The Multicultural NSW Award is Australia’s pre-eminent award, reputationally and for its valuable prize, for writers from diverse backgrounds. Its history dates to the 1980s as a visionary contribution to the literary landscape of its time, forming an important response to the lack of diversity in literary prize recipients. This dearth must also be attributed to the monocultural judging panels appointed. It is a testament to the Multicultural NSW Award’s founders that they identified this gap in representation. The prescient rationale for the award, and others that have followed, is a recognition of the barriers diverse writers face in having the literary excellence of their work recognised in other Australian prize categories.

The Multicultural NSW Award has played a foundational role in the diversification of opportunities for writers, and wider recognition of the literary merit and cultural significance of diverse writers in the Australian literary landscape. Such awards have the capacity to educate not only the judging panels of other literary prizes, but the wider reading public. This impact is illustrated by the 2019 prize, awarded to Michael Mohammed Ahmad for The Lebs, who went on to be the first, and to date only, Muslim Australian author to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award.

Some of the Multicultural NSW Award’s past winners are among the most celebrated writers and scholars in contemporary Australia. For instance, the 2021 recipient of an Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, Arnold Zable, received an earlier iteration of the Multicultural NSW Award for his first book, Jewels and Ashes (1991). Internationally renowned scholar Ghassan Hage won the prize for his seminal book, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society (2004). In the first year the prize appeared under its current name (2014), two times Miles Franklin winner, Michelle de Kretser was awarded the prize for Questions of Travel, which won two other NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in that year, including the distinction of Book of the Year. De Kretser’s sweep of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards is not unique, with the 2021 and 2022 winners of the Multicultural NSW Award, Ellen van Neerven and Safdar Ahmed, taking out the Book of the Year prize respectively.

Since the Multicultural NSW Award was established, other literary grant initiatives that recognise a similar deficit have followed. One of these, the Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter Fellowship, was awarded to Evelyn Araluen in its inaugural year, whose manuscript went on to win the 2022 Stella Prize. There is little doubt about the impact that awards of this nature have on the careers of diverse writers in Australia, alongside the important work they perform in expanding the horizons of the Australian reading public.

The attacks from certain quarters on one of the judges of this year’s Multicultural NSW Award undermine the historic significance and purpose of this prestigious prize. We are deeply concerned that the charges against Dr Randa Abdel-Fattah are due to her Palestinian and Muslim heritage, and thus racist in essence. These allegations dismiss Dr Abdel-Fattah’s impeccable record as a scholar and author, as well as her unquestionable capacity to ethically assess Australian literature. Notwithstanding that the appointment of judges occurs some year in advance, the unique qualifications of Dr Abdel-Fattah to sit on this panel are numerous. Her contributions to the Australian literary landscape, to the pastoral care and development of diverse writers in her community and context, and to representations of Arab and Muslim protagonists in mainstream literature are all illustrations of her aptness for the role. Dr Abdel-Fattah’s significant literary contributions warrant a brief rehearsal to highlight her more than two decades of pioneering work in the field:

Dr Randa Abdel-Fattah’s debut novel, Does My Head Look Big in This? (2002) was the first piece of mainstream Australian young adult fiction to take a Muslim protagonist, wrestling with questions of identity and religion, at its centre. Her subsequent novel, When Michael Met Mina (2016) is a quintessential example of literary work that promotes Australian multiculturalism, telling the story of an Anglo-Australian boy, Michael, and his newfound friendship with Mina, a refugee from Afghanistan. The book won the Victorian Premier’s Young Adult Award (2017) and was popularly endorsed by the reading public, taking out the People’s Choice Award in the same year. Dr Abdel-Fattah’s important scholarship, which includes Coming of Age in the War on Terror (2021), focuses on the enduring impacts of the War on Terror on Australian students from all backgrounds, in an era of heightened Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism. Her work has been widely translated and critically acclaimed.

Dr Randa Abdel-Fattah has also been significantly involved in broader community issues and in particular the impacts of structural and systemic forms of discrimination, which radically influence the safety and wellbeing of all Australians. One could hardly imagine a person more singularly qualified as Dr Abdel-Fattah to meet the demands, and honour the responsibility, bestowed in adjudicating the Multicultural NSW Award. Indeed, her merits have been recognised in earlier years, and Dr Abdel-Fattah served as judge to the same award in 2021. The judges of the Multicultural NSW Award in that year selected Ellen van Neerven’s Throat for the award. The judges of the 2021 Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry selected the same book, as did the entire judging collective, since as mentioned above, Throat received the accolade of Book of the Year. To question the discretion and capacity of one judge’s suitability for the role, would seemingly impugn the capacity of the many other judges that often come to the same conclusions.

The inference that Dr Abdel-Fattah is inappropriate to judge on the Multicultural prize panel does a great disservice to those from whom the accusations originate and the public more broadly; illustrating little care or concern for the history, community impact and value of the award. Furthermore, these attacks undermine the credibility and expertise of the distinguished co-judges of this year’s award — Sami Shah and Jennifer Wong — and deprive the six shortlisted authors of the right to celebrate their important achievement, which acknowledges their hard work, creative talent and original contributions to Australian literature.

We, past winners of the award, stand in solidarity with Dr Randa Abdel-Fattah and unequivocally recognise the full legitimacy of all six short-listees of the 2024 Multicultural NSW Award.


Michelle de Kretser, Ghassan Hage, Ellen van Neerven, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Abbas El-Zein, Roanna Gonsalves, Safdar Ahmed, Osamah Sami, Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Beth Yahp

Multicultural Award Winners in support of Judges and Shortlisted Authors

More by Multicultural Award Winners in support of Judges and Shortlisted Authors ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays