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Azri Zakkiyah: Learning the A to Z of writing in Australia

A man, Arnold Zable (left) and a woman, Azri Zakkiyah (right) standing together in a room.
Azri Zakkiyah was excited to see her friend, Australian writer Arnold Zable.

Supplied: Azri Zakkiyah

Azri Zakkiyah's participation in this year's Emerging Writers' Festival in Melbourne not only gave her a chance to share her experiences as a young writer in Indonesia — she also rekindled her friendship with an Australian writer who shares her initials: Arnold Zable.

Azri Zakkiyah visited Melbourne with the support of Indonesia's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. In 2016, the festival chose 16 emerging writers to attend various festivals around the world.

At only 25 years of age, Azri has 15 publications under her belt, including six novels. She published her first novel at the age of 15, titled 'Mawar Surga' (meaning 'a rose from heaven'). But she has a friend's encouragement to thank for her journey to Melbourne.

"Last year, my friend forced me to apply as an emerging writer as part of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali."

"I applied with the idea that if I was chosen, I can visit Bali for free."

Almost 900 writers from all over Indonesia applied.

"Of the 16 selected, I was the youngest. Other writers were much more experienced than me. One is the same age as my grandfather. Another was a graduate from Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and there was a well-known film director,' says Azri.

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival sent Azri to Melbourne as part of an exchange program with the Melbourne Emerging Writers' Festival (EWF).

"I jumped with joy when I got the call to say that I would be going to Australia as part of the EWF writers exchange."

Two women standing in front of microphones
Azri Zakkiyah (right) at the opening night of the Emerging Writers' Festival 2017 in Melbourne.

Supplied: Azri Zakkiyah

Her trip to Melbourne involved a full schedule of activities.

"I had three sessions in the EWF 17. I spoke at the opening night with Yacinta Kurniasih [a lecturer in Indonesian studies from Monash University]," she says.

"I also appeared in a session called Lunchtime Lit: Stories from the Archipelago, in conversation with Yacinta, and the last one was called Amazing Babes."

In the Lunchtime Lit event, Azri shared her experience of growing up with different identities.

"I talked and had a discussion about being a writer, a scientist, a teacher, and also being a Muslim, Javanese, and someone brought up in Islamic schools."

She has just finished a postgraduate degree in medical physics at The University of Brawijaya in Malang, Indonesia. She plans to teach physics in her former high school and continue to write books on spirituality and science fiction.

For Azri, apart from the festival, her most memorable experience in Melbourne was rekindling her friendship with the famous Australian writer, Arnold Zable — who shares the initials AZ with Azri Zakkiyah.

The award-winning writer, storyteller, educator and human rights advocate was born to Jewish parents from Poland. One of his books, Jewels and Ashes, told of his journey to Poland to trace his ancestry. It won five Australian literary awards.

Azri Zakkiyah and Arnold Zable met for the first time in 2016 when both attended the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

"We were on the same panel last year in Ubud. He was very kind to me — spoiled me, almost — even though he was busy himself during the festival," Azri recalls.

"When he found out I was coming [to Melbourne], he was very enthusiastic about it. On the opening night, he initially said that he could not come to see me, as he had other commitments. But when I was in the green room of the theatre, he suddenly appeared, and I became kind of hysterical when I saw him."

"When we talked, he said that we had chemistry — we had a similar way of thinking."

"He is 20 years older than my mum, and he was the first Jew that I met in person. I was very glad to see him again here in Australia."

This was Azri's first visit to Australia and she took the opportunity to thoroughly explore Melbourne.

One of the places that impressed her most was the State Library in Swanston Street.

"Of course I was very excited when I saw the building, and even more excited when I went in. I hope one day my books will be displayed or sold in the library," she says.

Soon she will have the opportunity to meet Arnold Zable again and explore more of Melbourne: Azri will return this year as part of a two-month writers residency program organised by the Indonesian Ministry of Education and the National Book Committee.

Azri Zakkiyah standing in front of the State Library of Victoria in Swanston Street, Melbourne.
Azri Zakkiyah hopes that one day her books will be displayed in the State Library of Victoria.

Supplied: Azri Zakkiyah

This article is also available in Indonesian.

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