Writing can feel as natural as walking for some people: it’s an instinctive practice that takes you wherever you want to go, sometimes into exciting new territory.
That yearning for adventure motivated author Maryam Azam’s reading and writing practice from an early age. Her first book, The Hijab Files, was published in 2018, a few years after she graduated with Honours in Creative Writing from Western Sydney University in 2014. She now teaches English and hopes to inspire more young people from diverse backgrounds to write.
“I’ve always admired the way writers could make you feel things and think about things in different ways,” she says. “Especially when you find connections with different characters – I really wanted to have the same impact on readers myself.”
Though if you don’t have an instinct to write, you can still share stories that move people’s hearts and minds. It just takes a little practice, explains Rawah Arja, author of the young adult book The F Team published in September 2020, who graduated from Western with a Bachelor of Arts in 2009, followed by a Master of Teaching in 2010, and teaches creative writing in schools and workshops.
“I never wanted to be a writer, I don’t have this magical story like so many writers about how they filled up notepads and read a lot when they were young,” she admits. “The first time I properly read I was 16, and only because my high school teacher was like: ‘You have your HSC coming up and you need to respond to texts. You can’t rely on the internet for the rest of your life’.”
Arja found many of the students she mentored felt the same about reading and writing: they just weren’t interested. She says that’s not surprising, because as a teenager there weren’t books about her experiences, apart from one which came close: Looking for Alibrandi, whichshe describes as a revelation because for the first time she felt her voice mattered. Unfortunately, the students she met at Punchbowl Boys High didn’t have a Looking for Alibrandi for their generation, and often when Lebanese people are written about in the press they aren’t represented fairly.
“The media paints pictures of us that make the whole community look bad,” she says. “So one day when I asked my 12 to 13 year old students what stories would motivate them to read they said to me: ‘Miss, would you write a book? About us, and sport, and can you make it funny?’ And that’s literally how I fell into writing because I saw a need.”
Azam too saw a need for diverse stories to be told: she was one of the founding editors of the student newspaper at Western and formed a writers’ group. The school’s then Head of Program, former Pro-Vice Chancellor, Professor James Arvanitakis arranged for her to do a summer internship with Giramondo Publishing, which is based at Western, and through the publisher she joined a civil rights writing group run by Western Sydney Author Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad. Giramondo published The Hijab Files, a collection of poems by Azam about life as a Muslim woman in western Sydney doing ‘all the ordinary things’ while wearing the hijab
“Eating curry, praying, and wearing the hijab is normal to me,” she says. “I didn’t see it as something to write about when I was young; because I never saw those things in what I read. Then Mohammed Ahmad taught me that it’s worth writing about characters like myself because of the potential to make an original contribution to knowledge, and that’s what good literature does."
Arja’s young adult novel The F Team, also published by Giramondo, is about a group of Lebanese boys at Punchbowl Boys High whoare made to play on a football team with white boys from Cronulla, an area internationally notorious for racial violence that escalated in December 2005. Still, the book is often funny, and engagingly juggles themes such as teenage crushes, family conflicts, social friction and the consequences of choices made in the heat of the moment.
She lost count how many times her book was rejected by publishers and was often told it would be better if it was predominantly about girls and aimed at girls. “But I’m very stubborn,” she retorts. “And I believe if you actually provide boys with literature they relate to, then they will be readers.”
Azam says the fact she didn’t read about people like her growing up almost discouraged her from putting herself into her stories, because she didn’t feel recognised. Thankfully, her peers, mentors, and teachers at Western changed her mind. “I felt really recognised at Western, through things like the Aspire program that fosters high achievement,” she says. “Western helped me connect with people from a lot of different backgrounds, with a lot of different industry experience.”
When these women teach writing, they’re not teaching the craft of writing to start with – that comes later when the students are ready. Instead, they try to make writing as fun as possible, so the students don’t notice they’re learning the foundations of writing.
“As an English teacher I want to expand what’s considered Australian literature, because we’re a much more diverse community now, it’snot all about beach culture or the sunburnt countryside,” explains Azam. “So I encourage students to write about things they’re actually interested in, and really try to put some of their own experiences in the stories.”
Arja says she tells her students: ‘You’re in control of your story. You have the power’. She adds, “And it’s really nice to hear back from students who say, ‘I never thought I could actually write until you told me I could write about anything I like’.”
WORDS BY STUART RIDLEY