Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the founding director of Sweatshop Literacy Movement and editor of the critically acclaimed anthology 'After Australia'. Mohammed's debut novel, 'The Tribe', won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelists of the Year Award. His second novel, 'The Lebs', won the 2019 NSW Premier's Multicultural Literary Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. 'The Other Half of You' is his third novel.
Mohammed has previously appeared on The Garret discussing his 2019 shortlisting for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the 2020 anthology 'After Australia'.
ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Mohammed.
MOHAMMED: Thank you for having me. My third time, joining you for a conversation.
ASTRID: That is a very select group of people. There are very few people who have been on The Garret three times. I think this is a testament to the different and exciting things that you were doing in Australia and publishing. Firstly, I have had the pleasure of interviewing you once in person after you were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin back in 2019, and once on Zoom as things happened in 2020. We are again on Zoom today. I am so looking forward to meeting you again in the flesh. Because while Zoom is great, it is definitely not as personable as we would all like.
MOHAMMED: Yeah, I mean, it's not. What I take away from the points you just made is that we've had a conversation in 2019, 2020 and 2021 for three different books. 2019 was The Lebs, 2020 was After Australia, which I edited, and now 2021 my new novel The Other Half of You. And so, I think that's a really great honour, that three years in a row we've had a new book that I've been at the centre, and that we can discuss and have a dialogue about. I'm really honoured to be sharing the platform with you three times in a row.
ASTRID: I have several different questions for you today. I would actually like to start with After Australia, which was our most recent interview. That was an anthology that you edited, put together by Affirm Press, Diversity Arts Australia and 12 different writers from around the country. I believe there is going to be a sequel, or perhaps I should say, a prequel. I'd like to start there, because After Australia really affected me last year. It is a great anthology. I'm interested in how it was received and how you have turned it around and already been able to announce a second book in the series.
MOHAMMED: Thank you. I consider it to be some kind of sequel, prequel, and it's going to be called Another Australia. Originally, we were going to call it Before Australia, but we decided that might be the third in what we might produce as a trilogy. The third one would probably be Indigenous led. Another Australia, I've taken a backseat this time. I've put forward my very dear friend, and closest collaborator and ally. We need them as the editor of that anthology, but I'll be working as a sub editor alongside her. You should definitely keep an eye out for that, it'll be out in mid-2022.
I think last year, After Australia came out just as COVID had hit and just as Black Lives Matter was making a very, very global impact. During this moment where there was more time for people to read, the people were in lockdown, and there was more pressure on the entire world to read more diversely. We produced this book, which address themes of issues like pandemics, climate change, white supremacy, racism. Produced entirely by indigenous writers and writers of colour. It was kind of a perfect storm, a perfect opportunity to release that kind of book which the country was very hungry for and very ready to embrace. And so, it was a very successful anthology. Probably, one of the most successful in the last couple of years. I will point out that it didn't come without its controversy though. On the cover there's a cartoon of a white family with their faces literally scribbled out with like a pencil. There were short stories about pandemics. But this time the pandemic disproportionately affects white people as opposed to what pandemics usually do, which is affect people of colour.
And so we got our usual white fragility attacks. I mean, some of the other writers in our organisations received death threats. We received very angry letters. We were taken to the human rights commission. Fortunately, that case was thrown out because the commission agreed that it was idiotic. But I never ever shy away from controversy. I really think that if you're not making literature that is confronting and challenging, there's no point in doing it. Because I think the purpose of literature historically is to change societies and to transform what we understand to be normal and acceptable.
ASTRID: This is why I really enjoyed speaking to you, Mohammed. I also believe that I think that literature changes things and literature is political. I did not know that those involved in the anthology were taken to the human rights council. I knew the controversy, but I didn't know that particular thing. I'm shocked by that and I'm so glad it was thrown out. Can you speak to the role of anthologies. It's like, if there is this kind of response to the individual creative works in an anthology and the existence of an anthology as a whole, why do certain people get scared? Why does this prompt white fragility?
MOHAMMED: I think there's two ways I'd like to answer that. First, will be about the phenomenon of whiteness. The second I'll answer it through the lens of the role of literature. Firstly, in relation to whiteness. Firstly, when I use the word why I usually am using it in reference to Professor Ghassan Hage, a very important nonfiction book White Nation. Where he defines whiteness or white as the fantasy position of cultural dominance born out of the history of European expansion. Very rarely when we talk about whiteness are we talking about literally skin colour. I think when you are a member of the dominant white culture, you're used to 100 per cent. I mean, the famous saying is when you're accustomed to 100 per cent, 98 feels oppressive. I think the reasoning behind this statement... I learned that statement from Robin Di Angelo, who wrote the book White Fragility. Who is very likely to have coined the term white fragility. But that idea of that saying is that if you're used to being 100 per cent in control, and you're 100 per cent represented and 100 per cent empowered, and then there's a small shift in the consciousness, you're seeing a little bit more diversity on television, you're seeing a little bit more diversity in literature, you can genuinely feel like you're under attack. That feeling of being under attack can trigger defensive manoeuvres, which is what we call white fragility.
Probably, the best example I can give... I really am excited to share this story with you, because I've actually written it out in my new novel, The Other Half of You. I've got a one paragraph section which tells a little story like a fictional story, which I think represents that idea of, if you're accustomed to 100 per cent, 98 feels oppressive. The way I tell the story is, one morning, a platypus wakes up on the riverbank. Has a stretch and then dips into the water. It swims towards these two fish. And then it says to the two fish, ‘Good morning fellas. How's the water today?’ The two fish look at each other confused and say, ‘What's water?’ The idea of that story, that anecdote, is that if you're swimming in privilege, you don't even know it exists. That's just what it is. That's literally all of your reality. But I think for most people of colour, they have an understanding of whiteness because they have to swim in it. But we also have an understanding of what it's like to be outside of it, because we're minorities.
ASTRID: I would like you to place that in the Australian context, Australian readers, and the Australian publishing industry and the reaction that came from the anthology. Like, why was this anthology? Why was ‘White Flu’ so terrifying to the establishment?
MOHAMMED: I mean, when I first started answering your question, I said that there's two elements to... One is talking about whiteness, the other is talking about literature. Look, I think literature has always been frightening, actually. If you look at the history of great literature, there's always been book burnings, mass protests around influential and controversial novels and other works of literature. There's been book bannings across entire countries. We know from the Muslim world, there's been fatwas put on certain writers.
But the point I'm making is that kind of makes sense to me that literature has always terrified people, because its goal is actually to transform a society. I remember in my undergrad, when I was studying Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, learning about how that book was banned and incredibly controversial. There was this genuine fear that books like this could lead to some kind of social Armageddon. In some ways I actually think they do, but always in a positive, in the sense that they propel our societies to change.
ASTRID: I take great heart in the fact that literature is powerful. I agree with you, Mohammed, literature does move us along and it changes things. Winnie Dunn, who is taking over as editor of the next instalment in this series, when you are working with the next lot of writers who will be published... Given their reaction to the first one, how do you approach writers, or do contributors have different questions going into this kind of anthology?
MOHAMMED: The writers... I mean, I won't name all of them, but there's 12 contributors. None of the writers... It's a whole new set of writers who are coming along. We have people like the amazing Amani Haydar, and Sarah Sala, Osman Faruqi, Omar Musa, Nardi Simpson, who's just been long listed for the Miles Franklin. It's a very impressive list of contributors. The thing is that the contributors that we reach out to, are not only, in my opinion, some of the best writers in the country today. But they're also some of the bravest and most radical writers. They don't pull their punches. They are completely unafraid to confront imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchal structures.
And so, we don't have to even warn them. I mean, they will know, they we're very all involved in the creation of After Australia one way or another. They know around about the controversy. They know about the death threats. They know about the social and cultural impact that the book had, and they lean into that. Because they are part of this kind of a really exciting generation of radical artists of colour and Indigenous artists who are really ready for change. I feel like are really ready to sacrifice everything in order to ensure that our society is free and just.
ASTRID: I really appreciate getting to ask you these questions. I am a white woman, Mohammed, and I teach in vocational education in Australia in many, many ways. I am actually part of the system that hasn't reached out over decades. It's getting way better in the last decade, but in general hasn't. I see students who have that need, and desire to write, and to share and to tell stories. But also, they've never needed to be reminded. They've never had it happen to them that literature and art can be radical and can be political. I'm grateful that you remind me and that you and so many other writers in Australia continually move the boundaries.
MOHAMMED: Well, I want to respond to your point on being a white woman. Because I think one of the hardest things to try to get members of the dominant white culture to understand is that what we're talking about is not personal. I've always considered you an ally from the first time we met. I feel like we have a really nice connection and rapport and that's why we have these strong and constructive dialogues. I do believe that there can be solidarity between Indigenous people, people of colour and white people in the struggle against racism and white supremacy, as in xenophobia, Islamophobia, orientalism, colonialism and imperialism. I genuinely believe that. Obviously, you would know that because you've read my new book, The Other Half of You, and we'll get to that in a minute.
But I just really think it's important for anyone who's listening, especially if you're white to understand that we're not talking about you personally. These are not personal attacks. We're talking about structural and systemic issues. For any of our white allies who are listening in, what I would say is that I actually believe most white people ain't sincere in their desire to stand in solidarity with people of colour and Indigenous people for change. The main question isn't, ‘Am I an ally?’ But, ‘What's the best way to be an ally?’
Since we're talking about literature, I can honestly say that the best way to support diverse voices in Australia is to buy our literature, invest in our books. I mean, this very, very explicitly. What I mean is, don't buy white literature written about us, that will generally empower white writers and a white economy. If you genuinely want to empower minorities, you have to invest in our literature. Because that stimulates our economy, it puts food on our tables, it enables us to support our own communities and our own families. It also emboldens publishers. Publishers are just businesses and they get scared that if people aren't buying diverse books, then they don't want to publish them because they're not going to make any money. If you're buying diverse books, it just means that publishers become more confident and want more literature.
I will say because you brought up Another Australia and you say, ‘How did it happen so quickly?’ Look at Affirm Press who are our partner publisher, partnered up with us because they wanted to address the diversity issue. We said, ‘Yes, we'll Sweatshop will work in partnership with you’. I think following the success of After Australia, they weren't just like, ‘We want to do this because it's morally the right thing’. It's also because this is good business for Sweatshop, for Diversity Arts and Affirm Press. Because we as publishers are discovering more and more that there is a real need and a real thirst for diverse literature, and that this is a viable economy for the Australian publishing industry.
ASTRID: Absolutely. Let us move on to your latest work. The first time we met was literally the day after you were shortlisted for your second work in this trilogy, The Lebs. At that time, being shortlisted you were the first Muslim man to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in Australia.
MOHAMMED: First Muslim and first Arab Australian.
ASTRID: That was two years ago. You are so clearly involved in thinking about the publishing industry, how it works, how it doesn't work. I'm interested in your personal experience, since you broke that barrier. What has it been like and do publishers respond to you differently?
MOHAMMED: Yeah, look, I don't like to just always be pessimistic. I do like to talk about the achievements when they happen. Actually, I just remembered a kind of a nice story to share about what I'm referring to in that idea of pessimism versus optimism for minorities in the industry. The same year that I won the Sydney Morning Herald, Best Young Novelist of the Year Award. Because that's a group award, you win that in a collective. And so, I won alongside Ellen van Neerven, Omar Musa, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Alice Pung, who are all now household names.
ASTRID: That whole list is stunning.
MOHAMMED: These were all their debuts when this award was announced in 2015, so it's six years ago. We were all still kids in many ways, still coming up in the industry. Now, that collective of artists are some of the most impressive artists, are making some of the most impressive work in the country. Multi-award-winning, are critically acclaimed and commercially successful. I remember the publisher of The Tribe, and my mentor, and editor up until that point, and my doctoral supervisor was Professor Ivor Indyk. Who is the chief editor at Giramondo.
I remember Ivor looking at the newspaper and saying, ‘This is incredible. This is the first time this has ever happened’. That a nondiverse award, where all the recipients and all the winners have either been Indigenous or people of colour. That this is a breakthrough moment. And I said to Ivor, ‘Ah, that's nonsense. What are saying?’ And he's like, ‘What?’ And I go, ‘Well, sure, it's a nice little moment, but business will go back to usual tomorrow’. I remember Ivor saying, ‘Hey, hey, just stop, okay? Look, just enjoy this moment. Yeah, things are going to change really slowly and things might go back to normal tomorrow, and the dominant white culture will still be probably in control most of the time, and we'll still see those kind of recurring patterns. But there are moments when you can just stop and just appreciate a shift in the consciousness and appreciate that’.
And so, in that way, to answer your question, I do take those moments now to just recognise the achievements and appreciate those achievements. I'm very cynical and very critical of the way in which white privilege tends to prevail and come through time and time again in our industry. But these moments, whether it's being shortlisted for the Miles Franklin or seeing one of my Indigenous or POC brothers and sisters achieve an incredible accolade like Omar Sakr, winning the Prime Minister's Award last year for his poetry collection. Ellen van Neerven, being the first ever poet to win three Premiers Literary Awards, including Book of the Year. These are tremendous achievements that deserve just a moment in the sun.
ASTRID: You mentioned a fantastic, fantastic list of Australia's best writing talent a few moments ago, Mohammed. You also mentioned Alice Pung, her new novel. Just interviewed her also an episode on The Garret for her new novel. Can you introduce our listeners to your trilogy? Your latest work is The Other Half of You, just out in 2021. But it is the third work in this trilogy. For those who haven't read any of your novels so far, can you introduce us to Bani Adam and the world that he lives in?
MOHAMMED: Yes, I will do that. I would love to answer that question. What I will say is that I work very, very closely with a team of editors to make sure that each novel stands on its own, and great lengths were taken. In fact, if you look at some of the markups, there's a lot of notes. I get thousands of notes from my editor. But a lot of notes are like, ‘We need to treat this book as a standalone book that can carry its own weight, so I need you to put more information here or more detail here’. We write each novel as standalone and that doesn't depend on the previous book, you can just go and invest in The Other Half of You.
I think all three books have a very... You would know, having read them that they all have a very different tone and a very different feel. They mark very different moments in time. Anybody that's been following the journey of the character, Bani Adam, from The Tribe, to The Lebs, to The Other Half of You, I really wanted to give a conclusion in this book that is meaningful and that I think my readers will be satisfied with. Though, I think they'll be very satisfied with where this ends up and where Bani takes you in the end. I think most people who have been following his 10 year journey will be very happy to let him go now and to say, ‘Look, I'm... ‘ I mean, the way I've been articulating it lately is that if the book's called The Other Half of You, and it's really... The entire journey for Bani Adam is about becoming whole.
I really think that by the time you get to the end of this book, you will feel like Bani is whole, and that you can be happy to close the book literally on this journey that you've taken. In terms of the trilogy, Bani Adam is the name of my autobiographical alter ego, so he is loosely based on me. I work in the literary form called autobiographical fiction, so it's based on my life, but I take incredibly creative liberties. It's not just me telling my personal story. It's about the art form of developing literature. The three books that I wrote, The Tribe introduces us to Bani Adam as a boy. In the pre-9/11 era, Bani is seven, nine and 11 years old. He's a second generation Arab Australian Muslim living in cities in the West and then migrating to the Kimba, in western suburbs of Sydney.
The second book, The Lebs is Bani as a teenager. This is a particularly important book, because it's set in the post-9/11 era. Things have transformed and changed dramatically. All of a sudden young Arab Australian Muslim men, particularly the teenagers, are under a lot of scrutiny. They're being pigeonholed in the media as sexual predators following the Skaf gang rapes in the year 2000. They're being pigeonholed as drug dealers and drive-by shooters, following all these news reports of gangsters in the neighbourhood. And then the September 11 attacks take place and they've all become terrorist suspects as well. All the way up until 2005, where I consider the catharsis or the big explosion is when the 2005 Cronulla riots happened. 5000 white Australians on the beach, literally chanting ‘fuck off Lebs’, and physically assaulting anybody they find who looks Middle Eastern or Lebanese from their worldview.
And so, The Lebs leaves us at Bani at 19 years old, so it really is his teenage years. Starting off with The Other Half of You, Bani is now an adult. I've changed the literary form differently, because I'm always pushing myself as a storyteller to experiment with style as much as with story. We see these kind of three ages, these three periods of a young Arab Australian Muslim man's life, at childhood, teenagehood and then adulthood. But in terms of the actual art form, The Tribe and The Lebs were written in the present tense, with an older narrator looking back in the past tense occasionally.
With this book, it's written in the past tense and the future tense. I go to great lengths to trying to actually understand how tense works and how to navigate multiple tenses at the same time. I'll also point out that in the first two books, it's very much entirely the first-person perspective. In this book, in The Other Half of You, I've again pushed my literary style as far as I can go. In addition to going back to the first-person form, I've also begun developing and experimenting with the second person, addressing the ‘you’. Which, of course, it's referenced in the title, but who is you? This is Bani's son, and Bani is telling his story to his son. He's explaining to his son, how his son got here.
ASTRID: You mentioned the craft of writing a few minutes ago. You are pushing boundaries and you know what a reader can expect from a writer whose world they have inhabited and given time to before. When you are sitting down to write, when you are in creative mode, how much time do you spend on the story and the plot, et cetera? Or how much time do you spend at that sentence level exploring tense and the craft of your story?
MOHAMMED: Thank you for asking that question. It's a really important question. Because, I meet people who will just sit down and write all night and just nonstop. They'll pump out a couple of 1000 words. They'll bring it to me as my students. I'll read it to me and I'll say, ‘This is terrible’. Like not one sentence is usable. I met people who will write novels. They'll tell me they wrote novels and they'll pat themselves on the back. There's a lot of self-congratulatoryism in vanity publishing and self-publishing. But there's a lot of wannabe writers patting themselves on the back saying, ‘I wrote a novel in three weeks’. It's no good. It's never going to be any good.
The skill of creative writing is actually really difficult. We take this statement for granted, I think. I think it's assumed that being a great writer is just a natural talent, but you wouldn't get away with that in any other industry. I mean, being a great boxer is a natural talent. Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, the greatest boxers that ever lived, they had some natural talent but they still have to train 150 rounds to go three rounds. They have to have the right diet. They have to have the right equipment and they have to have the kind of right trainer. In writing, I would call that an editor or a mentor. And so there is the skills separate to the story and to something that you have to say. Just to frame it before I answer your question, specifically in my experience. Because I still feel like there's a lot of people listening in, who might get what I mean, but might still be a bit cynical. Because there's such a Hollywood story of like, the writers is the person who sits under a tree and writes the great Australian nothing.
Just to try to help anybody that's an aspiring writer comprehend what I'm saying. This is how I usually try to articulate it. What's the difference between closed first-person perspective and open third-person perspective? What's the difference between fiction autobiography and autobiographical fiction? What's the difference between a metaphor, a dead metaphor, an absolute metaphor and a metonym. Now, these are things that you can learn. If you learn them, you can apply them to your creative writing. If you apply them to your creative writing, your creative writing will get better. That's what I mean when I say creative writing is a skill that needs to be developed, whether it's through university, or whether it's through working with an editor or mentor, and whether it's reading a lot as well.
In terms of my craft, I set myself a very unrealistic task. I just want to be clear that I don't claim that I actually achieved this. My readers can take me to task. They can open up my book. They can grab The Other Half of You, open up to any page, read any random sentence and see if I achieved what I claimed to try to do. But what I set myself the goal of doing as a writer, is every sentence I write has to be an original contribution to knowledge. Every sentence I put to the page, has to be an original sentence. It can't be a sentence that's been written anywhere before, it can be a cliché.
Now again, I don't claim to have achieved that, I just set myself that goal. Now, I told you that my book is 95,000 words, it's 350 pages, so you would think, ‘Well, that sounds really hard?’ The answer is, ‘Yes, it's really hard. It's not an easy task’. It took me five years to write this novel, literally, staying up until the wee hours of the night, almost every night for five years. Honing in on each sentence and each individual sentence separate to the broader structural stuff that I'm working on, the metaphorical networks, for example. Each individual sentence will generally require a couple of hours of consideration. And then eventually, through that very difficult and very painful process, which gives me a lot of migraines, and a lot of sleepless nights. I eventually come out with some kind of novel that I'd like to think is a literary work in addition to being a compelling story.
ASTRID: There is a lot in that answer, and I would like to unpick one of the strengths that you've got in there. You obviously care about your story and your craft. You would not do this otherwise, you are a writer deep down in your soul. So many writers talk about a need to tell a particular story. So many writers talk about craft. Maybe I'm misinterpreting what you just said, Mohammed. But I feel like you are doing both and you have an end-goal. Your end-goal is not just to tell the story in the best way you can. But what is your purpose? What are you trying to move us all to consider? Who are you writing for, maybe?
MOHAMMED: Yeah, that's a really good question. I would have two answers. The first one is a political answer and the second one is a literary answer. Firstly, politically, I never think of writing as the outcome. I work... Again, there are a lot of very socioeconomically and culturally privileged people working in the writing community and the writing industry. That's not a coincidence, writers are incredibly underpaid. One of the poorest paid professions in the country, actually. I think the average writer in Australia, a professional writer makes about $6,000 a year. Whether we admit it or not and whether people are talking about it honestly or not, most writers in Australia have their writing careers subsidised. If you're economically privileged, if you come from a middle class or upper middle-class background, you have an easier opportunity to work in writing.
Being an Arab Muslim man growing up in a family that lived in poverty, the idea of being a writer was not feasible. Mom and Dad are like, ‘You go get a real job, get married. Have kids. Pay off a mortgage’. A lot of people of colour will tell you that similar experience. One of the Vietnamese Australian writers that I work very closely with, her name is Shirley Le. She told me this saying in Vietnamese, that her parents told her when she said she wanted to be a writer. I can't say it in Vietnamese, I'll tell you the translation of it, which is, ‘You're famous, but you're poor’. And so that's a real thing for migrants and Indigenous people who actually grow up on the margins, and genuinely have to consider putting food on the table.
I make this point because I met a lot of economically privileged writers in our industry, who just write because they love writing. The goal is writing, which is admirable. But it's also intellectually frustrating for me, and emotionally frustrating. For me, and for the members of Sweatshop, the literacy movement I run, writing is never seen as the goal, it's usually seen as the tool. The actual goal is transformation. Transforming your society and your culture, and trying to empower through reading and writing and critical thinking, a generation of people who are on the margins and who are disenfranchised. I feel like there's actually been quite a lot of success in this area. I genuinely feel like from when I started writing to now, a lot of people of colour and Indigenous peoples lives have been changed and have improved because of the contributions of diverse literature in Australia.
ASTRID: I would add that the lives of people with disability, or marginalised people are more sane.
MOHAMMED: Yeah, I appreciate you saying that and, of course, I recognised your contributions on behalf of people with disability in Australia. Congratulations on growing up disabled in Australia. It's a gorgeous anthology which is part of that incredible line of anthologies that like After Australia that have been that have been really pushing for this change. The first part of my answer was a political answer. The second part is a literary answer. This book that I've written, in many ways there's a lot of foreshadowing. It's the first time where Bani the narrator is giving you clues of what's coming. I mean, you know that there's a little boy that's going to come into the universe from literally the first page. You know that little boy's mother. Like it's a love story and it's gradually about getting us to that boy's mother, and how Bani meets his mother. That's the story.
And so, we know going in what the ending is. You don't know exactly what the ending is but you know you're on your way to discovering it. I think this form is called proleptic literature. The idea is that you know the future. There is a reference that I have that a couple of people have asked about because they didn't pick up the reference. There is a reference I have to another book that has this kind of proleptic style called Jazz by Toni Morrison. I have a reference in the word sth, which is S-T-H. It appeared in my book at the end of one of the chapters and quite a few of my editors were like, ‘Would you consider deleting this? It's really hard to pick up the reference’. I said, ‘No, I think the hardcore Toni Morrison fans will figure it out’. But it's actually those are the first words in Jazz by Toni Morrison.
The idea of that first page in Toni Morrison's book is that she's kind of given away the ending. She's kind of told you where the book is going. That's the style. That's the literary form. There's a lot of discussions about this particular kind of writing. There's a lot of discussions in literature about this kind of storytelling, because if you've given away the ending, if you know where it's going, it raises the question, ‘Well, what's the point of reading the story? What's the point of investing in it?’ To answer your question from a literary point of view, like, why am I telling this story? Why am I writing this? Especially, if you have a sense of where it's going, if everything's been foreshadowed. This is my answer is, for the language itself. I think of the difference between a book and a work of literature or work of art is language. If it's just a story...
I'm reading Goosebumps to my son at the moment. They're just stories. I bet there's not much like literary master fullness involved in that. They just trying to get you from A-B, it's just a story, just a piece of writing. But what I think literature is really concerning is language, and enjoying language just for its own merits, not enjoying it because of the story it's telling you. But enjoying it just because you get to appreciate the flavour of what language can do and the beauty of what language can do. And so for me, one of my motivations as a writer, is to just kind of try and create the most beautiful, and compelling and complex language ever, in order for that to be pleasurable for the reader, separate to what I hope is also a pleasurable story.
ASTRID: This question just occurred to me, you have just described the craft behind proleptic literature. As you have been creating The Other Half of You, and as you have been clearly thinking deeply about the craft of your writing and of the skill that is writing, have you come across something that you're too scared to touch it, something that might be too hard? Or that you might work on with your next book, like a big craft challenge to take on?
MOHAMMED: The answer is no. But I still very much appreciate the question. I'll tell you why the answer is no. Because I really feel like wherever I am right now, is where you will experience me. I always give everything I create 100 per cent based on what my capacity is at that time. I really pushed myself to my limits with The Tribe, with The Lebs, and with The Other Half of You. I'd like to think that The Other Half of You is my greatest literary work so far. Purely because I have grown up and I've gotten better as a creative writer, I've learned more things and I've pushed myself to my limits.
Maybe in a couple of years, I'll look back and I'll say this, ‘I've learned so many things since I wrote The Other Half of You’. That will challenge me once again. But I want to just say, I really think that most people who know me, who've been following my work, whether it's personally or professionally, know that I actually am a really honest person. And know that I'm very direct and try my best to be brave to confront my darkest fears, and to confront the darkest fears of the people around me.
For that reason, if there is a challenge that I'm confronted with, as a writer, I won't be able to go to sleep unless I try to confront it. And so there were so many times when I was writing this book, when I would put down a sentence and then I'd go to bed. I'd know that I didn't get it right. But I'm like, ‘I think it's going to be okay’. And then I'll wake up the next morning and I'll spend the whole day on that sentence, because I just know that I could have done better. Even right until literally the very last seconds of the book, I was really pushing my editor and publisher to keep sending me the uncorrected proofs because I wasn't convinced that I had just gotten that 100 per cent. And so I'd like to think that I have just pushed myself to the limits every time. How good that is? Is really up to my audience to determine.
ASTRID: We've been chatting today, Mohammed, and we have obviously looked at your three novels, and also After Australia which will go on to be hopefully a trilogy. They have taken up a huge chunk of, let's say, the last decade of your life. What type of project you are going to take on next?
MOHAMMED: I really feel like The Other Half of You... I really feel like this is a conclusion for me that I don't know if I'll ever write another book. I don't know. I mean, I might write another novel, I might not. But what I feel is that for now, my journey up until this point as a novelist is complete. The story that I have to tell, that I have to get off my chest throughout that charts to my childhood, my teenagehood and my adulthood is complete. I'm really excited right now actually about being invested in some of the writers that I get to work with.
Amani Haydar, has a book coming out called The Mother Wound. Amani tragically lost her mother to domestic violence. Her memoir is coming out about that experience in a couple of weeks. And working very closely with Winnie Dunn, on her debut novel which will probably be Australia's first Pacifica Australian novel. And so, I really am excited right now about investing my time and energy in supporting the writers of colour and Indigenous writers that I've been working with for the past 20 years and seeing their books come to life. When I spend time with these writers and I'm working with them, I tell them that, ‘My book, The Other Half of You, it won't be complete until I see their book on the shelf next to it’.
ASTRID: I've asked many writers a similar question to what I just asked you, what will be your next focus, your next project, and no one has given me a response like that.
MOHAMMED: Thank you.
ASTRID: Let's go back to The Other Half of You. You've mentioned the importance of writing about fatherhood as a Muslim man. Those are huge topics, and obviously, there is a gap in Australian literature. What was your motivation to be the one to start to fill that gap?
MOHAMMED: Thank you for asking. It's the biggest question, and it's the most important question that I'm going to discuss with anybody who asked me about this book. I like to think that of all the books that I've written, this is the most tender, and-
ASTRID: Tender is the right word. Yes.
MOHAMMED: Yeah. Because Bani he's talking to his baby, his little boy, his newborn son. Everything is filtered through the lens of communicating it to its child. Coming off The Lebs, which was described as very confronting, very hypermasculine. You'll remember so many people were upset and offended by the book, that the tone here is quite different. I feel like the hypermasculinity and the energy is still there, from The Lebs. But it's just maybe modulated a little bit by the presence of this little boy and his father trying to get this information across to him. That's what I really want listeners to take that away, that the point that this is quite a tender book, and that this is me at my most vulnerable. How does this relate to the importance of like Muslim men communicating the experience of fatherhood? More broadly, I don't want to just say Muslim men, I want to send Muslim men, Arab men, and men of colour and Indigenous men, so non-white men. What the importance of this story is, in that context?
If we look over the last couple of years, two cartoons come to mind for me that were incredibly painful. The first one was produced by Bill Leak, that became a national controversy of an Indigenous father not recognising his son when a cop was throwing them at him. Of course, the implication there is that Indigenous men don't care about their kids. What people forget or just overlook is that, actually, Billy Leak had done cartoons of this nature, about Arab and Muslim men a couple of years prior. That he had a very long history of dehumanising men of colour and Indigenous men as people who have less capacity to love their children than white men.
In the second caption I'm referring to, it's an image of a Palestinian Father, wrapped up in military outfit and the kefiya, which is the scarf you see a lot of Palestinians wearing at the moment and allies are Palestinians wearing. Pushing his son into a war zone in the Middle East and saying, ‘Go and win Daddy’s PR war for him’. The implication there I think is exactly the same as the cartoon on the Indigenous fathers that, we don't care about our children. In the context of Arab and Muslim men, we use them as human shields to win a propaganda war. It's not only that these images are symbolically painful because of what they represent. They actually have tangible consequences.
The other day, my dear friend, Dr. Randa Abdel Fattah was on Q&A, and an audience member asked a question about her son who lives in Israel. She was saying that the Hamas bombs were so terrifying that her son's dog was trembling. Randa had to remind this audience member that there are literally Palestinian children overwhelmingly being slaughtered, being massacred. This lack of like... This way in which like a dog is given more integrity, and more humanity, and more dignity than a Palestinian child, that is an ongoing struggle for us. And so, I want to add something to this because it's not a coincidence. The dehumanisation of people of colour, of Arabs and Muslims, specifically in my case is not a coincidence.
Edward Said, one of the most prominent and influential Palestinian scholars and thinkers in history. Argued that when you study literature in universities in the West, you won't find any Arab literature, generally speaking. He said, it's very strange that a literature of 350 million people, that is thousands of years old and incredibly complex has been completely erased.
He argued, before he passed away, and this was not a coincidence, that if you are going to illegally invade these people, take their land and slaughter them, take their resources. You have to dehumanise them so that people don't care. And so, one of the main ways that they humanise them is to erase the humanising stories, our literature. With The Other Half of You and the importance of telling stories as an Arab Muslim father, it's about reclaiming our integrity, and our dignity and our humanity. And celebrating the beauty and the strength of our love for our children, in an attempt to humanise our community. Which I do hope has tangible and positive outcomes for the policies that our country enacts on countries in the Middle East, for example.
ASTRID: The book has only just been published, so you won't have gotten many responses from the reading public. But at this point, what are some of the first things that have started to flow your way? What are your initial readers saying?
MOHAMMED: That I'm a good father, which is nice. That's very moving to be told that. I think of Bani as a fictional character, but I use my son's real name. I really felt like I... If there's such thing as a soul, and if it's actually possible to put your soul in writing, I really feel like this is my soul in a book. I have such a strong love for my child, the way any parent has a strong love for their child, that I genuinely wanted people to feel that love that I have. I'm being given a little bit of information now that's reassuring me that love is coming through.
I'm hopeful that if that love comes through, then it can translate more broadly, that it doesn't just represent me and my son, but that it is a reminder of the incredible love that Palestinian fathers have for their children. Because right now we're seeing so many Palestinian fathers, and their children and mothers losing their lives with complete indifference. In the same way, I hope that extends to the love that that Indigenous fathers have for their children, that fathers of colour have for their children. That's the most important thing I can say on the on your question.
ASTRID: Mohammed, you may be reading Goosebumps to your son right now, but one day he is going to pick up your work. What do you hope his response is?
MOHAMMED: I mean, that's a really insightful question because Kate Evans from... Is it The Bookshelf, ABC? It's the ABC, Bookshelf program. For the record, Kate is somebody that I have a lot of patience for, and a lot of time for, and I very much respect. She's always been a supporter of my work, so I say this with affection. But in her recent review of The Other Half of You, she asked the question, ‘Would you actually tell the things that Mohammed Ahmed has told his son? Would you actually tell those things to your child?’ Because as you know, I don't withhold anything. It's very graphic. Bani talks explicitly about the physical creating of his son's life. He's very graphic in the way he talks about sex, in the way he talks about violence. I mean, it's still a very hypermasculine, very patriarchal world. You see, there are epic scenes of like these conflicts on the streets in the Kimba, which is parallel to the alien in the work.
And so, I want to answer your question by responding first to Kate's question, ‘Would you actually tell your kid these things?’ Because I kind of feel like, at this point it's the wrong question. That's a bit too late to ask whether I would do it because I actually did it. The more important question, I think, at this point, is not would you do it? The answer to that question is, ‘Yes, you would’. I mean, I did it. It's, ‘Should you do it?’ My concern with people shooting me, what's acceptable is, those questions do not apply to writers. The job of a writer, in my opinion, is not to reinforce all the conventions. The conventions of how do we raise our children, tell us, ‘Don't expose them to sex. Don't expose them to violence. Don't expose them to swear words. Don't expose them to the truth. Coddle them and shelter them’.
But I don't see children that way. I see children as more robust and resilient, and open-minded than adults. I think that if you look at the history of literature, its job has always been to push a society forward and to question what we consider to be acceptable. What we consider to be the behaviour that you should do. And so for me, I didn't want to tell a story to my son, that reinforces the way we're meant to talk to our kids. I wanted to push the boundaries of how you talk to your children, about incredibly important complex issues in the world that we currently live in. And so that's how I dealt with the subject matter and how I communicate it to my son. That's the first point.
The second point, which is to answer your question, just directly. Look, I'm really grateful that he's a child right now, and that he doesn't really need to be swept up in the embarrassment of his life and his mom and dad's sex life being publicly disclosed. I think, right now, he's open-minded enough, and he's beautiful enough, and he's capable of embracing the world as it is enough that it's not going to affect him. By the time he's 15 and he can actually read it, hopefully by then the book will be dusty on some shelves and he won't have to worry too much about how it affects him personally.
ASTRID: As long as it doesn't end up on a school curriculum that he happens to be studying, I think he will be absolutely fine. Because books are the safest place for us to learn about the world, right?
MOHAMMED: I'd like to think so. I also think... I always apply my expectations on what how a kid will behave based on this kind of fictional version of the general average kid. But at the end of the day this is my kid, he's growing up in my house. I mean, I've listed people to you like Ellen van Neerven, and Maxine Beneba Clarke and Omar Sakr and it's these are multi-award-winning poets and writers who have literally come to my house and read to him. And so I think he's growing up in a world where writing and literature and art is a very... And being unconventional, as being unconventional as the norm. Is a very ordinary part of his experience.
And so there's a chance that he's like, everyone around him in school around him is the weirdo and he's actually like, in his world it's like, ‘I'm the normal one here’. But only time will tell. There's also, I want to say one more thing, which I think is a very real possibility, is that in 20 years he's the one that writes the follow-up to The Other Half of You. He calls it ‘The Other Half of Me’, and it comes at me. And so, we'll just have to wait and see how time determines his relationship to the book.
ASTRID: A beautiful response. Thank you, once again, for coming back to The Garret, Mohammed.
MOHAMMED: Thank you. It's always a pleasure. Truly, you're one of my favourite people to talk to about my books, because I know you're going to come with the hard and honest questions. I know you're going to come with all this enthusiasm. I also want to say you always give me the space to fully flesh out my answers. Whereas when I'm doing an interview on Radio National, it's like, I've got 10 minutes to scream out as many things as I can before the clock strikes 12:00.
ASTRID: Oh, we're a podcast, we can do whatever we want. Thank you.
MOHAMMED: Love it. I also want to say thank you. I also want to say salam alaikum to you and to our listeners. Those words mean peace be upon you in the language of my ancestors, and I do sincerely wish you and all of our listeners peace.
ASTRID: It's such a lovely experience to talk to you about literature. Thank you so much.
MOHAMMED: Thank you too.