The Role of the Storyteller Is to Add Complexity to a Narrative: An Interview with Omar Musa
Heralded by Publishers Weekly as a "fully realized depiction of how art and life inform each other," Omar Musa's debut novel, Here Come the Dogs, follows three restless young immigrants in small-town Australia in what the Los Angeles Times calls "a searing coming-of-age story that tackles race and masculine identity, dislocation and disempowerment." Musa appeared at Harvard Book Store in March to read from his explosive debut, and I caught up with him recently to talk politics, hip-hop, and role of the storyteller. Plus, click the audio track to find out how to spell "fuck" in Australian.
I’m sure that a lot of people have spoken to you about this, but I did check out the piece you performed at the Sydney Opera House. The first thing that struck me about it was that you mention “the ones heard about, not from / the ones talked about, not to,” and I wondered, is this novel of yours about redressing that balance—about hearing from voices usually unheard, characters usually not portrayed?
It’s a hard one because the poem I did at the Opera House is quite autobiographical, and that was about claiming your voice, about telling the story untold, hearing stories from people who have been kept voiceless. Whereas, with Here Come the Dogs, it’s slightly different. Even though there are autobiographical elements in the book, of course, it is fiction, and I’m trying to inhabit the minds and bodies of characters. In fact, two of the characters are Samoan and Macedonian, cultures very different from mine, so it could be argued that I am speaking for them. But part of that is also the empathy and the alchemy of fiction; you try and inhabit someone’s character in the hope that you might understand them better.
You talk about people who have “been kept voiceless,” but that was a subject-less phrase. Is there an agent in that phrase?
We notoriously had the White Australia policy, that coincided in 1901 with the federation of our nation, and one of the first laws enacted was the immigration restriction act to keep Chinese migrants and other Asian migrants out of Australia, to keep Australia Anglo-British dominated, and this only ended officially in 1975, five years before my own father arrived in Australia from Malaysia. And until about 1965, Aboriginal people were considered the flora and fauna of Australia, not human beings, so there is a history in my country of people being dehumanized and stereotyped, and spoken about, and the narrative has been constructed by Anglo-Australians, white people. I think we’re undergoing a watershed moment right now, even though it’s been happening for a few years, but I’m starting to see a lot more people of color telling their stories, Muslim people, Aboriginal people, African Australians, and it’s really exciting. I once heard a Malaysian publisher say something that really resonated with me. He said that the best thing about Malaysian literature is that so much of it is yet to be written, and I think it’s the same in Australia: there are so many stories yet to be told.
You’re seeing a plurality of narratives emerging?
Most definitely, and it’s always a contentious thing when you want people to tell their stories, and autobiographical stories are incredibly interesting, especially from new migrants who are forging their way in Australia. Finding those links and gaps and the hyphens in between, all of that is fascinating, but then when it comes to fiction, it becomes a whole other issue, of authenticity, or legitimacy — who has the right to tell whose story — and I find it an interesting one.
You’ve said that in Malay culture, the word for storyteller means “dispeller of worries,” which is a beautiful way to think about storytelling. What do you think is the cultural role of the storyteller?
I always interpreted that to mean that storytelling will not just relieve sorrows in the audience, although hopefully that is the primary function, but will also relieve the sorrows within yourself. It is a form of therapy — one of the earliest forms of therapy that humans have created to deal with themselves and help understand themselves, but I think that can also be used in a modern context. When I see something like slam poetry in Australia, that has taken off like wildfire over the last eight, maybe ten years, and suddenly you see people who might not have been expressing themselves publically, or might not have been given a safe space publically, and I am thinking about a lot of Lebanese Australians, or Sudanese Australians, Aboriginal Australians, just to name a few, you suddenly see the confidence and the agency that people are able to adopt.
I think it has an important political function as well, because at the moment it’s feeding into the arts; we’re seeing people moving from slam poetry and starting to help diversify literature, but I suspect that, given more time, these kids with a renewed sense of selfhood and confidence will also start feeding into public life in some way, whether they become lawyers, or advocates, or activists. That, hopefully, will come, because the role of the storyteller is also to add nuance and complexity to a narrative, or create multiple narratives, that help us understand each other better. Part of the problem in Australia is there’s a deficit in compassion and understanding toward our neighbors. If we just reached out a hand a little bit more and tried to understand each other, it might be a more compassionate place. For example, this whole blackface stuff keeps coming up in Australia, which to me seems so bizarre.
What’s happening in Australia right now?
There are always these controversies, where photos will turn up on Facebook of white Australians turning up to parties wearing blackface, blacking up and pretending to be Aboriginal, and then there’s a huge uproar, rightly so, on behalf of Aboriginal Australians. Then there’s this big public debate about whether it’s racist or not, and you hear all these people saying, no, it’s not racist, it’s just a bit of fun, whereas more rational people — well, rational people — can see it as part of a long lineage of minstrel shows and stereotyping. There was an Aboriginal guy on TV saying, why is it my role to educate these people? Why can’t they just go on Wikipedia and look it up? And sometimes I think the same about Islam: Wikipedia is right there; there’s a library right next to your house. Instead of just sort of shooting from the hip and speaking ignorantly, why don’t you go and do a bit of research? You know, maybe we as artists will play a role in that, by presenting some of these complex ideas in a digestible or entertaining way that might lead people to reconsider their preconceived notions of different ethnicities, genders, and sexual identities.
In some ways, then, does that burden of education fall on the artist?
No, I mean, we live in an interconnected complex society, and I think it falls on activists and policy makers and politicians as well, of course. They pull the levers, so they should not be the ones who are leading from behind, or embarking on a race to the bottom. For instance, with refugees in Australia, we’ve seen that a lot, that strange, uncompassionate, dark rhetoric toward refugees. It would be unrealistic to think that we, the poets, who don’t have much of an audience, lead the narrative. But we play our part.
Turning to form for a second, your novel is a blend of poetry and narrative, and there’s also a blend of dialects, a blend of cultures. Was this a natural place for you to go, both in form and content? And how did you decide which form was best for telling which aspects of the story?
I found the prose very difficult to write, because I hadn’t written prose before, so I actually read a book called The Monkey’s Mask, by Dorothy Porter, a great Australian writer who has now since passed away, but she wrote verse novels, so each scene was a little poem. I realized when I read that, that it kept the pace really cracking along, and there needn’t necessarily be this distinction between verse and prose. And so I started writing a little bit, combining her style with a bit of Irvine Welsh kind of slang, colloquial style, to hopefully create something a little bit new. But then I also wanted to have the more traditional big blocks of prose, and I had hoped that, stylistically, having three different forms for each character — one in first person poetry, one in third person prose, and one a mixture between the two — might mimic the effect of different lenses on a camera. The first person poetry might be like an up-close lens, where you can see the hairs on the back of the hand or the grade on a table. The third person prose for Aleks, the Macedonian character, may be more of a cool, distanced, panoramic eye on the society of Australia. Jimmy, who’s a bit of a mysterious character, I wanted to keep close, but still a little at arm’s length, so flitting in between poetry and prose might be like a tracking camera over somebody’s shoulder. It was a structural and strategic approach with form, but it was also to mirror the lives of the characters, because I’m always harping on about those of us who grew up in between, in a liminal space — we grew up on the hyphen. I wanted a style that would reflect that. Because why not? Who is to tell me that we have to be categorized into one box of prose or poetry? I just decided to flit in between them all.
So, as all good Lit Crit students know, the form mirrors the content.
Exactly. But, having said all of that, I also just really didn’t want to play by the rules. If I wanted to drop into a poem at a certain point, I just did it, recklessly and fearlessly. That was my choice, as the dictator of my art. I heard Ricky Gervais talking about this in a podcast one time, about how he is the dictator of his own art, and I really liked that. You must have your advisors, but too many cooks spoil the broth. Certain art can seem almost focus group driven, and I wanted just to go wild with it.
You mention Irvine Welsh, and he’s an early influence on me, and he’s writing in a certain Scottish dialect a lot of time. I’m from Yorkshire, which is in the North of England, and I’m from a small post-industrial town, and write in that dialect, so I loved the dialectal work that you were doing. Why did you feel to be important about representing dialect on the page?
Reading Trainspotting when I was about thirteen years old, I suddenly realized that dialect, or slang, or something that wasn’t considered proper English could be the most beautiful poetry, and could show stories of great redemption. Also, it was my hope that it might battle the cultural cringe we have in Australia. Do you know this expression?
No, I don’t.
Sarah and Omar talk cursewords
The cultural cringe is basically where Australians feel so insecure about their identity, where we feel as if we must constantly be validated by England, or by London, because Australians often felt like this colonial outpost in the middle of the dark tribes of Asia, and that the true home was Britain, and so we always must adhere to their standards, or their measuring sticks. And so [writing in dialect] was a part of me, hopefully not being too provincial, but owning the particular richness of where I came from, and what we have that is distinctly Australian, and finding the poetry in it. So that was fun for me; it came very naturally, because I’ve always loved slang. I’ve always loved Australian colloquialisms; I tried to put a lot of them in there. I take a lot of public transport, and so I would listen closely to the way people talk, and I also got a few cues from the way people wrote things online. There are certain things like, “ay,” you know — Oh, what’s going on, ay? And is that E-Y, is it A-Y-E, or is it A-Y? So I would always just kind of switch it up.
It’s cool to hear you talk about that; I do the same thing. The first time I ever saw my native dialect written down was when we all got mobiles and started texting each other. I found a new spelling for “rate” the other day, and I was like, oh I’ve got to use that; it’s got a “y” in it.
A new spelling for what?
“Rate,” which is the Yorkshire way of saying “right.”
Oh, right, yeah.
You know, “it’s rate good.”
How did they spell it?
R-E-Y-T, which I really liked.
Yeah, perfect. The old C-bomb is very popular in Australia —
— and Britain.
And Britain, yeah, but like as a term of endearment, you know?
Yes, I do! I was very surprised to come to America and find that people didn’t say that in polite company.
Oh, no way, yeah. I think at the Harvard Book Store it might have been the most it’s been said, ever.
I’m very sorry to have missed that.
But yeah, I saw someone spell it C-U-N-C-E online, and I thought that was brilliant, but it might be a bit too cutesy to use in my book. I really like how we go, Oh faaark, like a long, drawn out faaark, and so we always spelled that F-A-A-A-R-K, you know, like faaarking hell. I tried to put that in the book a few times.
That’s beautiful; I love it.
Because that is very Australian, very slow and kind of laconic.
That’s great. I actually didn’t start writing in dialect or really start taking pleasure in it properly until I moved [to the States] and it was disassociated from what it had always been associated with. Our accent and dialect is associated with being uneducated, and working class, and poor, so it was something that you only did in the town, and when you went off to university or whatever, you tried to switch.
Yeah, I was interested in that; there’s a certain section in the book where Jimmy, who went to a public school, is looking at Solomon, who went to a private school, engaging in a debate about refugees, and he suddenly realizes that Solomon is bilingual, that there’s this whole other language — a whole other English — that he can speak, a private school English, and he’s kind of shocked by that.
I also wanted to do this very unapologetically. For instance, when I had my book published here, I had a bit of a back and forth with my editor, who eventually saw my reasoning, about whether to have a glossary or not, and I think Americans are always doing this. I said, no, this is not anthropology, this is literature, and it’s still in English, and hopefully the structure hangs together to the point where it’s contextual, or it just adds some texture, or just go online and look it up. It’s such a problem.
It is a problem. Junot Diaz raises a similar problem — he uses a lot of Spanish, and would come up against a similar resistance to using it unexplained.
People always bring him up as an example, but I think of even, Cormack McCarthy, or Faulkner, and we in Australia, or we in the rest of the world outside of the States don’t suddenly go, Oh my god, we need a glossary for Faulkner, we don’t understand these Southern expressions. We just deal with it.
I didn’t even really understand that until I was studying Harry Potter in grad school in Kansas. For the first time I was reading the American versions of the books, and I was like, what is this? All of these words have been changed, and it was the strangest thing, because I’d read American books my whole life and never had I ever read a British version of an American book. But, it is interesting that there’s this huge hip-hop influence in Here Come the Dogs, and that’s an American form of expression. I’m interested in how that interacts with this emphasis on Australia and dialect.
It is an interesting one: in the early days of Australian hip-hop there was this accent debate, because so many people were influenced by America that they used American accents, because they thought that’s what rapping was, and I think even for the first couple songs I wrote, I rapped in an American accent; it’s a very common thing. Then there was this big movement, like, no, you should use your own accent, but then it almost went the other way, where what sounded like fairly exaggerated Australian accents were being used, and now I think it’s settled somewhere in the middle, which I think is good, where people don’t have to adhere to what was disparagingly called “Beer and Barbecue Rap.” But you can’t help but take on some of the markers of the culture that you’re influenced by, and it is an American art form. I wanted to show how that had fused into something of its own in Australia, with a really rich hip-hop scene. There are so many rappers, it’s been around since, I think, the late ‘80s in Australia, and it’s popular — there are number one albums — so it’s a big cultural movement.
I was interested in the tension between being liberated by this mode of expression, but needing to distinguish it from the country of origin.
Oh, totally, and it brings up all sorts of interesting cultural questions: Australian hip-hop, at least for the last fifteen years, has been largely white dominated, which is pretty rare in the world, because usually it’s a minority thing. Then there’s a thing [in the novel] about how the most famous, revered Australian rapper, Sin One, a guy I invented, goes to America — he’s this cult figure in Australia — but when he goes to America, he’s really looked down upon, because America is the Mecca of hip-hop. Then of course gender comes into it so much, when the guys at the hip-hop club are apologetically admitting that there just are never any women on stage. But yeah, we’ve created a scene that’s our own, and I wanted to show that, and unapologetically drench it in Australian hip-hop references.
One last question: What are you reading?
What am I reading? You’ve caught me at a good time. I’m going to give you a longish answer to this, because I’ve just finished three brilliant books in a row, and I loved them all. One is called H is for Hawk, and then I read one called This Divided Island, which is a great book by an Indian journalist about Sri Lanka and the civil war, and the way he interviewed ex-Tigers and right-wing Buddhist priests. The third one was A Swimmer Among the Stars, which was a new Indian book of short stories, that is just brilliant. He’s like an Indian Calvino, or an Indian Borges, and I don’t even know if it’s out here. I’m just telling you all this because I don’t think I’ve ever had such a run of books in a row where I’ve loved all of them. I’m currently reading Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple, a memoir.
What’s it about?
A young half Puerto Rican, half Jewish girl growing up in New York City, completely obsessed with drawing and painting, and going to art school, but she becomes a burlesque dancer and a nude model. Now, she’s a vice journalist who has been to Guantanamo Bay and Iraq and Afghanistan and interviewed people while drawing them, and so it’s a completely radical, wild book and I love it.
Omar Musa is a Malaysian-Australian rapper and poet from Queanbeyan. A former winner of the Australian Poetry Slam and Indian Ocean Poetry Slam, he has performed extensively around the country, and has been a featured guest internationally at the likes of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Singapore Writers Festival, Jaipur Literary Festival, Galle Literary Festival (Sri Lanka), the France Slam League Cup, Beijing Writers Festival, and the Crossing Border Music and Writers Festival (Netherlands). His international hip-hop tours have included supporting legendary poet/singer Gil Scott-Heron in Germany. Omar has released three hip hop albums and two poetry books, including Parang. He was a panellist on ABC's Q&A in 2012, performing a poem for its conclusion, and was a star performer at the TEDx Sydney event in 2013 at the Sydney Opera House. Omar has also run creative workshops in remote Aboriginal communities, youth centres and rural schools. His critically acclaimed debut novel Here Come the Dogs was long listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and he was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald's Young Novelists of the Year in 2015.
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Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown