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Alumna's teen tales urge new generation to seize the future

5 April 2016
Writer produces powerful young adult stories

Master of Media Practice graduate Sarah Ayoub is a journalist-turned-novelist whose high school stories are connecting with young Australians. 

Sarah Ayoub has had two young adult fiction novels published since graduating with a Master of Media Practice in 2008. Image: Courtesy of the author

Sarah Ayoub has had two young adult fiction novels published since graduating with a Master of Media Practice in 2008. Image: Courtesy of the author

Sarah Ayoub (MMediaPrac ‘08) loves universities. And it is easy to understand why. The journalist and author has wise views to share on everything from gender and young adulthood to multiculturalism and the future of publishing.

“Every time I set foot in a university, I just feel alive,” says Ayoub. “I think there is so much promise in the air when you are around young people, change, new ideas and discoveries.”

Ayoub’s work as a journalist, author and public speaker centres around this idea of transformation. Her belief in young Australians is refreshing at a time of glib assumptions and hasty assessments about Generation Z.

She knows their lives inside and out. Hate Is Such A Strong Word, Ayoub’s first novel, told the story of Sophie Kazzi, a 17-year-old Lebanese-Australian attending a Catholic High School in Bankstown.

It is not your average adult fiction novel, the kind found strewn across bookshops with occasional rent-a-plot predictability. When it was published in 2013, it earned rich praise for its exploration of identity, love and culture.

So much of Sophie is equally Sarah, explains Ayoub. The novel’s protagonist and plot were influences by the anxieties of teenage Ayoub, who was caught between two different cultures and ways of thinking.

“I come from a culture where women are told to be seen and heard under a set of very specific circumstances,” says Ayoub. “When you grow up in Australia as a reader and have all these worlds open to you because of books, you really struggle with a way of thinking that says you’re a second-class citizen,” she says.

Growing up and branching out, Ayoub was disappointed to learn the wider world fails on gender in its own ways. She sees the arts as a means to tackle issues such as gender and multiculturalism  – as she does adroitly in her writing – in a deep and constructive way.

 

I believe in teenagers and I have got high hopes for them for our future.

Ayoub has fond memories of her single year spent studying a Master of Media Practice at the University of Sydney. She praises Dr Fiona Giles for giving her a passion for long-form writing and recalls a happy turn of events, which saw Harper Collins hire Nicola O’Shea – who taught her manuscript editing – to work on her debut book.

“I learned so much through the scope of the arts about history and how things have changed,” says Ayoub. “Only 25 years ago, there was a protest here at the University of Sydney about the establishment of a Women’s Studies Department [now the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies]. This is how you learn to be part of the future, by learning about the past, by discussing ways people think, by analyzing art, by reading stories.”

As some fronts are changing, others remain stuck. Ayoub is concerned that Australia is having the same conversations about what it means to be an ethnic person in Australia, what it means to be an Australian, and how we view migrants as we have been for decades. She laments how decades ago the needle was stuck on Greek and Italian communities, whereas for the past 20 years it has been fixed on Middle Eastern Australians.

“There are still so many incorrect perceptions about what it means to be Middle Eastern,” says Ayoub, who has taken these assertions to task in her writing.

Storytelling keeps emerging as a means to better futures, when you speak to Ayoub. You also get a real picture she is humble about a responsibility to her readers, so often at a formative crossroads in their lives.

“I want to be true to who they are,” she says. “I don’t want to write characters that make teenagers feel like we are dumbing them down. I believe in teenagers and I have got high hopes for them for our future.”

Ayoub is invested in a new generation of reader and writers. She frequently speaks to High School students as a Stella Schools Program ambassador and lectures first-year journalism students at Notre Dame University.

She is soothingly positive about the future of books in a time of gloomy predictions across the publishing world.  For Ayoub, the shift to digital is affording readers new ways of connecting with the writers they love. It is also giving emerging writers a way to get feedback on their early works and opening new doors for agents and publishers to discover fresh voices.

“We have been storytellers since the beginning of time,” says Ayoub. “The way that we tell stories is constantly changing.” You can tell as Ayoub delivers it, this is an epilogue of opportunity for new authors and readers to seize.

Sarah Ayoub’s latest novel is The Yearbook Committee.