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In 2010, I chased a love story on the streets of Melbourne and found the courage to search for my own 🙂
I found a heart in Melbourne city. It was red and shiny, painted on a black door on a grimy wall. “Everything for Love” was etched at the bottom near a keyhole. I ignored the man fiddling with his camera, inched closer, felt around for a key. Nothing budged. I moved away, fascinated. I’d left home that morning wanting to be inspired by our city’s street culture. What I found was the heart of Melbourne beating in a little gothic lane called Centre Place. Tucked between the labyrinth of congested streets, this lane is home to cosy cafes, inspiring street art, and the Sacred Heart.
The rusted metallic sign at the entrance of Centre Place offers an eerie welcome to a gloomy lane full of contrasts. Once you walk down the narrow path, past the cafes reeking of coffee, the pretty boutique stores, the metallic apartment balconies, it’s hard not…
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To celebrate International Women’s Day with the theme of inspiring change, Allen and Unwin asked Amra Pajalic and I to pick out inspirational female authors or characters from literature that helped us in growing up and confronting our own challenges. Here are our picks as published on Allen and Unwin’s blog Things Made From Letters.
One of my all time favourite books is On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. All of Melina’s books are on my favourites list, but this one probably goes to the top of the pile because each time I read this book I feel like I discover something new. It is a book that has a bit of everything: romance, mystery, and just a touch of the otherworldly.
One of the other reasons it’s my favourite is because of the main character Taylor Markham. Taylor has had a really hard life with a lot of horrible things happen to her and she can come across like quite an unlikeable character in some respects, but what I love about her is that she is so real. I could relate to her suspicion of people, her frustration and her rage.
I think sometimes there is too much of an expectation that characters, especially female characters, have to be sugar and spice and all that nice, so that’s why I like reading about strong female characters who are tough and fierce.
When I first met Ayla, the Cro-Magnon heroine of The Clan of the Cave Bear, she was a five-year-old child playing by a creek. Within moments she was orphaned by a catastrophic earthquake and was left to wander the harsh landscape of the Ice Age lost, starving and badly wounded by a cave lion attack. While she lay collapsed from starvation and a wound infection, a clan of Neanderthal people who had also lost their home because of the quake, found Ayla and the clan’s medicine woman Iza saved her life. Ayla was adopted and raised by the Clan who spoke in signs, who found her blonde, blue eyed, straight legged physicality bizarre and unattractive and labelled her as the girl of the Others, alienating her because of her differences.
Ayla’s story of survival captivated my imagination from the first page, and her wit, persistence and will to fight against the odds, the customs and prejudices of the Clan, to follow her heart and her truth awakened my own courage. By the time I finished Clan of the Cave Bear and the four succeeding books, Ayla’s spirit, bravery and unshakable will inspired me to confront my own fears, question my choices in life and helped me realise my passion for words and storytelling.
The following month, I enrolled in a professional writing and editing diploma at Victoria University and started my writing journey. It’s been ten years since then and whenever I am overcome by self-doubt or fears, I tackle them with the same indomitable spirit as the girl of the Others.
Coming of Age is out now, and collects twelve powerful stories of growing up Muslim in Australia, from known and unknown Australian Muslims: a beauty queen, kickboxer, lawyer, rugby league star, lesbian, activist and atheist are amongst the contributors. The stories show the diversity of the Muslim experience, and the influence of culture, family and gender in shaping identity.
In light of the IWD theme of Inspiring Change, this is a perfect book for anyone, withBookseller + Publisher saying it is:
“the kind of book that will change how readers look at the world… it will resonate with readers from all backgrounds and beliefs”
I’ve been gathering stories for as long as I can remember. As a child, I watched stories unfold in English and Turkish movies. I was heartened by Snow White’s bond with her seven dwarves, saddened by the homeless orphan Turkish boy who tiptoed onto the front steps of a stranger’s house to steal a bottle of milk. Stories tumbled from my mother’s lips, wrapped around me like my grandmother’s arms.
At high school, books were a capsule that transported me away from girls who tittered and laughed in the privacy of friendship circles that I hadn’t yet created. Books took me to different worlds, gave me new experiences and more importantly, new perspectives. Entering someone else’s mind, understanding another’s psyche, their emotions, seeing the world from their point of view helps us connect and bridge the gaps in our society.
I grew up with two languages and two cultures. At home, I was a Turk-Aussie, at school an Aussie-Turk. It was a balancing act that sent me crashing every time my worlds collided. There were no multicultural TV shows that I could relate to, no book to reassure me that I wasn’t alone, that there were Aussie-Lebanese, Aussie-Chinese, Aussie-Macedonians who felt the same.
This was the motivation behind our book “Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia,” a collection of 12 candid, real life stories published by Allen and Unwin. As editors, we wanted stories from Australian Muslims of all backgrounds to give young people from all faiths and cultures tools to help them in their own journeys of reconciling their identities. We wanted contributors who challenged religious and cultural stereotypes, whose stories dealt with universal themes like finding their sexuality, overcoming bullying, familial and societal expectations, body image and the forging of friendships. We also wanted to show that just like any religion, Islam has various branches and is influenced by culture, ethnicity and nationality.
The process of gathering these stories was an enriching one. Contributors responded to our brief with ideas that, in time, leapt off the page and into our hearts. Stories of love, friendship, courage, loneliness, identity and belonging. The human experience, raw, honest and real. Here were other people’s shoes to walk us through foreign, yet familiar, experiences. Stories that transform, enlighten, resonate and connect. It is this connection that binds us as humans and as a society.
This piece was first published at Kids’ Book Review
At 48, Mum is 15 years older than me. As a child, I was the keeper of her secrets and her tears when she longed for family in Turkey and homesickness weighed her down. As a teen, we butted heads like siblings. As adults, we visualised dreams in Turkish coffee cups and followed the grainy trail to each other’s hearts.
So when Mum found a lump on her left breast, we made our way together to her GP. Mum was prone to cysts and had had two removed previously.
The doctor ordered a mammogram.
“Ouff. This gonna hurt too much. They squash boob!” Mum said. We found ourselves at the local BreastScreen early the next morning. Mum undressed in the partition opposite the X-ray room, her white gown exposing her bare back.
She walked in to the dark room that hummed and clicked behind the white door.
“You’ll be fine, Mum.” I stood there, cradling her clothes in my arms. They were warm and smelt of smoke and deodorant, as alive as if she was standing next to me. She’ll be fine, I repeated, inhaling her. She will be fine. It’s only a cyst. Yet fear crept in, as real and palpable as her clothes.
When we received a follow-up letter from BreastScreen for further tests at an Assessment Centre, we could only stare at each other.
Mum’s eyes welled up. “Something wrong,” she said, shaking her head. “I feel it.”
“It’s a cyst, Mum. All good. They just want to make sure. Nothing’s wrong with your big mammas, okay?” I said, eyeballing her breasts.
“Tsk,” she said, smiling. “Even time like this you try make joke. You not funny.”
We laughed at Mum’s breasts that spilled out of her bra. We laughed to suppress the fear that swelled between us.
The Assessment Centre waiting room was full of whispered conversations. Mum stared at her feet, cradling her handbag in her lap. Her fingers had whitened from squeezing the strap. I released her hand, put the bag on the floor.
“You’re going to be okay,” I said in Turkish.
Next to us, an elderly woman with short white hair cried into a crumpled tissue. A younger woman held her hand, eyes glazed. I looked away, tried to read the information pamphlet they’d given us at reception. Only one possibility stood out. An abnormality does not always result in cancer.
When Mum’s name was called, an attendant led her to a changing room where she undressed her top half and slipped on a blue gown over her jeans. We moved down the hall to another waiting area.
The room was a sea of blue. Women sat side by side, some with family, others with friends. Those who were alone distracted themselves with magazines as the clock stretched time. A table was set up in the far corner with tea and coffee facilities. “Who’d like a warm drink?” asked a softly spoken volunteer. As she went around taking orders, the white-haired woman I’d seen earlier walked in. “I’ll be okay, Mum,” said her daughter, now dressed in a blue gown. The older woman nodded, her cheeks wet with tears.
Mum and I sat shoulder to shoulder. I rubbed her arms, which were peppered with goose bumps.
“What if…” Mum whispered in Turkish. “What if it’s cancer?”
We stared ahead. My throat burned and I focused on the light blue wall that blurred with my tears. I fought them back as we were called into the X-ray room.
Mum’s breast was magnified on the ultrasound screen. The lump bobbed as if at sea as the transducer circled her breast. I squeezed Mum’s hand while two doctors analysed the images and spoke in hushed tones.
The male doctor’s face was impassive. “It doesn’t look cancerous,” he said. “We recommend that you monitor it.”
Thank God, I thought. Thank you, God. I helped Mum up and we walked out of the dim room.
We were quiet on the drive home, our words collecting like the froth that layered a cup of Turkish coffee. I held her hand and she squeezed back, her smile breaking us away from the monitors and machines. Her hand was soft, girl-like. I held on, with the relief and intensity of a child, our world shifting once again.
First published by The Big Issue Australia in Ed#446, My Word Section.
Why do people think it’s wrong?
When I was a kid, my dad had soccer shoes with red cleats on the soles. They were round and puffy and I was scared he’d lose his balance and break himself. They looked as dangerous as Mum’s heels. Some days we’d sit in silence and watch tennis together, on one couch each, holding the armrests. He’d play the Saz, a stringed Turkish instrument, his fingers leading the way into the tune, his voice thin and fragile. Once, I even sang with him, but my heart was beating so fast the words came out wobbly. What if he didn’t like my voice? But he didn’t say a thing. He always had a firm grip on the Saz, his veins protruding on arms that were white and hairy. Those fingers would wave threateningly at me when I was too much for Mum. Dad worked at a factory for 12 hours every day and as soon as he came home he’d wash the day’s labour off him. He hated the smell of sweaty feet. So did I.
With years came curfews that were broken, fights about dress codes that I’d win with mascara streaked tears and the crack would widen until we were standing on opposite sides. Hugs were reserved for Bayram and birthdays, a brief tap on the back. Awkward silences in front of the TV, we’d flick through the channels with the same speed we’d have conversations. But time has a way of softening us, like Dad’s face, creased with years of hard work, the black of his hair, whitened with time. Sometimes his cheeks would sag when he sat forward and on impulse I’d cradle his face in my hands and squeeze until he’d go bright red. ‘You’re crazy,’ he’d say, shaking his head, his lips a lopsided grin.
The first time my dad said ‘I love you’ was on my wedding day. The hug was a tangle of arms and his body was stiff with unsaid things. ‘I love you, kizim,’ he mumbled into my shoulder and kissed my cheek. He gave me the most precious gift of all, he closed the divide. And just like the Saz Dad used to adjust in our lounge room, time fine-tuned us until we found the right pitch.
Yesterday, six brave year 9 writers from Hume Central Secondary College used words to enter their pasts and explore their present. They read, they wrote and found the courage to share themselves with each other. I was moved by their honesty but what resonated most was the cocoon of trust that enveloped the room. They embraced each other with words and did not compromise their truth which pulsed in laughter and tears. As one participant said, “I saw different sides to people, it shows how similar everyone is.” Yesterday, I heard the courageous voices of our society who made me realise that words are best heard when you listen with your heart.
There’s a lemon verbena tree cocooned between brick walls in the courtyard of the Hunt Club. Last month, it extended its branches to carry the regrets of numerous people who anonymously wrote the things they wish they had of said on red ribbons. I thought it would be easy to let go, to translate ink into the unsaid words that have curdled with years but every ribbon felt like I was hanging my guts. But as other people hung their words and the ribbons increased, so did my courage. “I picked on you coz I was afraid to see me.” “I didn’t know how to love you back then.” “I’m sorry I swallowed your words with mine,” and other regrets decorated the branches of a tree that Uruguayans consider to be one of healing. Now, weeks later, the words that have haunted us with their silence have faded under the sun. So has the year. 2011 was anxious. The year my nerves jittered and strained under the weight of my sister’s wedding gown. The year I travelled the seas, found my writing a home at the Hunt Club, completed a draft of my second YA novel, battled my thoughts and learned how to still them. The year when death gave birth to love.
2011 was the year of change.
I’ve learnt to accept and not resist it. After all, change and love are the only constants.
Here’s to a lighter 2012 with less turbulence, good health, happiness and success. Happy new year!