Omar Sakr on ‘Son of Sin’ and writing fantasy

Omar Sakr is the author of two acclaimed poetry collections, These Wild Houses and The Lost Arabs. Son of Sin is his first novel, and in this interview we also find our about his forthcoming poetry collection and a possible fantasy book on the horizon.

The Lost Arabs won the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the John Bray Poetry Award, the Judith Wright Calanthe Award, and the Colin Roderick Award.

Omar is a widely published essayist and editor whose work has been translated into Arabic and Spanish.

If you enjoy this interview, listen to Omar's first interview on The Garret from 2020.

At home with Omar Sakr


ASTRID: Welcome back to The Garret, Omar. Now, I first interviewed you way back in the dark days of 2020. I admit I was in Melbourne lockdown and it feels a very, very long time ago. But from the point of view of creating and publishing a work, it's not that long ago. So firstly, congratulations on Son of Sin. It is your first novel, in no way your first published work. How did this odd time impact how you wrote?

OMAR: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I think it was just really claustrophobic. I think we were all stuck, stuck in place, and not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. And I was thinking about that a great deal, about motion, I guess, movement, and the forces that can prevent us from going forward. So, I think it was helpful, weirdly, in that writing a novel is a daily practice. I had to treat it that way. I had to be at the desk every single day. And when you can't leave the house, that's a lot easier.

ASTRID: A daily practice. It'd been a long time since someone described writing like that to me and I find it... This is the first interview of 2022, and I find it deeply hopeful, actually. So, can you give us, because this is a very new work, can you give us the 30 second intro to Son of Sin?

OMAR: It's a coming-of-age novel about a queer Arab Muslim growing up in Western Sydney. So, it's a snapshot, I guess, or a series of snapshots of his life over 15 years.

ASTRID: For those listening, Son of Sin also has an incredible cover. It is hot pink with yellow writing and the artwork of a snake on the cover. It's definitely going to stand out.

Now, Omar, I want to ask you what was your goal writing Son of Sin, and that's really, that's really not specific at all. I'd like to kind of pick it apart. What did you want as the creative to get out of this creative work that you have put out into the world, but also what is your goal for your readers?

OMAR: I think this is a question that comes up a lot. You know, what do you want readers to take away from it? But I find it very prescriptive and strange because I want to be surprised by readers. I don't want to tell them what I want them to say. In this fit of anticipation, at this moment, I just want to talk to people. I want to know what they thought about it, what they think about it.

And partly I think that's because I spent two years writing it in this fog or fugue state. And it almost feels disingenuous to apply a kind of rationale to it now and be like, ‘Oh, well I set out to instruct the ignorant masses about this or this or this’. Really, I was writing because I felt compelled to, and I was almost always surprised by each chapter and where it ended up going. And I think that's also probably why I'm now in this position where I'm like, ‘I can't wait to hear what people thought about it because I don't even know what to think about it’. I want the conversation.

ASTRID: Who were your first readers?

OMAR: My first reader was my wife, Hannah, and she's always my first reader with poetry, my articles, and I'm hers as well. And then aside from her, I guess, my editors and publisher.

ASTRID: When you are sending your work to someone, to your first reader, but also the editor, the publisher, I know a creative work is never kind of ‘done’ done, but what makes it ready for you? I teach writing and this is the question that often comes up. When is it ready to share? And when is it ready to go out into the world?

OMAR: Oh, that's such a hard question to answer. And I struggled with this. I struggled to let my editor and publisher read the work. At first, I gave them, I remember the first 30,000 words. And at the time it was in first person, it was a very different kind of version of the work. I think just because I felt very insecure. This is my first novel. And I was like, well, I feel like they're taking a risk. Maybe I kind of just want to show them, give them an insight to what's going on in my head. And I knew that that 30,000 words wasn't very good, but they liked it.

And when that happened, I was like, ‘Okay, I have a better sense of what I'm capable of than they do. And I don't need to show them anymore. I'm going to go away and I'm going to trust my instincts’. And I'm just going to literally start afresh, which is what I did. I threw away those 30,000 words. And then I was writing, and I very much enjoyed that process.

It was mostly done, and then I found out that my wife was pregnant and suddenly the publication date didn't work for us anymore. And I had to move it forward by about four months so that I could be present for, God willing, the birth and what comes after. So, I suddenly didn't have the editing time that I thought that I would, and I was in this frantic rush, this frantic editing process. It was really compressed. It was in like eight weeks. And I guess what I'm saying is, I don't know if it's ready, because I had to just work at it so hard every single day.

I think it's like anything really, it's ready when you let it go, and it's never going to be perfect. I think, my experience with writing anything is that you can revise it and rewrite it, but all that you'll end up creating really is something that has a different problem.

ASTRID: I love that answer, Omar, and that is going to be a fantastic story to tell your child in a decade or so.

Now, in our first conversation, almost two years ago, we spoke about your poetry, and we spoke about some of your short form stories, including the short story ‘White Flu’ that was published in the brilliant anthology, After Australia. In that conversation, you mentioned that you were going to turn it into a novel. And there are some similarities, I can see how the characters have grown out of that original story, but it's hugely different. So, when you write a short story and you publish it and people read it, how do you then go back to it and find the bigger story, turn it into a novel and change it? Do you feel tied to it? Do you get to throw the whole thing out, not just because it's not written well, but because you've changed the characters, you've changed the story? For the writer's listening, can you talk us through the origin story and how Son of Sin evolved?

OMAR: I wrote ‘White Flu’ a couple of years ago and it's a speculative work, it's first person, it's kind of fast paced and I wrote it before the pandemic, but it's about a pandemic that becomes racialised. And it didn't have... I mean, it had a very negative reaction online. A lot of white racists found it and were very upset. And I was reflecting on that for some time, and I realised that I had done something with the short story that I had had never done before, which was, to in some way, reflect who I am now and my current kind of thoughts and feelings about my desires, my family, race, so on and so forth. Usually, my writing is reflective of the past. I'm quite literally presenting a version of myself, a version of a thought, a version of an emotion that I felt some time ago and that I have some distance from.

So, I thought about the gap, I guess, between what people know and understand or have read about my community, the various communities that I come from. And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, there's actually no queer Arab Muslim novel in Australia. That story doesn’t exist outside of my work, I've actually gone 10 steps ahead here’. And it's not in any way to justify or excuse the racist reaction at all. But I did think to myself, ‘Oh, there's a step here that's missing. Let me bring that to life as much as possible’.

And as far as is being tied to a previously published work, I don't feel that at all. As I said, it's always just a version to me. There's no such thing as this is the final published thing and it has to live like this forever. Like, I don't give a shit at all. I'll change it. And I knew when I wrote that story, I knew that the voice was compelling and I wanted to stick with it. And so, yeah, I just kind of followed it. And when it demanded a new form, a new story, then I just changed.

ASTRID: That is a very eloquent answer. I appreciate what you've just said. And I want to change tack a little bit. I talk to a lot of writers and many of them are really struggling with trying to figure out how they write about, or if they write about the pandemic. And your eloquent answer that you just gave kind of goes beyond what some of your contemporaries have been trying to think through, like how do they do deal with the pandemic or what that has done to people. And you've just kind of gone around it. Did you find yourself trying to make the story work still with some form of pandemic or that wasn't the important thing anymore because you found a better voice?

OMAR: Okay. So, I decided that I didn't want to follow the pandemic because the pandemic was changing too quickly to keep up with anyway, there was too much disinformation, there was too much lies, there was too much hysteria. There was no point really trying to keep track of that. And as well, I think looking back at the early years of my life, there is so much there that resonates with what's happening now, or that illustrates what kind of led to it in some way.

And for example, I was talking earlier about movement. And I am the child of migrants, so this idea about where we're allowed to move, where we're allowed to live and the conditions that are attached to that, like being in Western Sydney and therefore being subject to police harassment on the regular and police brutality. And so, I guess I have always had in my mind and in my work, this question of, yeah, what forces us to stay in a place, the damage that comes from being forced to move as well, and yeah, the kind of violence of the state.

ASTRID: Do you consider your writing place based? Obviously, Son of Sin is mostly set in Western Sydney, you live in Western Sydney, although I've never heard your writing described as place based.

OMAR: I don't know who decides that. Who applies those descriptors? I think my work is absolutely informed in every way and shaped by the place that I grew up in and as well, at least in my poetry, the poems are almost always situated very clearly in a place, and often just transcribing what I see.

ASTRID: I wanted to ask about your poetry. Now, obviously Son of Sin, as we've mentioned, is your first novel, out this year. You have published two award winning poetry collections, The Last Arabs and These Wild Houses. You've spent the last two years immersed in novel writing and creating Son of Sin. As a creator and writer, what do you find, or what have you found in this long form prose format that is different to poetry?

OMAR: Fucking long. Ah, I mean that. It takes ages, but the slowness is, not just the slowness, the kind of accumulative process of it is almost addictive at a certain point. You become kind of habituated to this language that you're making and these characters that you're developing, this world. And that process is really immersive, I think, in a way that poetry, for me, isn't, at least on the level of the individual poem, which I can write fairly quickly. The feeling of immersion comes when I'm arranging a collection, when I'm bringing together all the disparate elements and considering how they all relate to each other and reorganising. So, it comes in that part, but still not to the same degree as this kind of daily practice.

ASTRID: Can you describe your daily practice as in, is it all day? Is it a few hours in the morning? How do you work in that immersive way?

OMAR: Yeah, I would get up every morning and have coffee and breakfast and then I would come to my desk. Sometimes the routine changed a little bit, but there would always be a block of hours where I was writing. And so, either I would start immediately and kind of just write for a couple of hours and then attend to the kind of irritating admin of the writer life, all the emails and the invoices and the whatnot, or I'd do it the other way around. Where I do all the kind of online stuff in the morning, and then I would spend the afternoon writing, but for all that I maintain that kind of dailiness, I also allowed myself to write whenever I wanted. So, if I had already done a block of hours that day, but it's 7:00pm and I have the next sentence, the next whatever, then I would go and attend to it.

ASTRID: And what happened to the poetic side of your creative practice as you were writing Son of Sin? Did you find you had to squash the poetic urge or was it all, all your creativity channeled into the novel?

OMAR: So I've actually written my third poetry collection, which is called Non-Essential Work and it's coming out with UQP next year.

ASTRID: Congratulations.

OMAR: I did at the same time in a way, but I didn't realise that I was doing that. Because like I said, poetry kind of strikes me very quickly. And I definitely did not – and would never – suppress that urge. That creativity is making itself known for a reason.

So, when I had finished my first draft and I was waiting for responses and I was anxious, just to distract myself, I kind of looked through all the poems I'd written over the past three years since The Lost Arabs came out and yeah, it turns out I had over 100. And I was like, ‘Ah, I'm actually much closer to the third collection than I thought’. And then I put them together and it was basically just a way of distracting from my anxiety about what my publisher was going to say about the novel.

I was like, I can't deal with this. I need something else that's going to just take my whole attention. And so, I did that and it kind of broke me, to be honest. At the time I was just like, that was way too much. I shouldn't have done that. I should have just been resting, but I'm glad I did.

ASTRID: I'm glad you did, too. And congratulations on already knowing when your, or what your next published work will be. I went back, Omar, and went through our first interview, and you mentioned, and I didn't pick it up at the time, that when you were younger, in your teenage years, you read a lot of speculative fiction and fantasy. And I am looking at you now on Zoom and I recognise some of the books behind you because I own them, too. And I'm fairly sure I can see all of the Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series behind you.

OMAR: Yeah.

ASTRID: I guess I wanted to ask, what influences are you aware of right back from when you were reading anything and everything that came towards you to now? What influenced you at as a kid and what influences stick with you now as an adult and soon to be dad?

OMAR: Yeah, that's a big question. I love science fiction and fantasy. I've read the Wheel of Time series a dozen times.

ASTRID: So have I. I'm going to jump in here and be a nerd. Did you watch the series on Netflix in December?

OMAR: I did watch the series. I hated it.

ASTRID: We're going to have to discuss that offline.

OMAR: Hated it. Ah, let's not talk about it, because I could talk for hours about it.

But in terms of influence, here's what I'll say. I've found it very interesting thinking about fantasy and science fiction recently, because I don't typically think of it too critically. I use it so much and so often as a kid, as a kind of Valium, really, a way of completely escaping my life. But I was kind of asked the question recently kind of what draws me to it still? And I think the answer is that of all the genres, including the literary one, it deals with colonialism the most honestly, the most obviously. The structures of power are always kind of laid bare and yes, they're obviously adventure stories most often, but I realise that that's not happening so much in general fiction. That question of race and colonialism and power and all these things. Yes, of course it's present in literature to some degree, and ever more over the past couple of decades, but I think fantasy was doing it from the get go and it's in all of them and that's always intrigued me.

I find it refreshing that the kind of horrors of society are always at least attempted, the writers attempt to engage with it. Yeah, I think that definitely has influenced me. And it's something that I hope to attend to in my own fantasy fiction one day.

ASTRID: Now, that makes me incredibly excited, Omar. I also used fantasy and speculative fiction as my Valium growing up. I was the kid in the library at lunchtime and that was my happy place. And it still is. I am thrilled that you might write fantasy because, somehow contemporary fantasy and speculative fiction is kind of looked down upon by some in the establishment in Australia, and I despise that and would like to change it. So please, tell me, do you have any plans to do this in the near future?

OMAR: Yeah, absolutely.

ASTRID: Series or individual novel, fantasy or speculative fiction?

OMAR: Ah, I am thinking about a fantasy novel, whether it's standalone or a series, I'm not entirely sure at this point. It's incredibly early stages, where I've just over the past couple of weeks been jotting down notes about the world and the people and society and how it works.

ASTRID: You have just made my day. Omar, I mean that really seriously.

OMAR: Oh, so glad. There's someone's excited, that's cool.

ASTRID: Oh, I'm totally excited. I'm there. I'm ready to buy ten copies. Once again, Omar, thank you for talking to me again. I hope I did about a job then the long lockdown in 2020, and congratulations on your beautiful novel, Son of Sin.

OMAR: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time that you've made for me.