Muslim Australian writers have a lot to say. Our books ought to be as common as Vegemite

Muslim writers are defined by the urge to share what is good and beneficial, but we are frequently rejected by mainstream publishers

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 her iconic young adult book, Does My Head Look Big in This?, that Muslim voices really started appearing in Australian fiction.

While 2005 is not so long ago, Muslim Australian writing has changed since Abdel-Fattah was first published. “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, the author of The Other Half of You, characterises Muslim writing in Australia as a beautiful paradox. “On one hand it is the voice of many people; eclectic, diverse and cross-cultural. On the other hand, it is the voice of a single people; bound together by faith, love and language,” he says.

Now is the time for a greater focus on what Muslim writers have to say. Our voices matter. Our stories have universal themes, and our numbers are growing.

Islam has three fundamental values: to reflect, to learn and to share our knowledge. This is what characterises Muslim writing: the urge to share what is good and beneficial. And this is why Muslim writers of our generation, who have mainly been born and raised in Australia, are publishing stories based on their lives and experiences.

Amani Haydar’s Mother Wound and Sara El Sayed’s Muddy People are recent examples of Muslim autobiographies. Demet Divaroren and Amra Pajalic co-edited the Children’s Book Council of Australia-shortlisted anthology Growing up Muslim in Australia, which showcased the full diversity of Muslim writers across different ethnicities. In publishing the anthology, Divaroren said that Muslim writers are being empowered to add their own voice to a story that is being largely hijacked by the mainstream media.

But there’s another characteristic of Muslim writing that most Australians aren’t privy to. Many of us, especially the ones who write for children, are self-published after getting countless knockbacks from the mainstream publishing industry. Huda Hayek appears to stand alone in the middle grade space with her delightful book, Huda and Me. In the picture books, we are aware of only Inda Ahmad Zahri’s Salih and Radiah Chowdhury’s The Khatha Chest. We don’t consider picture books authored by non-Muslims with a smiling-girl-wearing-hijab illustration thrown in for diversity’s sake; we need more diverse children’s books by Australian Muslim authors published.

There are vibrant stories in these self-published books: a girl who wants to start her own footy team; a globe-trotting super-sleuth; father-daughter authored African-Australian themed colouring book; a Lebanese grandma’s memories; and a lost rainbow hijab. We invite the Australian mainstream publishing industry to look at what they are publishing and ask where the Australian Muslim children are in their books, then see the self-published authors whose works are filling the gap they aren’t.

After the onset of the pandemic in 2020, we founded a group for Australian Muslim writers called The Right Pen Collective with the vision to make books by Muslim Australians as common as Vegemite. We wanted to provide a platform for Australian Muslim writers and creators to share unapologetically Muslim stories. Our inaugural event is a first of its kind in Australia: a week-long virtual writers’ festival with a diverse mix of Muslim writers across genres.

This festival is for all faiths and world views; however, it is especially for the Muslims who will see themselves represented in this festival in a positive light. We want to share the amazing work of Muslim Australian writers with all of Australia. There is so much talent in the Australian Muslim community, yet a lot of Muslim achievements are overshadowed by negative reporting, misconceptions and stereotypes.

Our festival is effortlessly multicultural, featuring Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Indonesian, Iranian, Lebanese, Malay, Somali, Turkish – Australians all together. We speak a multitude of languages, and English too. We represent many sects of Islam.

There has been an outpouring of support from the Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike for our author lineup. The most common reaction to the festival is: “Why hasn’t this been done before in Australia?” We don’t know either, but we are here to set up a new spotlight. Having this writers’ festival solely for Muslim authors enables us to have a conversation around the literary contributions of Muslim authors, outside of mere diversity.

It is our hope that this festival will light up imaginations of the next generation of emerging Muslim Australian writers. We want to remove the clouds of doubt that abate their desire to write their stories. Our mantra is loud and clear to Muslim Australian writers: pick up your pens. We can’t wait to read your stories, and neither can the rest of the world.

The inaugural Australian Muslim Writers Virtual Festival from The Right Pen Collective runs from 25 September until 2 October 2021

• Ozge Sevindik Alkan is a librarian and the co-author of children’s book Hijabi Girl with Australian author Hazel Edwards. Aksen Ilhan is an emerging writer and teacher. Annie McCann won the Penguin Random House Write It! Fellowship in 2019 and is working on her first middle grade novel that pays homage to her West Javanese, Indonesian culture and ancestry.

Ozge Sevindik Alkan, Aksen Ilhan and Annie McCann

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