Review - Hate Is Such a Strong Word

***Warning: spoilers ahead!***

This month, I’m delighted to be looking at Hate Is Such a Strong Word by Sarah Ayoub, a Lebanese-Australian writer from Western Sydney. Published in 2013 by HarperCollins, Sarah Ayoub’s debut novel is paving the way for young Lebanese-Australians to see their lives reflected in Aus YA – much like Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big in This? did for Palestinian-Muslim Australians almost 10 years earlier.

Hate Is Such A Strong Word primarily deals with issues of identity, race, gender and the struggle to belong in multicultural Australia as first and second-generation migrants. It tells the story of seventeen-year-old Sophie Kazzi, a tenacious, liberal-minded young woman growing up in Bankstown, Western Sydney, who yearns to break away from her strict home life.

Sophie is the epitome of a “good Lebanese girl”, yet she struggles to reconcile her feminist beliefs with her father’s expectations. Conservative ideas about what Lebanese girls should say and do pervade the novel, whether it’s respecting your elders, taking care of the family, or not drinking and partying with boys.

 It’s a source of much frustration for Sophie (and me) that Lebanese boys – including her brother – are allowed to roam freely and without question. Throughout the novel, these gender roles are reinforced not only by Sophie’s parents, but the boys at her school and the wider Lebanese-Australian community.

“These streets are no place for a girl like you. Or any girls. The world out there is dangerous, and not everyone understands the sanctity of the woman like we do.” – Sophie’s dad

As the novel progresses, Sophie begins to push the boundaries of so-called acceptable behaviour. She gets a part-time job in the Sutherland Shire, befriends a half-Lebanese boy called Shehadie and ventures out partying (you go girl!). For the most part, Sophie relishes this newfound freedom – but she must pay the price of social ostracism.

Shehadie is the new kid at Sophie’s insular Lebanese Catholic school. In the aftermath of a (fictional) brawl between Anglo Aussies and Lebanese Aussies at Brighton beach, moral panic about gang crime erupts, and Sophie’s friends accuse Shehadie of being on the “Anglo” side of the debate.

Sensationalised crime forms the political backdrop for Hate Is Such a Strong Word. The characters discuss the true events of the 2005 Cronulla riots and the negative backlash against the Lebanese-Australian community at the time. The “Brighton Brawl” stirs similar anxieties and discriminatory attitudes. On the plus side, the political climate drives Sophie to voice her opinions about cultural inclusion, respect, empathy and diversity.

“Lebanese people are supposed to be among the most generous on the planet. Are you trying to tell me that if an Aussie guy walked into your home, your parents wouldn’t welcome him with open arms?” – Sophie

As is evident from the title of the novel, the concept of hate underlies Sophies’ story. Each chapter is structured like a diary entry written by Sophie, beginning with “I hate…” and addressing both political and personal issues such as generational complacency, morality, failed friendships, heartache and family secrets.

In one of the final chapters, Sophie uncovers a secret about her aunt Leila. As a fiercely independent Lebanese-Australian woman, Leila is an important role model for Sophie. The novel slowly builds up to revealing Leila’s past and… I will admit right now that I misread the plot development.

Basically, I interpreted Leila as a bisexual character. I assumed Leila’s secret was that she and her best friend/housemate Lisa were in a lesbian relationship. Sure, I seem to find queer undertones in every book ever, but it does seem plausible that Leila and Lisa are lovers! After all, they live together and seem really close.

So Leila remains a question mark - but what of Sue and Nicole, two of Sophie’s school friends? My gaydar sounded big time when they were introduced. It’s never stated outright, but a romantic relationship between Sue and Nicole is strongly insinuated through flirting, pet names like “sweetie” and Nicole’s pronouncement that she will follow Sue anywhere. They’re in loveee.

As for Sophie and Shehadie’s relationship - well, it builds with a fiery intensity. Both characters have strong personalities, and I found their arguments infuriating at times. Anyway, after a stolen kiss, Sophie and Shehadie do profess their deep feelings for each other – but there is no happily-ever-after ending, which I found refreshing and realistic.

Overall, Hate Is Such a Strong Word is not just another tale of a young girl’s rebellion and romantic escapades. It digs much deeper than that, exploring the tensions of growing up between two cultures and the struggle to be heard as a young woman in a patriarchal society. I would definitely recommend it and I’m looking forward to reading Sarah Ayoub’s more recent novel, The Yearbook Committee (2016), in the New Year!