But the thing is, I wear my politics like hand-me-down clothes: some bits feel like they don’t fit properly, but I expect I’ll grow into them, trusting that because they’re from my parents they’ve come from a good source.
When Michael Met Mina is a novel about realising that sometimes the people you love have unforgivable shitty opinions. Or at least, I feel like that’s the most poignant theme of the novel, and the one that is most resonant and relevant in our current social and political climate. Michael, one of the story’s two narrators, is not a bad person by any stretch of the imagination, he’s just an average teenaged boy from Sydney who likes sports and video games and also believes that Muslims are terrible and refugees shouldn’t be protected by the government. His parents, the founders of the Aussie Values political party, are also not bad people necessarily, in fact they’re really quite lovely people, they’re also just horribly and vocally bigoted. As Michael says, “The scariest thing about people like […] my parents is not that they can be cruel. It’s that they can be kind too.” And boy, isn’t that the Realest thing ever?
Our other narrator, Mina, has lived in Australia for ten years after arriving there on a boat, via detention centre, when her family fled the war in Afghanistan. As the title suggests, things start to shift in Michael’s clean-cut and established worldview (the one provided by his racist parents, that he simply accepts) when he sees Mina on the opposing side of a refugee rights rally he attends with the Aussie Values group. He’s blown away by the intensity and beauty of her eyes, which is… just as lame and heterosexual as it sounds. His baffled longing for those stunning peepers soon evolves from “I can’t believe Someone Like That could be so pretty” to “I can’t believe Someone Like That is an ordinary human being just like me” when he meets Mina at his school, where she’s just moved on a prestigious scholarship.
I know, it sounds like a very flat and eye-roll-worthy premise: Local Straight White Boy Becomes Infatuated By Exotic Beauty, Learns That Muslims Are People Too. There are two things that save this from being that obnoxious kind of story, however. The first is that, well, to put it bluntly, it’s pretty clear that this book is not written by a white person—Mina is a fantastically rich character in her own right, and exists in a story of her own that has absolutely nothing to do with Michael and his moral awakening, with a kind of realism and depth to her cultural background and situation that implies the author knows what the hell she’s talking about and has no intention of trivialising the matter for anyone’s benefit. Mina also calls Michael out in-text and tells him it’s not her duty to hold his hand and guide him through his sudden enlightenment that Refugees Are People Too, so the novel avoids stranding her in the role of Michael’s character development guardian angel on two levels.
In fact, out of the two of them, I’d argue that Michael is the one who comes across more as a flat and allegorical character rather than a fully-realised person. I was surprised to realise partway through the book that, for the first time, I was reading something where the white characters were the ones that felt like a cobbled-together caricature based on the worst their racial stereotypes have to offer. Michael becomes more three-dimensional (and less annoying) the further the book goes along, but it doesn’t help that his parents and their friends basically spend the whole novel spouting ugly and bigoted political ideologies ripped straight from the list of “most offensive things you could casually believe about other cultures”. It’s pretty obvious, to the reader, if not yet to Michael, that the Aussie Values lot are the unsympathetic ones and Mina’s family and community are the kinder, softer, more detailed and rich characters.
The second thing that leads the book away from being a heartwarming story about one straight white boy’s shocking realisation that Muslims Are People Too is that it simmers the whole battle of political ideologies down to a personal struggle rather than just using Michael and Mina as symbols. Which is fair, because there’s no way one little YA novel can tackle and satisfyingly answer the raging issue that is refugee rights and multiculturalism in Australia (or the world at large). Zeroing in on the lives of two families makes the topic easier to digest and easier to cover in a meaningful way, both in regards to the day-to-day struggle of Mina’s family to get by and be accepted in a world of casual racism, and in regards to Michael’s realisation that he’s grown into a set of bigoted and unfair worldviews and opinions (and what he ought to do now that he knows this).
The novel’s blurb—A BOY, A GIRL, TWO FAMILIES, ONE GREAT DIVIDE—kind of wants to work the whole thing up into a sort of racism-issue Romeo and Juliet, whereas there really isn’t any forbidden love angle. Apart from the general concern that Mina and Michael’s respective parents won’t approve, it’s weirdly non-present, which lets their relationship become something more natural and relaxed and positive rather than a Great Symbol of the political battle at hand. It lets Mina and Michael’s ideological agonies be personal battles within themselves and with their histories and cultures, and when Michael (spoiler alert) stands up to his parents and denounces their policies, it’s more about him maturing and forming his own opinion rather than Fighting For His Forbidden Romance. Yes, we started with a boy transfixed by a beautiful Afghani girl’s eyes, but mercifully we moved beyond that and the two ended up with some actual chemistry and things they had in common so I could believe in their relationship, rather than it being a symbol of the book’s issues or a motivating force.
I haven’t personally had a lot to do with this issue, though I know it’s a massive and ongoing one in the country where I live. Even with only peripheral knowledge, though, I could recognise and appreciate how damned real the situation portrayed in the novel was. Yes, the Aussie Values party headed by Michael’s parents are heavy-handed and clunky in their execution, but that’s just because they’re every nasty anti-Islam paranoia, Pauline Hanson speech, and media scare tactic distilled into one small set of characters. People really say that stuff and believe that stuff—perhaps not all at once, and perhaps not always where they have swaying power, but it happens.
And, of course, the world is full of very real Michaels who have yet to meet their Minas, figuratively speaking: it’s so very easy for insular communities to foster ignorant and paranoid ideas and pass them down to their children, who simply accept them as the way the world is because they are never given cause to consider any other perspective. Especially when these adults so easily rebut accusations of being bigoted or the notion that they’re being bad people: the most brilliant, and cringe-inducing, line Michael’s parents drop is the subtle knife-to-the-gut that is “let’s not make it about race”. They aren’t racist people, nor is Australia a racist country; multiculturalism is great! As long as the people who move here do it properly, through the right channels, and integrate into society the correct way. That’s all they want, don’t you see? All this awfulness comes from a good place, truly.
When Michael Met Mina is not a particularly subtle book, especially in the beginning. But I feel like in a way that worked for it, and that this isn’t the kind of issue you can always afford to be subtle about. By all means, paint the ignorant, paranoid anti-refugee crowd as schlocky bad guys if it gets the point across. As I always say, it’s important to let diverse voices be heard, and this novel works because of the authenticity of Mina’s perspective, and the authentic portrayal of young Millennials figuring out how to exist in a world defined by their parents’ standing in and view of society, for better or worse.
Racism in Australia is not solved by the end of the novel, because again, that would be an impossible task, and the issue is boiled down to how it affects the two titular characters. But they both grow and learn and end up in a place where they’re less confused and more at peace with themselves, and where they can accept each other where once that would have seemed impossible on principle. It’s not the love story of the century (and thank goodness it doesn’t try to be), but it is a very honest and authentic look into this social issue, and that makes it incredibly important in and of itself. Sometimes it’s in the sweeping themes, and sometimes it’s in little quotes like this, the last one I’ll leave you with, which get the heart of the issue across so well:
“I didn’t mean to offend anybody,” [Michael] says.
“People usually don’t,” he replies, still smiling.
A little perspective and taking the time and effort to listen can take you a long way, even if it takes you to uncomfortable places that make you see yourself and your loved ones differently.