Interview

Michael Mohammed Ahmad
by GEORGE MOURATIDIS

It’s been about three years since a writer friend came across an excerpt of Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs (Hachette 2018) in a newspaper and said, ‘You’ve got to read this!’ I got my hands on the novel post-haste, and after I turned its final page I knew things were different now.

When it happens, you know. That tectonic shift you feel as you’re reading a work so irreverently original and aesthetically daring is your thrill at the flash of recognition: something you previously thought impossible in Australian literature is taking place. While there are countless examples of Australian writing I appreciate, even rejoice in, I can count the works that speak to me, as a writer, as a person — Hoa Pham’s The Other Shore, Π.O.’s 24 Hours, Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded, Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork, Ouyang Yu’s Songs of the Last Chinese Poet.

This is a more visceral, reinvigorating kind of joy, not simply of seeing one’s existence acknowledged on the page, but of a writer engaging a diasporic Australia — what a particular community looks and sounds and feels like.

As though such world matters, and means something, and, crucially, has artistic value. More than the beacon of possibility, the sea change sparked by such works is the challenge they pose: they push me, dare me — ‘come on, you do it, what are you waiting for?’ — to keep exploring and writing the world, people, stories that are true for me in ways that are ever more radical, nuanced, and real. Michael Mohammed Ahmad is one such Australian writer.

Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the founding director of Sweatshop Literacy Movement and editor of the critically acclaimed anthology, After Australia (Affirm Press, 2020). His debut novel, The Tribe (Giramondo, 2014), won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelists of the Year Award. His second novel, The Lebs (Hachette, 2018), won the 2019 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Literary Award and was a finalist for the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Mohammed’s latest novel is The Other Half of You (Hachette, 2021).

The vaulted blue of a sun-washed Saturday afternoon beams through the venetians and stripes the table as I talk with the author. We haven’t seen each other since the Greek Writers’ Festival in 2019 and we have been looking forward to catching up. A lot has changed in the world since we last spoke. We are both sequestered within our respective four walls at the height of  COVID lockdown, he in Sydney and I in Melbourne. The conversation, albeit digital, leaps right out of the gate with the kind of fervour, complexity and incisiveness I’ve come to expect from one of the most exciting and unique novelists in recent years. We get straight to the new novel.

The Interview

GEORGE MOURATIDIS:
Congrats on the new novel. It was a real pleasure to read The Other Half of You — to dive right back into [protagonist narrator] Bani Adam’s journey as an individual, how his life develops, from The Tribe, through The Lebs, to where he is now. This latest instalment almost reads like a kind of parable being completed.

MICHAEL MOHAMMED AHMAD:
Thanks, man.

GM:
So what are you working on now? Was it a case of just going straight into the next book when The Other Half of You landed earlier this year?

MMA:
I’m actually taking a break. There are a few manuscripts by some of the Sweatshop writers who I really care about, so I’m putting my head down and working on theirs. That’s exciting. But no, I don’t think I’ll write something else for about another year and a half.

GM:
Something to look forward to. Okay. Your latest novel continues to examine and complicate the language of Arab migrant identity — and I think too, in a broader way, that of migrant or minority diasporas in general. How has this language developed over the course of these three novels? Have there been any challenges?

MMA:
Firstly, I’ll say that I appreciate you getting to the specific of ‘Arab’ and then broadening it to ‘migrant’ and ‘diasporic’. It’s important because when people like you and me are having a dialogue — Greek-Australian, Arab-Australian — it feels like our experiences as Australians have more in common than less in common. They have more parallels in terms of what it means to be a diasporic Mediterranean community. It’s interesting, because — George, you remember this, right? — when I was growing up, ‘wog’ meant Italian and Greek, but somehow we became that — Arabs became wogs as well.

GM:
Yeah, that’s right.

MMA:
And there was something about us that was so similar, that this kind of derogatory label, which we then reclaimed and it became empowering, really made us the same. And so it’s important to understand what it is about us that makes us so similar. And the reason why I make this point is because for anyone who has been reading my work who’s from a migrant background and not Arab, why are we able to have these dialogues, and why does my work resonate with them? And I think it’s because there’s so much in common.

GM:
What’s immediately striking about the language of these novels is not just the familiarity of the typical stuff growing up in a multi-ethnic migrant neighbourhood — the points of reference, imagery, experiences — but what that world sounds like. For instance, those moments in your work where Arabic dialogue, phrases, words, not only remain unitalicised but wholly untranslated, yet an organic part of the English narration: ‘I forced myself onto the footpath like a jahash’, for example. That whole street scene from The Other Half of You, the vividness and immediacy of its sound is so palpable! There is no special emphasis on how anything on the page is atypical or foreign.

MMA:
What I want to tell you about this point on language is that there’s a thing that’s happening now with a couple of migrant writers — that is, writers from non-English speaking backgrounds — where I feel like they’re becoming a little bit cruel to their readers.

GM:
How so?

MMA:
I think that when we were starting off, the idea of just translating your work to a point where it’s almost like a glossary was normal. And then, as the years have gone by, we’ve tried to normalise that idea of speaking in another language, very organically and elegantly. But I’ve encountered some writers who are just kind of like ‘screw you’ to the reader, ‘I’m going to write in another language and I’m not going to give you any indication or any clue as to what it means.’ And when I talk to them, their whole argument is like, ‘screw White people, I don’t want to translate for them.’ But what I usually say to them is we don’t just write for White people, you know, we write for people of colour who don’t speak the languages of our ancestors. I want a dialogue with the Greek Australian community, any community. I try and write in another language, in Arabic, without giving away too much translation. At the same time I’m not cruel to my reader. I still like my work to be accessible. I still want it to be something that people who would identify as White or non-Arab — all CALD and POC — can engage with. And, of course, I want to write work for Indigenous people that is accessible, to make the work something that can cross our cultures. I’d like to think that I do it in a way that isn’t cruel. And what I will say is, as the years have gone by, I’ve gotten better at being less, you know, explanatory. But at the same time still trying to be generous and loving towards my reader.

GM:
I think that shows, particularly with the latest novel, where sometimes you translate or explain a phrase or remark immediately in the next clause or sentence, whereas at other times the artistry for me lies in knowing when to allow the context to convey what those words mean. This perhaps, can be seen to point to the dynamics of some non-Western non-syllabic languages. Quite a striking feature of the prose.

MMA:
Something really bugs me about people who are anti-translation, like completely against translation: their attitude, it’s predicated on the assumption that translation isn’t its own creative art. And the reason why I actually do like to translate at times and explain is because when you translate, it’s not like ‘oh, you translated therefore you’ve sold out your culture and pandered to the White gaze.’ The way I choose to translate something might be different to the way someone else might. There’s still flavour and talent in how I translate something. I’ll give you an example. There’s those lines [in The Other Half of You] when Bani says warak enab, which is meat and rice wrapped in vine leaves, and then kousa, which is meat and rice stuffed in zucchini, and malfouf, which is meat and rice wrapped in cabbage. And the thing is when I read that paragraph out to an audience of Arabs, they found the translation very funny because it had never occurred to them that our culture was doing that — just seemingly picking any random vegetable and stuffing it with meat and rice. And so the translation was its own creative observation. It’s still an art, that idea of language and translation.

GM:
This dynamic of language certainly challenges the kind of linearity that may result from a more, well, conventionally monoglossic narrative. There is this sense of concurrence in Bani’s telling — a sort of confluent consciousness spoken — more than two worlds colliding or working simultaneously. And I was actually planning on asking you how being bilingual influences your creative process and prose style, but . . . [laughs]

MMA:
I’ve got one more part that I want to add. If you ever go back and read The Lebs or The Other Half of You again — and this is why the kind of POC artists who are like ‘fuck White people, I’m not going to translate for anybody’ bug me — if you look at it closely you might notice I translate a lot of English. And this idea of translation as ‘selling out’, it’s a little bit rigid and narrowminded, and it’s part of this ‘woke, cancel everything, everyone’s a predator’ culture. But here’s what I’ll say: I remember my editor and publisher, Ivor Indyk, asked me to translate the word ‘lowie’. He didn’t know what a lowie was, which is a casual derogatory word we use in Western Sydney for a promiscuous woman. But the way, just so you know, the way the Leb boys in the area would define ‘lowie’ would be to say — and I’m saying this in quotation marks — it’s another word for ‘slut’. In The Lebs, I didn’t translate it that way: a ‘lowie’ in my definition was ‘a girl who’s low enough to sleep with someone like one of the Lebs’.

GM:
Ah, right. Yeah, there’s a difference, an element of self-loathing there.

MMA:
So there’s an art in translation, even within your own language. And this is the third point I want to make, and where it comes back to your original question on being bilingual. Technically, if we were going to get really sophisticated with the linguistics, I think I’m actually trilingual: I have a nationalist idea of what standard Australian English is, which I know fluently, and then I know Arabic, right? But I also know this unique Western Sydney English vernacular.

GM:
Now we’re talking!

MMA:
And so if you read my books, there are three languages: when Bani is just being technically sophisticated with his English language, it’s what Chomsky calls a nationalist relationship to language; then there’s the Arabic, which comes in and out my stories; but most of the time, the language that is being spoken and written is a unique Western Sydney English vernacular.

GM:
Yes, such a unique experience of language is definitely tied to place and to community, and of course these things are fluid and change, right, so this experience can also be time specific. I can totally identify, growing up in a migrant community like Thomastown in Melbourne’s north, this ‘trilingualism’ — the Australian English of our education, the language or languages of our parents and ancestors, as well as the pidgins and vernaculars of community like ‘Greeklish’ or ‘woglish’ and even of place or neighbourhood, certain words and turns of phrase I remember like ‘jerry’ — which is to twig or ‘get it’ — which I’ve never heard anywhere else. This sort of confluent function shapes a certain imaginary, even as these languages may change or begin to disappear: it speaks to, records the experience, struggles, changing needs of a diasporic community, even on an individual level. And that is where I think the nuances and confluence of language in the novels really illustrate Bani Adam’s complexity. I mean, for me, if you’re talking about the Arab Australian experience or the migrant experience more broadly, there always seems to be this almost inevitable idea of ambivalence, nuance. But not in that way ‘migrant’ or ‘minority’ stories in Australia are often typified as a conflict between two worlds to be resolved — you know, reject one, the ‘old’ world, to ultimately embrace and be saved by the other, the ‘new’ world — but rather as something ongoing. In The Lebs, for instance, the passages that stand out for me are where the shifts in Bani’s language illustrate this experience, this sort of existential tumult: from the language of his social world, when Bani is talking shit with the Punchbowl boys, often harsh, meaty, blockish, contrasting sharply with that of his rich inner life, like when he’s daydreaming about his teacher, those florid surrealistic expressions of his love for her, so lyrical and beautiful and tender, and then, when he sees her, he quotes Nabokov’s Lolita. These languages of conflicting experience, emotion, consciousness, at once hit against one another yet are an organic part of a whole — who Bani is and what that sounds/reads like. It is unique, how you open up and complicate his ‘Leb’ identity through his language, giving it all these added dimensions.

MMA:
What I would say in response — because you’re talking about how the language has evolved — is there are three answers to this. One answer is just me as a writer, I’m growing up. I wrote The Tribe when I was in my mid-20s. I was a doctoral candidate, I wasn’t a father, I didn’t have any books out — this was my first book. So there’s all these different aspects to who I was. I also didn’t have a kind of maturity as a writer and as a person. And then, when you get to The Other Half of You, it’s ten years later. I’ve literally grown up with the books. By now I’m a parent, I’m a doctor, I’m an award-winning author. So the first point is, in terms of language, I’m growing up, and as I grow up I’m getting better. As a writer I think my language is becoming a bit more sophisticated. I’m getting better at managing things. The second point is — and you’ll like this — the books have been growing up. You can literally see this, it’s so interesting, because the three books, they get bigger; The Tribe is this little square book, but then The Lebs is a middle-sized book, and then The Other Half of You is a big book, about as big as a novel gets, more than 100,000 words. And so, I’ll tell you what it is with the language: you can see that I am growing up. And then the other one is the books are growing up. As I grow up, and as the character Bani grows up, the books become more ambitious and they grow, you know? I think a lot of people don’t get that. You know, a lot of wannabe writers just wake up one day and decide to write a novel and they pump out 120,000 crappy words, whereas you can literally see my journey, that as I’ve grown up, my books have become more ambitious and more technically sophisticated. And the last answer is — and this is a personal answer — the tone of the book changes technically for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because Bani is now speaking to his son. So, as a technical exercise, this means there’s a second person perspective in this book, and you don’t have that in any of the other books. There’s a ‘you’ that’s constant, and it’s in the title – The Other Half of You. And it also means that Bani tempers his communication: he’s a little bit more tender and affectionate because he’s speaking to a child. It’s not that kind of vulgar crazy energy you see in The Lebs, it’s a little bit more inhibited and sweet — intentionally sweet. You might have also noticed that the first two books, The Tribe and The Lebs, are written in the present tense, with little moments of the older narrator coming in from the past tense. But The Other Half of You is the first book I’ve written that is entirely in the past tense with a couple of examples of future tense. Every time I write a new book, I’m really interested in pushing my limits as a writer, trying to do something new and seeing if I can pull it off, you know?

GM:
An important part of that has to do with temporality, as you say, how time functions in telling a story, conveying a journey. So, with what you’ve been doing here, what do you feel makes the prose realist novel contemporary? What I mean here is in your novels, especially in the new one, you draw on a lot of different forms of storytelling — Homer, classical mythology, the Qur’an, pop culture, like movies and TV, oral family histories, folklore, and then you have quotations from Kahlil Gibran, also references to a lot of works in the canon of the modern European or Western novel from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Flaubert to Nabokov. All these eclectic aspects you draw on are framed by this linear temporal arc of a bildungsroman, of Bani’s coming of age. What for you makes the realist novel still a contemporary form?

MMA:
It’s interesting, because you were saying before there’s that old dichotomy we get stuck into, you know, boy caught in two worlds, yeah? It’s a kind of old myth of cultural theory that everybody just fits into this or that category: you’re Arab, or you’re Australian, or you’re Greek, or you’re Chinese, or you’re American, right? But new research in cultural theory on hybridity demonstrates that things are actually a lot more fluid than that. People don’t fit into those categories as organically as we imagined them, each with very clear boundaries. We’re more just operating in multiple cultures simultaneously, all the time. So it’s not, in my case and your case, like we’re boys stuck in two cultures. What is actually going on is we’re Australians, and Australia is, literally, multi-cultured, and so we are stuck in Australia as Australians navigating multiple cultural identities. And so what I would take away from your description of all these references in The Other Half of You — from the Qur’an to the Iliad, and then to popular culture, to Kahlil Gibran, and then the European canon and the African American canon, and going back and forth, right?—the reason why that is happening, in a very organic way, where what you described could literally all be happening on one page, is because, as an Australian, my experience is eclectic. It’s diverse, and if you can accurately portray and represent an eclectic Australian experience, the natural byproduct of that will be an eclectic piece of writing that is not just ‘boy stuck in two worlds’, but boy navigating, literally, multiple cultures that exist for him as an Australian.

GM:
Yeah, it’s not this sort of constant tension of negotiating, but this organic movement. I think you kind of do this geographically as well. It’s not just ‘okay, here I am growing up in the old neighbourhood, the community where I’ve lived all my life.’ Bani moves — he moves into the university world, which can be like landing in another planet, right? And then Bani’s in liberal boho bourgeois Glebe, not far from the unis. But it’s quite natural and fluid, you know; he doesn’t have a problem moving around seamlessly from Lakemba to UWS to Glebe and Newtown, all these different cultures, classes, lives that are also comfortably a part of him as well, his life. He doesn’t really feel out of place wherever he is or whoever he’s with and what he’s doing. It’s other people who look at him as though he is out of place — they put him on the outside, outside the Alawite tribe or the Lebs or the liberal arts circle or hippies or yuppies or whatever. Bani is not penned in, not kept in a kind of ghetto others make for him. How you’ve represented this seamless cultural movement, both geographically as well through the contrasts between various interiors — the Lebanese house, the uni student share house, the gym, the trendy restaurant — is very interesting, how Bani belongs, how he’s equally comfortable in all…

MMA:
Yeah, that’s right.

GM:
It’s very sophisticated, this movement, in how it still reads so natural, keeping the shifts in the prose, the language organic, unassuming… [So] what makes roman a clef or autobiographical fiction the most appropriate narrative mode for you to tell the kind of story that you want to tell? I mean, I can’t imagine Bani’s story — his journey — as a sort of straight up memoir, for example, or ‘survival story’ or recollection of growing up.

MMA:
I really think that there’s a risk in people of colour and minority writers, CALD writers, writing memoir or autobiography because it generally inhibits readers to think they’re reading a diary entry, and then they just interpret our work as personal. I’d like to be seen as an artist first: I have a doctorate in creative arts, and my craft and my skill is in creative writing as a technical ability that you can learn to do, and I teach it through Sweatshop. And so, for me, the idea of autobiographical fiction is to try and emphasise, first and foremost, that what I’m doing is art, that I’m not just revealing my idiotic feelings, I’m actually crafting a complex and sophisticated story that is built on trying to push the parameters of the English language to its full extent.

And so the first point is to focus on the idea of fiction as a way of encouraging my reader to engage in my work as art, not as a diary. That’s in relation to the ‘fiction’ part. As for the ‘autobiographical’ part, I think it’s very important for Arab-Australian Muslim men — and your community went through this a couple of decades ago…

GM:
Yeah, we often seem to forget that…

MMA:
…It’s very important for us to be reclaiming our narratives. And you would know better than anybody that stories of Arab and Muslim men have been coloured by stereotypes — that we’re sexual predators, drug dealers, terrorist suspects. So, for me, the idea of autobiography, it’s about reclaiming our humanity. That’s what ‘Bani Adam’ means in Arabic. It’s about subverting the narratives that have been told about us, it’s about us saying ‘these are our stories.’ So autobiography is a declaration of my existence on my own terms.

GM:
What this makes me think of immediately is Jack Kerouac, for example, what he was doing when he wrote about life in his small working class migrant town, carrying that world around with him as he travelled, fictionalising the names etc, to valorise and celebrate, and in a way reclaim his community, his experience of America — people, place, language, epoch — on his own terms, what they mean for him, how he lives and sees and feels about them. And this is where I thought that just straight memoir could not have done it. And I’m just sort of approaching this as a reader, how your novels — Bani’s story — came across to me. Obviously, as the author you have your own reasons for going with that approach. But to me, you couldn’t give those great interiors of what the narrator’s seeing and going through — Bani’s rich inner life — if it was just pure memoir.

MMA:
Yeah, I agree. And it’s about crafting a story so that it works. Putting together a book like The Other Half of You, it’s like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle. Well, this is where my doctoral thesis comes in handy. There’s another reason why I write an autobiographical fiction. I don’t know if you’re going to like this. But my theory — my doctoral thesis, my so-called ‘original contribution to knowledge’ — is that all writing is autobiographical fiction. And so there’s two ends to this. Firstly, all memoir and autobiography is just fiction: it’s just one version of possibly millions of other versions of that memoir. One example I use is The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

GM:
I know it well.

MMA:
When you read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, you see Malcolm had one life, he didn’t have multiple ones. He had one life. But if Malcolm wrote that autobiography before his split with Elijah Muhammad, the version of his life that he would have told you would’ve been completely different to the version that he would’ve told you after he split with Elijah Muhammad.

GM:
Definitely.

MMA:
Now it just so happens that Malcolm was writing the autobiography in between the split — between being in love with Elijah Muhammad and being disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad — so that’s the ‘true’ story you get from his book. But depending on when Malcolm writes the account of his life, you could get a million different versions — all of which we could deem equally different and yet equally true. That’s the memoir side of it. Now let’s look at the fiction side. When you look at something like Star Wars, it’s fiction, science fiction, right? But, actually, let’s look a little closer. Everything we need to know about its creator, George Lucas, seems to be hardwired into the films: all of his main characters are White men; then you have the villain, Darth Vader, a big bad black scary guy, but when he finally becomes a good guy at the end of Return of the Jedi, it’s revealed that he was just a shrivelled little White guy inside; the Sand People, to me, will always just be racist stereotypes of Arabs; Yoda and the Separatists are stereotypes of Asians; Jar Jar Binks, famously a stereotype of a Jamaican. You can see him [Lucas], the storyteller in the text, you can see how he sees reality. My conclusion is that all fiction is autobiographical, and all autobiography is fiction. So the best genre to write in is autobiographical fiction, the most honest.

GM:
This, in a way, seems to point to psychoanalysis, sort of as this conceptual or reading model. That is, one of its key precepts, right, is that all art, all individual expression or whatever, is autobiographical — that you ultimately reveal your self no matter what you do or say. Or, in a similar way, what poet Amiri Baraka said, that all art, everything you do, is political, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. Do any of these ideas also play a part in your creative practice, your concept of autobiographical fiction?

MMA:
Yeah, I have a little problem. You might be okay with it, but I have a little problem with the kinds of ways in which we editors and literary critics all like to pretend to be psychologists.

GM:
[laughs]

MMA:
We’re all pseudo psychologists, all of us. So, I try not to delve too deeply into that. I think that psychologists get annoyed at us. But I can’t help it. I often feel like everything — between you and me, and whoever reads this interview — yeah, I would say there’s a kind of pseudo psychology involved in it that I don’t think is healthy. But I can’t help but genuinely believe that everything you need to know about a writer you can find out through their writing. Things that they don’t even know about themselves will fundamentally come through in the writing itself. For example, if somebody is writing about their mum, and there are details that are missing, I can usually tell that [the author] is intentionally holding back because it’s something that they haven’t reconciled. I’ll say to them as an editor, ‘You’re withholding information that you haven’t dealt with, which we as readers can see right through, which in turns prevents the work from being any good.’ The writer must be honest with themselves, you know, that Shakespearean line ‘to thine own self be true’? That’s the first step for writers, that you’ve got to be true to yourself. If you’re not ready to go to places, a reader will immediately know that you the writer are not willing to go there. And if you’re not willing to go there, then how am I going to go there? So, one of the biggest, most annoying statements that bad writers make is when you call out something they’ve written that’s no good, that’s not working technically, and they say, ‘Oh I did it deliberately.’ It’s so annoying! I say, ‘This is all just clichés’; and they respond, ‘Oh, I did it deliberately.’

GM:
Yeah, a friend of mine who’s a writer often encounters a similar attitude during their workshops. You would know this too, I’m sure. One of the first questions they ask their students is ‘Okay, you want to write? Who do you read?’ And, you know, immediately some novice writer in the class says something like ‘Everything out there is crap. I want to write something that I want to read,’ which is, god, just such a shit attitude to have. And so it’s no surprise then that their work ultimately ends up being just…

MMA:
Just garbage, clichés…

GM:
Right, just this self-consciously ‘literary’ faff. I know I definitely passed through that sort of pretentious crap gateway as a novice writer [laughs]. But it’s all about learning, right, being open to someone helping you grow, I guess.

MMA:
Exactly.

GM:
This brings me back to this question of pedagogy in The Other Half of You, these ideas of legacy and inheritance constantly at play, this sort of father-son ‘pedagogical masculinity’. It reminded me of Jarvis Masters’ death row memoir Finding Freedom in a way, that idea of a kind of ‘bodhisattva masculinity’ and his using Buddhist practice to confront and reassess the traumas of his own history and identity as a Black man in America, to teach himself, and others, who he is, how and why he got where he is, in order to somehow transcend and redirect that struggle, trauma, and suffering towards self — and re-constructive rather than destructive ends. And I felt, as I was reading the new novel, that Bani, having gone through his own struggles and traumas — where we see him come up against the wall of himself — is also doing this when he’s talking to his son, Kahlil, and the reader too. So, can you elaborate on the role that religious practice and spirituality play in this reappraisal and renegotiation of identity along lines of race, gender and class?

MMA:
That’s a big question. I’ll answer it the best I can, but I probably won’t answer it exactly as you asked it. So, here’s what’s coming through for me. I’ll focus on that idea of pedagogy and educating your children and the next generation. What I would say is, very specifically, particularly for minorities in the West, the younger generation are not necessarily going to inherit a beautiful world. In 2019, an Australian-born White supremacist entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and murdered 51 Muslims peacefully conducting their Friday prayers. But this didn’t come out of nowhere. A lot of people pretend that it did…

GM:
Yeah, that ‘crazy lone wolf’ theory…

MMA:
Exactly. But it was actually twenty years of anti-Muslim bigotry and rhetoric from politicians and mass media that was relentless, which lead to Christchurch. And, of course, this happened shortly before the global Black Lives Matter protests took place, and we were talking more and more about the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, specifically deaths in custody. Also, after COVID hit, we saw a significant rise in anti-Asian violence in Australia. But anti-Asian violence is old in this country as well; there were massacres here during the Goldrush in Burrangong in the 1860s. And so, there’s a very long history of xenophobia and White supremacy and racism that is so deeply rooted in this country that I don’t think we’re going to resolve it in our lifetime.

GM:
Like the reactions in the wake of the Cronulla riots. Perfect example. I’ll never forget Ghassan Hage’s lecture at Melbourne uni straight after that exploded, where he said, well, this is what happens when the dominant culture demarcates a particular space or box and says, ‘Okay, you’re totally free to go ahead and be Lebs or whatever, but stay in this box, don’t cross the line of what we expect from you.’ Of course, we’re not talking about the line of the law, but that of a cultural compliance; when the failure to identify with and assimilate into a nationalist culture, set of values, ‘way of life’ incurs the violence of that culture’s most toxic extremist iteration, then the structures of ‘multicultural Australia’ simply broke down as soon as they got tested. And it goes for all minorities as well: ‘We’re diverse, multicultural Australia etc, go ahead and be a Leb or Greek or Viet or Somalian and do whatever it is you do, but be one in the ways that we want you to be one, express that identity how we want. But once you cross those boundaries we’ve set, it’s chaos. We don’t know what to do with you. You’re a problem and a threat to us.’

MMA:
Yeah, that’s right. Bring your food and your language and your clothes but leave everything else in the Old World. The world our children are going to inherit is one where they’re still going to have to address issues of racism. And of course conversations about climate change, it’s real — it’s a very real threat. Chomsky, for instance, argues that climate change, in addition to nuclear war, is the biggest existential threat in the history of the world for human beings. The possibility of nuclear war and the impacts of climate change are the first examples of an organised effort, on our part, to end human life that could be successful . . . Here’s my point. What is my responsibility as a writer? It is to try and prepare [my son], intellectually, emotionally, through history and the present, for the world he is going to inherit. This is not a new literary tradition. One of the most famous books in the world written in the last couple of years is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who’s a prominent African American writer. He writes it to his sons. What compels us to do it, I’m not too sure. But the idea is that I am trying to prepare my son, my mixed race Arab-Anglo Australian Muslim son, for the world that he’s going to inherit. That’s the point.

GM:
There’s also a sense in this that Bani is also talking to his highest self, you know, the best in him, his highest potential as a human being. And when he admits to his son his own fallibilities and weaknesses, he’s always open and honest and doesn’t hide anything from him. It’s tender and touching, vulnerable but at the same time conveying a sense of strength and security — something, again, that couldn’t happen in a straight-up memoir, at least not like that. I can’t imagine this kind of forward — looking idea and feeling could be brought across by what, generally speaking, is a recounting or recollection of events, moments, experiences, feelings past.

MMA:
It couldn’t have happened in a memoir. The irony is that a lot of people also told me it couldn’t happen in fiction. You know, it’s so interesting, the dichotomy. There are so many things that are just so specifically ridiculous or unbelievable that you couldn’t have possibly made them up. I’ll give you a good example. Randa Abdel-Fattah, the multi-award-winning young adult author and academic, was recently talking to me about Bani’s mother-in-law, you know, when she sabotages her daughter’s chance to wear a pink dress to her own engagement because she wanted to wear a pink dress.

GM:
[laughs] Yeah, that was pretty bad.

MMA:
Randa was saying to me, ‘When I was reading that, I couldn’t believe it, but it has to be true. I just can’t imagine how you would make that up!’ I didn’t! That literally happened! I’ll tell you — I don’t actually know if I should say this — but my ex-wife’s mother told me, ‘Don’t let my daughter wear pink for her engagement dress because pink is for whores.’ You know, you just do what your mother-in-law says before you get married. You want to keep everybody happy. So I encouraged my ex-wife to not wear a pink dress. Pink was her favourite colour, so she really wanted a pink dress, and she found this beautiful pink dress for 90 bucks. But instead, I had to pay [as is traditional for the Alawite male fiancé] $1000 for this red dress instead, to keep the peace. And then on my engagement day, my ex-wife’s mum rocks up in a pink dress! So I write a scene like that in my book, never doubting anyone would believe it, because I know for sure it happened. Another example — and I know you liked this one, I’m sure you remember — the mandarins! My brother had a big fight with [my sister and I]; he kind of bullies us, picks on us, and one night he picks a fight with us, and in his rage, he grabbed and threw a box of mandarins that was on the kitchen bench. My sister and I pick up the mandarins and put them back on the kitchen bench, and later my dad comes home, and he’s so angry that we had a fight, he picks up and throws the same box of mandarins in the air and says, ‘Where do you all learn this shit?’ You can’t make this stuff up! It’s unbelievably fictional and it’s unbelievably true simultaneously.

GM:
Yeah, some of the stuff that happened, which belongs to that singular world and immediately evokes a place and time so vividly, was so ‘real’ because it was just fucken weird and hilarious. This reminds me of what Ice Cube said about the time Boyz N the Hood had hit big and [director] John Singleton encouraged him to write his own screenplay, which was the comedy Friday, and what sort of inspired him to go that way in writing ‘honestly’ about his neighbourhood, his community. South Central LA in the early ‘90s, of course, was everywhere, and the ‘gritty realism’ of Boyz N the Hood engaged that side of it. But about writing Friday, Cube said something like, ‘It wasn’t all just violence and death. We laughed as much as we cried.’ It’s those contrasts, you know? That street scene in The Other Half of You, for example, was instantly familiar. That kind of thing often happened on my street as well — sort of dramatic and tragic and all that, but at the same time just absurd and hilarious…

MMA:
You’re talking about the brawl? It’s my favourite scene in the novel.

GM:
That says so much. All these elements we’re talking about are there, all playing out in that scene.

MMA:
It happened! I was out there on the street, bro, with all my Arab cousins and the cops were just watching us, and it was just dead quiet, and this mobile phone just kept ringing and ringing and nobody was answering it…

GM:
[laughs] That was just nuts.

MMA:
One thing. I’ll tell you about Boyz N the Hood. I was asked by an American publisher two years ago about them publishing The Lebs. Of course, nobody in America knows what a ‘Leb’ is: it’s a very specific Australian identity. In fact, I know Greeks who are called ‘Lebs’. It’s a hybrid identity, the same as ‘wog’ — a cultural group that is a kind of hybrid Australian brand. So the title would need to change. Then [the publisher] asked me, ‘If we change the title, what would we change it to?’ And the kind of running title we had, if we were going to market this to an American audience and repackage The Lebs as an American book, it was going to be something like Arabs in the Hood.

GM:
Wow, that’s crazy… Staying with this intention of conveying a culturally specific identity and deeply personal experience, I just want to go back to those ideas of narrative and time. . . The world of your novels is driven by a familial, transgenerational migrant temporality, one that is inherently disruptive as well as continuously ruptured. What is the legacy and inheritance — the living archive of culture and (unspoken) trauma — at play in this fractured trajectory of time and place? What are some of the aesthetic preoccupations in exploring and conveying the myriad ways this ‘inheritance’ can manifest for subsequent generations?

MMA:
What I would say is that I think, for writers like us, we often fall into the trap of two camps: the racist camp or the anti-racist camp. The racist camp is like, and I’ll use my community as an example, ‘Arabs are terrorists, they’re sexual predators, they’re drug dealers, they’re gangsters,’ right? That’s the stereotype. And so you write a book that reinforces all those stereotypes. Now, the other camp is that you write an anti-racist book that tries to subvert all those stereotypes. You tell all these beautiful, lovely stories about how we’re all just nice boys who like to have conversations about our favourite books. We all have very progressive — secretly progressive — politics on gender and sexuality, and none of us have ever been in a fight and we all love learning and we’re all going to get 99 in our HSC and we’re going to go to university and we’re going to become doctors and lawyers, and every single thing you’ve ever heard about us in the media is a racist stereotype.

Writers like me — and I’ve talked to other writers who feel this pressure — carry a tremendous burden to write in the second camp, this tremendous burden to just tell these positive stories because we’re so heavily and negatively portrayed that most of the time we’re just trying to counteract all the demonising portraits of us. So now, the hard thing is not falling into that trap. I want to tell a complex intersectional story, which means that I want to show you our humanity and our sophistication and complex dimensions — we’re three dimensional — but that means I have to be willing to expose the misogyny, the homophobia, the violence, the racism that exists among the men in my community. I will tell you just one more point: I always get very conflicted about whether it’s the ethical thing to do. . . . The conversation about the ethics of disclosing insider information. I know it will reinforce negative stereotypes about our community, and I feel conflicted. I want to be honest, and being honest means revealing so much of the predatory and problematic behaviour in my community. But to do so could be to accidentally fall into the hands of a right-wing agenda, racists who are looking for any excuse they can find to promote Islamophobia. I went through this kind of dilemma in a really hardcore way about two weeks ago when I published my article in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. It was about the boys during September 11 at my high school…

GM:
Yeah, I read that, with that excerpt from The Lebs, the Punchbowl boys talking about it in the morning before school. Their response, some parts of it anyway, was quite similar for me, in my neighbourhood, that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a ‘seeds of Imperialist violence blowing back’ kind of immediate reaction, you know, before the horror and human tragedy of it dawns…

MMA:
Thank you. Yes, I agree. I think it was a complex article about Western hypocrisy, but a lot of people didn’t see it that way. A lot of people saw it like ‘This is evidence of what we’ve been saying all along, that Arabs and Muslims are just anti-West and just hate and want to kill White people.’ So I had to ask myself, ‘Do I put this information, this story, into the hands of White racists? They’ll take advantage of it and manipulate it, and deliberately exploit and misunderstand what I’m saying.’

GM:
Cherry pick and twist those parts that suit them, their agenda…

MMA:
Exactly. So that’s a strong, ethical dilemma that we as minority writers have to deal with, ask the question, ‘Is it safe to tell the truth when that truth might reinforce negative stereotypes about our community,’ which can lead to dangerous and racist policies, for example. So far in my life I’ve always leaned toward the idea that I should just speak the truth, even if it’s against me, which is from the Prophet Muhammad. But having said that, I just don’t want anybody who’s reading this interview — or anybody who hears anything I ever say — to just think I’m comfortable with it. I’m always questioning and asking myself if it’s the right thing to do. I’m never sure.

GM:
On this issue of the politics of reading, perhaps we can end by talking about [African American feminist cultural theorist and activist] bell hooks, whom you’ve often cited as a big influence in your own critical thinking as well as the impetus behind Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement. So, literacy, as hooks and Sweatshop advocate, is the bedrock of the move towards autonomy for disenfranchised and marginalised groups and communities: reading, writing, and critical thinking are thus fundamentally political acts. I think that some contemporary models of reading, as a form of political engagement as well as artistic practice, have been coopted in increasingly cynical and atomistic ways. What do you think?

MMA:
Good question. So the first thing I would say, if we’re gonna be able to answer that question, is we have to define ‘reading’. Now when we say reading is coopted and used to manipulate, it’s also used to get people to reinforce bad systems. But that’s if your definition of reading is simply the ability to put letters and words together — letters make words, words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs, paragraphs make pages, pages make books — if that is your definition of reading, then reading can be, basically, being on Facebook all day, sharing memes about how COVID is a conspiracy. But that’s not how I define reading, and bell hooks doesn’t define reading this way either. Reading is not the ability to put words together; it’s the ability to pull words apart. I’ll give you a good example, I don’t know if this will make it into the interview, but this is how I teach my students.

GM:
Please, go ahead.

MMA:
So we’re in a classroom of students. I tell them all to close their eyes, and they close their eyes. ‘Okay, imagine you’re driving a car and you’re in traffic. And then there’s a billboard in front of you for a holiday getaway, which features a couple on the beach.’ Then I say, ‘Everyone open your eyes now.’ Everyone opens their eyes, and I say, ‘I’m gonna guess what the billboard image you imagined in your mind looked like, okay?’ And the students say okay. ‘Alright. It was a man and a woman.’ Everybody says, ‘Yeah, it was definitely a man and woman.’ So when I say ‘imagine a couple on the beach,’ nobody imagined a billboard where it was two men or two women, holding hands or making out. Next I say, ‘You imagined that they’re White?’ Everybody says, ‘Yeah, they were White.’ Very few people are gonna say, ‘Yeah, I actually imagined a Black couple or a Muslim couple — a hijabi with her bearded husband.’ Then I ask, ‘You imagined that the couple was fit, that the guy was super muscular and the woman was super thin. You didn’t imagine an obese man and woman, did you?’ Everybody says yes. ‘And you imagined that they looked wealthy? You’re not imagining them looking poor or scruffy, right? They were waxed and clean, tanned, oiled, shiny, wearing expensive shorts, bikinis, sunglasses, had expensive haircuts, and so on?’ Everybody says yes. Then I go, ‘Okay, that phenomenon, all of the information that was packed into that billboard, is created in such a way that it reinforces heteronormativity, patriarchy, White supremacy, capitalism.’ Literacy is the ability to pull apart all that information — understand how it informs the way you think, feel and behave. That’s reading.

GM:
What makes an impression is that your organisation, Sweatshop is described as a literacy movement — an effort or move towards empowerment and self-determination. There’s a kind of mobility there — the process of coming to understand why you think and imagine and feel, what you do and what you know, where youyour life — stands in relation to what you see, and assume, and to an extent internalise… Ultimately, this is also about how we see our own cultural and artistic value and that of our world, our community, right? . . . So this emphasis on critical thinking — also being self-critical — is crucial to understanding, as you’ve often said, ‘how we see what we see,’ but also, I would add here, to find our own voice and ideas as we work through that and so bring ourselves into the process of reading and writing, making a critically engaged art. This, for me, is how and why Sweatshop and the Sweatshop Women anthologies resonate. . . . So getting back to what you said earlier about different forms and agendas of reading and meaning-making — at both political poles — how do you feel about ‘reading’ being coopted in increasingly cynical and alienating ways? For example, the way that the language — the symbols and practices — of critical engagement and political dissent are being used to, ultimately, shut down rather than resolve or evolve discussion — that kind of superficial ‘woke’ approach, for instance?

MMA:
There’s a contradiction between being ‘woke’ — being awake to the truth, that’s the idea — and at the same time being so rigid in your worldview that anybody who doesn’t think and feel exactly like you should be cancelled. That’s not woke. That’s having your eyes closed. We should fight for a robust intellectual community that is not fragile but confident and strong enough to have difficult conversations with a diversity of opinions.

GM:
Amen to that. And this is where art comes in, right, to deepen those conversations, make their dimensions and nuances more vivid and rich and human – Bani Adam, humanity. You know, there is rhetoric, and there is art, and then there is rhetoric that is encoded in the art…

MMA:
Rhetorical art!

George Mouratidis is the author of the poetry collection, Angel Frankenstein (Soul Bay Press 2018) and translator of Noted Transparencies by Nikos Nomikos (Owl Press 2016).

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