Book Review: “When Michael Met Mina” by Randa Abdel-Fattah (@RandaAFattah @macmillanaus #AWW2017 #YAmatters #LoveOZYA)

 

I read Randa Abdel-Fattah’s When Michael Met Mina (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2016) in one sitting during a five-hour wait at a hospital’s emergency room. The story transported me far away from the chatting, crying and murmuring of other patients and their companions, their constant swiping of mobile phones and restless staring of nurses walking to and fro soon faded from my internal space. In a silent world I sat, absorbing Randa Abdel-Fattah’s words, trying to get inside the hearts and minds of her young protagonists, feeling Michael’s confusion and Mina’s fury and pain. By the end of the book I was physically and mentally exhausted, but the lessons I learned from it lasted long after that.

For a long time I felt the weight of Mina’s plight. Born in Afghanistan, she and her mother fled the Taliban after they murdered her father. At the age of seven, she witnessed her baby brother’s death in a refugee camp in Pakistan before arriving in Australia by boat. Having been finally processed and released into the community, her desire to live an ordinary life is constantly disrupted by nightmares of her father half-submerged in a grave and her brother morphing into a faceless form in her arms. Worse, there are those in her adopted country, in her neighbourhood, in her school, who demand that she and her family be grateful for their good fortune. These refugees are expected to give up their memories and beliefs in order to conform to the stereotype of silent and tamed (read: assimilated) “ethnics” on the fringe of our society.

As a migrant, I was particularly moved by the words of Mina’s stepfather, a man who works hard to support his family and community, only to end up being falsely accused of selling halal food to fund ISIS terrorists. With his restaurant trashed by members of a newly-established political party called “Aussie Values” and hateful words such as F**k Off We’re Full staining his wall, there appears to be no hope left:

“I love this country,” he says. “But I don’t feel it’s mine because I must tell people I love it. That’s a fact.” He shakes his head angrily. Mum is sitting silently, not saying a word.

“We refugees are different to immigrants, Mina. The immigrant’s heart is caught between the struggle of wanting to stay or return, return or stay. The uncertainty never stops. Every decision is shadowed by what they are missing out on back home. And when they return to their birthplace, they want to come back here. And when they come back here, they wonder if they should have stayed. But us? We have been robbed of those choices. I cannot return to my homeland. And so I must simply stay in somebody else’s homeland, as an outsider and a guest. I am the guest who brings a gift of food to their host. Except what I think more and more is that they do not eat the food, they eat us here.”

I peer into his face, frowning. “What do you mean?”

“When they don’t like the taste of us, when we have too much flavour and spice, and do not follow their recipe, we are like indigestion and they want to vomit us back to where we came from.” (p.324)

As a parent, however, in recent months I increasingly feel for Michael, whose well-educated, white-collared and highly rational parents founded the aforementioned political party “Aussie Values”. Growing up adoring his parents and feeling proud of the way they are widely respected, Michael now faces a choice – either he continues to blindly adhere to their views, or he tries to explore other perspectives and make his own, independent decisions. Considering the following words by his parents, imagine how Michael feels when they claim ignorance that organisations such as “Aussie Values” help to breed hate speech, religious discrimination and even racially based harassment and violence:

I ask Dad if he really wants the White Australia policy again and he’s appalled by the suggestion.

“Of course not, Michael. I celebrate our diversity – so long as people assimilate to our values. I don’t have a problem with different foods and festivals. That enriches our country. But people need to fit in with the majority instead of trying to mark themselves as different. That’s why multiculturalism as a policy has been such a disaster. It sends a message that all cultures and religions are equal so you don’t have to assimilate into our society. Well I disagree. You’re welcome into this wonderful country so long as you respect Judeo-Christian values. And believe me, Michael, blending in makes life easier for migrants and their children too.”

Mum’s stirring a pot on the stove as we speak. She interrupts. “Michael, it’s like this soup I’m cooking. The dominant flavour is asparagus. I’ve got other spices and flavours in here too because that’s what makes the soup so rich and flavoursome. But they complement the asparagus, rather than take over.” (p.171-172)

All parents teach their children not to accept things on face value. All parents want their children to have a fair and open mind, to respect the others how they themselves want to be respected, to have empathy for those in need and pain, and to do their best to contribute to society and make our world a better place. All parents want their children to be happy, healthy, balanced and successful global citizens.

Really, no one wants their kids to grow up as bigots. Nor is there any kid desiring to see their parents as bigots.

Hence I agree with Australian author Maxine Beneba Clarke’s comments on When Michael Met Mina: “Australian teens should read this book, then pass it on to their parents.” I would even suggest that all Australian parents read this book and recommend it to their children. Read it even if you don’t have kids.

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s When Michael Met Mina is the winner for Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards Prize for Writing for Young Adults 2017 as well as Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards People’s Choice Award 2017. Published as The Lines We Cross by US Scholastic, it is currently a bestselling title at Amazon.com (data here retrieved on August 22, 2017, Australia Time):

  • #9 in Books > Teens > Literature & Fiction > Social & Family Issues > Emigration & Immigration

  • #57 in Books > Teens > Literature & Fiction > Social & Family Issues > Prejudice & Racism

  • #76 in Books > Children’s Books > Growing Up & Facts of Life > Difficult Discussions > Prejudice & Racism

You can find more information about Randa Abdel-Fattah’s When Michael Met Mina here.

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