#LoveOzYA Q&A with Sara Haghdoosti
Sara Haghdoosti was born in Iran, grew up in Sydney and now lives in Chicago. Like her protagonist, she has been politically active from a young age.
Sara got her start in organising at the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and then went on to work at GetUp, Change.org, the Mozilla Foundation and founded Berim (‘Let’s go’ in Farsi) - a non-profit that worked to support change makers in Iran. She’s currently the Deputy Director at Win Without War.
Her writing has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Drum and she’s been a panellist on ABC TV’s Q&A. SUNBURNT VEILS is her first novel.
Read her chat with #LoveOzYA's Dayna Smith below!
What is Sunburnt Veils about?
Sunburnt Veils is part coming of age story, part rom-com. It explores Islamophobia and how it manifests in Australia and it also explores what its’s like to push yourself in new ways, in love, in friendship, and also how to push yourself to step up and make change.
Why did you write this book?
I’ve always loved writing and after I had kids, it felt like the moment to actually write a book. But the reason I wanted to write a YA novel was that the novels I read when I was a teenager felt like the most impactful in my life. I was one of those teens that fell in love with Looking for Alibrandi [by Melina Marchetta]- a novel that talked about racism and love and all the complexity of that, and I wanted to write something like that for a new generation.
What would you like readers to take from it?
I want people to know that they have much more power than they think. I think part of why Tara [the main character] is reluctant, is that at the beginning of the book, she assumes the only way she can make change is by studying and then going abroad and then creating change that way. The book shows her how much power she has in her day-to-day life and how she doesn’t have to put off creating change. So if people read the book and realise, actually I can start now, I don’t have to wait until I have it all figured out to try to make a difference, I can start now. That’s one thing I’d love people to take away from the book.
You’ve been involved in a lot of activism outside of writing the book and obviously a lot of those experiences fed into the writing of the book. What steps can teens take if they want to become activists or want to start addressing issues that they feel concerned about, like Tara does in the book?
Take a plunge and get involved. There are some really great organisations. Anyone can start a petition. GetUp has a petition platform, Change.org exists, and if something is really bugging you, go out there and start a petition and talk to other people about it, write to your local newspaper or even organise a few other people at your school or your community to talk about it. You’d be surprised how much of a difference that can make when you get started. And of course, join others - the Australian Youth Climate Coalition is a great example of an organisation of young people who are currently making change. I also think this generation of young people are so inspiring and so many of them are already deeply political and out there and using new tools and new platforms to really raise their voices. My advice is unleash your creativity, go for it, and learn, and talk to as many people as you can. [5:00]
You were born in Iran, grew up in Sydney, and now you live in America and you’ve been published through Wakefield Press which is a South Australian publisher. Tell us more about the process of getting published and what that was like, being so international with it?
For me, the process of getting published, the biggest thing was writing the book and making sure I was writing and making time to get the words on paper. The other big thing for me, and I’ll be honest about this, this book is about Draft 12, so this book went through 12 re-writes. I just want to be really honest about that because before I got published, I would pick up a book and think ‘oh my god, this is so good’ and that’s like the 20th draft, not the first draft. So for me, the biggest thing to get published was giving myself permission to re-write the book over and over again and giving it the time and space it needed to do it and finally, having the courage to say ‘it’s good enough now to send to an agent’ and ‘it’s good enough now to send to a publisher’ and then once it was there, to acknowledge that it was going to be re-written all over again.
And did you have people around you that were reading the first, second, third drafts to tell you it’s not quite there yet?
Absolutely. I had an amazing virtual writing group where we had 1 zoom meeting together and then every 2 weeks we’d send each other chapters and they were phenomenal in giving me feedback and pointers and just encouragement to keep going. I also did the 6-month So You Want to Write A Novel course from the Australian Writers Centre online and that was incredible as well, getting that feedback and that community workshop and also just those community resources were really useful in honing my voice, seeing what was working with the plot and what wasn’t, and really just pulling it together.
Do you have any tips for writing?
If something strikes you as interesting, follow it. For me, my favourite character in the book is Mitra and Mitra came about because I love the video clip of M.I.A’s Bad Girls and I just couldn’t get that video clip out of my mind and I wondered what this person would be like if they were your best friend. So, my tip is if there is something that sticks with you, trust that, and go with it because that’s when the really special things come out.
Why did you decide to set it in Australia when you live in America now?
It felt important. I was also writing from what I knew, and I have a deep love for the places I wrote about. I really loved Sydney University and I really loved the university experience in Australia, and it feels quite different from what happens here in the US so I wanted to write something that felt authentic. I also love Newtown, I have a love affair with that part of Sydney so I wanted to write about a place I have such passion for, and try to give young people a little taste of the university experience because I think, especially through the end of high school, you spend so much time working towards university and trying to get to this mythical place and I wanted to write something that was like, this is what the awesome parts are like and this is what the not so great parts of it can be like sometimes and to kind of give people a window into that as well.
Was there anything else you’d like to add?
I think the other thing I’d say is that part of the reason I set the book at university is that there’s always this notion that people say racism is just ignorance and for a lot of people who have a lot of privilege, especially at a place like a university, that can be a justification for not talking about these issues and feeling like you’re an exception to the rule and I really wanted to pull that out because these things do happen in a whole bunch of different places and no institution is immune from them and I really wanted to start that conversation that racism isn’t just about ignorance, it’s also about wilfully ignoring it and to really delve into that a little bit more.
I guess that’s the nature of privilege isn’t it, that you can choose to shut your eyes to things and it can start with much, much smaller behaviour. A whole thing happened with just leaving a bag on a seat and someone calling that in as a bomb threat, such as small thing leading to such massive consequences for Tara, the student involved. Are there things you think we can be doing on a day-to-day basis to try to end racism?
I think the first thing is to not be scared to talk about it. We know that racism exists in Australia and it manifests in lots of different ways and I think often if someone brings it up, that it’s happening in our own behaviour or in an institution we’re a part of, it’s really easy to get defensive and instead to just say “thank you for that feedback” and to be open to it so it can be fixed is really important.
And then my other thing is that I would love if more people learnt about it and read about it. There’s an awesome organisation called Democracy in Colour that works on racial justice in Australia and if people looked at organisations like that and supported groups that were being led by people of colour in Australia to really help showcase that leadership in diversity, is what I would encourage people to do.
Sunburnt Veils by Sarah Haghdoosti will be published in April 2021 by Wakefield Press.
Clips from Sarah's interview are also available to watch on our YouTube channel.