Randa Abdel-Fattah’s book When Michael Met Mina is a modern day Romeo and Juliet, except in this love story, the pair first meet on opposing sides of a refugee rally.
This latest release from the Sydney-based young adult fiction author could not have come at a more relevant time as the debate around immigration and Islamaphobia dominates our headlines. In fact, it was while doing field work for her PhD on Islamaphobia and racism in Australia that Abdel-Fattah, 37, was inspired to pen this story.
“I attended an anti-asylum seeker rally and spoke to people while I was there,” she explains. “I started to think about what it would feel like to be a young person growing up in a house listening to those types of views and what it would be like on the opposite side as a refugee.”
It’s important people understand the lived experience of racism.
The novel examines multiculturalism and class in Australia through the romance of Sydney teenagers Michael and Mina. Michael’s parents have founded a stop-the-boats political party called Aussie Values, while Mina’s family fled Afghanistan via a refugee camp, leaky boat and a detention centre. For Abdel-Fattah, the book is an important way for young people to learn about racism beyond the headlines, rhetoric and sweeping statements made by politicians and TV personalities that are becoming increasingly common.
“It’s important people understand the lived experience of racism,” she explains. “It does impact in really visceral ways on people’s lives and opportunities, and their psychology and emotional states. I wanted to draw out what’s happening at the everyday level of society; getting to those stories is really important to me.”
A Muslim of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage, Abdel-Fattah grew up in Melbourne, attending a Catholic primary school and Islamic secondary school, where there were few stories reflecting diverse backgrounds like hers. “I grew up without the rich diversity of literature with people of colour writing in the way we see now. The books I was exposed to were predominately Americanised, white stories. The idea of stories told from the streets of multicultural Australia was very rare,” she says, citing Greek-Australian novel Five Times Dizzy as one of the few non-Anglo books of her childhood.
We are seeing the mainstreaming of hate speech and it seems to be getting worse and worse.
For the lawyer and human rights advocate, the arts and literature are important tools for dismantling the racism that “infiltrates every level of society.” And her book is a place to start. “It’s not just the family who is part of this right wing, quite obviously racist movement. It’s also looking at how it permeates in class,” Abdel-Fattah explains. “The north shore school that Mina goes to as a scholarship student, and how life chances have so much to do with white privilege. [I’m] trying to dismantle our understanding of what multiculturalism is about. It’s about more than just eating Thai food; it’s actually looking at how it plays out in reality on the street.”
As an advocate who regularly speaks out against Islamaphobia, Abdel-Fattah admits the current climate is making her fight difficult. “We are seeing the mainstreaming of hate speech and it seems to be getting worse and worse. I think, ‘what kind of society are my children being raised in?’ The best thing I can do is build resilience in them and put whatever energy I can in trying to reverse than environment.”
And while the battle against Islamaphobia is “getting harder”, Abdel-Fattah remains hopeful. “It’s about building solidarity with other minorities, especially with Indigenous Australians who were the first victims of racism, that we can actually start to address these issues and confront the racism at the core of our culture.”
When Michael Met Mina ($18.99, Pan Macmillan) is available now.