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

 

Ruins and Rajith Savanadasa

RajithIn a sold-out session at the weekend’s Brisbane Writers Festival, Rajith Savanadasa spoke to me about his assured debut novel Ruins (Hachette Australia). Amongst other things, I was fascinated to hear that his favourite place is a quiet room in which to read.

Ruins gives an arresting insight into Sri Lanka at the end and aftermath of the Civil War. Rajith uses an intriguing cast of five main characters, four from the one family, to provide different perspectives. Rajith explained how his characters of husband/father Mano, wife/mother Lakshima, daughter Anoushka, son Niranjan and servant Latha are archetypes.

Her recently discovered brother is perhaps coercing Latha to return to the village and help care for his children. She serves the Colombo family of four well but feels that perhaps they don’t care for her in the way she hopes. It was interesting to hear Rajith’s comments on his own family servant Yasa and the novel is dedicated to her. She will always be looked after.

RuinsMano works for the newspaper, publishing only what will keep the staff safe, and is a voyeur until the woman who attracts him dies suddenly. He and Lakshima have a mixed marriage, He is Sinhalese and she is Tamil. He is Buddhist and she is Hindu, but also believes in Buddha. The family savings were used to send Niranjan to study in Australia but he doesn’t seem to be one of the “good children” who return and work hard. Anoushka has many of the difficulties faced by a gay teenage girl who doesn’t follow the demands of the popular group. Rajith revealed that he does share some of her taste in music.

Mano is shocked when Anoushka doesn’t realise there’s a difference between Tamils and the terrorist Tamil Tigers. “The war was against terrorists, not Tamils.”

The novel is ingeniously structured around the ancient artefact of the moonstone where animals represent elements of the life cycle, the vine is desire, the fire-ring shows life’s difficulties and the lotus flower is nirvana. Latha’s thoughts go around and around, becoming cyclic like the structure until she learns to let go of everything and just be.

It was enjoyable to watch the enthusiastic faces of the audience, particularly Rajith’s co-writers from the Queensland Writers’ Centre/Hachette Manuscript Development Program. He would have felt well supported.

Rajith was also on the panel with Sudanese-born Brisbane author Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Korean-American author Suki Kim, which was formed quickly by the BWF as a right-of-reply to Lionel Shriver’s infamous opening address.