Your cultural heritage is a strength when writing authentic YA narratives 


    By Amra Pajalic

    Most writers begin by writing what they know, and their first novels tend to be autobiographical, and I was no different. My debut novel, re-released as Sabiha’s Dilemma, began as a memoir and then morphed into a young adult  novel about a girl who was very similar to me. My character Sabiha is of Bosnian background, has a mother who suffers from bipolar, and lives in the suburb of St Albans.

    Writing this novel was to write myself onto the page. To create a book that I wish I’d had when I was growing up. A book about young people who were like me. Instead, I grew up saturated on a diet of US TV shows and white-washed saccharine young adult novels like Sweet Valley High where everyone was white, pretty and privileged. 

    Reading these novels made me feel inferior and small. In St Albans more than half my peers were children of migrants. We grew up in frugal households where excursions were a luxury, tracksuit pants were our clothing of choice and the closest thing to recreation was hanging around the milkbar after school. We had a second language learnt from our parents that felt like a weight tearing us away from being true Aussies and our ethnic names exposed us to the question ‘where are you from’ on a daily basis.

    For years I felt a chip on my shoulder about my upbringing. All of these things made me feel less than. It has taken decades to see my upbringing and cultural heritage as a strength. To see that my voice and my story has something to offer. And so, I write for other 16-year-olds to read books that I wish I’d been able to read when I was growing up to inspire and lift other young people to see their story has value and their lives are unique and interesting. Since then, my debut has morphed into a young adult series Sassy Saints with three books published.

    These books are about adolescents who are caught between cultures, born as Australians and yet carrying the weight of their parent’s expectations to be true to their culture and heritage. The second book, Alma’s Loyalty, explores the dark side of sexting and the repercussions of internet bullying, and Jesse’s Triumph deals with the theme of young adult carers. 

    As a high school teacher, I am dedicated to improving literacy and to make reading accessible for all reading abilities. All of my books are published as ebook, paperback, dyslexic font edition, large print and audiobook, with teaching notes.

    The St Albans of today is much more diverse even than the St Albans I grew up in. With the recent resurgence of own-voice stories (books about characters from marginalised groups in which the author shares the same identity) resonating with readers, I hope that other young people will be inspired to see themselves too on the page and write their own stories.  

    Amra Pajalic is an editor, teacher and award-winning author who is appearing in conversation at Brimbank Writers’ Festival Sunday on 17 March 2024, 2–3pm, at St Albans Library and is running a workshop about self publishing on Saturday 23 March, 2-4 pm, Sydenham Neighbourhood House. 

    Visit her website

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