Diversity & Collaboration in Co-Writing ‘Hijabi Girl’
by Hazel Edwards OAM and Ozge Alkan
Q. When you met, how did you know you would be able to write together?
Hazel: Although from different cultures and generations, we have the same enthusiasm for books.
Q. What was the inspiration for writing ‘Hijabi Girl’?
Ozge: I was the head librarian for an Islamic college and I organised a character parade for students every book week. A hijab was part of the Islamic College uniform for all female students in grade three and up. This meant any ‘dress up’ book character the student found had to be modified into a hijabi character. Fed up with Little Red Riding Hood, I wanted a book with a hijab- wearing, vivacious girl as the main character to hand to my students. This was the book I asked Hazel to write.
Hazel: What we were trying to share in ‘Hijabi Girl’ is that diversity is strength, not a weakness. And that kids need fun stories reflecting their real lives which are more tolerant of differences than media news suggests. Literature, not propaganda, is the new anti-bullying, anti-Fear device.
I suggested Ozge wrote the book. Islamic cultural research was new for me. But eventually we agreed to co-write for mainstream readers. Took us three years.
Ozge: I initially visualized the book as a picture book with a younger main character. As we wrote the story we realised we needed more words.
Q. What processes did you use to collaborate?
Hazel: We co-wrote on Skype as we live an hour’s drive apart. We created character dossiers and plotted a synopsis. Researching, we went to an historical Hijab fashion exhibition at the Immigration Museum. Ozge was my personal guide. As Ozge’s guest, my family were invited to the street Iftar meal during Ramadan. Her husband Ahmet took the male members of our family over the mosque. We went to the Islamic Museum.
One of the great benefits of being an author is that research enriches your family life. Ozge’s family have become friendly with mine.
Ozge: My family moved from Turkey to United States when I was 13. I was the only Muslim student in a high school of 2000 students. I started wearing a hijab at the age of 11 so I had many personal experiences to draw from including comments like, ‘Why have you got a towel on your head? Have you got cancer?’ I told Hazel about modest swimwear, halal food, and hijab wearing barbies.
Q. How did you manage business decisions together when your partnership was primarily a creative one?
Ozge: We split roles. Hazel decided business but I would check cultural references. Culture also included football, as I am a keen Aussie Rules fan and we included the possibility of a girls’ footy team with some in hijabs.
Hazel: After 41 rejections from traditional publishers, I decided to self-publish via BookPOD. So Ozge had a baby and a book baby in the one year. Ironically some of the plot like Hijabi Barbi and mother who designs footy fan club-coloured hijabs happened AFTER we wrote them in the story.
Q. How did you find your illustrator and how did the three of you collaborate?
Hazel: Serena said the diverse cast reminded her of the neighbourhood in which she grew up. We had an art brief.
Ozge: Elsewhere, I have seen illustrations of Hijabi characters where things weren’t just right, hair showing, short sleeves etc. Serena researched well and I checked.
Q. What advice would you give to other writers who want to write about a culture that’s not their own?
Hazel: Research respectfully. Or collaborate.
Q. What was the Islamic community’s response to the book? The non-Islamic community?
Ozge: Extremely supportive from both. ‘It’s about time for a Muslim character in mainstream.’ At the launch, we autographed ALL the first print run.
Q. How did you get word out about the book?
Hazel: By offering culturally appropriate but ‘fun’ resources. Classroom playscript. Teachers’ notes. Activities. Sample chapter to download.
Ozge: Hazel’s newsletter, radio & blog interviews, Craigieburn library launch with Hume City Council’s media, Twitter with hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Panels at literary festivals.
Q. Has there been any overseas interest in it yet?
Hazel: Yes. And distribution via Ali-Gator, to Islamic schools in UK, New Zealand, Australia and Malaysia.
Ozge: But we’re interested in mainstream readership too.
Q. How did you get the book into schools?
Ozge: As an established author, fans buy Hazel’s books. Schools order directly from publisher BookPOD’s own online store. The launch and media release helped with awareness in schools. All information centred on Hazel’s ‘Hijabi Girl’ book page.
Q. Tell us what is Hijabi Girl about?
Ozge: ‘Hijabi Girl’ is about friendship and imaginative problem-solving.
It’s the Book Parade. Unable to find a character in a hijab who looks like her, Melek writes her own. With cartoons from newcomer Tien who draws fantastic worlds as an escape. And interruptions from soccer-mad Zac who never agrees with Melek’s ideas for a girls’ Aussie Rules footy team. Then there’s dress- ups -guru Lily who likes stuff from the past. The quirky classroom of Miss, has a Rainbow Reading Chair, and Zac’s escaping pet rat, is allowed to stay as long as Rattus Rattus is being read to in any language by any child. Even Zac. Mainstream, multi-cultural Australian school with fun, food and culturally adapted clothes and stories. ‘Hijabi Girl’ is about friendship, not bullying.
Q. What are your hopes for the book?
Ozge: That students will dress up in their next book parade as characters from ‘Hijabi Girl’.
Hazel: That schools find our discussion resources a fun way to appreciate other cultures.
AND a TV series.
Q. What have been the reviewers’ responses?
‘More kids’ books like this please ‘(George Ivanoff)
‘…a refreshing look at the diverse mix of cultures within most Australian school yards.’ Coral Vass
‘…all the differences make no difference, in a way’ Joanna.
Hazel Edwards OAM has published 200 books. Best known is ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake’ currently touring as a musical. Hazel has been on an Antarctic expedition, trekked in Nepal and co-writes across cultures. ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake; Being an Author’ is her memoir. Her website has hints for Aspiring Writers and an online e-book store.
Ozge Alkan was former head librarian at Ilim College but is now on maternity leave from Boorandara Public Library. Holding a Masters of Information Studies (Children’s Librarianship), she is a passionate reader and literacy advocate. Her first book ‘Hijabi Girl’ and her first baby arrived in the same year. She loves Book Character Parades. Ozge wears a hijab, sometimes in her footy club colours.
Serena Geddes is a Melbourne based illustrator who spent 6 years working for Walt Disney Studios in Australia on sequels to The Lion King, Peter Pan and Jungle Book. She has illustrated over 36 books since 2009 and is known for her work on the Lulu Bell series written by Belinda Murrell (Penguin Random AUS) and the Misty Inn series (USA).