To get the girl in Randa Abdel-Fattah’s YA novel, The Lines We Cross, Australian teenager Michael Blainey needs to get (and stay) “woke”—though it’s probably not the term he would use.
“I’m familiar with it,” Abdel-Fattah says of the slang usage denoting possession of a social justice consciousness, “but it’s very much an American-specific context word, although it certainly resonates with what’s happening in Michael’s situation.”
Readers of The Lines We Cross (ages 12-17) meet Michael at an anti-refugee, anti-Muslim protest. He’s a halfhearted participant—brought along by his parents, founders of a racist right-wing organization called Aussie Values—holding a sign someone else made (No to Sharia Law). Gazing across the crowd, he’s suddenly struck by the beauty of a counterprotestor.
“I’m standing holding my sign and there she is, standing steps away, near the cop, holding hers (It’s Not Illegal to Seek Asylum), and all I can think about is how the hell I’m going to take my eyes off her,” Abdel-Fattah writes in The Lines We Cross. “Her hair is jet-black, hanging loose down her back, and I think hair that gorgeous has no business being on someone like her.”
Abdel-Fattah, who identifies as “Australian, Muslim, Palestinian, Egyptian,” is an award-winning author (Does My Head Look Big In This?, Ten Things I Hate About Me), a former attorney, and an expert on Islamophobia in Australia. The idea for The Lines We Cross came from researching a Ph.D. on racism from the point of view of the perpetrators.
“While I was at [a similar] protest, interviewing people,” she says, “I started to question and wonder what it would feel like to be a young teenager being socialized in a family where you are constantly hearing this sort of vitriol against Muslims, migrants, and refugees. How do you build the courage and conviction to try to find out things on your own rather than simply just believe what you’re told?
“The character Michael popped into my head,” she continues, “and then I thought, Well, let’s make things interesting.”
Enter Mina, the counterprotestor Michael admires from afar, an Afghan refugee whose family entered Australia 10 years ago at great cost and peril. They’ve recently relocated to Sydney’s lower North Shore to accommodate her education: she earned a scholarship to Victoria College, the tony high school Michael attends—the kind of place where the wealthy, well-intentioned underclassmen take a trip to a third-world country to engage in photo-op philanthropism.
“I have two more years of being Victoria College’s cultural diversity mascot,” Mina texts a friend from her old neighborhood, after the principal asks her to appear on the cover of the quarterly magazine to showcase the school’s “commitment to multiculturalism.” (The eye-roll emoji is implied.)
Funny, smart, and compassionate, Mina is as fully realized a character as Michael, with whom she takes turns narrating The Lines We Cross. And while their acquaintance ultimately leads to his awakening, she’s no mere catalyst for the change in him.
“Mina doesn’t need to save Michael,” says Abdel-Fattah. “That, to me, was an important point to make also in a book for young people. In YA fiction with romances, sometimes we find that…the girl saves the boy, she rescues him from his own sexism, or from his own temper, or whatever it is. I really wanted to make a feminist statement that it’s not Mina’s job. She can nudge him, but he needs to grow up and confront his racism and prejudice on his own.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.