Natalie Haynes, Randa Abdel-Fattah & Yassmin Abdel-Magied at the SWF

As part of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Student Sessions, I was fortunate to host a couple of sessions with British stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes and facilitate one with Randa Abdel-Fattah and Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Natalie Haynes

Natalie became one of the most popular presenters at the festival. She’s probably better described as a performer, though, because she brings ancient history and the ancient mythic world alive and into the present for her audiences.

She reworks stories for her own purposes, drawing on her expertise in the ancient world and on making it relevant today. She stands out because she can share her knowledge on stage, screen and in her books in a rivetting way.

Natalie is a classicist and a comedian, an unusual combination. She used to be a stand-up comic, but retired when she realised she preferred tragedy to comedy. Her quick wit and incredible knowledge enabled her to effortlessly command the stage.

Natalie’s new novel The Children of Jocasta was published in May. It’s a re-telling of the Oedipus/Jocasta/Antigone tale and will make you fascinated by mythic history (if you’re not already). An earlier book, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life explores philosophers such as Plato, Ovid and Agrippina the Younger.

Natalie Haynes

Randa Abdel-Fattah & Yassmin Abdel-Magied

In our session about ‘Mono or Multi-cultured’ at the Wharf, Randa Abdel-Fattah, who examines issue of racism, multiculturalism and human rights in Australia through her novels and essays, explored what contemporary multiculturalism and racism look like in Australia today with activist and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Randa has written Does My Head Look Big in This?, When Michael Met Mina and other novels, particularly for young adults, as well as essays. When Michael Met Mina is an important story because it gives both Michael’s view – a popular guy coming from a racist family – and Mina’s – an intelligent young woman whose family was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, forcing her and her mother to flee by boat. The novel airs many issues and opinions – true and false – such as people saying that ‘potential terrorists are hiding among boat people’ and people who want to be able to say, ‘Merry Christmas’ without offending anyone; to some darker-skinned girls feeling they have to use skin-whitening creams and others being intimidated and vilified. The novel gives diverse viewpoints. It’s great to read because we are exposed to different perspectives and then make up our own minds. It shows the power of literature to create understanding and empathy.

Randa has also been a lawyer and has a PhD in Islamophobia in Australia.

Yassmin is well known through her media appearances and I’ve learned from reading her memoir, Yassmin’s Story (which she wrote recently while in her 20s) that she loved reading Enid Blyton and her favourite character was, as you might expect, George; she deliberately created slang at school; she channels Beyonce in time of need; she loves sharing stories on stage and she learned in debating that she can argue any side of an argument!

Yassmin also won Young Queenslander of the Year in 2015; as a teenager co-founded Youth Without Borders; is an engineer; worked on a rig and loves cars.

I cannot do these intelligent and articulate authors justice in their explanation of structural racism and other issues here. I do suggest reading their books and online articles to gain a greater understanding of, particularly, racism in Australia.Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people sitting


The Friendship Matchmaker – Review

I remember Grade Five as being one of the hardest years of my school life. I’d just started at a new school and everyone already had firmly established friendship groups that didn’t seem to be able to make room for me. So The Friendship Matchmaker by Randa Abdel-Fattah was a book that really resonated with me as I’m sure it will with many young readers.

Lara Zany is Potts Court Primary School’s official Friendship Matchmaker. She is certain her Friendship Rules work. She can take the Loneliest Loser (LL) and help make them a best friend.

Lara has built herself a reputation for helping build great friendships, and helping friends get over their differences. She appears to have it ‘together’, but Lara has some friendship scars of her own – and these are what motivate her to help other people.

Although Lara’s methods aren’t always foolproof, her heart is in the right place – and although she does some things that make the reader cringe, she’s a character that endears herself to us very early on.

Lara tackles friendship problems that most readers would have come across in the playground at some time.

She’s writing a manual to help the friendless and shows empathy for fellow students, and understanding of the complexities of friendship.

She says, “If you’re reading this Manual it’s probably because you’re sick and tired of feeling lonely. Or maybe you have a friend but you’re not sure where you stand with them. Or maybe you’re the third wheel in a trio. Or can’t work out how to strike up a conversation with someone in the canteen line. Maybe you’re the one who gets picked last at sports.”

From the first page, Randa Abdel-Fattah has found common ground with her young readers.

Lara has a ‘heart of gold’ like she mentions a number of times in the book, but she runs into trouble when Emily Wong shows up. Emily breaks all the rules and to make matters worse, she has challenged Lara to a ‘Friendship Matchmaker’ contest that’s going to put her rules to the test.

Lara discovers that she has a lot in common with the socially awkward Tanya who she has to find a best buddy for if she’s going to win the challenge with Emily.

Lara has to decide whether to break one of her own rules and become best friends with Tanya. Not only that, she must decide whether she can move on from a bad personal friendship experience and whether she’s ready to take the emotional risk that comes with having a best friend.

The Friendship Matchmaker sensitively handles an important topic in young reader’s lives. Randa Abdel-Fattah uses humour to build the tension and bring the characters closer to the reader.

The Friendship Matchmaker is an entertaining read which tackles important subject matter. It is published by Scholastic.