Randa Abdel-Fattah's new novel The Lines We Cross starts with a protest. It's become a familiar scene for people in her native Australia, where the book is set, as well as in the U.K. and, of course, here in the U.S. There is one side, vehemently against refugees living in their country; and the other side, asylum seekers and their supporters, fighting for their equal rights and opportunities. Everyone is angry, no one is listening, nothing is solved. But if The Lines We Cross can be boiled down to one simple message, it's that nothing, and no one, is ever as black and white as they seem.
The story follows Michael, whose parents drag him to rallies held by their anti-immigrant group, where they rail against the tide of refugees flooding the country. And it all makes sense to Michael... until he meets Mina. She is a refugee from Afghanistan who endured a long and harrowing journey to Australia, and now faces a frigid reception at her new prep school where she is on scholarship. As tensions rise, and the two become friends, lines are drawn. Michael has to decide where he stands. Mina has to protect herself and her family. Both have to choose what they want their world to look like.
If you are well-versed in the world's refugee crisis you have probably heard stories like these before. But Abdel-Fattah uses Michael and Mina's lives to turn preconceived notions on their heads in a few ways. While she is known for writing books about the Muslim experience from a Muslim woman perspective, The Lines We Cross is a dual narrative, giving as much weight to Michael's experience as Mina's. The change in style was not only intentional, but crucial in a story that demands the reader to look closely at both sides of such a critical issue.
"It was really important to me to zoom in on two protagonists to explore the complex contradictions, conflicts and opposing views in debates and lived experiences around race, class and belonging," Abdel-Fattah tells Bustle.
Because the story does not focus on just one or the other side of the debate, readers are introduced to characters and motivations that will challenge them to think deeper about the issues explored. Abdel-Fattah's own experience as a Muslim woman of Egyptian and Palestinian heritage born in Australia certainly helped her write Michael, Mina and their families from a unique perspective.
"I certainly think that my own lived experience as a racialized minority writing from various subject positions—Australian-born, Muslim, Palestinian, Egyptian, academic, lawyer, activist, writer—provided me with a rich and deep appreciation for what was at stake in telling this story. I felt I had seen and understood so many 'sides' in all these capacities and worlds I inhabit," she says.
It is this Own Voices perspective that keeps the characters from ever feeling one-dimensional. Michael is an average teen who enjoys playing basketball and graphic design. Mina is a girl who loves indie music and shopping and junk food. Their families are full of love and warmth, even while their stories are wrapped up in a political firestorm, and their personalities, personal histories and motivations are not so simple.
This is perhaps most particularly true for Michael's father, the leader of an anti-immigrant group called Aussie Values. While he speaks out strongly against refugees, he also presents a more moderate approach than we have come to expect from those motivated by racial hatred, and his love for his family is always clear and never questioned. He is never painted simply as the villain and this forces the reader not to make knee-jerk reactions about him, an intentional choice by Abdel-Fattah.
"The greatest challenge was writing Michael’s parents. I didn’t want them to be racist caricatures. It was about finding the right balance, nuance and complexity, not reducing them to a one-dimensional racist stereotype," she says. "Michael's parents were crafted in order to remind readers that racism is not just in 'bad' or 'unpleasant' people. It is not a disposition, human nature or attitude. It is knitted into social structures and relationships and is cultivated and taught via politics, discourse and media. That Michael's father is a pleasant, warm man was, I hoped, one way of making my readers recognize parts of themselves or people they know whom they love and are close to. Standing up to the racism of friends and family is so much harder than standing up to the racism of strangers."
And that idea is tackled directly throughout the entire novel, from both Michael and Mina's perspective. While the two become friends and grow even closer throughout the novel, Mina struggles with seeing Michael both as someone she likes, and someone who is complicit in the spreading of hatred. Importantly, Abdel-Fattah never reduces Mina to a voiceless symbol of the refugee plight, keeping her autonomy as she calls Michael out on his thoughts and actions.
"That was critical for me. So much of Michael’s journey involves him confronting not only his privilege, but also the responsibility of challenging racism. Mina is blunt with Michael that she is not going to 'rescue' him from his racism," she says. "I wanted to be clear that ultimately it is not up to racialised people to do all the hard work that is needed to dismantle the racial logics of our society. Mina and Michael's romance was not about Mina rescuing Michael! It was about him stepping up and her learning to trust that he would. Nobody should lose their principles or compromise their values in order to be with somebody else."
For her readers, Abdel-Fattah not only wanted to tell a story that allows empathy for both sides of a debate, but one that calls readers to look into the real world with those same emotions. The Lines We Cross goes beyond the vitriol and lack of compassion we have seen from those who do not want, or try, to understand the very real sacrifices made and the courage it takes for asylum seekers to go on living after the trauma of displacement.
"I think politicians have led us to believe that refugees and asylum seekers are ‘issues’ [and] ‘complicated’. But it’s quite simple as far as I can see it. Australia, and indeed America, is a privileged country that is involved in wars that creates refugees. Some of those refugees risk their lives to escape persecution, violence and even death. The ones who try to reach us for protection we lock up," Abdel-Fattah says. "For me, Mina’s story is about simplifying the issue to some basic truths. Who do we count as human? What is privilege? Justice? Whom do we show empathy for and whom do we shun? What is it about our fears, insecurities, identity that needs an enemy, an ‘other’? I hope my readers are able to confront these questions head on."