#LoveOzYA Q&A with Sarah Ayoub on THE CULT OF ROMANCE
The Cult of Romance is Sarah Ayoub’s third YA novel. It was released on 4 May 2022 and Sarah spoke to #LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith about belonging, migrant and intersectional stories, and how amazing Lebanon is.
For those who haven’t read The Cult of Romance, what is it about?
I was inspired to write The Cult of Romance when I was researching for my PhD and I was looking at the concept of belonging. I noticed when we interrogate that concept as migrant girls or intersectional girls in YA literature, it’s always in the white-dominant context so I thought it would be interesting to situate my protagonist in her motherland.
As I was thinking about the thesis stuff, someone I knew got married when they were quite young, so I thought it would be interesting to explore two best friends who have all these plans to explore the world after school, if one of them goes to Lebanon and comes back engaged and see what that would mean for their friendship. I wanted to explore the choices we make as girls, or the things that seem like choices, but are actually embedded in our cultural identity or our cultural make-up. I come from a conservative Lebanese community and in the Lebanese culture, regardless of what religion you are, marriage is a very acceptable, most encouraged, life path for young women and then having children as well.
My story is about two best friends, Natalie and Janet. Natalie is traumatised by her parents' failed marriage and the gossip that has followed her as she’s grown up in her Lebanese community because her parents never made it work. She's raised by her grandmother and the expectations that her grandmother has for her not to repeat her mother’s mistakes. They’re two best friends and they have these plans to travel together. Natalie doesn’t believe in love or marriage, she thinks it’s the 21st century and girls shouldn’t have to get married and have kids; there is so much more for them to do. And then Janet goes on holiday to Lebanon, comes back engaged and asks Natalie to be her maid of honour at her wedding in Lebanon later that year. We follow Natalie to her motherland for the first time where she has to reconcile the good Lebanese girl concept that she was raised with as a child with what she sees in a country that has progressed so much from what it was like when her grandmother left it 40 or 50 years ago, in terms of women’s rights and just what’s socially and culturally acceptable. And then there is a very attractive, but very mansplainey, annoying best man. There’s so many layers to this story so hopefully that does it justice.
I agree, there are so many layers to this story. One of the aspects I really enjoyed was Natalie and Janet’s relationship and the exploration of the strain that can be placed on female friendship when one of them enters into a committed relationship. Was that something else you were trying to tease out too?
No, I think that just kind of happened by accident, to be honest. It’s not something I personally experienced because I started dating my now-husband when I was quite young, when I was 19. My friends were largely supportive. I think I’ve always been known as the girl who turns up for her friends. He never came before my friends. Obviously he occupies a very important place in my life, but my friends never lost their status, that’s probably a better way to put it, my friends never lost their place when he came into the picture. I remember a few years ago, my best friend was talking about someone else who she stopped hearing from when she entered a committed relationship, and my best friend said to me, you’ve been the only one of my friends that I didn’t feel that with. I felt that was really interesting because it wasn’t conscious, it wasn’t like I consciously made an effort to stay engaged with my friends lives, it was just who I am and I guess my friends were too important to even negotiate something else.
It's such a common thing with girls, so I just wanted to tease out that there is room for us to pursue whatever path we want to take and still turn up for our friends. At the same time, maybe this book doesn’t explore that, but we might also reach a point where we don’t have to stay best friends with someone if we’re really different. We can wish that person well and want the best for them, but the friendship isn't the way it used to be and we can make that decision not to continue the friendship. It’s such a nuanced topic and there’s only so much you can fit into a book. Even now, a year after it started going through the final editing process, I think I should have put this or that in, but you’d never finish.
With your writing process, it sounds like you started wanting to explore themes, rather than dreaming up the characters first.
Yes, definitely. I think that comes with doing a creative PhD where you’re really immersing yourself in that genre and so the theme of longing and belonging was a big one for me. I kept thinking back to my first trip as an adult to Lebanon. I went when I was 9 and then I went again when I was 20. It was really poignant because I grew up at a time when to be Lebanese in Australia was the worst thing you could be. We were on the front cover of every tabloid paper at least once a week, and on talkback radio, it was the time of the Cronulla riots. I came of age at a time when to be Lebanese, to be Arab, was a very negative thing. These days, it’s still not perfect, but we really celebrate cultural diversity in our books and on social media and when I was a teenage girl, I felt such shame about my cultural identity and I felt like I had to justify that a lot. I wanted to explore what it is like to be othered in your homeland. To be othered in Australia your whole life, to be told you're Lebanese, and then to go to Lebanon and be told you're not really Lebanese, you're Australian, and to be called a foreigner. I wanted to explore that concept of not belonging anywhere, to not have a place. So I do start with the themes and I don’t actually write in order, I just write whatever scenes fit with those themes that are really burning in my brain and then I fill in the gaps later.
I went back and read your earlier book, Hate is Such a Strong Word, and it struck me that they’re companion books because they explore the same themes. It’s set when there has been an incident, not as severe as Cronulla riots, but there’s been an incident of racial violence, but it’s set in that high school age group. In the LoveOzYA committee, we’ve been talking a lot about YA and New Adult because we released a column with Jodi McAlister, who has a new book about the New Adult genre. What is it like to write a book that is set just that bit older, Nat has finished high school, she’s at university and trying to start a business, versus Hate is Such a Strong Word, which is very much set in the high school context?
I started writing Hate is Such a Strong Word when I was a teenager myself and it never really evolved from that voice. Even though I didn’t get the book deal until I was in my mid-20s, I started writing it as a teenager so it still retained that voice. I really had to simplify things when I was writing The Cult of Romance, when I slipped into the Sarah-Academic voice - that’s what my publisher called it. The Cult of Romance is very much a New Adult novel, I don’t see it as a Young Adult novel, although I’ve been told my books are ‘clean’ so a parent who might be a bit concerned about what books to buy or borrow for their child might find comfort if their child is 13 or 14 because the book is quite clean. But the voice is very distinct, I think. I’m in a very different place now. I’d like to say it was a deliberate artistic choice, but I'm not that clever. I was in a different place, I’d experienced different things, I’d become a mother. When I was writing Hate is Such a Strong Word, it was a completely different time, it hadn’t been that long since I was in high school so it was easier for me to write that high school environment and in fact, there are certain bits that came out of a hate list that I wrote in high school in lieu of a diary. The Cult of Romance was a completely different experience because I had my research hat on when I was writing it. I hope it still speaks to teenagers, I think it will, otherwise my publisher wouldn’t have picked it up.
I had changed as a writer as well. When I started writing Hate is Such a Strong Word, I hadn’t set foot in a creative writing class. I still haven’t been a student in a creative writing class, I’ve learnt everything from experience and practice. It took writing a lot of drafts. The same thing with The Cult of Romance, my voice has developed, my ability as a writer has developed, to show not tell. I really hope there is more opportunity for Australia to grow its New Adult list. You mentioned Jodi McAlister’s book, Georgina Young’s book Loner, I really loved that. I hope there is opportunity for us to keep growing in that space.
Yes, and Sunburnt Veils, which was released last year.
Yes, I actually endorsed that one and was at the launch.
I was thinking of that book a lot when I was reading The Cult of Romance, because they both speak about things that still need to change in Australia with racial stereotyping.
Yes, and Sarah Haghdoosti was in student politics at uni and they’re both first hand experiences that we’ve fictionalised in some ways.
I think they’re both fantastic examples of New Adult novels. I think when you’re in high school and have no idea of what university is like, your whole world is high school and it’s so different when you leave, so having some books about what it’s like after you leave is important.
I think you can see it in the characters. Natalie is a bit more secure, certain of herself and her beliefs and her values, than Sophie is. That’s something I hope the reader will notice.
Is there something you’d like readers to take away from The Cult of Romance?
Oh, I’ve never really thought about it. I’d like them to enjoy it. Because I don’t get to read for pleasure as much as I used to, when I pick up a book and get to escape, it’s such a great thing for me. To have that kind of book that is delicious, to savour, to have some time when it’s just me and the characters in the story. That’s probably the biggest thing I want my readers to take away.
The other thing is that I always think about teenage girls, young women, the narrative we are fed from when we’re young, especially intersectional girls, especially girls from migrant backgrounds, girls in cultures that tend to prize their sons or have different rules for their daughters. I want those girls in particular to know there is a world of opportunity out there and sometimes it takes a little bit of hard work or you feel like you’re constantly chafing against your community’s norms and values, but you don't have to completely alienate who you are in order to fit into that dominant white context and to fit what Australia wants you to be, that boutique multiculturalism, but at the same time, you have a unique experience when you’re growing up and you don’t belong in either country and that means you should be entitled to mould a life of your own making and your own choosing and not be bound by old rules. Just embrace who you are. I know it sounds so much easier said than done. But I was once there and I’m so secure and so happy because I got to do that and it was hard in the start but it’s so much better now.
Thank you so much, Sarah, I really enjoyed your book. For me it was also almost like a holiday to Lebanon, I thought it was such a fascinating place.
Oh, thank you! That’s actually something else I’d like to add. The other reader take-away for me is for them to see Lebanon as so much more. It’s got this stereotype of this war-torn country, but it’s actually this beautiful place. The people live there as if there's no tomorrow. There’s so much culture. There's people coexisting from different ethno-religious groups and communities. There’s beautiful nature. There’s an amazing nightclub scene. Incredible food. There's a scene in the book where Natalie observes this dichotomy where there’s a woman leaving a luxury store with a Hermes bag which costs $15,000, and then not far away there are some kids begging for food and so it gives a real insight into this country in the Middle East that people might have a very narrow perception of, and into a culture and a community that is so diverse, and so I hope readers get to enjoy that.