My first ‘proper’ published piece of writing was a satirical rant on being an unemployable graduate (arts/law), published in the now-defunct Heckler section of the Sydney Morning Herald. Heckler didn’t pay, but I arrived at the scene before digital overtook print and was thrilled to see my name on the back page of a weekday edition.
It was a couple of years after September 11. But the Australian media had its Muslim spokespeople, and I had no desire to be a mouthpiece in this excruciating moment. So in my debut mainstream piece, I didn’t write about being Muslim in an increasingly Islamophobic world. I wrote of my struggles to transform the high of graduating with a challenging degree into a meaningful career, one where the pile of rejection letters grew so thick I went from paper clip to bulldog. I included a template for a rejection letter in the piece, in what was, I suppose, a cleansing of my disappointment, but I did it with humour that was razor sharp. I wasn’t simply acknowledging my failure; I was critiquing an issue that affects most of us. And I didn’t question if it was my name or the headscarf I wore on my head that hindered my progress.
While the piece didn’t land me an interview, I came to a more significant rediscovery: I could write, I *like* to write, and I can sing to the tune of ‘satire’. I would write more of these Hecklers, each one about something ordinary but irritating—trite song lyrics, bad grammar and frivolous celebrity lawsuits. The only time I gave a nod to my heritage as an Arab-Muslim woman was when I skewered the obese trauma-lit marketplace, one that traded heavily in Middle Eastern, and especially Muslim, women who are always pictured on the cover of books shrouded in dark veils, with only their kohl-lined eyes peeking out to telegraph their terror.
I could do that with Hecklers. Just be a person who had a gripe or two, whose world view was coloured by but not limited to her cultural and religious conditioning. Diversity boxes were still in their infancy then, so I wasn’t even a token novelty. I was just good at making fun of the absurd in our daily lives.
While this didn’t go unnoticed—I recall an Arab woman writing to me in gratitude for reflecting on the ordinary, rather than my identity labels—I don’t think I quite appreciated what a delicious privilege it was for me as an emerging writer not to be burdened by expectation, not to be writing to explain myself or ask for acceptance.
Years later, I became what I had always wanted to be: a journalist and, more broadly, a writer in mainstream media. In the former, I specialised in trade journalism for a time, where my name stood out, but my skillset sat firmly in a universe of specialty-profession reporting (ask me anything about the financial services or pharmaceutical industries and I may remember). But my entrance into the mainstream would rely on my identity credentials. Confessional writing was becoming popular, and so was ‘diversity’. Suddenly I was a person of interest. I had insider knowledge and my willingness to split open a vein worked for everyone: I would be published, diversity boxes would be ticked, and I would also remain unthreateningly ‘the other’.
I was naive. I was happy to write about what I knew. Didn’t see it as harmful, but as an opportunity, so long as it was my voice, my lens. But it wasn’t long before I understood the category I had plugged myself into; I was a diversity writer who was allowed space to share stories about my world, and this would be curated. It wasn’t my talent or insight that would sell my pitches most of the time; it was simply what I was willing to share, or rather, confirm about my culture.
I took a break for a while. I didn’t look for things to be outraged by to write a column. I looked inside myself and discovered I was lost. I had creative vertigo. Always trying to find the balance between what was in my interest to share and that of the public interest.
When I wrote about what it’s like to ‘date’ as a Muslim, I did so with humour; it found an audience, relieved to have insight, but also the ability to laugh at the quirks of lounge-room suitor visits.
When I decided, finally, to expose the wounding that comes with modesty expectations, to write about taking off the headscarf, I was called a traitor to Muslims. A lot of my critics didn’t really read my piece, I know. If they had, they would understand. I wanted the public podium to reach more people not for notoriety or fame, but because of the reach. The online hate was difficult to bear, but my inbox slowly filled with quiet messages of gratitude. Yes, that’s why I did it, I told myself as I navigated a death threat and tags to appear in social media courtrooms.
I wrote it for me, too, if I’m being honest. This is how I make sense of the world, after all. This is how I heal. This is how I live, my creative energy like an invisible limb I have to train like a muscle. It wasn’t a call for help, or a plea for sympathy. It wasn’t a censuring of any community or belief system. It was an offering. But in hindsight it’s easier to see how that got lost; the balance in media just isn’t there.
I don’t mind informing people about what they don’t know; I do it on my terms, in my way. I am not an informant. Yet that is how I’m seen: a community narc who doesn’t take it up internally. As if I have somewhere to go with all of this, as if it’s not simply and truthfully an unfurling.
But that is how many of us are seen when we expose the bones of our lives, when we deep-dive into our experiences and search for the connective tissue: the things that we hold in common as humans with a troubling range of emotional responses. I saw a writer and friend, Peter Polites, explain it to a mutual friend on social media recently: they want our ‘trauma testaments’.
Trauma testaments. This is why we are token minorities in panels or resigned to being on an actual diversity panel. We’re there to be gazed upon by spectators worried about how to deal with our otherness in a politically correct world. Sometimes our allies are harder to deal with. They still talk down to us, still tell us how they see us, never too concerned with how we see ourselves and why.
I have written about my uneasy relationship to diversity, my aversion to tokenism. Yet we must play with it. My generation didn’t have the tick boxes. They feel a bit strange for me as a woman past 40, too, as I watch younger writers with different experiences and ideas come through. Sometimes I think it really doesn’t matter how the voices are raised, just so long as they are loud and clear.
It’s exciting, this genuine diverse offering of voices—perspectives that can shape how we see ourselves and the world, how we behave and connect. Story is, after all, about what happens when people and things come together, about how we affect one another.
If the way out of fear of ‘difference’ is to emphasise it with radical accommodation and kindness, I will work with that. But I do so fully aware, and with a reminder that minority voices are not here to educate others, nor even to disarm them.
We exist in the spaces between the words. We create because it is natural to us to do so. We deserve to be trusted as artists, creatives, innovators and thinkers, not as problems to be solved with tick boxes. We deserve to be respected for what we discover and share in our creative unfurling.
Amal Awad is a journalist, screenwriter and author of several books. She is an occasional performer, and has also produced and presented for ABC Radio National.