Her career began writing about boys, irritating parents, and friendship dramas in teen magazines. Then SAMERA KAMALEDDINE realized a more confronting story of growing up between Sydney’s Anglo and Lebanese cultures needed to be told.
I thought I wanted to write something funny; that slapstick style of humor found in the likes of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, My Life is a Toilet, and Hating Alison Ashley (for all you ’90s kids out there). What I didn’t know was that there was another kind of story in me that had to be told – one I’d shamefully been pushing down to the deep, dark depths so that no one would ever (EVER) know of the mortifying feelings attached to it.
I sound dramatic. But that’s precisely the place you have to tap into when writing young adult fiction and why I chose the genre. It’s the time in your life – perhaps the only time in your life – when that intense search for self is accepted. When every morsel of a feeling is so incredibly heightened, you feel like you could internally combust.
For teenage Samera, those crushing emotions were about race. I literally grew up in two cultural worlds in none other than the melting pot of South West Sydney. My Lebanese Muslim father celebrated Ramadan. My Australian mother celebrated Christmas. I, of course, was obliged to celebrate both. But how on Earth does one explain that to the other (Anglo) kids at school who ever-so-comfortably drop the vulgar “W” word in front of you and ask why your mum is blonde when you clearly look, um, ethnic?
So, I just didn’t explain it. I avoided the conversation at all costs. I pretended I wasn’t who I was (which, for the record, I’m aware now was actually a beautiful mix). For an unacceptably long time, I allowed people to begin their sentences with “I’m not being racist, but…”. I thought that would help me fit in.
It makes me sad that I wasn’t braver. And that’s possibly why I created Layla Karimi, the half Lebanese, half Australian (what a coincidence!) protagonist of Half My Luck, who goes on a journey to reconcile with not only her own but also her community’s perceptions of her “other” culture.
While creating her world, I lived vicariously through someone who is the vocal dynamo I wish I’d been. Despite the characters and storyline coming from my imagination, the words fell out of me in an avalanche of relief, acceptance, and hope. An emotional release I wasn’t aware I needed. Have you ever re-read an old diary entry and cringed at the thoughts you divulged? That’s how I felt every day of the writing process.
I realize I’m making this appear all doom and gloom (that’s the teenager still in me). But I promise it isn’t. I managed to get some of that humor I wanted in there. Striking the right balance between the good, the bad, and the fun was high on my list. After all, if an eccentric old woman dramatically informing her granddaughter that she’s been cursed by the evil eye isn’t an amusing way to start a book, I don’t know what is.
It took me 20 years to get comfortable enough to explore this story (the good, the bad, and the funny). In those decades, many important things happened in Australia and around the world – the stereotypes and fear of my dad’s heritage and religion only further perpetuated by events that don’t need to be named here. I just hope the next 20 years are different for kids like me who felt their cultural pride had to be stifled due to headlines.
I’m certainly not trying to make any headlines of my own. I’m just a girl who loves words – mainly when their power is used for good – with a deeply personal story about family, place, and identity that unexpectedly forced its way onto shelves.