On Writing

Demet’s interview with STVDIO as part of their series profiling the recipients of the Australia Council’s ArtStart grant. (2011)

Guest Post on Kids’ Book Review

Word Charmers

My father-in-law organises his world in tables and formulas on excel spreadsheets. But when he watches Dynamo the Illusionist walk on water, his eyes glow like light bulbs. ‘It is real, no? Look, people are watching him on the bridge. Look at their faces! How he does it? Amazing,’ he concludes, his methodical mind bending in Dynamo’s hands.     

This is the extraordinary power of magic. While its illusion transfixes the mind, real magic transforms our lives in many ways. 

We are all magicians who cast spells with twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Each day we charm them into words and sentences that alter our reality depending on our intention. Our words are like fire, pour in some love and they can spark up one’s soul. Fuel them with anger and they can light one up in flames. Pluck them from a creative space and they can set fire to one’s imagination.

It’s this alchemy of words that lured me into the powerful world of storytelling. While my novel Living on Hope Street explores the light, dark and mysterious places within the human psyche in a contemporary setting, my current work in progress has flung me into the fantastical world of Ruby Skillet, a young girl with quirky parents and a boat named Finn. 

Ruby’s is a world where humans and inanimate objects do mystical things, but the real magic occurs when I sit in front of my laptop, light a torch and search my imagination. Some days it’s like a dark, empty cave and no matter how hard I try, I can’t see beyond the damp walls that guard the entrance. Other times, my imagination is as colourful and explosive as fireworks full of eccentric characters and beings. 

When I bring these places to life with words, I uncover parts of myself I didn’t know existed. This place of discovery and transformation is worth a thousand spells. It’s a place we all access every day with words written and spoken. The kind of magic that’s pulled out of ourselves and not out of a hat.


Guest Post on Stella Schools Blog

Someone Else’s Shoes

My mother-in-law went into labour the night before I was born. She lived on the third floor of a small apartment block in the outskirts of Paris. When her contractions started, she walked down a winding staircase and sat on a stone bench in the backyard to wait for the ambulance. My husband was born at 9pm, and by 11pm, my father-in-law had sent a telegram to India and Pakistan to announce his arrival. Approximately 2940 kilometres away, in a village in Adana, Turkey, my fifteen-year-old mum was roasting chestnuts on a clay heater in her childhood home when her waters broke. Mum still had the grainy sweet taste of chestnuts in her mouth when she delivered me into the hands of a local midwife in the early hours of the morning.

My husband and I were infants when we migrated to Australia with our families in the early ’80s. His childhood was lit up with Christmas lights, while mine was sweetened with Turkish delight at Ramazan Bayram (the Festival of Sweets that follows the month of fasting) and KurbanBayram (the Festival of Sacrifice, when a sheep or a cow is sacrificed and distributed to the poor). We respectively grew up on traditional Indian–Pakistani and Turkish dishes that stunk out our school bags. My husband ate ox tongue sandwiches at lunch, and I grazed on stuffed vine leaves. Our palates punctuated our differences to the world around us like exclamation marks.

When our worlds collided at university, it was our similarities that built the foundation of our friendship. We stacked each one like bricks and, thirteen years later, we fell in love and were married by a celebrant in the Royal Botanic Gardens. We help the poor at Kurban Bayram; we pop bonbons at Christmas; we eat Turkish stews, Indian curries and throw a lot of snags on the barbie. Alone, it is easier for the outside world to define us and to shove us into our respective ethnic boxes. Together, we are a mystery. People stumble over our ethnic combination, faces crease into question marks. Heads do a double-take.

‘What’s your background?’ a landscaper once asked my husband.

‘Indian–Pakistani,’ he replied.

‘I knew it!’ he said. ‘But I got a bit confused because I saw your wife and I thought something’s not right here. Indians only marry Indians.’

Our societal labels limit us to a few words, like labels on a supermarket shelf. We are Turkish, Indian, Pakistani, Aussie, Catholic and Muslim. While these labels have helped shape part of our identities, they are a fraction of our complex and layered selves. Each day we uncover a new habit or vulnerability, like our fear of paranormal movies or my husband’s routine ten-point safety check of our accommodation when we travel. It’s these idiosyncrasies that expose and bind us. We are different shades of the same species – a theme I explore a lot in my writing.

My role as a writer is to walk in someone else’s shoes, and it’s the ones that are uncomfortable that challenge me the most. In the novel I am currently writing, Living on Hope Street, my character Mr Bailey’s shoes were so tight that initially they made my skin blister. His racism and prejudice curdled my blood. I met him when he was spying on his African refugee neighbours. ‘Mr Bailey counted four of them, a man, woman and two kids but he was on alert. These people could multiply at any moment.’ I swore at the computer screen till I was red in the face and resisted writing about him, until a thought struck me across the head like a flying shoe. By judging Mr Bailey, I was no different from him. So I forced myself to write and confront my own judgement. I met his wife, who he had loved unconditionally for fifty years; his dog Sunshine, who he had rescued from a dog home; and gradually uncovered his traumatic past until my dislike was replaced with understanding.

Storytelling is an exploration of what makes us human. It is a reflection of our society, our fears, wants, losses, courage and connections. It is an invitation to build empathy and challenge our misconceptions and the negative vitriol of ‘the other’ that is fuelled by the media. This is why Mr Bailey’s story was so important for me to write. Storytelling offers new and informed dialogues that challenge those shaped solely by stereotypes – like the conversation I had with a hairdresser:

‘Is your husband Indian?’ she asked, her eyes wide. ‘Does he smell?’

My mouth dropped.

‘Does he have an accent?’ she pressed on when I was too shocked to answer.

I write to inspire understanding so that the next time someone’s mind defaults to a stereotype they might think twice and, instead, the conversation can start with: ‘What’s his name?’

Human beings are not merchandise that can be packed, packaged and tagged. We are infinite and hard to define. The key to a more tolerant and informed society is to pause from our misguided fears and misunderstandings long enough to see each other. Our words, both written and spoken, have the power to shatter societal barriers and discard labels so that we can get to know each other from the inside out.