‘They want to stop the boats. Mina wants to stop the hate.’
One of my favourite bookish podcasts is Better Words, hosted by Michelle and Caitlin, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog before. When they dropped their episode featuring Randa Abdel-Fattah three weeks ago they promised it was an amazing interview, and boy, did they deliver! This episode is what prompted me to read When Michael Met Mina for a second time, ignoring my toppling TBR pile yet again. I suppose, in the scheme of problems, an ever growing TBR pile is a pretty good problem to have.
The story opens at a rally, where both Michael and Mina are present. Michael stands with his parents, the founders of radical organisation Aussie Values who see refugees as a threat, queue jumpers, here to steal Aussie jobs and their ideas of what the Australian way of life should be. Mina stands with the people fleeing persecution, holding a sign saying ‘It’s not illegal to seek asylum’. Their eyes meet, and even though the attraction Michael feels for Mina is instantaneous, he questions it.
The inspiration for this novel came to Abdel-Fattah as she attended a Reclaim Australia rally, and attempted to interview people as part of her PHD research. In the interview featured on Better Words, she wondered what it would be like to grow up in a family that believed in the same values that are espoused by those in Reclaim Australia, and how that would colour what you believed. This is something Michael struggles with throughout the novel, especially when he finds that Mina has gained a scholarship to his private school, Victoria College, and he starts to get to know her better.
The novel is told from two different points of view, alternating between Michael and Mina. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of shifts in points of view like this, but for this particular story I think it works well. Mina’s story starts as she is preparing to move houses and start her new life at Victoria College, leaving behind her friends and bringing with her a stinging sense of guilt that she is causing her family to be uprooted from their comfortable life.
One of the themes I picked up throughout this novel is the ownership that others seem to feel over Mina because of her ‘otherness’. I read Victoria College as being a pretty privileged school, made up of predominantly white students, mainly because when Mina arrives she is made to feel like ‘Victoria College’s new cultural diversity mascot’. It becomes evident through the way that other characters treat her throughout the novel, this is how they view her too. She is questioned about what it means to be Muslim, questioned about Islam and how she got to Australia. The questions range from curious to downright rude, and more than once throughout the novel she is forced to defend her place.
Abdel-Fattah writes with wit and intelligence and has crafted the relationships between characters so that they feel very real. Michael and his parents were particularly interesting to read. While the concept of disagreeing with your parents isn’t a particularly new concept in Young Adult fiction (or indeed, in life), it was interesting to read how this relationship was strained when Michael disagreed with something that was fundamental to his parents, something that they had built their life around.
I’m really glad that I re-read When Michael met Mina, as it has solidified its place as one of my favourite #LoveOzYA novels. For those who are interested in hearing Randa Abdel-Fattah interviewed, do check out Better Words podcast and head to the episode from July 11th.
‘That anger is good, but with action it is better’.