At home with Omar Musa

Omar Musa is a Malaysian-Australian author, poet and woodcutter. His latest work is the one-of-a-kind Killernova.

He has also released three poetry books (including Parang and Millefiori), four hip-hop records, written an acclaimed one-man play (Since Ali Died), and received a standing ovation at TEDx Sydney at the Sydney Opera House.

His debut novel Here Come the Dogs was published in 2014 and was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and the Miles Franklin Award. Musa was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Young Novelists of the Year in 2015.

At home with Omar Musa


ASTRID: Omar Musa, welcome back to The Garret.

OMAR: Thank you so much for having me. I am a huge fan of the podcast. I listened a lot to it while I was writing this book.

ASTRID: Oh, that is lovely to hear. And I adore your work. And because of that, you are the person I have chosen to interview for the 200th episode of The Garret. Thank you for your work and your artistic practice that I have enjoyed for several years.

OMAR: Oh, thank you so much. I'm really honoured. Yeah, it means a lot.

ASTRID: Now, I find it very difficult to describe your artistic practice because you do so many things and you are creative in different ways and different mediums. You are a poet, a writer, a performer, a rapper, a woodcutter, an artist, a creative in the true sense of that word. And before we get into your latest book, which is the remarkable Killernova, which I have lots of questions for, I'd like to ask you about the impetus to create the drive within you to put art together and then share your art with the world.

OMAR: Yeah. It's hard to identify where that impetus comes from. I do think that it's a very elemental thing, something that wells up deep within you, and then you can't stop sort of emerging in some way through artistic practice. But at the same time, it could be that I'm a product of my environment. I grew up in a very artistic family. My father was an actor, my mother was a theatre director, a theatre historian, is now an arts journalist. My dad is still a poet, a published poet in Malaysia. So, I grew up with two parents who were true believers in the arts and in the value of the arts. And I was very privileged in that way to grow up going to lot of concerts and exhibitions and theatre shows. Even though we didn't have much money, I was very, very privileged. I got to have access to that stuff. And so, I think I soaked in a lot of it sort of like through osmosis, and it's a great blessing that I've been bestowed.

And so, yeah, when you say it's difficult to define my work, I feel the same thing, because I'm just a dude who makes stuff and puts it out there. We live in a world of melting borders, and I'm trying to melt those borders in between different genres and styles and forms. And so when I picked up my new book, it's funny, because I made it, right? But when I picked up my copy of it, I was like, ‘What the hell is this thing?’ Is it an art book? Is it a poetry book? It kind of looks like a graphic novel a little bit. It's got stories. It's got tidbits of history and conversations. And I don't know what it is, but I thought it was cool and I made it and put it out there, and I hope other people enjoy it as well.

ASTRID: Look, it is cool. A few moments ago, you said the words ‘the value of art’, and honestly that could be several podcasts in and of itself, but your book does actually begin to kind of tease out, what is art? And what is it like to be an artist creating in the 21st century? So, before we get into these huge ideas, can you introduce us to Killernova?

OMAR: Sure. Killernova sort of welled up in a pretty elemental way as well, actually. It came out of nowhere. It was an unexpected turn in my artistic practice. I was back in Borneo in my father's homeland and what I would call my homeland as well a few years ago, trying to get my head straight. I'd got to a point in my life where I was really sick of writing. I was sick of performing. I'd come to hate the thing that I loved, and I was just, I was travelling around Borneo. I took a huge trip upriver from the east coast of Indonesian Borneo, a place called Samarinda. I slept on the public ferry and went right to the heart of the jungle meeting people, often travelling by foot. I'd just get off on the side of the road, venture down into the jungle, go up to a longhouse and talk to the village headman and say, ‘Can I sleep here?’ in my broken Indonesian. And he'd say, ‘Yeah, sure. There's a space for you here’. And I'd just chat to people and connect in that way.

And I came to this realisation that I needed to find a new form with which to express myself. And I didn't know what that was going to be, actually. I thought potentially it was going to be something to do with dance because I saw a lot of dance while I was there, traditional Bornean dance from upriver tribes, but sadly I don't think I'm bestowed with the gift of dancing. So, I wasn't that. But a few weeks later, I was back in Malaysian Borneo visiting my old man, and I was actually performing at a place called the Tamparuli Living Arts Centre. And I could see that there was this guy running a woodcut workshop and it looked way cooler than what I was doing. Well, that's how I felt at the time, anyway. And so, I went up to him a bit timidly and he was this guy called Aerick LostControl, who was a local woodcut artist and a punk rocker, an activist. By the way, LostControl is not his government name.

And I went up to him and I was just like, ‘Hey man, can I have a go at this?’ Because I'd been a huge fan of the Borneo woodcut style for years and years, but I'd never met any of the crew. And he said, ‘Sure’, and so he invited me to sit down with him. He taught me how to use the woodcut tools. He taught me how to roll the block with ink after I'd carved my designs into it, and then press it into paper or cloth by stamping on it with our feet, and maybe even wrapping or playing some music to give the artwork more samanga, which means more soul. He said, ‘Carve what you feel’, and so I decided to carve the most beautiful thing that I knew, which was a Bornean clouded leopard, even though I'd never seen one in real life. And so, I carved it. I carved some words with it that said ‘when the loggers are away, the leopards will play’.

And then I don't know, for some reason he saw some talent in me. And even though I thought it looked naive and childlike and a little bit silly, he said, ‘No, I can tell you're going to be really good at this. You've got the type of concentration that you need to be good at this’. And so he gave me some wood, he gave me some tools, and I went away and I just became obsessed with it. I contacted all the print makers I knew in Australia. I got them to help me figure out how to print more blocks, carve different techniques. I talked to my friends, Abdul Abdullah, Jason Fu, guys like that. Went to Megalo Print Studio in Canberra. I just became addicted to this new form and I soaked it in, and I studied and I practised. And after two months, I went back to Borneo and I sat down with Aerick for a whole month and he taught me more skills.

And I don't know, it opened up this whole different part of my brain. It allowed me to be playful again because I think for some reason I'd started to take my writing so seriously, like that it was a matter of life and death or something, every time I put pen to page. And I'd forgotten that even if you're talking about the most deadly serious things, I think when you're creating art or writing, you must be playful; playful with form, playful with ideas, and let your imagination fly free. And so finding this new form, it allowed me to open that sluice and to open the floodgates, and something new came out.

ASTRID: Omar, I speak to a lot of writers. And quite often they talk about a fallow creative period, they talk about writer's block, even if they don't use that word. No one has ever said, ‘I found an entirely new art form’.

OMAR: Right.

ASTRID: And so, I kind of just want to interrogate this a little bit more. You are literally making me want to cancel everything that I'm supposed to be doing and go and find my playfulness again, because I have definitely lost it. But it feels brave, it feels risky, it feels very much without a plan, but it feels very open and freeing. I want to come back to that word. So, when you went into woodcutting, did you ever think that you would write anything again? Did you ever realise that this would be something public, and something public that you would combine with words?

OMAR: Never. I never thought that. In fact, I was quite resistant to it early on when people started contacting me on Instagram and whatnot asking if they could buy my art. It made me feel a little bit uncomfortable because I wanted to keep it sacred, because that feeling did... it was really precious. But then as I got more into it and I could see that it really appealed, I could also see that it was doing something that I had failed to do while attempting to write a follow-up novel to my first one, which was to create a new form of language, in a way. Sorry, that sounds probably quite hyperbolic, but for Here Come the Dogs, my first novel, I tried to combine very poetic language with Aussie slang and hip hop slang to create sort of a new mode of literary expression, something that only I could have done. And for years I'd been banging my head against the wall trying to do that with a follow-up novel, but I wasn't able to do it.

And suddenly, sideways from my main objective, I found quote, unquote, ‘language’ where I combined visual imagery and poetic language and scraps of conversation into something brand new. And so, I thought I'd just run with it because sometimes you have to just follow these impulses instead of suddenly just following what you thought was the right path five years ago. When a new path makes itself known, maybe you have to follow that, kind of like what I was doing travelling through the jungle that time by foot. And so, no, I never thought it would be a public thing. Even now, I still feel a little bit of imposter syndrome around my art, because look, I've only been doing it for three years. It seems to resonate with people, but I'm still a bit uncomfortable calling myself an artist. But I think I need to get over that because, bloody hell, if you're going to be bold enough to put out a book publicly of your art, then why not call yourself an artist?

But I think part of it was also because it allowed me to do this thing that I've always been aiming for with my writing, which was to create something with a user-friendly interface but a complex operating system behind it. And I've always tried to do that with my writing, because I want to talk about complex issues but do it in a way that is inviting or at least builds a bridge between me and the reader. And then when they cross that bridge, suddenly they're in this world of madness and discomfort and unease. But that's sort of what I've been aiming to do, and suddenly I found it unexpectedly with the woodcuts, I guess.

ASTRID: You do draw the reader into a different world. And this is very much a visual work. It is based on your woodcuts, that are always images. Sometimes they include words that are part of the woodcut. And also, there is text in the book as well. There is poetry and there is prose, and you are very much taking... the work takes the reader on a journey. I'm interested in how you put the book together, because you are creating a story as well as a feeling and an experience. But I'm assuming you didn't create these pieces of art in order, and you certainly didn't have the text that they're eventually published with when you were creating.

OMAR: No. No, I didn't create them in order. And I had to sort of retrain myself to think a little bit more visually about it, because it isn't just a book of text. There had to be this nice interplay between the images and the text. Originally, I arranged it to have all the stuff about Australia and race relations and bushfires, things that I've talked about for many years, right up the front to front-load it with that. But then I realised that the stuff that I was most passionate about and that I enjoyed writing the most, and probably was at the heart of the book, was about the Southeast Asian Archipelago. It was about the island of Borneo, it was about Eastern Indonesia, Eastern Malaysia. It was about islands and bodies, and bodies as islands, islands as bodies, that type of thing; sort of shifting, shimmering borderlines that disappear and disperse and then reappear in different forms.

And so, I decided almost as a challenge to myself and a challenge to the reader, to front-load the book with all this stuff about Southeast Asia, because I've heard for many years frustrations on behalf of people who write about Southeast Asia trying to get publishing deals in Australia, and Australians just don't really seem to give a shit about Indonesia and Malaysia, even though they're pretty much our closest neighbours. And why is that? These rich, diverse, fascinating places that are right here. And we, in Australia, are pretty much a part of the Asia-Pacific. And so, it was a challenge to the reader for me to say, ‘Look, I'm interested in these topics’. I think that these bizarre little titbits of history, whether it's something I've read about a tiger trapper from 200 years ago in Java, or something about the nutmeg trade and the clove trade back in the day when the Dutch were occupying Indonesia; I wanted to immediately throw the readers and the art viewers and the people experiencing this book into that world and into the Archipelago.

And then move back to Australia and then end the book with sort of a combination of both, where it's me locked in my flat in Queanbeyan in the middle of COVID looking out my window and imagining that instead of this old plane tree, I'm seeing the islands of Eastern Indonesia or I'm seeing Mount Kinabalu, the sacred mountain near where my dad lives. And so, yeah, hopefully it's a weird hybrid book that kind of combines all these different elements of my identity and of my personal histories into something fresh but hopefully relatable as well.

ASTRID: You do throw the reader right into it. I had to stop a few pages in. You open the book with some very short prose, and the first section is called A Note on Wood. And in that, you immediately bring up all of the themes that you've begun to talk about, and that's family and history and legacy, and you make mention of carving and learning to woodcut on basically kind of cheap wood, cheap offcuts that are the relic of deforestation in Southeast Asia, and ask the question, what does that mean to you? And what does that mean to your art? And what does that mean for you as a practicing artist, who is basically using this wood that has helped destroy us all? And it's just this huge, profound question and there is no answer to it obviously, Omar, but good art makes us question. It raises questions. And I wanted to ask you, by choosing to write that Note on Wood, that really grounds the whole of Killernova for the reader in terms of kind of where you want them to go and to think. How much of you is in here?

OMAR: Hmm. It's an interesting one. It's very, very personal. I mean, you can't help it when you're creating poetry like this. But as you rightly say, a lot of this book is about undercutting or subverting or unpacking mythologies that have built up over time, whether they're in the writing scene or personal ones that I've made in my own head. And I wanted to do that immediately, because as soon as I start the book, I'm telling this very personal story about my connection to the homeland through the ancient form of wood carving; how my ancestors carved wood, sailed in wood. They'll carry me out in wood. My uncle's carved wood, this and that. It flows in my veins. But then immediately I undercut it by saying that the wood that I carve, which is cheap MDF; it's essentially compressed saw dust, an offcut of the corrupt logging industry. The very wood that I'm carving to chase that connection is an offcut of an industry that is destroying my homeland. And so, immediately I show that I am also complicit in some way, and that these ideas and these questions are very, very complicated and nuanced.

And so, I wanted to set that up so that the reader doesn't think that I'm pontificating or being simplistic or preaching, or that I've got all the answers. No way. I don't at all. I'm a flawed human being who's made so many mistakes and continue to in my personal life, in writing, whatever it may be; I guess, as we all have, but I wanted to set that up from the start. And that theme of complicity and unpacking personal mythologies comes up again and again, whether it's about romantic ideals that I had as a young man and then moving on from those as you come face-to-face with real life. Whether it's about writing itself, taking writing too seriously, that it's a matter of life and death, and learning to be playful again. Whether it's about addiction, it's about alcoholism, it's about how oftentimes we have these mythologies around the drunk poet or the addict musician. And for me, who has dealt with those issues, this is my first book that I've made from a different, clearer, cleaner and more sober headspace.

And so, in a way it was me saying, ‘You don't have to follow that trajectory or those mythologies’. And actually, sometimes the best art comes from that clear-headed, clean mind state. And so, these are really complex questions that I'm looking at, and I hoped to do it in a way that was really enjoyable and entertaining for people, as well as unsettling them. It's a tricky balance. It's like walking on a tight rope juggling swords on fire or something.

ASTRID: That is a good image. I would like to talk about the clouded leopard. Now, you mentioned the leopard briefly earlier. This image... character feels like the wrong word, but it is a recurring motif. Maybe that's a better word, recurring symbol. For you, what does a leopard represent?

OMAR: A leopard to me represents the beauty and preciousness of a vanishing world; a world that we are complicit in destroying, as human beings. It maybe represents a lost past. It represents a part of myself that maybe I thought I'd lost. It represents me connecting with the sacredness of the natural world and of my homeland. It's a shimmering beauty but it's also one that is filled with longing and sadness, for me. The leopard, it's also some form of alter ego for me, something like that. Something that can be free and run across the treetops under the light of the moon and is not restrained by this human form that is rapidly decaying and ageing right before your eyes, Astrid, even on Zoom.

ASTRID: Oh, look, I feel pretty decrepit and decaying at this point, over the pandemic. In your work and in this interview, you do mention that you kind of fell out of love with writing. And that wasn't... and I'm interpreting here, but I don't think that you're referring just to that kind of act of creation, but also the industry and the selling of a book or the selling of a piece of art. And I am hyper aware that I am the person who is sitting here via Zoom, asking you questions about your work. And I feel it would be disrespectful if I didn't point out that I am the person that is doing that in the industry, and many people do. How is that for you, given that Killernova is a new book it's about to hit the world. It's a different type of storytelling and art form than you have published before or put out in the world. And if it's possible for you to answer a question that me, the interviewer who's poking into your life; how do you feel about exposing your heart to the world?

OMAR: God, I always feel so nervous about it. It's a really fraught process to be a soul in this way, and it feels like a huge risk and you can fall flat on your face, because I think that risk-taking is such... it's the most important part of making art and helping you come up with new forms and express new ideas. But because it's a risk, you can easily fail and fall flat on your face, and maybe I've done that with this. Maybe I've done that many times in the past, but I think it's important that you at least try. Not to make anodyne, boring, fence sitter art. It is tricky talking about it though in this context, because ultimately I am of the belief that the work exists and everything that needs to be said is pretty much there. So, sometimes it does feel like a charade and that I'm retrospectively sort of intellectualising these things that came out in a really raw and emotional way.

But I'm also, I'm a different me to the one that made Here Come the Dogs. I look back on it and I almost can't believe how I was. I was so angry. It's so full of fury. It's so full of darkness and depression. I think that's potentially why it resonated with a lot of people, because it was from a very raw place. But now I'm creating from a different place and I would say that, although it's fraught, putting this stuff out, I am so, so grateful that I've been given this opportunity to even have my work published, for people to want to read it, for someone like you to read it so closely. It's a huge blessing. A lot of people don't get that opportunity, and I can never forget that.

I allude to my grandmother a lot in the book. She never learnt how to read and write. I mean, she is still a poet. When she was living on the street, when she was a young child, she created over 50 poems in her head that all rhymed and that talked about the boats coming in and out of the port. And she told me that these poems, they helped her survive. They were as essential to her as food or water. When I look at myself, oh my God, how can I be ungrateful in the face of that type of story and what my family has come from? So yes, it makes me nervous putting this work out and even talking to someone like you, and I torture myself about whether I've articulated my thoughts well enough in interviews or in my book, and it's endless. But every now and then you have to stop that self-flagellation because self-flagellation is just self-centeredness in disguise, and you got to fight that feeling of fear with a feeling of thankfulness and gratefulness. So yeah, thank you again.

ASTRID: We haven't been explicit about Killernova but this is a work of art, and I mean that in the traditional sense; you write in there, you have poems in there, but we are seeing the creation of your art. And it is in a beautifully sized book, and the glossy pictures and the colours that you have chosen to print your work; it is a visually appealing place to go, as well as... and a really emotionally appealing place to go in terms of the prose and the poetry that you put in there. My final question to you-

OMAR: Thank you.

ASTRID:... is about the art itself. You I assume still have the woodcuts themselves. Would these ever be for sale? And I don't mean to commercialise your work in the sense that all art must be sold, I am just genuinely interested in the idea that it's nice to sell a book because books are beautiful. It's also nice for people to be able to appreciate art because your art is beautiful. So, I guess I'm interested in where you see the woodcuts, or at least the woodcuts that are appearing in the work, going one day in the future.

OMAR: Hmm. I'm not really sure. I'd like to have some more exhibitions. I've been surrounded recently by a lot of glass artists, and so I'd maybe like to somehow see if I could collaborate with them using some of the woodcut style maybe with glass. But look, I'm such a neophyte to the whole woodcut game that I've still got a hell of a lot to learn about printmaking and everything, and there's so much to experiment with. I mean, that's the cool thing about being in the arts, right? Well, even if you're just in one genre, like music or writing, it's endless, what you can learn, what you can read, what you can listen to. But when you start to expand out into all these different fields, oh man, it's just, it's exciting. I'd like to think that if I'm lucky enough to be around another 40 years, I'll die still having just learned something new or found a new form with which to experiment.

But one thing did want to say, because this is a writing podcast, is that while I was trying to make it a beautiful object and something that you can hold in your hand or have on your coffee table, or look pretty and keep close to your heart as well, it's... I worked so hard on the poetry for this, and it was really this matter of... I mean, I've been saying this for years but one of the principles I've always worked by is to write in passion and edit in cold blood. And I think that I did both of those things to the best of my ability, or the best I ever have up to this date.

So much thought and so much reading, wide reading, went into it, and kind of inspiration from different poets, whether it be rereading Elizabeth Bishop, who's one of my great poetry heroes, or Maggie Nelson, whose book Bluets really influenced this. Have you ever read that, Bluets?

ASTRID: This is a really embarrassing time for me to admit, no, I haven't.

OMAR: Oh. Well, you have to. No, no, no. Better late than never. It's one of my favourite books I've read in the last few years. And I really like the way that Maggie Nelson sort of, you can't quite tell where she's coming from stylistically. It goes in between poetry, prose, history, philosophy. And so, that was kind of a touchstone for this book.

And it's just so weird that it took me venturing into another field for me to come back to poetry and be able to hone my craft with this pinpoint, sniper-like precision that I've always dreamed of, but usually I've always just approached it in such a scattershot way. I mean, it's still got a bit of that because a leopard can't change its spots. But it's just really interesting how the brain works. And anyway, I hope that the poetry lovers out there don't disregard it just because it's art in it and maybe this isn't a normal thing to do. I'm hoping to come up with something fresh, and hopefully it reignites the love for poetry amongst some people as well.

ASTRID: I think poetry in Australia is having a moment, and I think that Killernova is going to push that forward very quickly. Omar, thank you so much for your time today, and congratulations on Killernova.

OMAR: Oh. Thank you so much for having me, and thank you for doing what you do. I think it's such an important resource that you guys are building up. It's a resource that I didn't have when I was at university studying Aussie literature in the early 2000s, or even in my early days as a published poet or performing poet. And I think it's so important to have this resource for us writers and fans of literature to listen to our homegrown talent, talk about their craft, and explore new ideas. And make us joyful, make us uncomfortable, make us sad, make us happy, because I think the cultural cringe is still something that we battle in this country, and we're always looking abroad when actually there are so many people fighting the good fight here in Australia, in the arts scene, in the literary scene. And I spent so much of my time thinking about how often they are undervalued. And here, on this platform, you are valuing us and we appreciate that. And it creates this back and forth conversation of inspiration between reader and writer, and lovers of the word. And so, thank you once again.