Word of Colour

You Must Be Layla

Book: You Must Be Layla

Author: Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Publisher: Penguin Random House (Australia)

Review by Joy Francis

You Must Be Layla thrusts a bolshie, smart and mischievous Sudanese-born Australian Muslim teenager onto the literary stage in a heart-warming coming of age tale.

Set in Brisbane, Australia, 13 year old Layla is the only girl in her family. Saddled with three brothers – the eternally energetic younger twins and her moody older brother Ozzie – she finds respite in Snapchat, gossiping with her best friend Dina and bejewelling her headscarves.

Her greatest wish is to be an adventurer. Layla daydreams about creating, exploring and leaving her mark on the world. Her adorable and funny parents Fadia and Baba support their daughter’s aspirations as they want her to fit in and belong.

Although she enjoys attending ISB, an Islamic school, she craves to be stretched academically and have to access high tech facilities unavailable at her underfunded school.

An opportunity arrives in the shape of a scholarship to a prestigious private school – MMG. Layla jumps at the chance to prove her mettle. Already studious, she goes into SDM (shutdown mode) to study, oblivious to anything else.

When she is accepted, as the first Muslim student, she is filled with pride and excitement at the chance to fulfil her destiny, work in a state of the art robotics department and make new friends.

It doesn’t take long for her optimism to be dented in the face of racism, bullying, elitism and Islamophobia. To survive, she veers between overcompensating to fighting back as she battles to find her place – and voice – at an elite white school where she is the firm outsider.

As she navigates how best to honour her faith, follow her dreams, suppress a serious crush on cute redhead Ethan and square up to vicious bully Peter, her choices put her at risk of exclusion, bringing shame on her family and dashing her hopes of entering the Grand Designs Tourismo competition.

Award-winning activist, broadcaster and former mechanical engineer Yassmin Abdel-Magied makes a solid mark with her debut YA novel. A Sudanese-born Australian herself, there are parallels between Layla and Abdel-Magied’s life as she too grew up in Brisbane, was the first Muslim female student to wear a head scarf at her exclusive private school and, at 21, she was the only Sudanese-Australian Muslim woman working on an oil and gas rig. Being othered was part her experience in Australia, but there the similarities end.

Filled with Aussie, Irish and Jamaican slang, and a healthy sprinkle of Arabic terms, supported by a useful glossary at the back, the plot is pacy and Layla sparkles and crackles with verve, wit and gumption.

Abdel-Magied enthusiastically sweeps away outdated perceptions of who young Muslim girls are – and should be. Hugely likeable, it will not take long before you want Layla to be your best mate.

There are many laugh out loud moments, alongside a heart-stopping situation that reminds you of the invidious nature of racism and sexism. Although the storytelling isn’t complex or multi-layered, it is an important book for our times.

You Must Be Layla is an enjoyable and easy read, whether you are a 10 year old or a fun-loving adult.