26 April 2023

Between two worlds, Once a Stranger is about family, culture and the ties that bind

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Zoya Patel

Zoya Patel’s second book is Once a Stranger. Photo: Linda Macpherson.

Zoya Patel says that yes, it’s personal. The Canberra author (and Region weekly columnist) has written her first novel (and second book) examining the experience of immigrants through a generational lens and exploring the world of parents, children and cultural divides.

Once a Stranger (published by Hachette in March) and her memoir No Country Woman (2018) traverse similar territory, although the novel was actually written first and then shelved while Zoya focused on her second book.

No Country Woman, which is “about what it means to never feel at home where you live” was widely acclaimed, but there was more to say – although Zoya herself didn’t see it that way at first.

“Part of me didn’t feel ready yet,” she says. “It took some cajoling from my editor and agent to revisit and rewrite. It was a bit raw and hard, and writing about these experiences feels very vulnerable in the culture I was raised in.

“You can do all the explaining and justifying in memoir because it’s more direct, but you can’t do that in fiction. You need to demonstrate motives for the characters, give them unique experiences, there’s no easy explaining,” she says.

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Once a Stranger is a story about family ties and family estrangement. Ayat hasn’t seen or spoken to her sister, Laila, and mother, Khadija, for six years after baulking at her sister’s arranged marriage.

She herself lives with Harry, an Anglo-Australian, and their relationship is deemed haram (forbidden) in her traditional cultural belief system.

But when Khadija falls seriously ill, Ayat must make hard decisions about whether – and how – to reconcile with her family and their differing perspectives on faith, family values and integration into Australian culture.

Book cover

Region columnist Zoya Patel’s first novel.

Zoya is the daughter of Fijian Indian migrants and was born in Suva.

“My own father grew up in rural Fiji in a one-bedroom house made of mud and straw, with no plumbing or electricity as a child. He was in his 20s when his brothers got their first car, and that was a huge deal,” she says.

“The life he’s built for us in Australia is one of immense privilege. We went to great schools, we essentially grew up middle class and chose white collar careers where you make choices about your life, you can pay someone else to fix things.

“That tenacity, the practical skills to thrive under adverse conditions haven’t been a part of my life in the way it was for my parents. The book looks at people who formed their identity in their home country but are creating a world for their children that they’ll never fit into themselves.”

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Zoya says that until she started writing, she hadn’t excavated much of that journey with her own family. Writing her memoir and now the novel opened doors and prompted some deep conversations with them about, for example, shared experiences of racism.

While she now doesn’t have close links to her cultural community, plenty of Zoya’s friends and colleagues – like many Australians – have a shared migrant history that resonates with her family’s experiences.

“I hear from a lot of readers who say they see their own experience in my work, even if they’re not from my specific Indian Muslim background,” she says. “There are a lot of people in my generation, the second-generation children of migrants, who relate to the struggle between two worlds.”

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A freelancer who also writes for the Guardian, SBS and other national mastheads, one of Zoya’s constant family tasks is editing her father’s very lengthy family history. It’s currently sitting at 100,000 words and the running joke is that she’s doing the last edit for him before he’s finished.

“And he never will be!” Zoya says. She’s currently working on a manuscript about coming of age and wants to explore a wide range of genres including young adult and fantasy fiction.

“Fiction is where my heart lies, which is interesting to think about because writing the book was not fun, at all. I was constantly wondering, ‘Am I doing it right?’.

“But in a way, writing this novel created space for other stories to come”.

Once a Stranger by Zoya Patel is published by Hachette. It is available in bookstores and online.

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