First published on 8th April 2007, in StarMag.
IN Does My Head Look Big in This?, Randa Abdel-Fattah describes the experiences of a young Muslim Palestinian-Australian after she decides to wear the hijab (veil).
Randa, a Palestinian-Egyptian who was born in Australia, was in Kuala Lumpur recently for the Kuala Lumpur International Literary Festival (Klif07, March 28-30). In an interview squeezed into a busy day meeting the press, visiting schools and making author appearances at bookshops, she said that she started writing the book when she was a teenager and can’t bear to look at her first draft.
“Reading it makes me cringe,” she laughed.
Amal, the girl in the novel, was called Jamillah in her first incarnation. “She was really self-righteous,” said Randa, adding that the entire tone of the book was considerably preachier than it is now. “I toned her down quite a bit.”
It was a book that Randa believes she needed to write. “It was important to me to be able to explore the experiences of a Muslim teenager brought up in Western society. Having been that teenager, I know how difficult it is to reconcile the two sides of your life: the Western attitudes and your own religious beliefs and cultural practices.”
Randa also thinks that the book helps raise the profile of Muslims in a good way, in the midst of all the bad publicity thanks to, among other events, the 9/11 incident in 2001 when suicide bombers crashed airplanes into the two towers of New York’s World Trade Center.
“People, young people especially, need to see Muslims presented as something other than extremists and religious fanatics.”
Even in a country like predominantly Muslim Malaysia, a book like Does my Head Look Big in This? helps non-Muslims better understand Islamic practices, in particular the wearing of the hijab. There are no locally written books that focus on this subject in a way that is accessible to teens, and youngsters might feel more comfortable reading about it than asking their friends and schoolmates. Randa confirmed that during her visit to a Malaysian school, non-Muslim children asked her questions about the hijab.
“It’s the same in Australia,” she said. “In a number of schools, students asked me about the hijab and other things about the religion, and yet they had Muslim classmates. I guess kids and even adults feel religion is something personal and that it would be rude to ask someone about it.”
Randa is currently working on her third novel. Her second, Ten Things I Hate About Me, is about a Muslim Lebanese-Australian girl who is in denial about her religious and cultural heritage.
Ten Things was published in Australia over a year ago but will only be available in Malaysia after it’s released in Britain in August this year. Randa feels it’s vital that writers who belong to ethnic minority groups write about their experiences as part of these communities.
“Who knows us better than we do? We have stories that we can tell about experiences and feelings that no one else has as much knowledge of. There’s nothing like having lived through something to give weight to your description or narrative.”
The 27-year-old author is married with an 18-month-old baby girl whom she fervently hopes will love books. “My husband doesn’t like to read so I’m keeping my fingers crossed!”
And as if juggling marriage and motherhood is not enough, Randa also works full time as a lawyer. “I need to work. It keeps me mentally stimulated,” she said and declared that she could not possibly write all day. Instead, she writes simply when the mood strikes her or when she gets an idea.
“I write on the daily commute to the office and back. Mostly it’s editing drafts I have already written. At home, if I am inspired, I get Ibrahim (her husband) to mind the baby so I can write.”
She wrote Does My Head look Big in This in eight to nine months, Ten Things in a record five; and she’s given herself a year and a half to write her new book. “It’s about two children who live in Bethlehem and their experiences of the occupation,” said Randa. “It’s not written specifically for young adults like my first two are, but I think there is definitely crossover appeal.”