Giramondo Publishing Company, University of Western Sydney, Australia, 2020
Design Jenny Grigg
Cover illustration Ben Juers
This is Rawah Arja’s debut novel and what a superb novel it is! Ostensibly and billed as YA fiction, The F Team has much to say to all readers.
The story hangs on a group of four Lebanese Muslim boys from Punchbowl High School whose behaviour (and potential) brings them to the notice of the school hierarchy in the context of a possible school closure. They are teamed up with four lads from rival school Cronulla to form a rugby league team for an inter-school competition and we follow the ups and downs of this process along with the challenges of the personal lives of each.
For teachers Mr Ahmed and Mr Archie, the task of knitting these boys into a winning team on all levels is demanding, but they prove themselves fit for the task.
On the way to self-knowledge for the main protagonist Tariq, the author allows us to also consider the deep-rooted problems of our own society.
With skilful use of humour, lively and believable dialogue and a powerful evocation of place, she takes us through issues like racism, stereotyping, the effect of privilege and money on social outcomes, the importance of self-belief, the power of the media to skew opinion, the role of women in society especially ethnic minorities, the importance of language and communication in developing and maintaining relationships, the role of food and hospitality in cementing family and community relationships, the power of love and loyalty. Phew! And all this wrapped in a fast moving and engaging story about teenage boys.
In the end Rawah Arja brings a potent argument for the power of self-determination. She uses her story to assert the importance of education, of literacy, of making your own destiny and not accepting or angrily reacting to the ill-conceived views of others.
The delightful portrayal of Tariq’s family with its happy chaos, its loyalty and regard contrasts with the sad situations of other boys in the story, highlighting the fortune of the accident of birth for those who are loved and cared for. The role of good teachers in loco parentis is also a strong theme in this story.
Whether it be through the bonding capacity of sport or the confidence inspiring effect of slam poetry, the Punchbowl boys find their own capacity to give and receive the intrinsic rewards of friendship and family love and the extrinsic rewards of success from a tough task mastered.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and look forward to Rawah’s next. It was a novel that gave me a great deal to think about, whilst making me laugh out loud at times, sigh with sadness at others.
There is a lot of talk about the need for ‘alternative voices’ but less support in reality for this than we would like to see in our 21st century Australian society. Let’s hope Rawah doesn’t have to endure thirteen rejections for her next book.
The F Team deserves wide readership and I’d love to see it in every Australian high school
Thank you to DMCPR and Giramondo Publishing Company for sending me a review copy and DMCPR staff for facilitating my interview with Rawah.