Breaking the mould

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The graduate turned author who wants to challenge our assumptions about identity

Randa Abdel-Fattah was in sixth grade when she wrote her first novel. “It was a rip-off of Roald Dahl’s Matilda,” she says. “I even traced Quentin Blake’s illustrations. My teacher bound it for me and let me read it to the class. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”

Now aged 32, Randa hasn’t been able to shake the writing bug. Her first novel Does My Head Look Big In This? was published in 2005. A semi-autobiographical look at a 17-year-old Australian-Palestinian Muslim girl struggling to get to grips with her identity, the book was based on a draft she wrote at 15.

Since then, Randa has had five other stories for children published, and is just about to release her first book for adults. She has won national book awards and speaks to around 2,000 young people every year about human rights issues. And she works part-time as a litigation lawyer in Sydney.

“I write when and where I can,” she says. “Inspiration comes at random moments. I have a long commute to work – the train is a wonderful place to hear unique expressions. Relationships play out there.”

It’s a jam-packed life, and one that studying the IB Diploma Programme at the Australian International Academy prepared her well for. “I was in the first cohort of IB students,” she says. “There were three of us ‘guinea pigs’. I’ve always been up for a challenge and the international flavour of the IB really connected with my personality. We live in a global village now. We need to understand the world in a global context, not a national one.”

At school, she was a “proud nerd” who worked hard to get the grades for law school: “I remember feeling sick about how much there was to learn, but also excited. It wasn’t just about passing exams – I felt like I was growing.”

Her experience as a student has fed into her novels, which look at issues of multiculturalism, identity and belonging. “I’m trying to shake up what we think of as mainstream,” she explains. “Just because a writer isn’t white doesn’t mean they are exotic or a deviation from the norm. But I don’t preach. I want to provoke thought and make people laugh.

“Nothing has given me more pleasure than writing from a young person’s perspective. It’s an indulgent way to celebrate your memories and be a child again. You never feel as intensely again as you do as a teenager.”

As well as writing and practicing law, Randa regularly visits schools to talk to students about issues like asylum seekers and conflict in the Middle East. “I try and use my platform as a writer to draw attention to these issues,” she says. “I want to provide an alternative view to what people are exposed to in the media, which tends to be one-dimensional caricatures.”

With so many commitments, does she ever find time to relax? She admits to being “obsessed” with BBC period dramas, watching them with her husband and two daughters. “It goes without saying that my children will study the IB, hopefully from PYP onwards,” she says. “It sets you on a lifelong path of inquiry.”

Randa is happy to continue her rather frantic double life. “If you want to do exciting things in life, it’s going to be challenging. I keep rejection letters that I got from publishers when I was 15; I show them to students to prove that if you want something, you’ve got to keep trying.”