H. Hayek is the second-youngest of seven children, born to Lebanese – Australian parents who grew up in Perth and now calls Melbourne home. As a child, she struggled with reading and writing through her earliest years, but knew from the time she was a young girl that she wanted to work with words.
Last month, she released a YA book, called ‘Huda and Me‘, a comedy about two Lebanese-Australian kids who decide to escape their babysitter by running away to Lebanon. Women’s Agenda sat down with the talented author to ask her about her background, her career so far, and her extraordinary book.
Why did you write ‘Huda and Me’?
I wrote Huda and Me because there was a bunch of stuff swirling around in my head. Mainly, my family. They’ve always been the centre of my world. There are seven of us kids, and growing up there wasn’t much to do but hang out with each other. We still laugh about some of the funny things, or the not so funny things, that happened. For some reason, I was usually the centre of the trouble.
So that was one reason I wrote the book, because everyone always says – ‘write what you know.’ What I know is my family, the issues we faced, each of our individual traits and how we all get on with things.
In the mix of all of that is our background – Lebanese and Muslim. I wanted to write about our lives, and similarly, the lives of thousands of kids like us. Sure, the adventure of the two main characters (Huda and Akeal) embark on is completely out there; but how they talk, how they think, what’s special to them, what they believe in, their values…that’s something so many kids, so many people in this country can relate to. I hadn’t seen a book like the one I wrote, so I wrote it.
More than anything, humour is so important to me. The story is funny, and I love to make people laugh. This book would never have worked if it was written in any other way.
What were some of the stories you read growing up in Australia that resonated with you?
This is such a hard question because I barely read when I was a kid. I hated reading. I was so bad at it, I avoided reading like the plague because it would remind me how ‘dumb’ I was. We were the kids of migrants so having books in the house that resonated with us wasn’t really a thing.
At school, I read books – or was read books – that were completely removed from my own life. I did love Roald Dahl. I loved how he wrote gross and outrageous things. That probably inspired my own love of gross and outrageous things! I discovered as teen I enjoyed biographies and autobiographies, reading about people’s lives and their triumphs. That hasn’t changed.
What were some of the challenges you faced growing up in Australia and how did you overcome them?
One of the challenges I faced was being different. I did manage to fit in, but it was by done by rejecting the things that made me different. So I guess you could say, I did a good job of hiding who I was. I couldn’t hide the colour of my skin though or that my mum wore a head scarf or that my dad spoke with a Middle Eastern accent.
I went to a public high school in a middle-class area. I was one of two Arab kids in our year level and I think we both did a good job of playing the part of how to act. I look back on my teen years and I do smile. It wasn’t awful, it was just not who I could have been.
I remember being in the girls bathroom with a friend in about Year 10. We were looking at ourselves in the mirror and applying our lip gloss and all of that. I said to her casually, and probably fishing for a compliment, “Do you think I’m pretty?” Her response was, “Yeh, for a brown person.” So I guess not matter how much I tried to fit in, I was still just the brown person.
A few instances like that combined with age and maturity had me embrace who I am. And that’s an Australian Muslim, with Lebanese heritage. It’s not one or the other, more a mish-mash.
You have a background in teaching too. What did teaching give you, as a writer?
The best thing about teaching is the obvious – you get to spend time with kids. I enjoyed my time in the classroom and realised quickly that I could teach the curriculum in all types of ways. And that kids would respond to it. So if I was teaching Explanation Texts, we’d research how toilets work. Or how sausages are made.
Stuff to gross them out but fascinate them at the same time. I think what teaching gave me as a writer was confidence in my own voice. To speak to kids how I’d speak to anyone else – age appropriate content and topics, of course. I think I learned through teaching that kids respond best to adults respecting them enough to be real, and fun.
What themes did you set out to explore in Huda and Me, and why did you decide to do it through fiction?
There are a few main themes in Huda and Me, which emerged as I was writing. Sibling love, racism, what it means to be Australian, belonging, courage, kindness, adventure… are just some of the themes in the book. I didn’t start writing with any of this in mind, it just happened organically through the process.
Why did I decide to write the story through fiction? I wanted it to be an adventure, something exciting and out of the ordinary, which happens to ordinary kids. Although it is a fictional story, the characters are based on my own siblings and family. So it’s kind of like setting real people up in a fictional plot and seeing what they do. What we, my family, might have done.
For those young women in Australia hoping to write a book as you have, what is one or two pieces of advice you would share with them?
My first piece of advice would be to learn about the genre and age group you’re interested in writing for. Do a short course, research online, look at good, and bad, examples of how it’s done. That will set you up to get to where you want to go.
My second piece of advice is to write. Just write.