This is a story of a former school librarian’s search for books by Muslim authors that ended up in becoming Australia’s first Muslim Writers Festival.
I had a chance to talk to Ozge Sevindik-Alkan, ask her about the idea behind the festival and see why there was a need for a separate Muslim writers’ event in the Australia. Ozge, a self-published author, is also one of the co-founders of The Right Pen Collective alongside joint founders Annie McCann and Aksen Ilhan.
The festival is fully online and will take place from 25 September to 2 October.
What is the key idea behind this festival?
It’s fascinating! It goes back to when I was working as a librarian at an Islamic School and would regularly look for books by Muslim authors. I found a few here and there, but I noticed that a lot of these people were self-publishing. They were working from their own little silos, but writing for mostly a similar audience. I thought to myself, “I want to know these people! I want to make some writer friends.” So, I started looking for Australian Muslim authors and contacted them, directly and through social media.
The school I worked for had about 1,000 students, and they were hardly represented in books that they were reading. All I could find was stories of suffering, girls trying to run away from their parents to avoid marriage. There were hardly any stories of these young Muslim girls and boys, who were actually happy with their own identities. And that is also one reason we chose the trailblazer Dr Randa Abdel-Fattah to address the inaugural session.
The festival not only provides a platform for both traditionally published authors and independent self-published authors, it also makes a statement about breaking the stereotypical image of Muslims in books and other stories about them.
Image: Ozge Sevindik Alkan
Why was there a need for a separate Muslim Festival? Does that not imply separating them from the mainstream Australian authors?
Ah! That is so interesting.
“You cannot be what you cannot see”, and that is the main idea behind bringing emerging and established Australian Muslim writers to a platform where they can be seen.
Image: Micael Mohammed Ahmad. Source: Sweatshop Literacy Movement.
It was basically Michael Mohammed Ahmad from the Sweatshop Literacy Movement who sat us down one day and gave us a crash course in marketing [for the festival]. He explained why we needed the faces of all these Muslim writers on the poster; and I cannot tell you the impact this has had. I have had some people text me and ask if this was for real. This festival is a sign of empowering Muslim writers, bringing them under the spotlight, and most importantly, as one of the goals of the Right Pen Collective, to inspire younger people and children to write their stories because their voice matters and that their own identities are being rightly represented.
Besides, we need diversity in Australian literature. Muslim writers are legitimate authors in their own writing space. Their contributions to the Austrian literature is more than just being that ‘tick box token diverse author’.
It is refreshing to see a predominantly female panel. It gives a strong message of disrupting the male-dominated narrative in [Muslim] literature. Was this a coincidence?
[cheers “woman power!” with a big smile, before replying]
Not at all! It just seems there are a lot of Muslim women that are writing books in Australia, and also in the US and Canada, especially children’s and young adult books. We are very approachable, and we don't want anyone to feel excluded, not even slightly, and that is how we plan to remain. This is just the beginning.
Image: Dr Randa Abdel-Fattah, leading the inaugural session of the festival. Source: Twitter.
How much space, do you think the festival at this point, or is willing to give to, left leaning, secular writers from the Muslim background, especially those who may be writing about contentious issues such as women’s rights, feminism, sexuality and other topics like that?
We decided that we are not the ‘haram police’. We are not the Sharia Law imposers, and we will not judge people on what level of Muslims they are and what they are doing [in their personal lives]. We did not want to issue stamps of ‘approved Muslims’ to participate in this festival. The only two criteria are that you need to be an Australian Muslim, and be working with the pen. That is what The Right Pen Collective is all about – being open in bringing writers of all genre to one platform and representing Muslim voices in Australia.
What do you or would you like to write about?
Fantasy! I would love to delve into fantasy, but I have not dared take that path, yet. It is so close to my heart that I don’t want to mess it up. However, my first children’s chapter book, Hijabi Girl, co- authored with Australian writer, Hazel Edwards, is a junior fiction for early readers between seven to 10 years of age. It is based around a young Turkish girl who has to dress up as a character for the book week at school – except there are no books that have hijabi characters, and she does not want to dress up as Little Red Riding Hood, again! So she comes up with her own character.
Do you think featuring self-published authors alongside some internationally renowned authors might affect the festival’s public relations, image or even credibility?
We believe it will attract emerging writers. From our information, we know that a lot of people are turning to self-publishing to have full control over their stories. By the end of the day, we have to realise that book publishing is a business, which is absolutely fine, but that also leads to a lot of rejections or heavy rewriting [to fit a certain narrative that sells]. That happened with the Hijabi Girl as well – consistent feedback on how great the story is, but not “sellable”.
We are at a stage where we believe that any emerging author should have the right to gain legitimacy as much as any other published author. There is diversity among Muslim authors as well, for instance, there are some who do not like to draw eyes on their characters in their illustrations, or even more religious who don’t draw any humans at all. Mainstream publishers are probably never going to pick up that kind of work, but it is very important for that section of the Muslim readership to be able to access those kinds of books, and also so these authors are not excluded from the literary scene.
Including emerging and self-published authors in the festival was a very conscious decision we made.
The festival features a lineup of well-known Muslim writers such as Miles Franklin shortlisted and Sweatshop Literacy Movement founder Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad; Peter Porter Poetry Prize winner poet Sara Saleh; and Archibald Prize finalist artist and author Amani Haydar.
International bestselling Muslim authors Ausma Zehannat Khan and Uzma Jalaluddin will also join in for a special panel to discuss publishing as Muslim authors overseas.
More details on the festival panels and participating authors can be found on The Right Pen Collective official website, while all books by participating author are available to purchase at the festival partner ‘Better Read Than Dead’ bookstore.
Ayesha Jehangir is a writer, academic and expert on peace journalism, gender, war and conflict. She is a regular contributor to SAARI.