Michael Mohammed Ahmad is both a writer and editor. He received the Sydney Morning Herald's Best Young Australian Novelist Award for his debut novel The Tribe, and the sequel, The Lebs, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
In 2020 he is the editor behind After Australia, a collection of short stories about Australia's potential futures, and it is this work that the interview focuses on. The anthology includes works from Ambelin Kwaymullina, Claire G. Coleman, Omar Sakr, Future D. Fidel, Karen Wyld, Khalid Warsame, Kaya Ortiz, Roanna Gonsalves, Sarah Ross, Zoya Patel, Michelle Law and Hannah Donnelly.
Mohammed is also the founder and director of Sweatshop Literary Movement in Western Sydney.
If you enjoy this interview, you may also be interested in this subsequent interview with Omar Sakr, a contributor to After Australia.
ASTRID: Michael Mohammed Ahmad is the founding director of Sweatshop Literary Movement in Western Sydney. His debut novel The Tribe received the Sydney Morning Herald's best Young Australian novelist award, the sequel 2018's, The Lebs, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and received the Multicultural New South Wales award at the Premier's literary awards. In 2020 he is the editor behind After Australia, a collection of short stories about Australia's potential futures.
Welcome back to The Garret, Mohammed.
MOHAMMED: Thank you for having me.
ASTRID: Now, we have spoken once before on what was, I hope, a very special day for you the day you were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2019.
MOHAMMED: Yeah, I mean, I remember that conversation vividly. And I remember, firstly, being quite excited by the shortlisting, and feeling quite honoured to be talking to people in that context. And that specific award and that specific moment for me, as a writer, was for my own book, which is called The Lebs. And I kind of navigate that space between being a writer and being an editor, probably like 50/50. So, it's interesting to be talking to you a year later, not in my role as a writer, but in my role as an editor who champions and fights for the voices of Black, Indigenous and people of colour's writing.
ASTRID: I've been looking forward to talking to you today because I am fascinated by how you do this. How you obviously write incredibly well yourself and produce your own creative works, but also, how you tackle the role of editor. Which I don't think we give editors enough prominence and respect and care, I think in the industry. Because the role of an editor is so fundamentally important to writers, and to the publishing industry as a whole.
MOHAMMED: Yeah, so let me speak to that. Firstly, what I would say is when I edit an anthology, and when I read and edit an anthology when I read a book, that was written by 20 writers, but was edited... I'm thinking specifically about people now edited by Maxine Benaba Clarke, or edited by Randa Abdel-Fattah and Sara Saleh, or Benjamin Law, the way I engage in the text is the book's individual pieces speak for each individual writer. But the book as a whole speaks for the editor. And you judge each individual writer based on the individual pieces, but you judge the editor based on the book as a whole. The vision that the editor executed.
Not just things like the months and months of editorial feedback that's going back and forth between the writer and the editor to shape up the pieces, but very minor things that I think a lot of readers don't fully understand or realise about the role of an editor. Just thinking about, for example, the shape of the book, the order that the pieces appeared. That's the editor’s decision, in most cases, and it's informed by several, hopefully, expert opinions. The expertise of the editor. In the case of things like the blurb, in the case of the things like the text on the cover, editors play a very significant role in all of that. So, they create pretty much the whole shape of the book.
Now what I would say is unique about After Australia, for me as an editor that I think people will notice immediately, is that I don't have an editor's note in it. And the publisher, there are three publishers actually involved. There was Affirm Press an award-winning Melbourne based publisher, in partnership with Diversity Arts Australia and Sweatshop.
And when Affirm press and I were having conversations about the book, I was asked by the director at Affirm Press, ‘Are you sure you don't want to include your own editor's notes and introduction or a foreword?’ And I knew for sure that I didn't. I really wanted this book to speak for itself. I really wanted each writer to speak for themselves and for the book to make a case for itself as a whole.
And I love reading the introductions of other editors. But I also, for myself, as an editor, sometimes find it a little bit contrived. I find it a little bit exhausting being told what to think about the book as a whole, instead of letting the reader take that journey with all the writers on their own terms.
I made the decision to step aside and in a few interviews that I've had, what I've been saying is, look Astrid, you already made this point. I wrote The Lebs it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. If anyone's interested in my writing, go and grab The Lebs. That would be a great honour to me, especially at this moment in time when we're really trying to elevate the voices of diverse writers. If you want to know my writing, go and get The Lebs. If you want to know the writing that I'm passionate about, as an editor, and as a critical thinker, go and get After Australia, because it's just the writing that I think is amazing, but it's not my own.
ASTRID: This is amazing writing. Now, I have so many questions about this anthology, which I very much enjoyed, Mohammad, but before I ask my questions, can you give those listening to us the 30 seconds kind of introduction to this Anthology, so they know what After Australia is.
MOHAMMED: I was telling you earlier that editors make all kinds of contributions to a book. They decide on the epigraph, the blurb. In this case, I workshopped for weeks, going back and forth with all the people involved, what would be the punch line for the cover. And we came up with ‘After Colony’, ‘After Empire’, ‘After White Supremacy 12 diverse writers offer an alternative Australia.’ And I do think that is a pretty good summary of what this is.
This is a book that looks at our future, as a nation from the perspective of Indigenous people and people of colour. But what I learned throughout the process of making the book, and this is something I didn't expect. originally, the idea was we would write a book set in 2050. But what was happening is a lot of the writers were actually sending me stories, say in the past. And then others said directly in the prison.
And I thought these writers were missing the brief, they were misunderstanding what the point of all this was. And I remember I was reading quotes on the future, because I was looking for a post-apocalyptic kind of quote, to put as an epigraph. And then I found a quote, by the Black civil rights leader, Malcolm X. I'm very aware of the relevance of speaking about the Black Civil Rights struggle in the context of Black Lives Matter right now. And the incredible influence that African American civil rights struggles have had on minority communities around the world.
And in this quote, by Malcolm X, he says, ‘The future belongs to the people who prepare for it today’. And all at once it occurred to me that we really can't be talking about the future unless we're simultaneously talking about the past and the present as well. And that what was happening is these writers, without talking directly to each other, were subconsciously, creating an intercultural, intergenerational dialogue. And what I think is unique about Australia, among other anthologies, is that even though each individual piece speaks for itself, it does work as a whole, it is a unified voice on who we were, who we are and who we're about to become.
ASTRID: Absolutely. Normally, when I dip into a short story collection, I read a story, or read two stories and kind of go in and out as I am reading other things. And I did not do that with After Australia. I started reading and then I thought, ‘Okay, I'm not going to actually going to stop reading. I may as well get comfortable’. And I consumed it all in one day. It is 12 voices, but it's a roaring good read, but it made me think. But I have to ask, before we get into the individual stories. This is an anthology published in June 2020. It is incredibly contemporary. Now, I know this kind of anthology takes years to put together, but you've literally released this book in the middle of a global moment that I hope continues permanently, of Black Lives Matter and Indigenous rights in Australia.
MOHAMMED: Yes, but not only that. And I think that observation, you're making this timely. And that's the word everybody's using timely, it's timely, which is creepy, actually. Because it was meant to be set 2050. And the fact that these writers over a period of 18 months of developing the book predicted are like a post-apocalyptic world that's supposed to happen 30 years from now, and then all of a sudden, it's kind of like right now is I think very... It should be in terms of... Not in terms of people reading books, but in terms of what it's saying about us as a species, very troubling and it should be taken very seriously.
But the reason why I'm saying not just Black Lives Matter is because if you look Zoya Patel's story, she's talking about bushfires that ravaged the ACT and destroyed the landscape. The whole world is kind of transformed in this kind of post-apocalyptic vision of the future that is really influenced by the consequences of climate change. And she wrote that a year ago and then we had some of the worst bushfires in the history of recorded history for Australia ever taking place earlier this year.
Then even before the Black Lives Matter protests in America and around the world, Omar Sakr wrote a story called ‘White Flu’ about a global pandemic that racially discriminates. Only he did it ironically, it's usually these kinds of pandemics and the record shows, usually these pandemics over represent people of colour. Usually the main victims are people of colour. And so, Omar Sakr wrote a story three months before anybody had even heard of COVID-19. Had even ever heard of the Coronavirus, he'd written a short story about a global pandemic that had a racial dimension to it.
And then of course you look at stories written by the Indigenous writers, the four Indigenous writers in the book, Hannah Donnelly, Karen Wyld, Ambelin Kwaymullina and Claire G. Coleman. And then you look at the writing by the Black writers, the African Australian writers like Future Destiny Fidel. What a frighteningly convenient name for an anthology about the future. And Khalid Warsame, and you see that half the contributors are Black, identify as Black with a capital B. And are talking about police brutality, they're talking about the treatment of Black people in prisons. They're talking about being targeted and vilified and demonised.
And I think we couldn't have predicted when we started making this book that the day it came now, all these elements will be the kind of main discussion. But here's what I will say, I think people of colour and Indigenous people are very good at predicting the future. Because usually the future is tied up with the communities that are marginalised, usually marginalised communities are experiencing a kind of horror that will determine where we're going. It's not a coincidence to me that these writers who are under constant pressure can predict what the consequences of all this pressure is going to look like a few years from now.
ASTRID: I was very aware that as I read After Australia, I'm a white person. And I think that obviously, my background and my experiences inform my reading. And then when I sat down Mohammed, and it was working out my questions to ask you today, I thought, ‘Oh, God, I'm going to be that wacko who's asking stupid questions’. You're laughing at me, I can see you on Zoom. But I think that's really... I think that is important, because the point of this book is, it doesn't have white voices in it. It doesn't need white voices in it. But as white reader, interviewing you, the editor, I just feel like I should point that out.
MOHAMMED: Well, the reason why I smile and laugh when you say it is because there's no shame in it. And I really think it's important for white listeners to just understand that the Indigenous people and people of colour and not expected... They're not want white people to feel guilt and shame. It's not productive for us. What I'm usually being asked is, what can white people do to support the struggle? And I genuinely believe that most white people are good people. I do believe that. And I genuinely believe that most white people are anti-racist or at least want to be anti-racist, and just don't know how to do it.
And so, what I've been saying lately is part of the problem is you're probably just listening to the wrong Morrison, you got to stop listening to Scott Morrison and start listening to Toni Morrison. And what I mean by that is if you really want to support Black people, people of colour, Indigenous people, and specifically through the arts, you want to support us, there's a really easy way to do it. It's actually not about wearing a shirt with the Aboriginal flag on it. And of course, we can talk about Hannah Donnelly's introductory page where she says she hates that stuff. But it's not about that.
That it's about for us as artists, if you really want to support us, it's really simple. And what I'm about to tell you, it's not controversial. Every Indigenous writer and every writer of colour in Australia and around the world will agree with this simple premise. If you want to support our struggle, buy our books, go to the bookshop and buy books written by Indigenous people and people of colour. For two reasons. Firstly, because you stimulate our socio-economic situations. Writers are generally underpaid, but there's a lot of written evidence coming out right now that Writers of colour, Indigenous writers and Black writers are especially underpaid, and there's a financial disparity between what white writers get and what people of colour and Indigenous people get.
So, one way that white people can genuinely support the struggle is to buy our work because it actually supports us economically. Consider it a financial donation to the families of Indigenous people and people of colour. That's the first point. The second point, which is a more philosophical point is you get to experience our arguments, our feelings, our worldviews, our ideas directly from us. Not from a white journalist at The Daily Telegraph who's speaking for us, but directly from us when you engage specifically in our work.
And the last point I want to make is when I say buy our books, for anyone that's listening, that's maybe feeling like maybe Mohammed is making us a point that I want to support. What I would say is the contributors in After Australia, as a whole, if you want to support us, all Indigenous and people of colour, go and buy After Australia. But also check out their writers at the back of the book. These are some of the most amazing writers in the country, I've already started to name some of them. And if you want to support us by After Australia as a starting point, and then go and check out individual books. We've got, between the 12 of us, there might be about 30 or 40 incredible books that will kind of give you an entire degree like reading it would be like the equivalent of getting a degree in cultural theory and race politics.
ASTRID: I'm just going to say Claire Coleman's Terra Nullius, a novel, was the best education I think I've received as an adult. I'm going to ask you, Mohammed about speculative fiction and prospective futures. In the afterword, it's made clear that speculative fiction has always been a side of literary resistance as such, can you talk me through why? And how this anthology fits into that tradition of resistance?
MOHAMMED: You know, that's a really good question. And I'm going to be honest, that I don't profess to be the expert in speculative fiction. This was my first project in speculative fiction, as an editor. And I really learned from the writers. Writers like Hannah Donnelly, and you mentioned Claire G. Coleman, who are experts and leaders in speculative fiction.
But what I will say from the education that I received as a part of the process of learning is that we're asked in many ways through speculative fiction to imagine alternatives. And there's an incredible African American writer, feminist social activist named bell hooks, who talks about how we can actually create real change as minorities, trying to transform our situations. And part of the problem is that usually, when we're looking at the activists, whether it's on social media or whether it's in reality. Whether it's in the physical world. Usually what we see minorities doing, and I don't want to point the finger at any particular minority. But if I have to point out one, the safest one would be my own. I'm an Arab-Australian Muslim, so I can just poke fun at them. I'm one of them.
But if we look at an example of, say, the Arab-Australian community. Well, I feel like we've been incredibly marginalised and demonised by the mainstream media, by police, by politicians for the last 20 years. And I think just screaming at your problem, is not a solution. And this is where bell hooks comes in. And what bell hooks talks about is that real change is not about screaming at your problem. It's not about just saying, ‘I'm in pain, I'm angry, and I'm going to insult and attack everybody for it’. There's a place for that. I mean, I think it's really important to express your thoughts and your feelings and where you are, psychologically.
But what bell hooks argues is that in addition to this, in addition to articulating the pain, real transformation is about finding alternatives. It's about not waiting for, in the context of talking about race, not waiting for members of the dominant white culture to wake up one day and say, ‘You know what, you've been screaming at me, it's time for me to accept my guilt and make a change’. I think if we waited like that, we'd be waiting a very, very long time. I think it's about us as individuals and as communities of colour and working in solidarity with each other looking for an alternative. Saying, ‘What is the alternative to this?’ And working towards that alternative.
I think speculative fiction is a fantastic starting point for us, as people who identify as marginalised to find an alternative not to just scream at our problems, but to say ‘This is an alternative vision for the future, and let's work towards that vision’. And I will add that my work as the director of Sweatshop, which is a literacy movement to empower people of colour through reading, writing and critical thinking, is a physical manifestation of an actual alternative where we try and create work. And we try to create agency and income and resources and opportunities for marginalised people. Not just being angry about it, but saying, ‘This is how we do it, we're going to make the change ourselves’.
ASTRID: And that's the thing. Like, saying something only takes you so far. And also, as much as I wish we could solve the world's problems by buying books, buying books only takes the world so far. It actually is the work on the ground that pays people's rent, that changes economic outcomes, changes employability. All of that, that's where it matters.
MOHAMMED: I agree with you. And what I will say is, I think buying books is the first step towards revolution. I really do. I stand by my position that it does actually change the lives of writers of colour Indigenous writers. I think, so many thousands of brilliant Indigenous writers and writers of colour in Australia are underrepresented and are living from day to day and are struggling. And if you actually buy their books, you genuinely give them a meal. And you enable them to keep going and to keep writing more books. But more importantly, again, I'm going to go back to bell hooks. She argues that all steps towards freedom and justice in any culture are always dependent on mass-based literacy movements, because degrees of literacy determine how we see what we see.
And so, when I think about books, what I'm usually thinking about is the way education, the way reading and literacy and critical thinking, radically transform your worldview. And if I think about why I am the person I am today, I'm going to be dead honest with you. It's not because of a physical confrontation I had in the street, it's not because of some strange epiphany I had on a random bus encounter one day. It's not because of even, I'm going to be honest, a movie I watched. Like other art forms. It's because of the books I read. Specifically, it was, for me, it was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Being inside Malcolm's head, for one month, where it was just me and him. And just really kind of understanding who this person is how he understood and related to the world, radically transformed everything about the way I saw the world, and it empowered me to take the steps towards self-determination in my own community. And so again, I don't want to sound too romantic about it. But I think it's definitely the first step is to get as many people as possible reading and writing.
And I have to add, it's not a coincidence that you meet so many conservatives and so many members of the right and the white right being so anti-education. And what I mean by that is making sure that public schools aren't properly funded, making sure that literacy initiatives and artistic initiatives are not funded. They pretend that it's because these things aren't important, but actually, it's because they know just how important they really are. And what they're trying to do is make sure that our communities are uneducated and illiterate, so that we overthrow them.
ASTRID: I suspect that's why the art sector as a whole was left out of the stimulus package during COVID-19. And Mohammed, I have to say, buying books is the first step of the revolution might be the best quote ever on The Garret.
MOHAMMED: I'm honoured, thank you.
ASTRID: We've spoken a little bit about what is speculative fiction and why it has been and continues to be a site of resistance and imagining what could happen in our future. Some of the stories in After Australia they do imagine what could happen in our future. But it's not necessarily rosy. I mean, when we think about continuing racism, when we think about environmental catastrophe, the future sometimes doesn't look that good.
So a few of the stories, all of them were brilliant, but a few of the stories kind of really stuck out to me. And the first one I want to, I guess, talk to you about is actually the first story in the collection, Karen Wyld's, ‘We Live on in Story’. It's the story of different generations of a family, a family who think that they're white, or some members of the family think that they're a white family, however, they start to look into the past and realise that they do have an Aboriginal ancestor and she was treated incredibly badly. And it's about feeling the loss of country and the loss of connection and the loss of culture. And then maybe what can be done in the present to build a better future. As an editor why is that the first story you put in?
MOHAMMED: That's a really fantastic observation. I really appreciate you noticing that I made the choice for Karen Wyld's story to be the beginning. I think that Karen gave me a little bit of an epiphany during the editing process. That it was really her story which really enabled me to see that we can't talk about the future unless we're grounding it in the past and the present. And I think that what she does really spectacularly in her piece is she intertwines different histories, and she doesn't cue you. She doesn't tell you when you're in which timeline. She just does it organically.
And I think that really spoke to the essence of the book as a whole, that it's meant to be a vision for the future, but that it's woven together as stories from the past, present, and future simultaneously. I also think that what I love about Karen Wyld's story, is we spend so much time dehumanising Indigenous people, people identify as Black, who are white passing, or have fair skin. And when I say we are in many cases, I can speak about examples like the awful stuff that happened to people like Bruce Pascoe, Tara June Winch over the past couple of years.
And so, what I found really amazing about Karen's piece, is it really in a non-judgmental way, and in not an aggressive way, in a very kind of matter of fact, way, just helps you understand what it means to be Indigenous, and what it means to have Indigenous history and identity and culture and blood. She doesn't romanticise what the complexity of these identities are, she just kind of shows you what it means. And I really appreciate it as a non-Indigenous person who's an Arab-Australian Muslim, who is very, I think you'd agree that I'm of Middle Eastern appearance. But I'm olive complexioned, I'm not particularly dark skinned, I really appreciated the nuance and the complexity of her ability to speak about the complexity of identity, and specifically Indigenous identity.
And I thought that was a really important way to start. I also want to take this opportunity to talk about something else that people might miss with Karen Wyld's work. We spend so much time talking about the story. And I think that's fine. A lot of people just will read it for the story and will enjoy the story. Great. But I also think there's a case to be made for reading for the pleasure of language, and for the pleasure of actual writing.
And I make this point, because I don't like the idea that writing is often seen as the dim-witted or the lower version of filmmaking or music or visual art. We have our own form, and it's its own unique form. And I think what's what makes writing unique as a form is the emphasis on language. And if you look at Karen Wyld's language, I really stress for people to try to get engrossed in the use of her commas, and really appreciate the amazing style of literary punctuation that she uses to navigate her story. I actually think she's one of the most skilled writers that I've ever worked with, when it comes to her use of things like the comma, the colon and the semicolon.
ASTRID: That is music to my ears. I mean, I love a good TV show and movie, and I spend a lot of time there, but they're new and they have a while to get to the beauty that is language that we have been using in different ways for thousands of years. I really appreciate that comment and that insight. I would also like to say as the person interviewing you here about After Australia, you chose these 12 writers because they are fantastic with words. And what they put on the page and bring to this work is exceptional.
MOHAMMED: Thank you.
ASTRID: I want to talk to you about Michelle Law's, short story, because it went to a place that so many people find difficult to talk about. And actually, I've been shut down in my life trying to talk about this. And one of the many themes in her short story is this idea of parenthood in the face of environmental collapse. And that's a tough one for many people to even, considering parenthood is tough to consider. But the choices that go with that in the wake of environmental catastrophe and collapse.
The story also explores class and class in the future, depending on... This is a future that she envisages where class is still very rampant and because the environment has changed so much now the health effects of the climate... You can't go outside unless you have special equipment, but then only the rich people can afford the specialist equipment, and everybody has to use hand me downs or not as good equipment. And it actually made me feel a little bit nauseous in a really good way. Because Michelle made me feel so many things about our potential near future. Tell me about how Michelle's piece sits within the broader context of the anthology, which is dealing with the environment in multiple different ways.
MOHAMMED: Yeah, here's what I'll say about Michelle Law. Here's what I said, here's what I have to say about it as a kind of pull line, like some kind of buzz sentence is that she kind of gives us a dystopian future that makes 1984 like the Little Mermaid. I think it is a really desolate and depressing place. But I think she manages it as a writer, again, go back to the art of writing. And when people read the book, they'll know this. But I think Michelle really manages it through the lens of these characters, these individuals. And I think that's really, firstly, the best kind of writing where like, you create this incredibly unique and visceral world. But the story that matters is... The story in the foreground, is the story of these individuals, these people who are fully developed. And the story in the background is the politics.
ASTRID: I really want to talk to you about ‘White Flu’ by Omar Sakr. Now, this is a nuanced piece, it's about so many different things, sexuality, culture, family, but also as the title gives away, a flu that kills white people, and everyone of European descent.
MOHAMMED: Again, it's the foreground versus the background. I think Omar wrote an incredibly frightening piece. I think it's eerie. And I think people will be quite troubled by how prophetic it is. But really, it's in the background, that stuff, the white flu that he creates. And turmoil in the world, which I've got to say, if you read it, you would really think that he was inspired by the COVID-19, you would really think he wrote it today.
ASTRID: That line where the two kind of main characters are talking about the flu, and they're dismissing the news reports, and they're saying, ‘No one's going to believe it and won't come here’. And it's all just a big media... That's what we saw happen.
MOHAMMED: Yeah, talking about those reports that Mexico was going to close its borders on America. And Omar has a line like that in the story. It just feels like anybody who raises would find it really hard to believe that Omar actually imagined this before it happened, like he could almost predict what it would be like. And I don't think many people could I don't think anybody six months ago could imagine that we would all be living our lives this way, where we're having Zoom... Where we're literally using Zoom right now and that we are all in social isolation. And there's all this kind of psychological stuff.
But Omar really predicted the future, but he turned it on its head. And he kind of flipped it, turned it, to ask the question, ‘How would it be different if it actually was the main victims were white instead of people of colour?’ And what I want to tell you is so interesting about this and troubling and sad is when Omar released just one paragraph about this satirical, ironic, very self-aware, fictional version of reality is literally thousands of white supremacists started to make death threats and attacks against him and say the most derogatory things on social media to a point where Omar had to close his account, and we had to report it, these menacing threats.
Because people were referencing things like Christchurch, and you're referencing Christchurch in relation to Omar's story. And what me and Omar, while we're talking about this, what we found really painful and frustrating is for a lot of white people the fantasy, the imagined fantasy that they are under attack is more offensive to them than actual people of colour gotten through genocides.
The horrendous treatment of Indigenous people, the horrible wars that this country has participated in the Middle East, which has led to some of the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world. The Christchurch massacre where an Australian born white supremacist, goes into a mosque and kills 51 Muslims peacefully conducting their Friday prayers. The idea that he writes a story where white people are being affected by a flu is more offensive to them than the literal crimes that their race is competing against people like us.
ASTRID: I am so sorry to hear that that happened to Omar and well it doesn't beggar belief because these things do happen. But I am so sorry that happened to Omar and it goes back to what you said before Mohammed that there are some power structures that don't want writers to succeed because writers are a true voice.
MOHAMMED: What I would say is Omar's are very strong man and human being. A strong Arab-Australian Muslim man and he was incredibly resilient who grew up in the post 9/11 era, grew up during the Cronulla riots, and he can take it. And I'm not saying that to say, ‘Don't worry’. I'm saying it's horrible, but it's our lives. It's our day to day lives. And I'll tell you why it is okay. What kind of makes our work worthwhile is Omar was telling me today that he was in a Broadway shopping centre.
ASTRID: I know well, I grew up in Sydney.
MOHAMMED: Yeah. So, actually no, so I was in Broadway shopping centre, Omar was in Ashfield. And he told me that a random person, a white woman actually, came up to him and said, ‘Are you the poet Omar Sakr?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I am’. And she said, ‘We're reading your book, the Lost Arabs in our book club’. And the reason I accidentally brought up the Broadway incident is because today as well, I was getting my computer fixed at the Apple store in Broadway. And the person fixing my computer said to me, ‘It's really important I fix this computer, because I'm guessing there's a really important new novel on this computer’. And I was like, ‘How would you know that?’ And he said, ‘I'm a big fan of The Lebs’.
I called Omar telling him, ‘Well this just happened to me on Broadway’. And he said, ‘Well, actually, this just happened to me at Ashfield’. And I think for us, it's these moments that remind us that our work is actually influential, it actually influences members of the dominant white culture, and it transforms the way they engage with us, and they see us. And that's why we persevere.
Now I want to make one last point, because I haven't really got to delve into Omar's story. But the thing about Omar's story is what's in the foreground, while this global pandemic is taking place, is this Arab Muslim guy having an affair with his male cousin. And I made this observation that Omar is one of these artists that knows how to strike at both ends of the conservative spectrum. Arabs and Muslims, conservative Arabs, and Muslims will be probably disgusted and horrified that the guy is gay. It's like, ‘Oh, no, he's gay’. But they won't care that he's sleeping with his cousin. Whereas like, white conservatives might go, ‘Oh, the gay thing, it's not so bad anymore. I can deal with that’. But they'll be like, ‘Oh, God, disgusting, he's sleeping with his cousin’. It's really interesting how these different lenses intersect when you're dealing with something like the Arab Muslim queer community, because it's such a complex identity in itself.
ASTRID: I want to talk briefly about Hannah Donnelly, because she contributes a prologue two interludes and an epilogue. And at the beginning of our interview, Mohammed, you mentioned that you didn't contribute a foreword, or an editorial insight as such in text in the book. But Hannah's work kind of scaffolds or structures the work because we keep coming back to her voice all the way through. Where did that idea come from?
MOHAMMED: I think it's important to understand that for me as the editor, I'm not making all those decisions. I'm not telling the writers what to do. But I'm also not letting them just told me what they're going to do. It's a dialogue. And when you're dealing with 12 diverse writers, who are Indigenous, Black, people of colour, Arab Muslim, identify as being of Asian background or African background. When you're dealing with a diverse community like that, what we're talking about is an intercultural dialogue.
And I've been in an intercultural dialogue with Hannah since the beginning of this project. And it felt really important to us that there was an Indigenous voice not just introducing the work, but guiding us through the entire experience, so that when you read it, you read it from the first page to the last page, and you're taken on a journey. And so, we can see the idea of the prologue, the interludes and the epilogue as a conversation about the kind of arc we wanted to create throughout the entire book. And what we want to say.
And what I would point out, is, and you've read the book, so you know this. That from the very first page, and I'm not even talking about, like the first page of the book I'm talking about even before the title page, even before the epigraph, that way really prioritise and emphasise Indigenous voices, and Indigeneity as an identity.
And I really think that the reason Why this journey that we take starts with an Indigenous voice and ends with an Indigenous voice is because Australia starts with the history of this country. For tens of thousands of years, it starts with an Indigenous voice. And that the end of this country has to be an Indigenous voice as well, that this is a Black country, and that that's what we're on. And that we need to eventually be in a time where the country is led by Indigenous people. I really feel like that needs to be the overarching message that all of us are in between that spectrum. And so that's my reason. And maybe one day you'll have a chance to talk to Hannah, and she'll give you her own explanation.
But there's one more point I would like to emphasise. And this is often overlooked, because I'm talking so much about people's identities. But what I would say is that Hannah is a master of speculative fiction. And I think when people read her work, they're really going to appreciate the way she in particular is doing it. I really think that the way Hannah's mind is working and is navigating time and space is very unique. It's not like any other writing that's being produced in Australia today. I really think it's for me, as the editor, it's a great honour to be part of publishing, really, probably the largest contribution that Hannah's made to date as a writer. But really kind of watching the formation of probably one of the most important speculative fiction writers that we are currently seeing come to the forefront of Australian literature.
ASTRID: Okay, now, that's exciting. Because speculative fiction is not something I get to talk about a lot, and it is one of my favourite areas. Now, After Australia has literally just been released in the last week or so. I think it's brilliant. I love the form. Will this be a series?
MOHAMMED: That's an interesting question. I don't know. When I started this project, it was really like a community arts project. It was like switching from diversity arts, we'll make a little publication that we might be able to give to a few of our friends myself. We might sell a few hundred copies on the website, on the Sweatshop website. That was kind of when I started, it was a very community arts focus. And then when I started emailing these writers, people like Ambelin Kwaymullina and Roanna Gonsalves, these award-winning Indigenous and POC riders.
And I started receiving their stories. And these pieces, and I remember just thinking, ‘This book is too good, the riders are too good and the writing is too important to leave it as a small community arts project’. What we need to do is turn it into a mainstream literary work that can garner an audience all over the country, and potentially around the world. We do know that there's been people from other parts of the world who have been ordering it.
I have to be honest, even 18 months ago, when I started working on it, I couldn't imagine... Even three months after I started working on it, I couldn't imagine how special it was going to be. And as I began to realise how special it was going to be, I began to kind of increase the way in which we were going to create it. And of course, that's how we partnered up with Affirm Press to publish it. But that was 18 months ago. And now it's like Black Lives Matter and you've got people like Future D. Fidel writing about police harassing him on the street, because he's Black. No other reason. And arresting him just because he's a Black guy wandering the streets. And actually, some white woman's called the police on him, because she's saying, ‘There's a strange Black guy in my street’.
And then it's like, you've got COVID-19, and you've got the bushfires. And it's like, we made this book. And even 18 months ago, it was already going to be too big and too important. Let alone how it's kind of being received now, and how it's being kind of related to it and how it's being like identified as the book you need to read right now. So I have no idea, I can't imagine what the future looks like for After Australia.
ASTRID: Well, I mean for the sequel, and I mentioned Benjamin Law and Maxine Beneba Clarke at the beginning of our interview, they were two of the editors of the Growing Up series, which is published by Black Inc. That has been incredible and continues to be an incredible contribution to non-fiction writing in Australia. I would love to see that kind of thing develop with speculative fiction. And I don't know, I think you've hit on something that Australia needs and that writers are there to share.
MOHAMMED: I feel inclined to respond to that. The books you're describing that Ben edited, and that Maxine edited. I mean, let me show you the pattern. And it's not a coincidence. I mean, all these people were talking about, all of these writers of colour and Indigenous writers are my friends. They visit my house, and they eat food with me and they spend time with my son. This is a Solidarity Movement among Indigenous writers and writers of colour.
And so what does the movement look like? What are we saying and where are we now when you look at these books? Well, this is how I would frame it. That when you look at books like the Growing Up series, over the last 10 years writers from the cultural margins have been telling us what it's like to be growing up in Australia. What it's like to be Growing up Aboriginal in Australia. That's the title of a book. What it's like to be Asian in Australia. That's the title of a book. What it's like to be Growing up Muslim in Australia, what it's like to be Growing up Arab in Australia. And now we've made a book that's about what it's like to be going up After Australia.
ASTRID: I love it. Mohammed, thank you so much for your time today.
MOHAMMED: Thank you so much. It's an honour always and I also want to finish by saying Salam Alaikum, which means peace be upon you in the language of my ancestors.