Nivea Serrao
March 24, 2017 AT 09:00 AM EDT

A boy with anti-immigration views falls for an Afghani girl who is a refugee in Randa Abdel-Fattah’s The Lines We Cross.

And while some of the sentiments she expresses in the novel might not be a surprise to readers, some may be shocked to learn the novel is set in Australia, where Abdel-Fattah (Does My Head Look Big In This?) lives and writes.

In alternating chapters, the book tells the story of Michael’s re-examination of his parent’s politics as well as Mina’s navigation of class-based struggles at the high school they both attend — all while cultural tensions begin to mount around them.

Given the political relevance of Abdel-Fattah’s latest novel, EW spoke to the author about her inspirations for her story, how she approached writing characters, and what young readers might be able to take away — plus EW presents an exclusive excerpt of the first two chapters, so readers can meet Michael and Mina for themselves.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired this novel?
RANDA ABDEL-FATTAH: Just over three-and-a-half years ago I quit practicing law and started a Ph.D. to explore racism, specifically Islamophobia, from the point of view of its perpetrators. While I was conducting my fieldwork, interviewing people, attending anti-Islam and anti-refugee rallies, a character popped into my head. Well, two to be precise. One was a young Afghan refugee — a “boat person” we see maligned and stigmatized by both sides of politics. Bright, fierce, courageous, scarred. She wouldn’t budge from my head. I thought about what it would mean for this young girl to have fled Afghanistan, grow up in Western Sydney, only for me to then throw her into a private school in the lower north shore of Sydney. I called her Mina. The other person who popped into my head at one of the rallies I was attending was a boy called Michael. As I interviewed people about their “fears of being swamped by boats,” about the “Islamisation of Australia,” about the so-called “clash of civilizations,” I wondered what it would mean to be a teenager growing up in a family peddling such racism and paranoia. How do you “unlearn” racism? How do you find the courage to question your parents’ beliefs? How do you accept responsibility for learning about the world on your own terms? That’s when I decided to write a story that took these two characters, Michael and Mina and threw them at each other. 

What are you most excited for readers to encounter in this novel?
Politicians have led us to believe that refugees and asylum seekers are “complex” “problems.” But it’s quite simple as far as I can see it. Western countries are privileged and involved in wars that create refugees. Some of those refugees risk their lives to escape persecution, violence, and even death. The ones who try to reach us for protection we lock up. We lock them up on islands and countries we’ve financially cajoled into doing our dirty work. We lock people up and when they self-harm, self-immolate, are killed in our care, we deny responsibility. For me, Mina’s story is about simplifying the issue to some basic truths. Who do we count as human? What is privilege? Justice? Whom do we show empathy for and whom do we shun? What is it about our fears, insecurities, identity that needs an enemy, an “other”? I hope my readers are able to confront these questions head-on.

Despite her experiences, Mina still has a great sense of humor. How did you approach crafting that part of her character?
I am a firm believer in using humor to humanize my characters as well as add light and nuance to the lives I write. That is the stuff of human existence. That there is comedy in tragedy. That even the darkest moments can be infused with irony and light.

Both Michael and Mina narrate alternating chapters. What made you decide to showcase Michael’s point of view?
It was really important for me to navigate both sides of the “arguments” around racism. On the one hand, the lived experience of a racialized minority. On the other hand, the point of view of somebody occupying a position of privilege and power. Mining into both emotional lives was about really trying to understand the intersections between people’s lives.

Obviously the story itself has become very relevant in recent years. Was that something you were thinking of as you were writing the novel?
Racism isn’t something that we should confine to academic or media discussions. It is a lived experience, a fundamental part of many people’s everyday lives, something they negotiate and struggle against, and I think it’s so important that young people have their stories validated and that those who are born into the privilege of whiteness understand that privilege and what it means for their life chances and experiences compared to racialized minorities. Of course, this story is highly resonant in today’s climate. That only made me feel that it was urgent to tell.

Is there anything you learned in writing this novel that you feel it would be helpful for your readers to know?
Everyone is capable of change and growth. But not everybody is capable or willing to change. I think it’s important to understand that change is hard, that there are structural forces bigger than ‘willpower’ that block people from having the courage to ask questions about who they are and what they believe. But racism can’t be dismantled unless people are confronted and provoked to think.

The Lines We Cross hits bookstores May 9. Pre-order it here, and read the exclusive excerpt below.

Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Exclusive excerpt from The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah 

Michael

I know two things for a fact.

My parents are good people.

And ever since I can remember, they’ve been angry about almost everything.

* * *

I scan the area and see my dad, draped in the Australian flag, talking to Li Chee, who’s wearing a flag top hat and holding up a Turn Back the Boats banner. I negotiate my way through the crowd of people and flags on our side, ignoring the boos and taunts coming from the counterprotest.

“Hey, Michael!” Dad pats me on the back. His forehead is glistening with sweat.

“Really happy you made it.”

“It could be your big moment. I don’t want to miss it.”

“Appreciate it, mate.” He takes a deep breath, wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, and looks around nervously. “Geez, it’s hot under this. What do you think? Reckon the media will come?”

It’s hard to tell. The numbers on our side of the protest are growing but they’re still small compared to the other mob. It’s also hot. Really hot. One of those days where the heat is so oppressive you feel like meat being chargrilled on a hot plate. But then Kahn and Andrew arrive, and Dad’s mood lifts.

NEXT PAGE: Continuing reading this exclusive excerpt from The Lines We Cross

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