4 years ago

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Rawah Arja

Rawah Arja is a writer and teacher from Western Sydney. Her writing has featured in Arab, Australian, Other, SBS Voices and at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. She has received a fellowship from WestWords Varuna Emerging Writers’ Residential Program, is a member of the Finishing School collective of women writers, and teaches creative writing at schools and workshops.

Rawah’s latest book is The F Team (Giramondo), out September!

Let’s go back to the beginning. Have you been telling stories since you were a kid or was writing something you fell in love with as an adult?

If someone told me that I was going to publish a book one day, I’d either laugh or cry, or both. I never liked reading as a kid. I found it boring and I could never keep my eyes open. Watching cartoons or playing outdoors was my thing until the terrorist attacks on September 11 happened and watching TV wasn’t fun anymore. I was guilty by association and so everywhere I turned or everything I saw reminded me that I was the bad guy. If you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m a female Arab Muslim, wearing a hijab (headcover) who turned to books in her late teens to escape. Books helped me make sense of the world I lived in, even if that world saw me as an outsider.

Tell us about your new book.

The F Team centres around Tariq Nader, leader of ‘The Wolf Pack’ at Punchbowl Boys who has been asked by the new principal to join a football competition with his mates in order to rehabilitate the public image of their school. But there’s a catch — half of the team is made up of high-school boys from Cronulla, also known as enemy territory — and Tariq must compete with their strongest player for the position of captain.

At school Tariq thinks he has life all figured out until he falls for a new girl called Jamila, who challenges everything he thought he knew. At home, his outspoken ways have brought him into conflict with his family. Now, with complications on all fronts, he has to dig deep to control his anger, and find what it takes to be a leader.

In confronting and often hilarious situations, Tariq’s relationships with his extended Lebanese family and his friends are tested like never before, and he comes to learn that his choices can have serious consequences.

Did you have a favourite OzYA book when you were growing up?

I loved reading Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta and Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. Those books really changed my life and helped me understand the world I was living in. It’s so important to see yourself in books not only to find a connection but to also feel as though you matter.

Did you have anyone that encouraged your love of books, reading and writing when you were younger?

My parents often read and did encourage me to read, however, I preferred to play outside in my yard. I was always hanging from trees or digging up imaginary treasures in the dirt which surprisingly didn’t annoy my parents seeing the hundreds of potholes unearthed.

What do you think sets Australian YA stories apart from those set internationally?

Well first they don’t have me as an author so let’s get that out of the way 😊 That’s a joke. I make heaps of them. Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes, well they’re hilarious. I’m not sure how to answer this question because I enjoy reading all YA, however, I do make it a point to choose Australian stories over those across the seas. Even though the Australian market can do more to help support diverse stories from diverse authors, I believe the publishing industry is taking the necessary steps to help ensure people of colour and minorities get fair representation, in particular in YA.

Do you have a favourite bookshop or library?

Sadly, I didn’t grow up with a local bookstore or even a library. The only chance I got to visit a library was when we visited my Aunty who had a library next door. I remember spending hours in there thinking that I was in some magical place and that the neighbouring children were so lucky to have it so close by. Though I loved it there, my Aunty wasn’t too happy about my brother and I only coming to visit because of the library and the secret stash of chocolate hidden in the cupboard.

What was the last book you read and enjoyed?

The last book I read and enjoyed was The Girls by Chloe Higgins. It’s an incredible memoir of grief and family and has one of the best opening chapters I have ever read. I recommend everyone to read it.

Aside from writing, what else do you like to do to explore your creativity?

Where do I begin? From taking photos of old people to painting to eating—not sure how that’s exploring my creativity but food’s always worth a mention. I love laying on our straw mat in my backyard and watching the clouds. I try to see if the clouds morph into animals or objects then take photos and show my nieces and nephews.

What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve received?

The F Team will never be published and maybe you should leave that story and start somewhere else.’ Yep, that’s what I was told after spending years on this book. The best piece of advice was actually from my dad who saw me heartbroken after yet another rejection. ‘If you knock on the door and no one answers, knock harder. If they still don’t answer, kick the door just enough that the lock will become loose to which you will enter yourself without anyone opening the door for you.’ I know it may sound like I’m committing a crime—Breaking and Entering, but what my dad meant was that giving up was/is never an option!

What do you love about OzYA?

Everything! I find people in YA are so nice and helpful, especially to debut authors and are the first to reach out and share their contacts and resources. I love the YA stories currently being published and I’m so honoured to even be featured with LoveOzYA.

To find out more about Rawah and her writing, visit her website and follow her Twitter and Instagram.

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