BBC Culture recently ran a poll on the best novels published in English since 2000 (as strange, one newspaper pointed out, as asking how your year was in January). It threw up a predictable bias: all authors, bar one, were American or English. Yet aside from the list’s arbitrary parameters – why poll only American critics? why ‘since 2000’? why choose twelve books from fourteen years? – it got me to thinking what, precisely, ‘published in English’ means today. The author who topped the list, Junot Díaz, with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), seems to defy the very category. With a fluid mash-up of Spanish and English, hip-hop rhymes, sci-fi, and literature theory, Díaz creates a new literary language. His vibrant, violent urban creole exceeds categories as one-dimensional as ‘English’. Even before you get to the meat of his stories – cheating lovers and persecuted sci-fi nerds, immigrants with two jobs and two wives, holidays in the Dominican Republic – his language pulses with complex identities and experiences. Lord of the Rings references butt up against un-italicised Spanish, merengue lyrics with quips about the invasion of Iraq. The cumulative effect is a fierce and unapologetic declaration of identity.
In fact, declaration may not be the right word – reading Díaz is more like being let into a conversation between insiders. One of the most distinctive aspects of his prose is that Díaz doesn’t translate it for the uninitiated reader, a rule that stands for whole sentences in Dominican Spanish and for fantasy and sci-fi jargon. Some critics have even suggested that, while many bilingual writers in the US play with mixing Spanish and English, it is Díaz’s bold use of untranslated Elvish that is most linguistically radical. The author has previously expressed astonishment that readers outside the ‘narrow, tiny universe’ he portrays nevertheless see themselves reflected. But it is precisely from loyalty to this ‘tiny universe’ that a different kind of universal appeal blooms.
Literary critic Evelyn Ch’ien uses Junot Díaz as an important case study in her book Weird English (2005). Ch’ien’s vision of ‘weird English’ is an experimental, rule-breaking phenomenon borne from non-native English, often written by immigrants or their children, who ride the ‘ethnic-awareness tsunami’ she sees ‘crashing into the establishment’. It is ‘the kind of language creation happening now – vernacular transcription that has a built-in self-consciousness of its political, social, and metaphorical implications, as well as an aesthetic value’. In weird English, deviations from spelling norms are playful and political. Dialogue celebrates the idiosyncratic ways non-natives speak, preserving difference rather than assimilating and standardising it. If we’re going to use a ‘melting pot’ metaphor for multiculturalism, weird English loves the bits that prove damn right insoluble. In the contemporary landscape of movement, migration and mixing, it seemed important that Díaz topped that list. Clearly ‘English’ doesn’t mean quite what it used to.
Fellow ‘weird English’ writer from the UK, Zadie Smith, also made the list, with White Teeth (2000). Once again, while global forces have drawn Smith’s characters from across the world, it’s in a very specific local setting that they congregate. London in Smith’s books is not the global city of London-New York-Paris, but the tiny universes of the North West – Willesden, Cricklewood, Kilburn – which seem to contain within them the voices of the globe.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, no Australian novelist made BBC Culture’s list. Of course, I don’t want to suggest that this list is in any way the measure of quality in Australian writing today. However it does prompt an interesting discussion of what ‘published in English’ means in an Australian context, and whether any Australian writers are ‘weirding English’ like Díaz and Smith: idiosyncratic and unapologetic, globalised yet deeply local. While export Courtney Barnett is currently drawling Australian suburbia through the States to great acclaim, she’s a musician. Her voice is literally heard. Preserving the honesty and directness of an Australian voice on the page proves a very different challenge.
Still, it seems no accident that Omar Musa – the up-and-coming writer from Queanbeyan, NSW, who I’d argue is a significant weirder of English – emerges from a musical and spoken-word background. He’s been known on the hip-hop and slam-poetry circuit for a while but Here Come the Dogs (2014) is his first novel. Its recognition from the literary establishment comes with its inclusion in this year’s Miles Franklin longlist. Yet his novelistic debut maintains the punch of spoken-word pieces, with more conventional chapters peppered by columns of short, sharp, not-quite prose that slither and kick into the next line, mixing swearwords with the breathtakingly poetical.
Musa’s energy and vision are shared by friend and fellow slam poet Maxine Beneba Clarke, whose electric fiction debut, Foreign Soil, was also published in 2014. The epigraph to her collection, from Chinua Achebe, declares a new generation’s project in Australian writing: ‘Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.’
While Clarke’s polyphonic stories jump from Jamaica and Sydney to Mississippi, Uganda and Brixton, Musa’s novel is multi-vocal but, in geographic terms, highly focused. There’s a line in Here Come the Dogs where the characters burst with pride that their favourite, nationally acclaimed rapper hails from ‘Our Town’. Is it a wink from Musa? He must know that that’s how Queanbeyanites and Canberrans feel about him. If Australia is the ‘arse end of the world’, as one of our own PMs called it, then Queanbeyan is the border fringe of the arse’s own capital cringe, Canberra. Or as Musa put it in a performance recorded for TEDx: ‘I come from Queanbeyan, NSW. It’s often given really mean nicknames, like Struggle Town, or the Soweto of Canberra.’
Queanbeyan and Canberra haven’t traditionally been seen as fertile literary ground for Australian writers. With bold Queanbeyanism, Musa defies this mini cultural cringe working within a greater national one. Instead of averting his eyes, Musa sees the contradictions and possibilities of the interstitial spaces where people from everywhere converge. These are the suburbs, but not the white-bread Menzies suburbs that artists like Barry Humphries made visible.
In Musa’s suburbs characters, like Australians, congregate from all over: Macedonia, Sudan, Samoa and New Zealand. Solomon, Here Come the Dogs’ arrogant but charismatic main man, is Samoan-Australian, but quick to snap that he’s not a ‘coconut’ or ‘Afakasi’ – Samoan for half-caste. Still, he struggles over what this means, given a pillar-of-the-community father whose shoes he can’t fill and Samoa a dream place he’s never visited. His best friend, Aleks the ‘Maco’, is a likeable figure who embodies contradictions: he deals drugs and drives his daughter to school, dreams of returning to war-fatigued Macedonia and is surprisingly hostile to refugees. Once he punched a teacher who tried to make him spell his name ‘Alex’, refusing to cede this linguistic marker of cultural difference.
Regardless of their own doubts and contradictions, Aleks and Solomon are solid and well-liked figures, nothing like Solomon’s half-brother Jimmy. In contrast to smooth-talking Solomon, Jimmy never knows what to say, says the wrong thing or resorts to violence. He hangs in the shadows, enraged by his impotence. While Solomon’s and Aleks’ fathers are steady measures of tradition, culture and respect – a standard their sons are conscious of not always meeting – Jimmy has no such measure. He is hypersensitive to not being white but doesn’t know what he is. His father is a slippery creature who comes and goes, misleading and deceiving his son. Jimmy could do a paternal DNA test to find out his ethnicity, but it’s not enough: ‘He wants to hear it from his dad’s mouth.’
This is the heart of Here Comes the Dogs – the telling, the speaking, is the transmission of identity. That’s why Aleks maintains a strict rule of Macedonian at home and in the car for his little daughter, while ‘Australia, the outside, takes care of teaching her English’. Though flawed, Aleks knows the importance of language in passing on a culture and a sense of self. That’s why Jimmy, left outside of this interior world, without a strong culture, language or dream homeland to retreat into, is lost for words. Typically, it is verbose Solomon who can articulate his brother’s crisis: ‘Not knowing what he is has become what he is.’
Clearly the intersection of language and identity is vital to Musa’s work. Interestingly, though, in Here Come the Dogs, it’s an unlikely character who articulates this best. Damien Crawford is a sinister, suited, Brandis-like figure who is agitating to have the Racial Discrimination Act amended. Meanwhile, race riots rage up the nearby coast. In contrast to other characters’ colour and energy, Crawford’s clipped newspeak sticks out like he turned up in the wrong novel. He monologues, a lone face staring down the camera at the nation. When he claims that changing the Act is not inflammatory but merely ‘a green light to express ourselves more fully as Australians’, it is clear he means one kind of Australian, one kind of expression. Crawford’s is a homogenising discourse that streamlines identity. On TV he declares that ‘Australian identity is being contested as we speak’.
Ironically, this frames Musa’s own project, in a phrase with several clever thrusts. Against the backdrop of the race riots, it conveys the urgency of debates about identity and free speech in a contemporary post-Cronulla Australia, which are given real-world implications when spoken violence becomes physical. It simultaneously suggests language as the material and playground of identity; it is as we speak that we make, contest and remake who we are.
Crawford’s conservative vision of Australian expression only underlines how different Musa’s is. The strength of the language in Here Come the Dogs is its raucous and irrepressible mix of voices, and its delight in the possibilities of non-standard formulations. In dialogue there are Australianisms you don’t often see in print, like ‘fucken’, ‘heaps suss’, ‘deadset’, and ‘numbnuts’, and ‘but’ and ‘ay’ at the end of sentences. (Another I love is ‘broke as’, ‘drunk as…’, that classic comparative superlative that leads nowhere.)
But Australian slang in print can make the cringers prickle. In the London Review of Books last year, Man Booker winner Richard Flanagan was slammed for his novel’s blokey ‘choice slang’ – drovers, wharfies, roo shooters – as a false and disingenuous portrayal of what’s ‘typically Australian’. Of course, Flanagan wrote a historical novel and was clearly not attempting to capture what’s typically Australian now. But Musa, in my opinion, avoids the accusation of replicating this well-worn Australian voice by sidelining not only the language of drovers, wharfies and roo shooters, but their whole mythic place in our identity. Instead he focuses on the complex present, where this ‘typically Australian’ slang is just one voice in the mix, one element of past threaded into present.
If Musa does seek to reorient language and identity away from a historically dominant blokey discourse, it’s a shame he doesn’t grant his female characters the same linguistic complexity as his men. Women in Here Come the Dogs might say interesting things about feminism or politics, but they are clearly serving a purpose, and the way they speak is often just as functional. Given that language is so integral to the men’s individuality, this makes the women seem like nothing more than blank walls that more exciting male characters can bounce off. When Solomon’s girlfriend Scarlett calls his group of friends ‘a cock forest’, challenging whether he has any female friends he hasn’t slept with, it feels like a moment of literary self-awareness. ‘Cock forest’ would be an un-nuanced description of Musa’s novel, but it definitely is a man’s, man’s world.
Aleks’ sister Jana and Solomon’s other girlfriend Georgie both articulate progressive ideologies, but remain outlines, never allowed the authentic voice – human and humorous – that makes male characters complex and lovable. Georgie, a white middle-class uni student, is wordy, but in a way that is unrelentingly irritating. In contrast, Jimmy ventures from irritating to sociopathic, yet demands empathy from the reader, even as he struggles to communicate with those around him. Tellingly, this gendered contrast is even apparent amongst the children. Solomon’s motley basketball team of young boys all have distinct personalities and verbal tics. Meanwhile Aleks’ daughter (the only female child in the book) either delivers unlikely adult-sounding sentences or skips and gets her hair ruffled.
Musa’s writing is compelling because when he writes what he knows, he writes true. But that women in fiction are also shaped by speech is an important point to make when talking about identity and Australian language. Those looking to subvert a masculinist national discourse so often dominated by diggers, mateship and footy stars – those who want to really speak to the complex present – would do well to listen to women with the same attentiveness and creativity they afford men.
Some feminists, such as Roxane Gay, have criticised Junot Díaz’s representations of women. Yet many others have identified the windows left open in his text through which to hear and see the real women that exist beyond his narrator’s intentionally limited male perspective. In fact, it is this tension between macho narration and women’s individual voices, the interstices of what is said and what is shown to be experienced, that stimulates the most interesting debates about gender in Díaz – a complexity I don’t think Musa’s female characters are capable of provoking. Ultimately, however, this criticism doesn’t override the genuine excitement I have about Musa’s literary language. His obvious reserve of talent, self-awareness, and compassion for women’s issues, expressed elsewhere, will hopefully translate into more imaginative future representations. There is great humanity in Musa’s writing, and an expansive ability to listen.
This is clear in the novel’s delight with the different ways individuals, especially non-native speakers and their children, make English their own. Aleks, for example, has an endearing way of mixing incongruous granny-sounding phrases like ‘oh dearie me’ and ‘goodness gracious’ into criminal scenarios. Each character has a distinct speech pattern. Georgie speaks in clever soundbites; church-going relatives pepper speech with Samoan language, ‘cuz’ and ‘bro’; Aboriginal English appears in phrases like ‘Koori fulla’ and ‘blackfella’, often operating as a quiet mark of solidarity amongst those who live outside Crawford’s vision for Australia. The alternative language encountered in Here Come the Dogs not only tolerates difference but flexibly incorporates it into a community. The melting-pot risks making everyone a sludgy indistinguishable grey mass: incorporating difference meaningfully means retaining difference.
Junot Díaz does this with the Spanish elements of his text; leaving Spanish unglossed and unmarked as different is a deliberate challenge to English and the monolingual mainstream. If a monolingual feels lost or frustrated by incomprehension, she or he may come a little closer to the experience of an overwhelmed immigrant arriving and surviving in a foreign, untranslated land. One literary critic, Rune Graulund, has called it a politics of ‘generous exclusion’: everyone finds some part of Díaz’s text opaque because if you’re a Spanish-speaker you don’t necessarily get the sci-fi references; if you’re a sci-fi nerd you don’t necessarily understand Caribbean literary theory quotes. Díaz de-hierarchises and democratises access to his prose by making everyone a little left out.
What Díaz does is satisfying to examine, because its political challenge is clear and confronting (and lots of people have theorised about it already). While what Musa does is perhaps less obvious – especially because he works within registers of Australian English rather than two officially defined languages – some of his politics and its effects are the same.
One key way that Musa carves out a space of difference in his prose is through unapologetic jargon. When Solomon gets lost in a world of basketball on a suburban court, the language goes with him and leaves us on the sidelines:
lace it behind back,
under knees, cat’s cradle it,
roll it off fingers,
put English on it,
step back with it
and cash it out the side of the chain net.
I have no idea what any of these moves are but that’s kind of the point: Solomon’s absorption in the moment, his expert knowledge, the tiny universe of pleasure these two things create. It also illustrates how Musa uses language not only for plot but also to set pace, to absorb the reader in poetry of the mundane. Another section is simply called ‘Basketball playlist’ with a set of songs from Gang Starr, Talib Kweli and the like, no further explanation.
Graffiti writing features similarly. Whole pages are dedicated to Jimmy and Solomon spraying a work at night, a security guard breathing down their necks. Again, it’s the precision in the description of colours, cans and method: a scene that almost explains but mostly lets you watch. Insiders and their tools: fatcaps, keylines, cutbacks, blackbooks, marking up. Their jargon also maps out their local geography, an oral blueprint for finding the best paints:
Bunnings was good for Dulux and Wattyl.
Autobahn for Krylon.
Magnet Mart for PlastiKote.
Brand names are everywhere in Musa, who finds absurd poetry in ‘Ironlak colours…Smurf, Guacamole, Pose Sushi, Sofles Violence’. Companies may appropriate all kinds of global cultural references to name their commodities, but local hoods appropriate them right back, working them into their spoken flow. This is what Ch’ien might call ‘takin’ the community back’, globalised culture made local.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the novel’s treatment of hip-hop. Hip-hop is the pulsing core of these guys’ lives and therefore of the novel. Characters constantly set the scene by putting on a track, making hip-hop the novel’s continuous soundtrack. Rap lyrics weave their way into the characters’ consciousness like scripture. Emcees, both local and imported, shadow the story like absent friends. Like Zadie Smith’s character Millat, who interprets Islam via Scarface and The Godfather, and Díaz’s sci-fi-obsessed Latinos, Musa’s characters look to globalised cultural frameworks beyond the experience of their immigrant parents. Significantly, however, Musa’s characters consistently diss Aussies who rap in an American accent. No matter where you come from, and what you draw on, real art relies on finding your own voice, making it fresh by marking it your own.
In this sense, Sin One, the Aboriginal rapper from ‘Our Town’ who’s made it big, plays an important role. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Australia Day this year that the nation has ‘an Aboriginal heritage, a British foundation, and a multicultural character’, he implicitly relegated Indigenous Australia to the past. Here Come the Dogs voices Aboriginal stories in past and present. Regular chapters detail ancient practices on NSW and ACT land, as well as a colonial massacre. Aboriginal Australia also has a powerful contemporary voice in the figure of Sin One, whose name has ‘something to do with the original sin of Australia’, but who speaks in the urgent now. As ‘the maimed captain of a shipwrecked generation’ he reaches a whole crowd of bobbing bodies at a local gig, using an American musical form made his own. Musa defies Abbott’s neat chronology of progress, by putting ‘Aboriginal heritage’, ‘multicultural character’ and popular culture on the same contemporary creative plane. Musa’s emphasis on the role of language in identity and place is again made clear in his poem ‘The Ranthem’: ‘Wasn’t just bush Mr Abbott/…500 languages kept the lands managed.’
It feels right to end on Musa’s poetry, given that ultimately he is a poet blessed with that poet’s gift: to make the known surprising and beautiful through language. In doing so, his writing helps us to look at ourselves and how we speak in a new way. Musa’s weird English may be, in words borrowed from one of his own poems, ‘the new scripture of our lives/spelled skyscraper high in CAPITAL LETTERS – BOLD’.
Header image credit: Chris JL