Omar Sakr is a poet and writer who brings the personal and political to life. In this interview, he discusses his writing craft, his foray into speculative fiction and the difference between what he publishes and what he writes for himself.
Omar is the author of These Wild Houses, a collection of poetry shortlisted for the Judith Wright Calanthe Award and the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, as well as The Lost Arabs, which was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards, the John Bray Poetry Award and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. In 2020, Omar contributed to the anthology After Australia with the short story White Flu.
Elsewhere, Omar's articles and essays are published in The Saturday Paper, The Guardian,The Sydney Morning Herald, Archer, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, SBS Online, SBS Life, SBS Comedy, The Wheeler Centre, and Junkee.
If you enjoy this interview, you may also be interested in this interview with Michael Mohammed Ahmad, the editor of After Australia.
ASTRID: Omar Sakr is a poet and writer who brings a personal and political to life. In this interview, he discusses his craft, his foray into speculative fiction and the difference between what he publishes and what he writes for himself.
Welcome to The Garret at Home, Omar.
OMAR: Thanks for having me.
ASTRID: Omar, you are perhaps best known for your poetry. Your first collection, These Wild Houses was shortlisted for a bunch of prestigious awards, as was your second collection, The Lost Arabs, but I'd like to start with your speculative fiction. Now, listeners of The Garret know I just adore the genre. Utterly adore the genre and you have contributed a wildly stunning short piece of short fiction to After Australia, their recent anthology that was published in 2020. Would you give me the 30 second overview of ‘White Flu’, the short story?
OMAR: ‘White Flu’ is a short story about Jamal El Hajj, a queer Arab Muslim in Western Sydney, trying to reconnect with his sick mother during a pandemic that seems to be only affecting a white people.
ASTRID: I had the great pleasure speaking to the editor of the anthology, Michael Mohammed Ahmad and he relayed to me how beautiful he found your piece and how he felt editing it. But of course, I want your side of the experience and how you came to write in a new genre.
OMAR: Well, I was asked to write the story by Michael Mohammed Ahmed. So, there's that. And I was thinking for a long while about what I would do, this is in 2018. And I remember going to Inverell, a small country town that my partner is from, around Christmas time, and her mother got sick. And really that for me was the genesis of the idea, which is... I was in a country hospital visiting her and it was around Christmas time, it was eerily empty, and she was sick and none of the rest of us got sick. And so, I was kind of just thinking a lot about that idea of who gets sick and who doesn't and what that means, if anything. And then, it was reflecting on the notion of After Australia and there was just so much room for play in a space that is really racist and let's say controversial. I was thinking a lot about phrases that were in national media around white genocide, which is a myth, on how seriously it was being put forward and the violent reactions it was generating. I was just like, fuck it. I'll pretend that it is real and in a very different way and see what I can do with that.
ASTRID: I love that you use the word play a few moments ago. As I said, I adore speculative fiction and it can be very serious and it can be political, and it speaks to our social and environmental and potential futures. But it is purely imaginative, and it is speculative, and it is ‘what if’ and it is following ideas and creativity and I just think it is the height of writing intellectual rigour, I love it. But I'm interested in… You are known for poetry, choosing to, you find your content, you find the story, you find the thing that you want to write about, but choosing to change genre. And I know you were asked to kind of go in the anthology but as a creator, that's a cool switch. I'm asking you how you did it.
OMAR: Well, I know it registers as a switch to a reader, but I grew up reading fantasy and science fiction. These are my favourite genres. And I always thought of myself, I always fantasised I should say, about myself becoming a science fiction writer or fantasy writer and really being at home and in those spaces. The poetry thing was a weed glitch almost in that fantasy. And it just so happened to be something I was very successful at very quickly, and which really I'm so grateful for. I'll be a poet and until the day I die, but it, and it also taught me how to write. I always intended to write genre. And this was the perfect opportunity for me, was the second opportunity really. Because I have a short story in another anthology called Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories, which is called ‘An Arab Werewolf in Liverpool’. And again, it's me playing in genre. So, I'm loving this, but I think I felt really differently about this particular story. Soon as I started writing it, I was like, I like this guy, I liked this voice. There's a lot I can do here. I intended straightaway to extend it and to ride a novel, which I'm currently doing.
ASTRID: I know, I wanted to ask you about that. That is incredibly exciting news. I asked you a leading question before, when I kind of set up the difference between genre and poetry and some of the most commercially successful and lauded speculative fiction writers are also poets. And I'm obviously thinking of Margaret Atwood, but there are many more. She plays across different genres, so the intent behind my question was, you are so known for poetry that as a reader, and of course I am just a reader, it does look like a switch, one I'm very excited about clearly. So, you are extending this story. That is an opportunity that not all authors of short fiction get, tell me about how you go about doing that.
OMAR: Oh, geez. There's the rub, huh? Look, it's really difficult. Obviously, the pandemic that we're living through is horrifying in so many ways. For me personally, it is very annoying as an artist, having written a story that imagined a pandemic to now be living through one, it kind of alters the possibilities, I guess. And it makes me really conscious of how it will be received. Particularly given the realities of the pandemic, which is that of course, it's affecting black and brown people significantly more than white people. The writing a story where only white people are impacted is... Look, it's just, it's weighing on me a bit, I'm not quite sure how I'm going to resolve this tension between the real and the unreal. Because it's so extreme. It's unresolved at the moment. For now, I'm focusing on the character and his family, because for all that, I've spoken to a number of people about the racial dynamics that I'm exploring in the work. Really, the quote unquote ‘white flu’ is very much in the background. The story is about Jamal, it's about this character and his family and his experiences. And so, I'm really focusing in on that and trying to keep the speculative in the background.
ASTRID: I imagine this is a conversation that you have with your publisher and with your writing community and the people that you show your early drafts with. I actually am struggling to form a question here because it is such a big question. How do you write about a pandemic, a flu, a thing, when the whole world has just experienced one in this incredibly extreme reality where dystopian science fiction feels like every day and no longer a potential future? I know that when ‘White Flu’ was published, which is the short story in After Australia, you received vile abuse online. And I'm asking you a really obvious question here, but I assume that you've considered that that will come in the future as well if you publish a book? I really believe in the power of books and words to make the world a little bit of a better place. But I realised as I was praying facing to you, I don't always consider the cost to the artist, the cost to the writer, the blow back that creators can get. I'm just kind of asking about how you are and how you consider what blow back you might get?
OMAR: I think about it obviously. And it was kind of clarifying for me. The experience of the extreme abuse I was receiving when I posted a photo of the opening paragraph of the story? It was clarifying because I went to some lengths in the story to make known that there was some ambiguity, right? There was some ambiguity as to the function of the illness and who was it really affecting. But that didn't seem to matter to any of the people who were responding. And so, it did kind of make me go... A lot of people don't read, they don't read critically, they don't read past the headline, they react pretty immediately and pretty viciously. And so, if I do pursue this and create a novel, and novels always received more attention than short stories and poetry, then it's certain that it's going to be taken in a very similar way and I'm going to receive a very similar reaction and that is going to suck. However, I think there's great value in my work for people I consider myself to be in community with and so they're who I write for. I don't write for white supremacists and I don't care what they think or how they're going to respond to my work, and if I did, I would just never write because nothing I do will satisfy them. I'm a queer Arab Muslim, they going to hate me no matter what
ASTRID: I think your writing and all of the writing that is published, I think overriding that is... This year, there are so many works being published and people are referring to them as timely because so many things are happening in 2020. A lot of things feel timely, but that ignores the fact that it takes years to publish a work. So, anything published in 2020 has been worked upon in 2019, 2018, 2017 and sometimes long before that. And I'm interested in your response to that timely label when everybody in After Australia, but all of your work... These things take years and just because 2020 is a shit show, everything looks timely. How do you, as a creator respond to that?
OMAR: It's an interesting idea, timeliness. I'm working on a series of poems – my next collection, really, called ‘Relevant to the Day’. Which is all about interrogating this particular idea because it is something that's instead of me and of my work, not just this particular short story. And it's also something that I think we're constantly forced to use as a framework in the arts, when we're applying for grants, for example, ‘what is the relevance of this art that you're doing?’ ‘What is the utility of it?’ ‘Tell me’. So that kind of thing, it's been on my mind for a long time and I'm kind of, I'm trying to subvert it and to play with it as much as possible. I don't really care too much for it. I'm not trying to be timely. I'm not trying to be anything other than what I am, which is always going to be relevant again for the people that I'm in community with. So I'm talking about Arabs and Turks, Muslims, queer people, people of colour.
ASTRID: This is a podcast for writers. And one thing that I am fascinated by and that I get asked a lot, even though I am clearly unqualified to answer this question, is if someone has a story, if someone has the compulsion to create and to write, to put words on a page, how do they know what is the right form? You are working on a new poetry collection and you are working on a novel, they are two different forms. And I know you have the kind of the content and the ideas already, but when you sit down at a desk, do you feel like it's a poetry kind of day? Do you wait for the muse to take you? Do you set yourself tasks?
OMAR: I have been actively suppressing my natural instinct to write poetry in the past few months because I've been trying to write this novel, which yes is a very different animal. And it's not an animal I know or recognise and I'm struggling with that. So, yes. They have different feels and different forms. And I do know when something is coming to me that wants to be a poem. I generally understand what that vibe is. With fiction, I'm too new to it, honestly, to be able to say you that I got something now and this is going to be a story, this is going to be a novel. I signed a contract for this book, so it's a very different process at the moment. It's not as organic as the writing of poems. You have to sit down and do this and so pretty much every day I'm sitting down and I'm trying to do this and that's it.
ASTRID: I only just met you Omar, but the expression on your face sometimes, when you talk about the novel, looks a little bit stressed.
OMAR: I'm stressed, I'm absolutely stressed. I'm writing about a pandemic in the middle of a pandemic. How could I not be stressed? You know, it's a nightmare. It’s a nightmare.
ASTRID: I recently got to interview Tara June Winch, and she said that she will never write fiction and use the word COVID-19 or coronavirus. And she kind of laughed and said, because she's going to write about family and the past and things like that. But her comment has reverberated for me, because as I talk to writers all the time, nobody knows what the answer is and I don't expect you to have the answer. I just am fascinated by the situation that you are currently experiencing, because you have a contract to write about a pandemic in one shape or form, which is kind of unforeseen, as in the situation you find yourself in, not the fact that the world didn't handle itself very well when we had a global pandemic.
OMAR: What's the question. Sorry?
ASTRID: There is no question Omar, I was just getting things off my chest. I genuinely feel for you because...I genuinely just think, well, how do you wrestle with that? It's an intellectual thing that there is no answer for yet. I mean, unless we go back a century, no one else has kind of sat down to write a piece of art whilst the world is experiencing a pandemic. And while I'm sure there are a lot of writers sitting in their bedrooms or at their kitchen tables trying to do that right now, very few of them, had by fortuitous accident of the universe, just released a widely read short story that got a contract to be turned into a book about a pandemic. It's that kind of weird confluence of events that makes it an intellectual puzzle that I genuinely find myself thinking about.
OMAR: Yeah, look, it's definitely interesting. And I think one of the problems for me is that it's being told retrospectively, right? So it's character in the future looking back saying this is kind of what happened. And what the past eight months has shown us is that quite a lot can happen very quickly. I guess I've felt outpaced by the speed of events, but look, I think the answer for me is just going to be, it's not about the setting, it's not about the flu. It's got to be about language, and it's got to be about the characters. So really, as long as I keep to those two things, I will come out the other side with a novel worth reading.
ASTRID: I am absolutely looking forward to this Omar.
OMAR: I'm glad someone is.
ASTRID: I really am. I have a weird happiness when I consider more speculative fiction being written in Australia. I think the genre has been looked down upon in our local market for too long. It hasn't been looked down upon internationally, but I think in Australia it's been silent and I just love every green shoot I see. Let's turn to your poetry. Your poetry is both very personal but also political, both can exist at once clearly. And I wondered, do you think of your audience or are you expressing a creative impulse? And I guess the question in there is, do you ever self-censor? Or are you trying to share something that you want others to understand?
OMAR: Hm, do I self-censor? Not really. I always consider carefully what I'm publishing, which is very different to what I'm writing. But I generally feel very much that what I'm putting into the world needs to be put into the world. And I can say that I think perhaps more definitively than most. Because there isn't another queer Arab, Australian, Muslim poet. I mean, you know what I mean? I am the field, so it doesn't feel like I have much in the way of choice. I want to write for the younger version of myself who is struggling very much to survive. I want to make the road easier for him, for her, for them. I know they're out there. And I know because they've often messaged me and told me literally how much my poetry has meant to them. So in terms of thinking about my audience, yeah, I think about them. I think about the versions of myself that existed before and how best to honour them
ASTRID: That is a really beautiful answer. Thank you, Omar. I guess the thought I had behind my question; I coordinate our MIT's professional writing and editing degree, and we have many, many students who want a career like yours, but who are working on very personal pieces. Sometimes it's nonfiction and memoir, sometimes it's fiction or poetry, short stories I'm talking across genres. And the question often asked is how do I know what I can publish? How do I know what I can reveal of myself? So it is one thing to get it down on the page for yourself, but then to make that choice that you just alluded to, you're very careful with what you actually publish, which is different to what you write. For people who haven't perhaps been published yet but do have their pieces and are working to get out there. Can you speak to that difference and give them any insights or recommendations?
OMAR: It's almost impossible to give a blanket rule or recommendation because it is so personal. It's a very hard question to answer because I feel like behind the question is; what is the impact of the writing on people in your life? If you're writing about your life. And again, that's a difficult question for me to answer in particular because my family are not readers and they're not even really online. They're not aware that I have two books, or that I'm really and truly employed, recognised as a writer now. So, I don't have to think too much about it on that level. But I try still to be kind to the characters that I write knowing that there are versions of them out there and I include myself in that.
You were talking about there's people writing nonfiction, there's people writing fiction, I generally don't believe in the distinction. There's literature and that's it. And within that we're all characters. And what matters is how well you're telling the story and the message you're trying to get across. So, that's got to be the focus, I think. And if you're going to not have that particular framework, if you're going to go at it with this is biography or autobiography and include the people in your life in a much more literal fashion, then I think there's a different conversation that has to occur around that with those people. And it's going to be difficult, particularly if you have a different educational level to the people in your life. So, there's just this so many factors.
ASTRID: I'm glad I asked the question because you just gave anyone's response that I have not given before. Thank you. So many writers throughout history have chosen for many, many different reasons, to publish anonymously. Did you ever think about doing that?
OMAR: Yeah, it's crossed my mind. It's crossed my mind, but never seriously.
ASTRID: Just a random question I had.
OMAR: Never seriously, no. Maybe that's just the narcissism in me. I don't know. This is my name. And if I feel like if you can't own your work and don't put it into the world.
ASTRID: You are full of perfect answers today. You're laughing at me. But as somebody who works with audio, I'm like, ‘Oh, that's lovely’. I mean, I'm sitting in a room full of books, not that you can see them behind me, but books are my world Omar. But when someone can articulate an answer really sharply in the spoken word, it is just beautiful.
OMAR: Thank you.
ASTRID: Omar, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I have a hint that you've been laughing at me. Maybe I've been asking silly questions, but it has been a genuine pleasure on my end. I'm really excited to read what you publish next.
OMAR: Oh, thank you very much. I have not been laughing at you, I just... I have this weird thing where I'm in every interview that I've ever done that has all audio, I can always hear myself laughing in it at really inappropriate moments and never... I don't know why it's happening, it's like some weird nervous defensive thing that happens. And yeah, sorry if that made you feel awkward.
ASTRID: Thanks Omar.