Meet the Notre Dame student who has a way with words

21 July 2020

Postgraduate student Sarah Ayoub has been awarded an Australia Council Resilience Grant and invited to be Writer-in-Residence at Sweatshop Western Sydney, all while working on her PhD and preparing for the arrival of her third child.

The Australian Council Resilience (ACR) Grant was designed to support artists, groups and organisations impacted by COVID-19, and recipients – whether performers, writers or painters – are encouraged to use the $10,000 grant to continue creating artistic work despite the disruption and challenges posed by the pandemic. Like many others working in the arts, Sarah Ayoub, an author and PhD candidate in The University of Notre Dame’s School of Arts & Sciences lost income and opportunities when the pandemic hit so she decided to apply.

“The pandemic meant I had many events such as speaking engagements, school workshops and the Sydney Writer’s Festival cancelled, and the publishing outlets I freelanced for scrapped their budgets or, in some cases, put their publications on hold entirely. It also affected my output – having to home-school meant that both my studies and my writing had to go on hold,” says Sarah. “Having access to these funds has been an incredible blessing.”

As part of Sarah’s grant application, she included a letter of support from a teacher librarian who works at a school where Sarah’s books are so popular they continually go missing from the library and need to be restocked.

“It was actually a really affirming (and hilarious) thing to discover,” says Sarah. “But ultimately, the reason I began writing was because, as a Lebanese Australian, I couldn’t see myself reflected in much of the literature I was consuming, and for identities to be negated in such a way has a very detrimental effect on how youth see themselves in the societies in which they live. Most Australian writers don’t do what they do for the financial remuneration, which is trivial. We do it because we love it. I do it because I want teenage girls to see the value in who they are at a time when they get so many conflicting messages.”

Sarah plans to use the ACR Grant funding to further develop her young adult fiction work The Cult of Romance, which will be published by HarperCollins in May next year. “The Cult of Romance was inspired by the research I am undertaking for my PhD at Notre Dame, which looks at the way 21st century ‘coming-of-age’ narratives now intervene in dominant discourses about the racialised other,” Sarah explains.

“I grew up reading stories of girls negotiating their dual Australian-ethnic identities in the white Australian environment, but eventually I realised that they only presented a partial view of the ethnic experience, because we never got to see those dual identity subjects in their own ethnic motherlands. So my novel is about an Australian-born Lebanese girl who heads back to Lebanon for the first time, and realises that the values and customs that she was brought up with were no longer part of the fabric of the country her family left behind, but rather fragmented memories that her family had internalised in an effort to hold onto their identities in the diaspora.”

In the same month she was awarded the ACR Grant, Sarah was also invited to take up a 12-month residency at Sweatshop Western Sydney – a literary movement devoted to empowering culturally and linguistically diverse communities through reading, writing and critical thinking.

The residency has two elements; the first will see Sarah working with Sweatshop to run workshops in schools in the pursuit of producing an anthology on teen experiences of racism, which Sarah will have an editing role in. The second part of the residency will allow her to begin developing her first work of fiction for adults, Good Lebanese Girls.

“It’s still early days, but I am hoping that Good Lebanese Girls will explore the social and cultural dynamics underpinning the lives of Lebanese women in South-Western Sydney,” says Sarah. “The story will follow four characters embarking on their first careers, first ‘official’ (ie. parent-sanctioned) relationships, and experiences of motherhood and divorce, to highlight the often under-represented realities of Lebanese women in Western Sydney who are caught between age-old traditions and the social norms of the more modern west.”

In short, the book will share the stories of women whom are all at different stages in life, and yet all bound by cultural, social and religious rules that determine where they fit in the world, and the realisation that the fit is not always fair or pleasant.

Sarah says she was honoured to be invited to be Sweatshop Western Sydney’s Writer-in-Residence and describes Sweatshop’s Director, Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad – the award-winning author of The Lebs – as “an incredible friend and ally in this business of publishing”.

“Being a writer is often a solitary pursuit,” says Sarah. “I wrote my first novel with no prior experience in creative writing and I’ve had to do most of my learning on the job, so having someone like Dr Ahmad to work alongside will be a very valuable experience. He founded such a successful movement that gives marginalised writers opportunities they wouldn’t necessarily get elsewhere, and I really respect that.”

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