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Listen Layla

by Yassmin Abdel-Magied 

Reviewed by Zewlan Moor

 From the first few pages, main character Layla demonstrates her energy and irrepressible spirit by dancing around “like a whirling dervish from Sudan, the country of her birth.” She is singing in Arabic, while welding an aluminium bracket, a hijabi Ned Kelly. 

This image foreshadows the themes of the rest of the book. How can the ambitious Layla fulfil her dream of participating in the Special International Invention tour when her grandmother gets sick and the whole family has to return to Sudan?

How can she reconcile her identity as a Sudanese-Australian girl who loves metalwork and engineering, with being the selfless family member her father wants her to be? 

This book races along at a rollicking pace between the suburbs of Brisbane (how I love seeing my humid hometown in books!) and the rebellion in Sudan, which is dangerously close to Layla and her family. 

Layla’s voice is confident and brash:

“…her hijab felt like a cape, marking her out as a superhero. She was ready to take on the world and all it had to offer. Was she Ms Marvel? Carmen Sandiego? The Queen of Sheba?

None of those…

I am Layla Kareem Abdel-Hafiz Hussein, the greatest Sudanese Australian inventor the world has ever seen. And if they don’t know my name yet, they soon will. Inshallah!” (pp 12-13)

 

Over the course of the novel, the wind is pulled out from under her cape, but she maintains her passion, while learning to be a little less self-absorbed. 

This book would be a wonderful read for early high-schoolers, who will enjoy the humour, fast-pace and authentic dialogue, as well as the insight into a different culture (non-Sudanese-Australian readers ), or their own (Sudanese-Australian or other Muslim-Australians).

Penguin Books, 2021

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