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Photo courtesy of The Williamstown Literary Festival.

On Saturday 17th of June, seven weeks after the birth of my daughter, my book baby ‘Living on Hope Street’ greeted the world at The Williamstown Literary Festival. My daughter’s labour was a short, intense affair that ripped me open then stitched me into someone new. My book baby’s labour took considerably longer and matured me as a writer. Both babies have taught me so much about love, pain, patience, perseverance and sacrifice.

When I was thinking about what to say in my launch speech, my ever so helpful husband said “Don’t over think it, you’re not accepting an award.” It made me laugh and I realised that in the many years that I’ve been writing, my biggest award has been the people in my life. The people who packed into the Council Chamber room on June 17 bringing their love, support and beautiful energy with them. Over the last thirteen years my tribe of amazing family and friends encouraged me when I dreamed out loud of being a writer, fed me when my funds were low, listened when I read work that was undercooked, and believed in the girl from Broady who dared to dream of being published. Their belief kept me company on days when writing was too damn hard, wiped away my tears when rejections piled up, shoved me forward when I thought of giving up. They helped me become a writer and I am forever grateful and overwhelmed with love for them all.

‘Living on Hope Street’ was launched by friend, mentor and children’s and YA author Sherryl Clark. Sherryl and I are in the Big Fish writers group along with Lucia Nardo who led an informed and insightful in conversation. I feel honoured to have these wonderful women by my side. My book is stronger thanks to their feedback and insight.

 

Sherryl Clark’s Speech

I was privileged to be ‘in’ on the writing of this book from the beginning, and to see how it developed – a rare experience to share. Often we writers hide away and don’t show our stories to anyone until they are finished. But I remember Kane’s voice bursting out of Demet’s first pages, his fear and bravado and anger, and then the other characters appearing, like nervous or belligerent or almost-confident actors walking onto Demet’s stage.

Sam’s little voice as he struggles against everything in his unsafe world, and the people who do their utmost to protect him- Kane, his battered mum Angie, and Mrs Aslan. Mr Bailey, so sure of who he is and his rights – his righteous, clumsy blinkers and his eventual loneliness. Mrs Aslan, so full of caring for Kane and Sam, and her own estranged daughter and grand-daughter Ada. And Gugulethu and her family, struggling to adapt to a new country, free from fear but not from prejudice – and Gugulethu’s cry, ‘I am more than a refugee.’

I also remember Dem saying at one point, ‘I have all these voices and characters. How can this be a novel and not just a bunch of stories?’ So I showed her Union Street by Pat Barker. ‘Just find the thread,’ we said. And she did.

There’s always discussion in the literary world about writing characters from other cultural backgrounds – lots of shoulds and shouldn’ts. A brave, authentic writer like Demet writes from her heart and moves far beyond those should nots. At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival this topic came up many times and I want to read a couple of quotes. African-American writer Britt Bennett talked about how fiction has a role to play in bridging the divide by helping us empathise with other people. She said – ‘I try to think about this in my own writing: whose voices I can identify with; whose experiences I centre. I hope that this imagination and empathy can trickle into our politics. I don’t find a huge leap between creative empathy and political empathy: who you invite into your brain and heart when you read and write, and who you consider when you vote or protest or pass laws.’ **

She also said – ‘You have to push past the easy image, which is to say: do the work of writing, of imagining, of always reaching for more complexity, not less.’ I think Demet has absolutely done this. Her book is not a light, easy, boppy read, but we live in times where we need to embrace a book like this because, like all great fiction, it’s far more true and real than any newspaper report. It shows us the truth of all of our lives, and holds a mirror up to us. As Susan Faludi also said at the same festival, ‘Only when we let each other in and shoulder responsibility for each other’s distrust and animosity c[an] we find sanctuary.’ **

More than all of this, Living on Hope Street is a fabulous read. You will laugh, you will cry, you will remember your favourite characters and most memorable scenes long after you read the last page. And then I hope you will look at those around you with new eyes, new compassion and new understanding.

Sherryl Clark

**Quotes from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/29/sydney-writers-festival-2017-roundup-six-things-we-learned

 

 

 

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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.

Amra Pajalic: Amra Pajalic with her pick Jellicoe Road

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.

Demet Divaroren with her choice, The Clan of the Cave Bear

Demet Divaroren:

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 AgeComing 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”