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Across fiction and nonfiction, Palestinian–Australian author Amal Awad refuses to limit her work with reductive expectations. By Ruby Hamad.

Author Amal Awad

Amal Awad.
Credit: Hoda Afshar

Among the most productive and versatile of Australia’s current crop of authors, Amal Awad is perhaps also the most underestimated. “This book is delicious: sweet, warm and unexpected,” writes Alice Pung on the cover of Awad’s novel – and seventh book – The Things We See in the Light. Pung could well have been describing the author along with the work.

“I think freedom is the absolute destination of every human being,” Awad tells me as we meander through Sydney Park in what doubles as our daily allotment of pandemic-era exercise. “Look at how lockdown is making people nuts. Because they don’t feel free.”

To Awad, who counts daily meditation among her keys to surviving the lockdown blues, the path to freedom starts within. “This book is about someone who never acknowledges her true nature. She drew up the strictest boundaries possible. But what happens when a foundation is not real? [The structure] completely collapses – and that is what happens to Sahar. Her true, authentic self has to be revealed.”

Sahar, a 30-something Palestinian– Australian, lands back in Sydney in 2019 having survived two disasters in Jordan. The first was her eight-year marriage, the other I won’t spoil here. Crashing at her childhood friend’s Newtown flat, Sahar – who once owned her own cake shop – must start from scratch, as a junior in a local bespoke bakery.

“The truly rebellious get punished,” Awad says matter-of-factly. “They don’t really prosper because even if they do break the mould, they don’t feel good about it because they have lost so much. So this book is very much about that notion of punishment … we have a lot of fake rebels around who aren’t really a threat, but what Sahar is doing is truly courageous. She is acknowledging the truth that she was living a falsehood for many years.”

Years earlier, Sahar had been the most religiously conservative of a trio of friends, Sahar, Lara and Samira. Falling in love in Jordan – not with her husband – sets off a chain of events in which she is forced to discover who she really is. Sahar’s journey reflects Awad’s own concern with authenticity – its consequences as well as rewards. It’s a theme that permeates all her work and that stems from navigating her own Palestinian Arab heritage.

Awad doesn’t permit reductive ideas about identity to dictate her story. In less thoughtful hands, the scene where Sahar takes off her headscarf for the first time might make for a salacious moment. Instead, Awad approaches it with the subtlety and that warmth Pung alludes to, as Sahar narrates in the book: “I am tired of the dishonesty of it all. I am burdened by pretence. I cannot enter into this new life the way I looked and felt in the one that preceded it. I undo the bun and leave my hair out … I feel exposed but not naked.”

For Awad, labouring this moment would have reduced the novel to a sermon about a woman who finds freedom only by removing the scarf. “She doesn’t find her liberation by losing her faith. She is trying to find her faith,” Awad says. “She is trying to figure out what it means to her. And that is really empowering to me, rather than someone who completely loses [her religion] and goes, ‘Oh yeah, that held me back.’ ”

Awad wrote her first book Courting Samira in 2008 but the global financial crisis saw a publishing deal fall through at the last minute. Undeterred, she eventually self-published Australia’s first Muslim “chick lit” novel in 2011, its narrative following Samira’s adventures in “doorknock appeals”: Muslim would-be suitors sussing out potential brides with parents in tow. “That book was experimental. I was trying to take a story structure that relies so heavily on sex and all that and see if it would work with a Muslim heroine.” Next was her 2014 essay collection, The Incidental Muslim, and a year later her second novel This Is How You Get Better, this time with Lara, the nonconformist of the group, as the central character.

More nonfiction followed as Awad applied her journalism background to a spate of research-intense tomes on far-ranging topics. In late 2017, the trailblazing but underappreciated Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Real Lives of Arab Women gave space for women in the Middle East and Australia to discuss their lives beyond the spectre of being the Arab other.

“Sometimes what you think is important is not what everyone else thinks is important, or they want to hear about it from someone else,” she says. “Beyond Veiled Clichés wasn’t a bestseller, but to me it was one of the most significant books I’ve ever written because I knew I’d written something that no one else had. But it wasn’t about claiming something, it was ‘Look at what these [Arab] women are telling you. Here it is. You wanted to hear from us, you are hearing from us.’ ”

Next came Fridays with my Folks, part memoir, part journalistic interrogation of the so-called “sandwich generation”, and In My Past Life I Was Cleopatra: A sceptical believer’s journey through the New Age, published earlier this year, an insider’s empathic investigation of what Awad affectionately calls “the world of woo-woo”. She is frank about her experiences with nonfiction writing: “I don’t think I enjoyed it. I was drawn to the ideas [but] it was hard work, really hard work.”

It is in fiction she finds the most reward. “There is a part of you in every character … even in the hardest fiction [writing] I think you have more joy than writing nonfiction.” Her novels form a loose trilogy, albeit an unplanned one, with each book standing on its own – and Awad’s style and tone in each book reflects its central character. “Sahar is deep and poetic,” she describes. “Lara is sassy, with an abrasive sort of humour, and Samira was bubbly and entertaining.”

To mark The Things We See in the Light’s major release, the first two novels have been re-released. Eleven years separate the first and third storylines, raising the question of whether Awad knew where the characters would end up. “I had no idea,” she shakes her head vigorously. “People say that when you write fiction, you are writing yourself. I think that is true to an extent. Because you are this weird sort of receptor, you kind of receive everything and you’re interpreting it. So in a way [the story] becomes me because I have to translate this knowledge and this experience for the reader into something they can enjoy and recognise.

“But I think it took me 10 years to get to this story because I can’t write beyond what I perceive,” she continues. “The way I see it now, Courting Samira is about getting that happy ending. This Is How You Get Better is about what happens when you don’t get that happy ending. And The Things We See in the Light asks, ‘Is there even such a thing as a happy ending?’ ” Awad feels special affection for Sahar. “She is so burdened but at the same time, she is generous enough to sit with you and say, ‘This is what I have learnt.’ ”

The intimacy of the world Awad creates for Sahar in Sydney is punctuated with flashbacks to her tumultuous years in Jordan. This juxtaposition is handled with an assured calmness that doesn’t veer into shallow moralising. “How I look at it is: I am not telling a true story, I am telling the truth,” Awad says.

“I think the problem with [racial] minority writers is we get stuck with what [novelist] Peter Polites calls the ‘trauma testaments’, which is, ‘I can only transmit to you my pain and sorrow and the bad things I have been through. That is my only relevance to society.’ So my thing is, how do I normalise the depth of feeling that we all experience? My job is not to tell people what to feel but to let them feel. Novels are meant to break down the resistance of a person so that they can truly heal and feel things … You can tell didactic writing because it tells you from the start. They are projecting a certain world view in their novels. And I don’t think that is necessarily wrong, it just means that their audience needs to resonate with that. And I don’t think I am interested in that.”

Avoiding the trauma testament trap shaped Awad’s handling of Sahar’s Palestinian heritage, which only comes up almost halfway through the novel when Naeem, her taboo love interest in Jordan, tells her pointedly, “You are Palestinian.” When I tell Awad it was startling to see it dropped abruptly so deep into the novel, she nods excitedly. “It’s supposed to pack a punch. Because she had forgotten … I think what he was trying to do was gift her with a sense of connection to something he knew she’d forgotten.”

Luke, the moody but talented chocolatier who ignites more in Sahar than just her passion for making chocolate, conversely warns her not to get too caught up in ideas of who she thinks she should be for fear it would limit her creativity. “I like the idea that she is collecting all these aspects of herself and deciding who she is for herself at the end of the day,” Awad says. “I am Palestinian. I don’t shy away from it [and] there are other stories where I interrogate it a lot more. But in this one, it didn’t feel true to her character to make it bigger than it was. I wanted it to just be a part of her.

“The biggest thing working against Palestinians is the idea that we are inhuman. That we are not like the others … Years of Hollywood telling the world that Arabs – not just Palestinians but Arabs – are terrorists. But I can’t pretend to know what it is like to be Palestinian in Palestine just because I’ve been there, multiple times. So what does it look like to me? It looks like what happens in this book. It’s in the little things, like Lara calling her hajjeh or wearing a keffiyeh.

“When you sneak up on people with your humanity, when you unapologetically exist as a Palestinian without turning it into a spectacle, it’s much more effective for the long term … And so here is a woman who overcame some really difficult times, odds were stacked against her and look at where she’s landed. This is possible for someone.”

As for where Awad herself is landing, she has a limited television series, Over My Dead Body, in development and another novel on the way, both of which also feature different Arab characters. The irony, given she is an author who has made a career of refusing to be pigeonholed, is not lost on her. “But at the same time, why shouldn’t I honour my heritage? This is the world I know. And I’m quite excited, it’s a fun story [also with] a friendship theme but a different take on it.”

I wonder how she feels about saying goodbye to these characters she has nurtured for more than a decade. “I told my husband, ‘They’ve all moved on without me’, and he just looked at me like, is that really how you feel?” She chuckles. “One hundred per cent. They’re real to me. They told me who they were. They exist in a realm somewhere and they’re all together and I’m not with them anymore ... they’ve moved on.” She sweeps her arm across the expanse of the park. “But the good thing is, now I can find other people to party with.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "Making new selves".

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Ruby Hamad is a writer and PhD candidate at UNSW.