A boy. A girl. Two families. One great divide.
When Michael meets Mina, they are at a rally for refugees – standing on opposite sides.
Mina fled Afghanistan with her mother via a refugee camp, a leaky boat, and a detention centre.
Michael’s parents have founded a new political party called Aussie Values.
They want to stop the boats.
Mina wants to stop the hate.
Author Randa Abdel-Fattah is back with a new YA novel. Told from two different points of view, When Michael Met Mina explores the worlds of Micheal, a white Australian, and Mina, an Afghan refugee. It explores refugees and racism; topics that are so relevant today.
With its witty dialogue, three-dimensional characters, and thought-provoking social analysis–all characteristic of Randa Abdel-Fattah books (have you read Does This Make My Head Look Big? and 10 Things I Hate About Me, because if you haven’t, you should!)–this novel is a must read masterpiece.
We interviewed Ms. Abdel-Fattah on her book, the media portrayal of Muslims, and her newly-finished PhD.
Here’s what she had to say.
1) This book is perfect for today’s political climate, so many people also want to “stop the boats.” Elaborate on why you wrote it and how the idea came about.
Just over three and a half years’ ago, I quit law and started a PhD to explore racism, specifically Islamophobia, from the point of view of its perpetrators. While I was conducting my fieldwork, interviewing people, attending anti-Islam and anti-refugee rallies, a character popped into my head. Well, two to be precise.
One was a young Afghan refugee. A ‘boat person’ we see maligned and stigmatized by both sides of politics. Bright, fierce, courageous, scarred, she wouldn’t budge from my head. I thought about what it would mean for this young girl to have fled Afghanistan, grow up in Western Sydney, only for me to then throw her into a private school in the lower north shore of Sydney. I called her Mina.
The other person who popped into my head at one of the rallies I was attending was a boy called Michael. As I interviewed people about their ‘fears of being swamped by boats,’ about the ‘Islamisation of Australia,’ about the so-called ‘clash of civilizations,’ I wondered what it would mean to be a teenager growing up in a family peddling such racism and paranoia. How do you ‘unlearn’ racism? How do you find the courage to question your parents’ beliefs? How do you accept responsibility for learning about the world on your own terms? That’s when I decided to write a story that took these two characters, Michael and Mina, and threw them at each other.
2) What do you hope to accomplish with its message; what do you hope to get across?
I think politicians have led us to believe that refugees and asylum seekers are ‘issues,’ and the issues are ‘complicated.’ But it’s quite simple as far as I can see it. Australia is a privileged country that is involved in wars that creates refugees. Some of those refugees risk their lives to escape persecution, violence, and even death. The ones who try to reach us for protection we lock up. We lock them up on islands and countries we’ve financially cajoled into doing our dirty work. We lock people up and when they self-harm, self-immolate, are killed in our care, we deny responsibility.
For me, Mina’s story is about simplifying the issue to some basic truths. Who do we count as human? What is privilege? Justice? Whom do we show empathy for, and whom do we shun? What is it about our fears, insecurities, identity that needs an enemy, an ‘other’? I hope my readers are able to confront these questions head-on.
3) Each of your protagonists are different. Amal of Does My Head Look Big in This? & Jamila of 10 Things I Hate About Me had different character traits. What kind of girl is Mina?
Mina is figuring out who she is, dealing with the lingering trauma of her own experience as a refugee, and trying to navigate a new school and social class while dealing with racism. She’s strong but vulnerable at times, passionate, caring and smart.
4) What inspired you to make the lead Afghan, rather then a Syrian?
When I started writing WMMM the Syrian refugee crisis had not yet become a highly politicized issue in Australia. When the idea of Mina came to me, she popped into my head as an Afghan girl. I don’t know why but that was how she emerged in my own imagination.
5) You’ve already given me amazing Muslim girl characters to read about. Now you’ve made Mina Afghan like me. Did you need research for the character (life in Kabul, escaping Kabul, Afghan culture)?
I based my book on my own fieldwork (I wrote it while researching Islamophobia, racism, and everyday multiculturalism in Australia as part of a PhD in Sociology) my own work with refugees, stories from friends, and information from refugee advocates.
6) Was there anything challenging about writing When Micheal Met Mina? If so, what?
The greatest challenge was writing Michael’s parents. I didn’t want them to be racist caricatures. It was about finding the writing balance and tone and complexity, not reducing them to a one-dimensional racist stereotype.
7) Response to the book so far?
I am SO humbled and overwhelmed by the wonderful support and reviews that have come in from reviewers, bloggers, writers, and readers. The response has been absolutely beautiful and so heartening.
8) Does My Head Look Big In This? and 10 Things I Hate About You had themes of combatting racism and Where The Streets Had a Name talks about the situation in Palestine. Do you consider your writing a kind of activism?
Yes, definitely. I am passionate about social justice and my anti-racism advocacy is a strong theme in my writing.
9) You’ve started your PhD. Tell us about it.
I’ve just finished it actually! It’s a lovely feeling! My PhD explores racism and Islamophobia in Australia from the point of view of the perpetrators. I was interested in unpacking the discursive, emotional, and effective logic and structures of feeling around racism and Islamophobia, in a specifically Australian context.
10) How is media portrayal of Muslims in Australia? Worse or the same as in America?
Mainstream media, from the tabloids to more ‘respectable’ media, generally have no qualms in regurgitating tired and dangerous tropes and sensationalized narratives. Muslims are overwhelmingly framed through the prism of security and the war on terror, and Islamophobic narratives run deep.
11) What is it like for ethnic and multi-cultural authors in Australia? Are there a lot of them?
Like all arts and cultural spaces in Western countries, whiteness dominates and is taken for granted as the norm and universal. So writing as somebody outside of whiteness has its challenges. But there is a tremendous community of POC writers in Australia who are producing challenging, confronting, and beautiful work.