A story for young adults in the post 9/11 world
Randa Abdel-Fattah on how her novel, about a teenager's choice to don the hijab, transformed readers' understanding of Muslims
Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel, Does My Head Look Big In This? (2005), is narrated in first person by a teenager, Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, who lives in a trendy suburb of Melbourne. Her parents were born in Bethlehem, studied medicine in Monash University and became Australian citizens. Her father Mohamed is under the “misguided delusion" that he is still young and cool and drives a metallic-red convertible blasting Italian opera or Palestinian folk songs from his car stereo system. Her mother, Jamila, is a dentist who is obsessive about cleanliness and is loud and energetic. The novel is about Amal’s decision to don a hijab as “I feel like my passion and conviction in Islam are bursting inside me and I want to prove to myself that I’m strong enough to wear a badge of my faith". Her parents are concerned about the reaction it will elicit in public, not least being called a “nappy head".
It’s a tremendous coming-of-age novel written immediately post 9/11, which has now been re-released in India, given its relevance in our times. The Australia-based, 38-year-old author’s next novel, themed on immigration, The Lines We Cross, will be published in January by Scholastic India. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
What prompted you to write this book—a chick lit with a twist on religious expression and the importance of choice?
When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and was searching for an agent, I spoke to one agent at length, explaining the basic plot of the novel. After my pitch, she had the audacity to joke: “Is there an honour killing in it?" This was the stock standard narrative space for the Muslim novel and that kind of lazy, dehumanizing genre of writing about Muslim women was what fired me up in the first place to want to write something that challenged such tropes. I wanted to offer readers a feisty, free-spirited adolescent Muslim girl speaking on her own terms and, importantly, delivering a story written by a Muslim female.
It is believed that debut novels tend to be autobiographical. Would it be an accurate statement to make with regard to ‘Does My Head Look Big In This?’ Or is it an amalgamation of stories you have heard as a human rights lawyer?
I actually wrote the first draft when I was a teenager, 15 years old, and it was, at that time, very autobiographical. I was “coming of age" during the first Gulf War (1990-91), at a time when suddenly being Muslim and Arab was no longer an identity description but an accusation. Not only was I dealing with the demonization in the media and political discourse of my Muslim and Arab heritage, but I was also dealing with gendered stereotypes which reduced Muslim women to oppressed and passive victims of faith and culture. That made me want to speak back, and for me writing has always been craft and activism. I returned to the manuscript post 9/11, and realized that the story was even more urgent. So I rewrote the first draft.
How did you decide upon creating the narrator as an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian teen? Did it take some effort to get the nuances right?
That part was easy. I drew on my own life, my experiences navigating multiple identities. The nuance was basically my own lived experience so it was never difficult to do!
It has been 12 years since this book was first published. What are the reactions that you get? Have these changed over time?
It amazes and humbles me that all these years later I still have people reaching out to me about the book to tell me that it was transformative in terms of their understanding of Muslims/Islam. Of all my novels, this has been my most popular work, taught in schools, staged as a play in the US, and currently being adapted into a feature film. My Muslim readers around the world tell me that the novel validates their experiences and empowers them to embrace their faith choices. For the majority of my readers—who are, in fact, not Muslims—I am told that the book has changed their perceptions about Muslims, particularly Muslim women who wear the veil. I still have girls contact me to say they read my book and were inspired to wear hijab or that it gave them that final edge of confidence to go through with their decision. The most touching feedback I’ve received was from a teacher in Canada who told me that on Christmas Eve, an elderly, non-Muslim man was handing out free copies of my book to people passing by a main shopping precinct because, he said, he felt it promoted a message of peace and harmony. It was one of the most beautiful and heart-warming stories I had ever heard.
The issues the book raised immediately after 9/11, about identity, race, immigrants, Islamophobia, are still relevant. Has this book been pivotal in opening conversations about faith, feminism, identity politics and social justice with teenagers?
Indeed it has. When I visit schools and writer festivals, these are the exact topics I address with students, talking to them about how writing can be such a powerful medium for speaking back to injustice, racism, sexism, and how they too can use their writing to navigate these issues.
Has this book been accessed by people across cultures and religions rather than being bracketed as a Muslim book?
Oh yes, definitely. In fact, the majority of my readers are not Muslim. So many of the people who write to me say that the book has helped them through their own identity, family and friendship challenges, and not necessarily from a Muslim perspective.