Randa Abdel-Fattah's new immigration-themed novel The Lines We Cross: Read an excerpt
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.
Exclusive excerpt from The Lines We Crossby Randa Abdel-Fattah
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.
Kahn’s carrying a spade in one hand and a sign in the other: Start Calling a Spade a Spade: Islam = Terror. Andrew’s dressed as a Spartan guard, carrying a shield and sign that says: Democracy Started in Greece: Protect Our Democracy.
Dad’s thrilled. Personally, he’s not one for stunts, but he has an instinct for what will grab the media’s attention. If somebody else is willing to wear spandex for the cause, he’s not going to say no.
Andrew asks me to take photos so he can tweet them to news outlets. Kahn, Andrew, and some of the others pose for the shots, and then Andrew works his social media magic.
Dad and I are taking a selfie to send to Mum and Nathan, who are in Melbourne for an air show, when a guy with a grotesquely muscled body bulldozes his way through our crowd and steps up close to us. He’s carrying a couple of signs in one hand, snapping photos of the crowd with his smartphone with the other. I haven’t seen him before. He’s not so much steroid-pumped nightclub bouncer as ex-commando-who-visits-war-zones-in-his-spare-time kind of guy.
“Hey, Alan,” he says sternly, nodding at Dad.
The testosterone force field around this guy is so strong I feel like I might grow a full-length beard just taking in his vibes.
“G’day, John,” Dad says. “Thanks for coming, mate.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he barks, then snaps a photo of Dad for his Facebook page. John looks me up and down. “Where’s your sign?” He doesn’t give me a chance to reply but instead hands me one of his (No to Sharia Law), raises his eyebrow (there’s only one), and looks grimly at the opposing crowd.
“Fucking bleeding-heart terrorist-loving freedom-hating traitors.”
“Does that come in a bumper sticker?” Dad asks with a laugh. He discreetly nudges my foot with his shoe and I struggle not to laugh.
“It’s not a joke,” John says gruffly. “You should know that, Alan.”
“I know, mate,” Dad says good-naturedly, patting him on the back. “I’m just pulling your leg.”
“They should shut the hell up and respect the fact they have free speech in this country.”
“No one’s saying they shouldn’t protest,” Dad says. “That’s the beauty of this great country of ours, John. That they can be here, same as we can. The irony is that they don’t appreciate that we’re fighting to make sure this democracy of ours doesn’t change.”
John flashes a look of contempt at the mob of counterprotesters. They’ve escalated the shouts of abuse. John walks off to join some of the more vocal ones on our side and starts chanting at the top of his lungs.
I give Dad a look. “He’s a bit . . . deranged?”
“Nah. He just looks tougher than he is. He’s Andrew’s good mate.” Suddenly Dad’s face breaks out into a grin. “Michael! Look!”
I glance in the direction he’s motioning and, noticing a reporter and cameraman, smile.
“Your mum’s press release must have worked.” He runs his fingers through his thinning hair and readjusts the flag. “How do I look?”
“Like the leader of a new political organization,” I say proudly. “Who’s sweltering under that thing. Don’t forget it’s all about the sound bites. Aussie Values aims to represent the silent majority blah blah. The kind of thing you and Mum were practicing last night.”
“We have about fifty members,” Dad says with a smile. “In a population of twenty-three million, I wouldn’t say that really constitutes a majority.” He leans in close to me and winks conspiratorially. “But nobody needs to know that, hey, mate?”
The chants of the other protestors are getting louder. Rick, from our side, starts up a chant in reply. Game on. The atmosphere is electric, and people are fired up on both sides. I can see Dad across the crowd, a camera in his face as he talks to a journalist. He glances at me and I grin.
And then I see her.
Her eyes. I’ve never seen eyes like hers before. What color are they? Hazel and green and flecks of autumn and bits of emerald and I’m standing holding my sign and there she is, standing steps away, near the cop, holding hers (It’s Not Illegal to Seek Asylum), and all I can think about is how the hell I’m going to take my eyes off her.
Her hair is jet-black, hanging loose down her back, and I think hair that gorgeous has no business being on someone like her. She’s wearing jeans and a plain white T-shirt. She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen and it stupidly, inexplicably, throws me.
There’s a girl standing next to her, shouting at the top of her lungs, waving her sign in the air with all the energy of a kid flying her first kite. She elbows the beauty, prompting her to laugh and raise her sign higher.
On my side I can hear people’s chants rising: “Stop the Boats!” “No to Queue Jumpers!” “Islam is Fascism!” But my voice isn’t working.
Suddenly John’s beside me. He nudges me in the side and scoffs, “They’re a disgrace, aren’t they?”
I manage a grunt. John grimaces and motions to my sign, which I’ve inadvertently lowered. I quickly hold it up, smile meekly at him, and wonder what the girl’s name is.
* * *
“So it was a success?” I ask Dad on our way home.
Dad smacks the steering wheel with both hands and lets out a cheer. “Michael, it was brilliant! I’ll be on the news tonight—well, maybe, they said they couldn’t guarantee, and only for half a minute, but it’s still something . . .”
“It would help your organization out if it runs. Did you tell Mum?”
“She couldn’t talk. She texted though.”
“They having fun?”
Dad chuckles. “You kidding? They’ve sent about fifty photos already. Nathan’s in heaven.”
He turns to face me as we stop at a traffic light. “Hungry?”
“Joe’s shop at the Village closes tomorrow. You up for
some fish and chips? A chiko roll?”
He changes lanes, makes the yellow light, and turns left.
“Could be the last chiko roll this area ever sees, Michael. The way the place is going, some trendy café will open serving free-range organic duck on a bed of foraged mushrooms.”
I chuckle. “Dad. Wow. That was kind of meme-worthy. I’m impressed.”
“Your mum and I were over at Joe’s the other night. Twenty years he’s been there, Michael. Poor guy’s taking it badly.”
“Where’s he going to go?”
“Go? That’s it, Michael. He has to retire now. People like Joe don’t start over. He’s priced out of the area now. He’ll take his fiberglass shark that’s been up on that wall since the seventies, hang it in his lounge room at home, and get a subscription to Netflix.”
We turn into the parking lot behind the local shops and Dad parks the car. He turns off the ignition, faces me, and looks me in the eye. “That’s why we’re fighting, Michael. For people like Joe.”
“Let’s go get our last chiko roll then.” “For Joe,” Dad says.
This will be the last time I wake up here. I keep my eyes closed, savor my final moments lying in bed listening to the cacophony of morning sounds from nearby Auburn Road. If I concentrate hard enough I can bring the place alive: the fishmonger’s van rumbling around the corner and over the uneven asphalt of the alley behind the mall adjacent to our house. The pungent scent of fish wafting out of the fish shop at the entrance to the mall. The fruit and vegetable store teeming with early morning shoppers, nobody queuing up, everybody somehow managing to buy their stuff without any fuss. The group of Sudanese men sitting at the corner coffee shop, smoking, sipping coffee, and talking. Big W next to a discount shop, a cheap lingerie stall, and a hijabi/anything-goes fashion house fronted by mannequins dressed in jeggings, long shapeless abayas, or sequined minidresses. Mehmet will be starting on the salads at the corner Adana shop, while Ferhat mounts the doner kebabs onto the sticks. There’s something for everyone here, and I’m leaving this corner of my world, the only world I’ve known since arriving in Australia from Afghanistan ten years ago, to move to the lower North Shore of Sydney.
My mum knocks on my door. “Come on, Mina!” she says, her voice strained. She opens the door and sticks her head in.
“Ten more minutes,” I groan.
“Nine,” she counters, and goes downstairs.
I throw the duvet over my head and plug in my earphones.
Eventually Mum forces me out of bed and we spend the morning packing the last loose items and wiping down walls, doors, and cupboards. We fall into a rhythm. We work hard, every mark on the wall taunting us: You’ll have to wipe harder if you want the deposit back. By the time we’re done, I’m exhausted. I collapse onto a chair.
“Wasn’t Baba due with the van half an hour ago?”
“Flat tire.” Mum carefully ties her hair into a bun at the nape of her neck. “I told him to book that local company but you know him. He likes to do things himself. Unplug the earphones, Mina. I’ve told you a million times. You’ll be deaf before you turn twenty listening to that rubbish.”
My mum hates my taste in music. She thinks it’ll make me want to pierce my entire body, chop off my hair to look like “the lesbians,” and elope with a tattooist.
“Baba better not scratch my chair. Make sure he doesn’t, Mum.” I’m not optimistic. My stepfather likes to think of himself as a jack-of-all-trades. He’s a chef, and moving furniture is not his strong point.
My mum fixes her eyes on me. “You’re still insisting on taking that old thing with you?”
I give her a defiant look. “I’m not backing down.”
She looks like she has a whole lot more to say but then a slight smile ruffles her composure.
I smile, probably smugly.
“Fine,” she says.
Mum had me when she was very young. She’s thirty-three
now and our battles can sometimes feel like sibling rivalry. She’s not a yeller, never has been. Her emotions are tucked deep inside her body, but she doesn’t need to scream and shout for me to know how she feels.
I found the chair in an antique store in Leura on a day trip to the Blue Mountains last year. It reminded me of the chair in my father’s study in our house in Afghanistan. Quilt padded, floral greens and mauves, a high curved back. I have nothing left of my life in Afghanistan except faded memories. The Taliban destroyed most of my life. What wasn’t destroyed, we left behind, including my father in his grave.
I continue working but I’m hungry now. I can feel my stomach muscles tighten.
“I’ll go get us some lunch,” I say, grabbing my handbag from the corner of the now empty family room.
Her face lights up. “That would be nice actually.”
“Our last chance to get the best food within walking distance of home before we move to Pretentiousville, where you pay triple the price for Kabuli palaw.”
Mum chuckles softly. “In some areas, the more expensive, the more exotic.”
Twenty minutes later I’m back with fresh bread, chicken sheesh, dips, hot chips, tabouli, and cold drinks. We sit on the tiles and use a suitcase as a table.
Mum eats slowly, calmly. I’m scarfing my food down, but it’s more than hunger. I suddenly feel a heightened awareness of everything, the aroma of garlic and mixed spice in the foods, the sound of traffic outside. Eating this food here, now, in our empty duplex, a surge of emotion charges through me.
“Tell me again,” I say, “how big is the apartment we’re moving to?”
Mum looks at me, chewing her bread slowly. Finally, she replies, “It would probably fit into the downstairs space here.” “I can’t see why we have to move. I could just catch public transport to Victoria College. We belong here.”
She takes a long sip of water, then wipes her mouth with a tissue.
“I don’t want you spending hours on public transport. You need to be focused on your studies. Getting a scholarship is one thing. Keeping it is another.”
“The stakes aren’t high enough already, Mum?”
Mum tilts her head to the side and looks at me fondly. “A scholarship for eleventh grade at one of the top schools? You know I’m proud of you, Mina. Anyway, you won’t be the only one under pressure. We’re opening the new restaurant there too. It’s a big change for us all.” She sighs. “Double the rent for the restaurant over there though. The supplies will cost a lot too. It used to be a fish and chip shop.”
“So you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you, hey?”
She shrugs. “That’s for Baba and Irfan to deal with. I’ve got other plans.”
Surprised, I quiz her. “Such as?”
But she just shrugs again and moves the food around on her plate. “Just plans.” She fixes her eyes on me again and, as an afterthought, adds, “Plans that involve making sure you get the scholarship for twelfth grade too.”
The scholarship had been the idea of my teachers at Auburn Grove Girls High. My parents immediately embraced it, even though the logistics of living in Auburn and going to school in the lower North Shore would be complicated, to say the least. But they had big dreams for me. They wanted me to have the best education and the best future. Moving out of Western Sydney hadn’t been part of the plan though. Baba had a successful restaurant here. Mum did all kinds of creative outreach classes at the community center, and worked at the after-school care at one of the local grade schools. Auburn has been home ever since Mum and I were released from Villawood detention center, ten years ago.
But then I passed the scholarship exam. And we discovered the transport situation would be two hours minimum on either side of the school day. Then my parents heard that the Lane Cove shops could do with some “exotic” food. One thing led to another, and now here we are sitting among boxes about to relocate. I feel like border control will demand to see our visas when the moving van ventures beyond Parramatta Road.
A silence settles between us as we finish our meal. Then suddenly, without warning, Mum says, “By the way, did you go to the protest with Maha yesterday?”
I reassure her that I had Baba’s permission and just went along with Maha because Aysha bailed on her. She doesn’t need to know I was curious too. She doesn’t want me getting involved in political stuff. Not with my scholarship.
She’s up now, pacing back and forth in front of the line of boxes, checking they’re sealed and labeled. “You’ve got enough to worry about without going to protest marches.” She stops and, with a sigh, corrects herself. “We’ve got enough to worry about, Mina. We’ve made a new life for ourselves here. Let’s be grateful for that rather than drawing attention to ourselves. All I want is for you to get the best grades possible. Be a doctor or a lawyer. And to do that you need to focus.”
“You know, that kind of pressure doesn’t help, Mum. I’m about to start a terrifying chapter in my life . . .” I stand in front of her, swigging down the last of my drink. “You do realize that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. But you were also smuggled out of a war zone, lived in a refugee camp, traveled here on a leaky boat, and were locked in detention for months. By all means be scared.” And then, without a hint of irony, she adds, “But just remember, I’m expecting you to be top of your class.”
She’s done it. She’s actually pulled out that card. I’ve got nothing to trump that.