The first time I read a novel with Muslim characters, I was 21, and the book was “Does My Head Look Big in This?” by Randa Abdel-Fattah. The main character was sixteen years old, and even though the drama of being in high school and being the only person in a hijab was something I had experienced several years previously and had largely processed by then, it was affirming to read about a character who looked like me.
It was a lesson that women in hijab have stories worth telling.
Fast forward many years later, last week I read Randa Abdel-Fattah’s latest book “The Lines We Cross”, and more than simply being a story that was enjoyable because it had Muslim characters, this is a book that has changed the way the pieces of me fit together.
The story revolves around two main characters, Michael and Mina. Michael is white and Australian, and the book opens with him at a protest about “illegal migration” with his parents who run an organization called Aussie Values. Mina on the other hand, moved to Australia ten years previously when she travelled by boat from Afghanistan. That journey involved being locked up in Australian detention and the death of her baby brother along the way.
Michael and Mina meet properly at Victoria College, where Mina has recently been admitted as a scholarship student for Grade 11, and the rest of the book is about how their meeting transforms them both. The chapters alternate between both their perspectives, and because of that, days after finishing the book, I am still thinking about and talking about this book with everyone I know.
In particular, I love four things about “The Lines We Cross.”
- Mina’s stepfather Too often in stories with Muslims/people of colour, the relationship between fathers and daughters is depicted as one that is oppressive, controlling or simply devoid of love. This book shows none of those things. Mina’s stepfather is loving, he cares deeply for her happiness and for the happiness of her mother and he strives throughout to do his best for their family. His relationship with his stepdaughter is beautiful, his relationship with his wife is tender, and his presence in the book felt like a gift because it is rare to encounter such rich, three dimensional male Muslim characters on the printed page.
- The differing perspectives. I am in awe of how the author was able to relate Islamophobic, Orientalist conversations that took place with Michael and his family and at Victoria College where Michael and Mina study in a way that was sensitive and subtle. Michael and his family seem like a “normal family” – they aren’t monsters, and yet they hold beliefs that I disagree with in the core of my being. A few months ago I attended a community town hall at a local university about a fatal gun shooting at a mosque in Quebec city, and at that event, while other people talked about the importance of building bridges and thinking about why some people are afraid of diversity, I could not hear the conversations in the room because my anger and overwhelming sadness were the dominant emotions within me. This book, not conversations with my best friend or my family, has made me less angry. This book does not condone xenophobic views, but with skill and subtlety and gentleness, it does allow room for empathy and anger through your reading experience.
- The lack of overexplaining. This book doesn’t explain what prayer is, it doesn’t go into long exposition about hijab is, or what halal is, and there is no index or glossary. I love this, and it made me feel like the intended audience of the book.
- This is a YA (Young Adult) novel but Abdel-Fattah does not shy away from challenging her readers. This book covers topics from the ethics of international volunteering, to the meaning of global citizenship, to white fragility, to “acceptable anti-racism”, to the ethics of “country of origin” questions, all in a way that is fresh and fierce and very funny at times.
Below are my video reflections of the book.
Have you read this book? Have you used as a discussion tool in your classroom or your family? I’d love to hear from you.