Since the publication of Hanifa Deen’s acclaimed 1995 book, Caravanserai, Muslims have been visibly present in Australian writing and publishing. However, it wasn’t until 10 years later, when Randa Abdel-Fattah published his iconic young adult book, Does My Head Look Big in This ?, that Muslim voices really began to appear in Australian fiction.
While 2005 is not that long ago, Australian Muslim writing has changed since Abdel-Fattah’s first publication. “There is more freedom to write from a place of self-determination and risk, and there is the joy and comfort of writing in a growing community,” she says.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad, author of The Other Half of You, characterizes Muslim writing in Australia as a beautiful paradox. “On the one hand, it is the voice of many people; eclectic, diverse and intercultural. On the other hand, it is the voice of one people; linked by faith, love and language, ”he says.
Now is the time to focus more on what Muslim writers have to say. Our voices matter. Our stories have universal themes and our numbers are increasing.
Islam has three fundamental values: to reflect, to learn and to share our knowledge. This is what characterizes Muslim writing: the desire to share what is good and beneficial. And that’s why Muslim writers of our generation, who were mostly born and raised in Australia, publish stories based on their lives and experiences.
Recent examples of Muslim autobiographies are Amani Haydar’s Mother Wound and Sara El Sayed’s Muddy People. Demet Divaroren and Amra Pajalic co-edited the anthology Growing up Muslim in Australia, shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, which showcased the diversity of Muslim writers from different ethnicities. In publishing the anthology, Divaroren said Muslim writers are empowered to add their own voice to a story that is widely hijacked by mainstream media.
But there is another characteristic of Muslim writing that most Australians are unaware of. Many of us, especially those who write for children, are self-published after suffering countless backlashes from the mainstream publishing industry. Huda Hayek appears to be standing on her own in mid-level space with her delicious book, Huda and Me. In the picture books, we only know Salih by Inda Ahmad Zahri and The Khatha Chest by Radiah Chowdhury. We do not consider picture books written by non-Muslims with an illustration of a smiling girl wearing the hijab added in the name of diversity; we need more diverse children’s books from Australian Muslim authors published.
There are vibrant stories in these self-published books: a girl who wants to start her own soccer team; a globetrotting super-detective; Afro-Australian themed coloring book written by father and daughter; memories of a Lebanese grandmother; and a lost rainbow hijab. We invite the Australian consumer publishing industry to take a look at what they publish and ask where Australian Muslim children are in their books, then see the self-published authors whose works fill the void they are not.
After the pandemic started in 2020, we founded a group of Australian Muslim writers called The Right Pen Collective with the vision to make Australian Muslim books as mainstream as Vegemite. We wanted to provide a platform for Australian Muslim writers and creators to share shameless Muslim stories. Our inaugural event is the first of its kind in Australia: a week-long virtual writers festival with a diverse mix of Muslim writers of all genres.
This festival is for all faiths and worldviews; however, it is especially for Muslims who will see themselves represented in this festival in a positive light. We want to share the incredible work of Australian Muslim writers with all of Australia. There is so much talent in the Australian Muslim community, but a lot of Muslim accomplishments are overshadowed by negative reporting, misconceptions and stereotypes.
Our festival is effortless multicultural, featuring Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Indonesians, Iranians, Lebanese, Malays, Somalis, Turks and Australians all together. We speak a multitude of languages, and English too. We represent many sects of Islam.
There has been a surge of support from Muslim and non-Muslim communities for our author programming. The most common reaction to the festival is, “Why hasn’t this been done in Australia already?” We don’t know either, but we’re here to set up a new spotlight. Organizing this festival of writers only for Muslim authors allows us to have a conversation around the literary contributions of Muslim authors, outside of simple diversity.
We hope this festival will light up the imaginations of the next generation of emerging Australian Muslim writers. We want to lift the clouds of doubt that dampen their desire to write their stories. Our mantra is straightforward for Australian Muslim writers: grab your pens. We can’t wait to read your stories, and neither can the rest of the world.
The Right Pen Collective’s First Virtual Australian Muslim Writers Festival runs September 25 – October 2, 2021