FROM ENGINEERING TO ACTIVISM. Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian writer, broadcaster and social advocate. With a background in mechanical engineering she is also a Trustee of The London Library. Her latest book “Listen, Layla” is described by publisher Penguin as a hilarious follow-up title to her “You Must Be Layla”.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied, you were passionate about motor-racing when you were young and living in Australia. Later you became a mechanical engineer. Why cars and mechanics?
I had always been interested in science and finding out why things worked the way they did. I come from a family of engineers; the technical world is very familiar to me. When I was 13 I watched a film called ‘Catch That Kid’. Three kids rob a bank and escape on go-carts. Watching this kid drive a go-cart really fast sparked something in me. I started reading about cars and begging my father to take me to car shows. It blossomed into love of a world of adventure and possibility that was a bit forbidden. I knew that people like me weren’t really into motorsport.
Did you ever race?
Being a Formula One driver is quite difficult and expensive so I went down the design route and ran a race car team. I was not the team driver, but I was always racing my friends on the streets of Brisbane. The first car that I wanted to buy was a Toyota Supra, a twin-turbo engine, Japanese car. My dream car was the 1969 C3 Corvette Stingray.
Cars are going through a big revolution. There is this big discussion about should cars be electric, hydrogen powered and so on. What are your ideas on that?
This is a tricky one for me. I’m somebody that loves horseshoes at the time when Henry Ford was making the first automobiles. I just cannot get excited about electric cars. I’ve driven them, I know that they’re fantastic, their acceleration is amazing. But it’s just not exciting to me. I’m a mechanical engineer. I want grease, gears, petrol, the smell, the noise, the visceral experience. Electricity doesn’t give me any of that. In this particular thing in my life, I find it very difficult to transition.
“Life is very unpredictable. I only get one and I want to live it as much as I possibly can.”
Yassmin Abdel-Magied, what has led you from engineering and racing cars to social work?
I started an organisation called “Youth Without Borders” when I was 16, and ran that for nine years alongside being an engineer. The companies I worked for demanded that either I did social justice work or engineering. I thought that I could do both, and I tried to for as long as I possibly could. When I wrote my first book, the engineering company I worked for gave me a disciplinary warning and benched me. I was very good at what I did, on a fast track within the company, but they forced me to decide between following a path of doing good in the world and following engineering. Unfortunately my love of engineering was no match for that.
Then you became an activist, a television personality, and a writer?
I did what was available and tried to make the best of various situations and mediums, whether it was television, writing or speaking. There’s a lot in life you can’t control, so you focus on what you can control and make the most of that.
You’re conflating two separate occasions. On television in February of 2017 a politician was essentially saying that we should ban Muslims. I am an Australian citizen and I disagreed with her, obviously. That kicked off a media frenzy, trying to discredit me and attack me and so on. Separately on Anzac Day I wrote on my Facebook page “Lest We Forget”, a phrase that’s used often to commemorate the fallen, and in brackets I wrote: (Manus, Nauru, Palestine, Syria). Manus and Nauru are two prison camps where Australia holds, essentially in indefinite detention, people that tried to seek refuge in Australia. My intention on a day when we are trying not to forget those who have fallen in the past was also to think about who we should not forget today. My post was not received in the way that it was intended. Even though I took it down about an hour or two later and apologised unreservedly – which people tend to forget – it became the cudgel that I was then battered with for the rest of that year. I lost all my work, got many death threats, was called names online, and politicians spoke about me in parliament.
How did they reproach you?
They said I was being un-Australian and was ungrateful for what the country had given me. They asked why should I have opportunities and be part of the Australian public discourse when I was clearly somebody who disrespected the country.
“My understanding of who I am in the world that I come from is so different from how others see me.”
Yassmin Abdel-Magied, how does being a Muslim shape your life?
Islam is the thing that gives me the structure, foundation and framework for how I move through the world. I wouldn’t be who I am without Islam.
In your book, ‘You Must Be Layla’, Layla has to fight to be accepted. Is she a bit like you, tough, determined, and then slowly becoming accepted and respected?
What is challenging about being Muslim in the countries that I’ve lived in, Australia, the UK and now France, is that people engage with Muslim people from a very politicised place that’s often a place of ignorance. Before people engage with you as a human being they interact with you with all these assumptions, biases and prejudices. That exists at an individual level and at an institutional level, and is informed by history and foreign policy. You have to do so much work to bypass all of that before you get to speak human to human, perhaps because there’s a dearth of young Muslim women characters in English language fiction books. Women in my family were proud of who they were, empowered, staunch. My understanding of who I am in the world that I come from is so different from how others see me. That dissonance is exhausting.
How did you come to be a Trustee of The London Library?
I was on the board of the Queensland Museum, the Queensland Design Council, the Council for Australian-Arab Relations, and the Australian Multicultural Council. I helped redesign the State Library of Queensland. I’ve been involved in governance for many years. I love The London Library and I’m passionate about bringing books and literature to as many people as possible, so I applied to be a trustee.
Nowadays people use Google more and libraries less. What makes The London Library so special?
Google doesn’t give you answers to a lot of things. The London Library has over a million books. It’s got books that are hundreds of years old. There is something wonderful about having access to a curated form of knowledge, and it’s such a beautiful, inspiring space, one of the first spaces in London that I discovered. I wrote a lot of my second novel ‘Listen, Layla’ in The London Library and I often go to it for inspiration, sometimes not even knowing what I want to look for. I’ll walk up and down and see a title or a name or something and my curiosity will be piqued. I’ll pull that book out and be introduced to a whole new world that I never even knew existed.
What is your role as a recently appointed Trustee?
Being a Trustee is about bringing the library to a whole new audience and bringing my audience to The London Library. A lot of folks from different backgrounds, Muslim or Black or diaspora in different ways, hadn’t heard of The London Library, weren’t aware of the Emerging Writers Programme or the remote membership. I’m really passionate about connecting the library to different audiences and sharing the story of The London Library far and wide through digital media, a space that I’m quite native to.
Why are you now in France?
I’m in France just for a short while, on a writer’s residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts. I’m writing my next non-fiction book, which is a book of essays called ‘Talking About A Revolution’, and I’m working on a play as part of the Soho Theatre Writers’ Lab.
What is your play about?
My play is a character study of what it’s like to be a part of an activist organization. From the outside it might look very cohesive, but inside there’s a lot of turbulence. It begs the question of: what does who we are matter to the work that we do?
‘Listen, Layla.’ What’s a queen to do when her summer plans go horribly wrong? A powerful, funny and timely novel for young readers by Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied founded her first organisation, Youth Without Borders, at the age of 16, leading it for nine years.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied at a book signing in 2016.
‘You must be Layla.’ With her long skirt and headscarf Layla certainly stands out at her new high school. Everyone thinks they know her, just from a glance. But do they? And does Layla really know herself?
Yassmin Abdel-Magied was the winner of the InStyle Women of Style award in the Charity & Community category for 2015.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied addresses a fascinated young audience.
“I want to be involved in creating museums in Africa like the amazing ones we have in Europe.”
Yassmin Abdel-Magied , who are you?
I’m just Yassmin. I’m just some lady. I don’t want to waste my life. Life is very unpredictable. I only get one and I want to live it as much as I possibly can. I’m hungry for life. My mum said to me when I was quite young that one day your God will ask you, “I gave you all of this opportunity. I gave you all of these skills. What did you do with it?”
Will you keep on living in England?
I will stay if England will let me stay, but that doesn’t mean I won’t have adventures somewhere else along the way. My husband is a Londoner but open to some adventures. I just turned 30. I’ve had a lot of adventures in the last decade, so can only guess what kind of adventures, inshallah, I’ll be able to have in the next.
Have you thought about going back to Sudan?
After I graduated I lived in Sudan with my grandmother. I have always had one foot in Sudan. As part of the diaspora I was heavily involved during the revolution. I’m part of the Nala Feminist Collective, a Pan-African women’s collective looking at empowering young African women, giving them opportunities and doing as much as we can to secure a world that is free from violence. I remain connected to Sudan. Living in Sudan is something that my partner and I have considered, but it is much more difficult to do the kind of work that I do in Sudan, simply because that’s not how things are set up. The electricity goes out for many hours. The infrastructure isn’t really set up for Zoom calls. But it’s always an option, and, even if I’m not there, being connected to the nation is part of who I am.
Do you think that Africa will be a big issue in the coming years?
There will be a lot of change. There’s incredible opportunity but also some deep challenges. The average age of Africans on the continent is 20, and the average age of the leaders is in the 60s, a massive gap. As these young Africans get older and become more globalized and connect to the rest of the world, we have no idea what we’re in for. I think it’s fantastic.
Is that part of your future adventure?
I want to be involved in creating museums in Africa like the amazing ones we have in Europe. If empowering people to tell their own stories through museums and other cultural places is somewhere in my future, I’d be pretty happy with that.
Are you going to be a politician?
I really hope not. Many people have asked me to, but power is very corrupting. The system of politics itself makes it difficult for people to traverse it unscathed. There are a lot of things that that need to be done, but I think you have to work very, very hard to not be corrupted by the pure form of power that you get when you are a politician or when you’re in those sorts of positions.
Is inshallah the big word of your life?
Inshallah is the big word! I don’t know what the future holds, but inshallah, inshallah, it will be enjoyable and stretching and uplifting. Who knows. But I hope it all works out. Inshallah.
Thank you very much.
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