Arja’s debut novel “The F Team” has now been shortlisted for a variety of prestigious Australian literary awards, including the 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards announced last month, in the Young Adult Literature category.
His book follows young Lebanese boy Tariq, a student at Punchbowl High, who is set to play football alongside boys from Cronulla in south Sydney while dealing with the complexity of his family’s culture and leadership in his circles. social.
“I wrote the book to make young boys and girls feel like they are worth something, that they matter. That even though life may pass and they think that they are not represented or that people do not care about them, that there is someone who is always keeping an eye on them, ”said Arja at SBS News.
“I wanted to give them a safe space to say ‘Hey, you know, we Arab Muslims aren’t always the bad guys.’ And I wanted them to read a story of someone who looks like them and sounds like them.
Source: Supplied / Rawah Arja
Deep down, Arja knew she shared the same feelings as the students she taught when she was their age.
She said it took a long time to immerse herself in the reading because there was no book she could relate to.
“I always thought literature was for whites only, that was all I was used to. That’s all a high school ever gave me to read. I thought it wasn’t my world. I can’t be part of it. I have to be at the back of the pack, ”she said.
“I always thought reading was boring, but that’s not it. I just couldn’t find a book for myself.
She said her love for reading blossomed after reading two particular novels as a teenager.
The first, “Looking for Alibrandi” by Melina Marchetta, follows the life of an Italian teenager migrating to Sydney. The second was “Does my head look big in this?” By Randa Abdel-Fattah, based on an Australian Muslim girl wearing a hijab for the first time.
“I couldn’t believe it was over there, that literature could speak to me. These two books have helped me understand that I can really be in the front row.
“Reading may seem very distant to the reluctant reader, it may make you feel like you are always at a distance, but these two books have got you. “
Arja’s experience in struggling to find books that are relevant to herself and her students is not uncommon, says Debbie Lee, president of Diversity Arts Australia.
“I think it starts when you’re a kid… that you feel like you’re not being represented.” Certainly in the books I think there are a lot of people who don’t feel represented, ”she said.
“This is an ongoing problem that people have been trying to solve for a number of years, but there is a strong focus on this topic right now.”
Ms Lee is optimistic that Australia’s arts industry is diversifying after seeing artists from different cultural backgrounds take control of their narratives over the past decade.
“There is now a demand for people from diverse backgrounds to tell stories, which is exciting to see… and it’s a global push,” she said.
“Things like the Black Lives Matter movement escalated and put that pressure on… it gave momentum to a movement that already existed.”
The winners of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards will be announced in December.
The jury said that Arja’s characters “humanize people from marginalized communities who are not widely represented in young adult literature but are an important part of the cultural landscape of modern Australia.”
All of the shortlisted books showcased “the full range, vibrancy and depth of our literary culture,” added a spokesperson for the Minister of the Arts, Paul Fletcher.
While she would love to win, Arja said the accolades are only important to the extent that they can inspire other young people from diverse cultures and languages to follow in her footsteps.
“The reason I want to be recognized is just so that any person of color can look and say, ‘Oh, okay, I can actually get nominated, because she’s already been nominated. It means it is not such a distant dream.