Australian poet Omar Musa, born of Malaysian parents, is ready to set the publishing world ablaze with his debut novel.
Take a look at Australian-Malaysian poet and author Omar Musa’s hands, and you will notice a Malay phrase, in cursive script, tattooed on one of them. The words read penglipur lara. It’s a title usually conferred on the wandering storytellers of old Malaya, who wandered from kampung to kampung. To Omar, it is a title with deep meaning.
“I got the tattoo a few years ago. It was always the storytelling side of things that attracted me to words, and I liked the way penglipur lara could also mean ‘reliever of sorrows’, or dispeller of worries. That is the function of storytelling, and of the arts,” Omar says during a recent phone interview from Australia.
“So I put it on my right hand. It’s my writing hand, my rapping hand.”
Storytelling has always been part of Omar’s life. The 30-year-old is, quite literally, a child of the arts: his mother Helen Musa, a theatre lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, met his father, Sabahan poet Musa Masran, after directing him in the lead role of a Bahasa Malaysia version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
“My mother was a huge influence on me, mostly in my style of writing. Short sharp sentences, the clarity of language. With my dad, it was more the feel of it. He encouraged me to write poetry,” Omar says.
“He told me that in Indonesia and Malaysia, a lot of poetry is performed. My father introduced me to the famous Indonesian poet, WS Rendra. He told me he performed to thousands of people, and his performances were very physical and electrifying.”
Soon drawn to hip-hop and slam poetry, Omar began receiving public attention with his evocative and political lyrics. He was the winner of the Australian Poetry Slam in 2008 and the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam in 2009, and in 2013, received a standing ovation for his TedX talk, “Slam poetry of the streets”, at the Sydney Opera House.
Now, after several hip-hop albums and two self-published poetry books, Omar has set his sights on the world of fiction, with his novel, Here Come The Dogs, published earlier this year by Penguin Australia.
The novel tells the story of three disenfranchised young men, Solomon, Jimmy and Aleks, who spend their summer drinking, going to greyhound races, and attending hip-hop shows. The children of immigrants (Solomon is Samoan, Aleks is Macedonian, and Jimmy, well, he’s unaware of what ethnicity he is), all three struggle with issues of powerlessness, identity and race.
“Originally, I wrote it after living through the 2003 bushfires in Canberra, which was a huge, cataclysmic event. I thought it was a good metaphor for Australian society, which is quite combustible,” Omar says.
“And then I heard a story on the radio about people who start bushfires and masturbate over them. And it was quite a confronting image! But it was also one that said a lot about male impotence and destructiveness. So I was inspired to write the book from that.”
One of the most unique, and most praised aspects about Here Come The Dogs is its style: the novel is written in a mix of prose and verse. According to Omar, much of the book’s style was inspired by the Australian verse novel The Monkey’s Mask by Dorothy Porter.
“I wanted to create a brand new form with this book. People have done verse novels before, but I wanted something that would just weave in between the lines of prose and poetry,” Omar explains.
While the novel is not autobiographical, much of it is based on Omar’s real life experiences. Take the greyhound race scenes, which were inspired by Omar attending a race during a friend’s bachelor party.
“There was something very surreal about the greyhounds moving through the air. I pictured it like a scene from a movie, and I thought, ‘this is a great way to open the book!’
“And then I extended the metaphor to talk about powerlessness. The greyhounds are racing so fast, but they never catch the rabbit. The real winner is a man in the stands with a ticket in his hand. And that’s how a lot of the characters feel. They can run and run, but they never get anywhere. Someone else is pulling the strings, whether it’s politicians, the media, or just the strings of history.”
Also shaping the book was Omar’s experiences with racism and disenfranchisement: growing up in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, Omar’s mixed heritage sometimes made it difficult for him to fit in.
“If I go back to Malaysia, people say I’m very Australian. But in Australia, they always mention I’m Malaysian Australian. So where does that leave me? It leaves me like a bit of an outsider in both cultures,” Omar says.
“I know what it’s like to be the child of immigrants, to experience racism, Islamophobia. Often-times, people would say things like ‘go back to your own country!’ during an argument. But I was born in Australia. I can even speak English better than some of them!”
He hopes, Omar adds, that Here Come The Dogs would help give a voice to some of the more marginalised members of society.
“People with certain backgrounds in Australia are often spoken about a lot, but not spoken to. Their stories are told, but they are not allowed a voice to tell their stories! In Australia, a lot of Muslim people feel that way, a lot of Aboriginal people as well. It’s frustrating, to have your side of the story not told in a complex and nuanced way,” Omar says.
“And part of writing this book was taking people who could be easily stereotyped, looking beneath the surface, and adding complexity to them.”
Indeed, Omar hopes the telling of his story would inspire more diverse voices in Australian writing.
“I hope people who are also of minority backgrounds, or who feel demonised in Australia, will see someone like me, who’s Malaysian Australian, with a Muslim name, and a hip-hop background, and think, ‘Wow, if he can tell his story, then I can tell mine!’
“There’s a problem with Australian literature. It’s not very representative of multiculturalism. There are a lot of things in Australia we need to be brave enough to discuss. That we do have problems with racism, with sexism, with classicism. And my book may not have any answers. But hopefully it asks some good questions.”