Writers Victoria CALD Mentorships 2013 mentee: Fatima Sehbai


Fatima Sehbai“CALD, MT and kite flying”

Have you heard of the reluctant fundamentalist? I’m a bit like that- not the fundamentalist part but. I had resisted all feelers, creative shenanigans and poetic stirrings. Not to mention my genetic make-up. I kept squashing them annoying flies. I was a computer programmer and poetry was merely a frivolous pastime. Then Migration happened and a logical thinking, equation quoting, programming junkie was unable to solve this Rubik cube. Two years in and I was full on hating my life in Melbourne. I kept looking back and turning to stone. I missed the dust, the cows, the rickshaws, my cousins- squelching heat and my school friends. In desperation and with some reluctance I started writing poetry. Then sprouted some migration pieces, a few short stories- turmeric stained and filled with nostalgia for mangoes and rope swings. Before I knew it, my writing genes had taken over. I became a reluctant writer.

Back home my religion, my gender, my accent, my culture- was a given, my default mode- Moving down under forced me to stand on my head. Every little thing had to be ‘reckoned’. Over the years I’ve had to explain myself, re-invent myself, defend myself and have had to try and fit into the ‘jacket’

Stumbling into multiculturalism has led me to writing. It is meandering, often goes on a tangent, a tad moralistic and very much entrenched in my homeland. To me this type of writing wasn’t useful, wasn’t marketable. So In my efforts to fit in, I tried writing clever, clean and sassy-  that didn’t work well.

Feeling stalked and insecure about my writing I encounter an author who is probably the ‘Katniss’ of literary world. She’s not very tall, has untamed hair and carries books everywhere. Her eyes reflect her heightened sense of discovery, intuition. She too has an accent, she too speaks more with her hands but unlike me she doesn’t skirt the issues. She faces it head on – with a bow and arrow.

Conversations with Maria were like flying a kite. Words soared and phrases dipped, some arguments were let go and some were held tight. Coloured paper kites strewn across clear blue skies – it was Basant. My ideas flew helter skelter and with dizzying speed, they climbed roof tops and weaved through narrow streets. And Maria was with me, she felt and understood them, sometime more than me. She harnessed them. My writing started to look like needle work- intricate and beautiful.

Maria understood where I am as a writer but more than that she’s made me understand where I am heading. I don’t cringe about my pieces any more, I have started owning them. And an important part of my writing my disabled fables that are so close to my heart, that have stayed hidden in folders, Maria has helped me to take them out for a stroll – in public places.

The jacket doesn’t need to fit she says, I don’t have to write like Tim Winton she says, forget about being someone else she says- just be she says- I have a magical inner world and Australia maybe ready to see it she says.  She’s magic herself I say.

CALD mentorship has been revolutionary on many levels for me, I’ve met other like minded people and it’s been a refreshing, educational and immensely empowering experience. The mentorship, the selected participants and the one on one time with Maria was recognition of diversity in its true form- in its complete freedom of expression.  I feel ready, ready to fly a kite.

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An Extract from the piece I worked on with Maria Tumarkin ‘Colour me in.’

Our home group also maintained a ‘prayer and chair’ roster. The rostered student would put the chairs up every afternoon at pack up and they also had to say the prayer each morning.  Some students followed the roster dutifully, some needed reminders but Fadi stayed well away from prayer duty. He sat in the back row, his eyes a careful wall.

During class one day I noticed Fadi’s lips moving. Stopping mid lesson I requested him to get rid of his gum. He looked surprised, ‘she knows I’m in class?’ We played this game a few more lessons; him chewing defiance and me brandishing school rules.  Students who chewed in class came up with various excuses.

‘It’s not gum it’s the rubber band from my braces.’

‘Chewing helps me concentrate better.’ And my favourite ‘My dentist told me I have to chew gum.’

But Fadi would just stare. His silence and zero remorse were getting to me. One day out of annoyance I smacked an after school detention on Fadi. Chew on that! Most kids caved in after a detention but Fadi didn’t break, instead he played another move. He kept chewing and then lied about it. Lying required actually speaking to me, ‘he knows I’m in class?’Fadi denied that he was chewing. Denied it every single day.  Clearly his behaviour was having the desired effect – unnerving me. I decided to try his strategy and started giving him the silent treatment.  He chewed, I ignored.

Fadi’s tales of stubbornness wafted in our staffroom. He was giving his female teachers as well as some older male teachers a hard time.  Discussions about fights in the yard, refusing to work with other students and gang spats at the local train station simmered between tuna sandwiches and two minute noodle.

‘Sudanese men didn’t respect rules.’

‘They are not used to taking orders from women. ‘

‘Wasn’t this the reason he got expelled from his previous school?’

A couple of young male teachers who had Fadi for P.E would shrug their buff shoulders and claim that he was no trouble at all. Math teachers secretly cursed the sports teachers while the sports teachers secretly gloated about the fact that no one liked boring maths teachers. Tips on handling difficult students were fired around the room rapidly till someone ended the conversation with the dog eared phrase: ‘Student like him would end up in jail one day.’

#Editor’s note: More of Fatima’s writing can be seen on the Writers Victoria’s CALD mentorship ‘tasters’ webpage

Fatima Sehbai

Author: Fatima Sehbai

Fatima Sehbai is a Pakistani born Melbourne based writer. She writes poetry and short stories in English as well as Urdu. Migrant experience, life stories and modern day fables are her main interest. She has been published in The Age, RMIT anthology and Pakistan Tribune and she also maintains a blog of her work. Fatima holds a Masters Degree in Computer Sciences and a post graduate qualification in Education from Melbourne University. She currently teaches maths and ICT. Email: fsehbai66@gmail.com