We’ve been speaking to writers from interstate this March, as they drop in to the KYD Podcast to tell us about places we haven’t been. With Dyschronia, Jennifer Mills shows us a near future we’d prefer to avoid, and a story we’ll stay in a bit longer if it’s all the same to you. Meanwhile Michael Mohammed Ahmad walks us through writing, rewriting, publishing and promoting his second novel, The Lebs.
Don’t forget to join us for our next KYD First Book Club event on 29 March at Readings Carlton.
Meaghan Dew: Welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. We’ve been catching up with interstate guests this episode, so you can enjoy the fruits of their labour and ours from the comfort of your own, well, wherever you happen to be. I asked Michael Mohammed Ahmad a few questions about his new book The Lebs. Meanwhile, our jet-setting editor, Alan, heard Jennifer Mills read from her novel Dyschronia, out now from Piccador.
Jennifer Mills: It’s a hot morning, strange for the season. There’s a smell in the air we don’t recognise, and it wakes us in our beds.
Initially it’s almost pleasant, ammoniac and slightly sweet, a bit like a hospital after the cleaner’s been. We get up and peer out windows, merely intrigued. But when we open those windows and inhale the full force of it, we know something’s not right. Under the bleach there’s another, deeper smell, seething like an infection. We pull on our clothes, sniffing the fabric; we check the kitchen, look in on pets, gaze down at our own suspect bodies. It’s not us. It’s coming from outside.
We get in our cars and go down to the water. We don’t know why we go that way, only that everybody else has made the same dreamy decision. We drive slowly, looking from car to car and into mirrors at each other, smiling odd still-waking smiles, trying to keep a calm camaraderie, but soon enough we have to wind up the windows and concentrate. Our children in the backseat still half asleep; the dog’s snout pressed urgently against the window we won’t open. The land spreads out on either side, flat and sandy and unaltered. The dull hills watchful in the rear-view mirror.
When we get down to the shore, to the car park on it’s just of rock, we pull our hand brakes, open our doors and cover our mouths with our sleeves. Someone retches. We blink against a burning in our eyes. Some of us are briefly blinded. We close car doors, we stand at the edge, we try to look out over the beach. We all hear how quiet it is, but some of the think the quiet is weird and some of us don’t think anything at all.
We squint at the sand, expecting the usual shallows, seagulls, weeds. There’s a strange, painterly quality in the light. There are birds down there, but they aren’t right either. They shouldn’t be crows, or this busy.
The light, however admirable, is all wrong. The sun shines too brightly, giving the scene a strange exposure. There is too much sand. The birds are stark shadows, attacks without pattern. The sun has misjudged things. This much clarity is in poor taste.
Gradually, the smell is revealed, as if the clear light marks it out as visible against the beach. The details build a complex of memories: bait left out in summer, maggot roadkill, freezer failure, vinegar and, finally, our asphalt squid. With that last, we realise what it is we’re looking at. The light isn’t shimmering off the sea like it’s supposed to. The light is bouncing off hard, still sand, and something else, many things, slick and lumpish things.
How do we see what we can’t imagine?
KYD: That was Jennifer Mills reading from Dyschronia, a looping, surrealist vision of a small town wracked by climate change. You can find Justine Hyde’s review of Dyschronia on the Kill Your Darlings website, while the book itself is in bookstores now.
And now, from our less than savory future to the very recent past. Sydney writer, Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s novel, The Lebs, is a sequel to The Tribe – the next chapter in the life of Bani Adam, growing up in Punchbowl High in the early 2000s.
KYD: Looking at The Lebs on Hachette’s website, the first word used to describe it is ‘confronting’. Is that the first word that you would choose to describe it?
Michael Mohammed Ahmad: I don’t think there’s any reason to shy away from the controversial nature of the book and the confrontational nature of the book. But for those people who have been reading it so far and who have been talking about how confronted they have been by it, all I can say back at this point is it might be confronting for you to read the book, which would take in total about twenty hours, but for me it’s my life. It’s a reflection of my experiences as a young Arab-Australian Muslim male, so I can’t really, at this point, indulge how confronting it is for people anymore.
What I would like my readers at this point to do is, instead of being fragile about how much of – about how confronting it is, to think about what it means to be a young Arab-Australian Muslim male growing up in the year 2000 while the media and the journalists and, in the context of 9/11, the whole world is watching you very closely and demonising you. And I think the power of literature is the opportunity for a person to do that; you literally have the opportunity to be in another human being’s head through the written page. And so, that’s the – that’s the angle that I’m hoping people will take at this point in time.
KYD: So The Lebs is your second book and it follows on from The Tribe. Did you start writing it straight after The Tribe was published?
MMA: I started working on The Tribe in 2012 as part of my Honours thesis and then I finished The Tribe at the beginning of my PhD thesis – so I was writing The Tribe assuming it was going to be a PhD thesis. I finished it really quickly about six months into my scholarship and then I started working on The Lebs straight away. Now, I argue – I teach at Western Sydney University – and what I argue to my students is that you shouldn’t be too concerned about delivering a thesis or an assignment, you should be concerned with producing work and making the best work you can. And so in the case of The Tribe it was going to be my PhD thesis; I finished it, I got it out there, it was doing well, and I just said ‘I’ve got time to write another book and that will be the thesis’. And so that’s what The Lebs is. And then, after it was completed, it was picked up by Hachette.
KYD: You’ve mentioned that this one was picked up by Hachette, which is a larger publisher than Giramondo. Your first is also, it’s been described as a novella, it was out with a smaller publisher – has being with a large one had an impact in its reception so far?
MMA: One hundred percent larger. Look, honestly part of the marketing for The Tribe and The Lebs is really dependent on the aesthetic of the publisher. You know, Giramondo packaged The Tribe as a novella in the square format – they could have given it a bigger font and given it a traditional format and probably pushed it as a novel.
And, in the same way, there were conversations early on, if Giramondo was going to follow through with The Lebs as a sequel, that it could end up being in the square format. Hachette were really committed to the idea that they would market it and promote it as a novel. And so that’s a really – I think that’s a really commercial decision for publishers and an aesthetic decision. I don’t think it’s got much to do with the writer and, very often, the way publishers operate will inform how a book is received and it’s got, unfortunately, not as much to do with the quality of the work as writers wished it was.
It is one of the reasons why I moved publisher. I think Giramando produces some of the most important and radical and experimental literature in the country. But, at that particular point in my career, I thought I was ready for a bigger publisher and a larger audience, because I felt strongly about the message. I feel that the contribution that I have to make to Australian culture and literature, at this particular point in time – the point of Trump, Brexit and the re-emergence of One Nation – that books by minority writers, myself included, need to be as broadly adopted by the Australian public as possible. And so, as a result of that, the reception so far – it’s only been a week, but has been tremendous. To be completely honest about it, overwhelming. More than – if you, I think if you try to encapsulate all of the media and publicity I’ve had in my career, in total it doesn’t add up to what I’ve done in the last week.
Now, some of that is about the fact that it’s a big publisher who are very good at that kind of work, but I also know that it’s because of the book itself. It’s a book called The Lebs, it’s written by a Leb and it’s about Lebs – it’s about this perceived foreign, exotic, to many Australians terrifying identity that people are curious about and still don’t know a lot about. And so I’ve been straddling a very fine line in the last week between talking about the work as a cultural document that says particular things about being an Arab-Australian Muslim and, at the same time, talking about the book as a literary document – a work of literature that draws from my ten years of education as a creative writer.
KYD: When editing the book, do you feel like that was informed by your work as a teacher and your work workshopping the writing of other young writers?
MMA: So, they’re really, they’re two very distinct skill sets that I have: my creative writing and the creative writing I teach to others. And my editing process and the process of editing that I go through with my own writing are really separate. So as the director of Sweatshop, Western Sydney literacy movement – and I presume that some, if not all, of your listeners know about my reputation as a polemicist in the creative writing industry in relation to bad writers and how I’ve been very vocal about bad attitudes towards creative writing, particularly attitudes towards taking feedback. And I’ve been really brutal with my writers in helping them develop a critical ability to reflect on their work and improve, which has had a tremendous success rate.
Now, in my own case, I like to think that I am as resilient as some of the stars of Sweatshop. And so what usually happens for me is the – I receive the mark up from my editor and it’s always brutal and I look at it and I grieve for about twenty-four hours and then I get to work. I’m in quite a privileged position because I was educated by Ivor Indyk, the editor of Giramondo, and he mentored me from the age of nineteen to the age of thirty. And so I had probably one of the best editors in the country not just editing my work, but nurturing me into a writer, which gave me a very thick skin and a very realistic understanding of what it takes to be a great writer. And Ivor Indyk’s a really hands-on editor, so the kind of critical dialogue between the first drafts of my work and the fiftieth draft were always really intense and always improved the work.
I was also ready privileged that after The Lebs was written as a PhD thesis – so Ivor edited it and worked with me on it as a PhD thesis, along with Greg Noble and Chris Andrews – after that process I was really fortunate that Hachette gave me an editor who would help me prepare it for publication and help me prepare it into a book for a mainstream audience. And I got to work with Claire de Medici, who was extremely thorough and, again, I had to go through a process – a resilient process of, you know, letting go of the original draft and restructuring it and thinking it through. And what we have now is this product – it’s called The Lebs. It’s the result of four years, five editors, fifty drafts, a lot of conversations, a lot of research on my part and, throughout that process, a lot of concern about the implications of what I was producing.
KYD: So, possible concerns about what you were producing. The conversations at Punchbowl High, they make for uncomfortable reading at times – discomfort which the protagonist seems to feel at times as well. And he also seems to conflate the hypermasculinity of the conversations with, at times, the race of his peers. Is this something you were concerned that readers would make as well – that the language would pay claim to racist stereotypes?
MMA: I don’t care about whether people read it and it reinforces their bigotry, their prejudice, their essentialisms, their colonialist attitudes, their orientalist attitudes. What I care about is creating a complex, sophisticated portrayal, and my writing is only a sophisticated as someone’s reading. If somebody can read in a sophisticated and complex way, they will be able to recognise the nuances of the work and won’t look at just a surface level of the ways in which the work reinforces particular images and fantasies about the Arab Muslim male.
Two points, firstly, about the term hypermasculinity. I’d like to talk about hypermasculinity, because it’s come up so much in every single interview I’ve done. I think people are misusing that word. I think that what they mean is patriarchy and I think – I strongly believe that we shouldn’t mix up patriarchy and masculinity. If we mean patriarchy, we should say patriarchy. And I’ll tell you why: because there’s a particular type of masculinity that brown bodies and black bodies have that we can’t, as Arab men or black men, escape. And it’s a way in which the body of the non-white other has been constructed as demonic and something to be feared in western culture.
But here’s the thing: you can be masculine and feminist. And you can be feminine and incredibly patriarchal. And one of the most effective ways that straight, middle-class, heterosexual, left wing, white men have been able to mask their patriarchy is through the conflation of masculinity with patriarchy – that because they’re not performing a type of masculinity therefore they’re not patriarchal. And in my experiences as an Arab Muslim man, a lot of the time people tell me I’m vulgar, I’m aggressive, I’m demonstrative, I’m histrionic. They tell me that I’m a bully, that I’m assertive – all of these kinds of stereotypes that I think are common ways of describing Arab Muslim men and ways of describing us in contradistinction to white men.
And so what I say now – and I’m quoting bell hooks, a very important African-American social activist, feminist and scholar – I’m quoting bell hooks when I say that I think men and women and people in Australia and around the world need to be able, at this point in time, to celebrate that which is masculine and honour that which is masculine separate from patriarchy. And I think in The Lebs there are really clear distinctions that I try to make between what is masculine behaviour and what is patriarchal behaviour. And here’s the bottom line, and this is where the book goes in the end, that I don’t think Bani can ever escape being masculine and being hypermasculine and there is – there can be something beautiful in that. But what he can escape and what he can unlearn is patriarchal ways of thinking.
Now, to answer the third part of your question, Bani is a teenage boy and so quite often you notice when you’re reading it that he imagines himself as separate from the other Lebs at his school and that he aspires to, and I’m saying this in quotation marks, ‘a standard of greatness and whiteness’ – that’s what he thinks he needs to become and that’s what he thinks is a more civilized way of being. But because he’s quite naive and because he’s a kid – while having complex thoughts about literature, identity, politics, the diversity of religion – because he is consciously, throughout the text, a critical thinker he comes off as intelligent in some cases, but at the same time, as a young man he often has extremely simplistic, prejudiced, essentialist, misogynist, homophobic thoughts that are primarily coming from ignorance. And, in many cases, those thoughts reinforce the stereotypes about Arab Muslim men.
To give you this in – to make this case now in full circle – I wanted to give not a positive or negative portrayal of what it means to be a Leb, I wanted to give a complex, three-dimensional portrayal that Bani is a human being. His name, Bani Adam, that is not an actual Arabic name, it’s an Arabic term which means ‘child of Adam’ or, to be a little bit more figurative, ‘humankind’. That’s what Bani Adam means. And Bani represents what I believe to be a three-dimensional human being.
KYD: That was Michael Mohammed Ahmad speaking about writing, re-writing, releasing and promoting The Lebs. The Lebs, published by Hachette, is available now.
That’s all we have time for, but thank you for listening to our audio journeys today. Thanks also to Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Jennifer Mills for their time. If Dyschronia whetted your appetite for more South Australian writing, check out our SA showcase on the website. But, if a freezing English manor is more your thing, you still have a bit of time to get through Robert Lukins’ The Everlasting Sunday before our First Book Club event on Thursday 29 March. Even if you don’t finish the book by then – so many books, so little time – come along to hear the author speak, grab a copy and maybe have it signed. We’ll see you then.
I’m Meaghan Dew and you’ve been listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. See you next time!