strong sense of self and community to rely on so that my stories will be appreciated by those that matter.
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Editorial support for each piece has been provided by Winnie Dunn and Michael Mohammed Ahmad.