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North Melbourne Books talks to Anne Aly
North Melbourne Books: Finding My Place tells an amazing story. From Cairo to the suburbs of Australia, then back to Egypt, the hard years as a single mother raising two children, a successful life in academia and finally politics.
What made you want to write a book about your life?
Anne Aly: It wasn’t entirely my idea. I was approached to write a book and responded to the request with “sure. I’ll write a book about terrorism. I’ve got some new research I can give you 100 000 words in a couple of weeks.” Well, they responded with “No. We’d like you to write a book about yourself.”
I don’t consider myself a great story teller and it certainly wasn’t on my radar to write a memoir but I considered it and my husband convinced me that I do have a story to tell.
NMB: Although the book has wide appeal, strong themes emerge about how women - especially Muslim women - are defined. Do you hope these aspects of the book may inspire younger women who are entering work and university?
AA: Absolutely. I couldn’t write a book about my journey without exploring themes around my cultural and religious heritage and the impact on the person I am today. I wanted the book to speak to younger women who, like my younger self, may be struggling to find their place and their voice- not just Muslim women but all women. It’s also about looking at how we are defined by those around us and how we navigate the inevitable expectations that come with being defined in ways which may not always align with how we see ourselves or what we want for ourselves. I think that’s a theme that can also appeal to men as well as women.
NMB: Some of the writing is very personal. Did you find you find the writing process difficult at times?
AA: Yes. It was hard. And very confronting. I haven’t really ever looked back at my life and where I’ve come from or how I got to where I am. I’ve kind of always had my eye on the road ahead as opposed to the road I’ve travelled. So that was confronting. It is a very personal story. And I probably could have curbed some of it but I decided that if I was going to write this then I was going to lay it all out- warts and all. That’s scary because we get judged on so many levels as public figures- on how we look, what we say, what we wear etc. And this book is like saying “well here I am. This is me. Judge me.”
There are moments when I wish I had chosen a quieter life. But then I think about all those years I stayed silent about the physical violence in my first marriage and I realise that nothing ever changes if you stay silent. I’m incredibly privileged to have a platform and a voice and I don’t want to waste that by being silent or having reservations.
NMB: You write that you have always liked literature and the arts. Do you have any favourite writers or books that particularly inspired you?
AA: I have an embarrassing obsession with true crime books that I tend to purchase at airport book shops!
But I also love Camus, Kafka and Satre.
My favourite book of all time is Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. In my book I also talk about how Kafka’s Metamorphosis really spoke to me. It’s about a man who wakes up one day and finds he has turned into a giant insect. He spends the rest of his days locked in his bedroom because his family are so ashamed of him.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
I don’t get a lot of time to read but right now I’m about ¾ of the way through The Dry by Jane Harper. It’s a crime thriller (of course. What else!) set in outback Australia and it’s Harper’s first book. I love Aussie novels and we have some fantastic literary talent.
Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra – The Irresistible Story of an Irrepressible Woman, by Anne Aly. Published by ABC books. RRP: $32.99