Omar bin Musa is a poet, hip hop artist, novelist (Here Come the Dogs) and all round good bloke. Described as writing with “swaggering exuberance” by Irvine Welsh and “tough and tender, harsh and poetic, raw and beautiful” by Christos Tsiolkas, Amber Wilson and I had a chat with Omar in Hobart over a nice mug of cardboard-flavoured instant coffee.
AW – Omar tell us about your creative process.
OM – Well maybe I can give the example of the novel Here Come the Dogs, which was essentially about a bushfire. I wanted to write a bushfire novel because I felt like I hadn’t really seen them in the Australian literary canon, maybe I’m just not well enough read. But I wanted to combine, to use that as the central image or metaphor for race relations, class and gender in Australia, a kind of combustible society. The first kernel of an idea came about 2002 or 2003 whenever it was the crazy Canberra bushfires were happening, and I was with my friends playing basketball and there was just this black ash drifting from the sky. It looked like black snow. I knew that I would use that image: the raging bushfire, the black sky, the lipstick red sun, I knew that at some point that would become part of a poem or a script or something. So I just kept that boiling away in the back of my head and then when I finished a hip hop album in 2010, or 11 I think, I needed some time away from that crazy gigging life, and so I just started writing prose and that idea suddenly came back to me and that’s how I started writing the novel.
AW – So it’s about being observant I guess?
OM – Yeah definitely. I try to just take everything in, soak everything in like a sponge, sit on the train or the tram and just listen to people’s conversations, that kind of kicks of a lot of my ideas, and sometimes just see a nice fresh original image. A line might pop up out of the newspaper or a Facebook status update. Yeah I just observe everything very keenly around me, take it in and then let it somehow come out in a trance-like state through my words. I see myself as inheriting my ancestors voices, older ancient story-tellers in Malaysia, and in the land that we live on is a land of story-telling and song and then perhaps one day someone might inherit my voice as well, I might be somebody’s poetic ancestor, you know?
AW – You actually speak in quite a poetic, prosy kind of way. Does that come naturally to you, have you always been like that?
OM – I’m not sure, maybe. My dad’s got a very rich voice and I’m from an artistic family. My dad was a poet in Malaysia, my mum was in the theatre, so I’ve just always been around it. I was very privileged in that way I’d say – I didn’t grow up with much money or cool gadgets and stuff like that, but my mum, because at that point she was and arts journalist, was able to take me to a different gallery every night, a different theatre show, a different concert, and so again I was just soaking it in, soaking it in. And people used to make fun of me because I was really serious for a kid, I would just be sitting at the theatre just watching and thinking what are they doing on stage. I liked to see what they were doing wrong as well, that was something interesting for me, whenever a performer messed up or a play was really bad. I sometimes liked that a little bit more, because it exposed the bones of the performance, the bones of the play and the structure and you could learn more from that. I think you learn more from the mistakes of others and from your own personal mistakes as a writer than probably the good things you do and all the praise and accolades – you learn more from the screw ups.
AW – That’s an interesting point you make about being privileged due to a lack of gadgetry when you were a kid. Do you think that having too many gadgets and toys in 2015 is actually taking creativity away from people?
OM – I think sometimes, because it puts people’s imaginations in a straightjacket. When I was growing up in the flats, my friends and I would just be sitting around talking bullshit and telling stories for hours and hours on end, and either because we had a bit of space in Queanbeyan, I’d be out running round creating games with my friends or because I was an only child I spent a lot of time by myself, just in my room, and my parents just told me from an early age – and maybe it was a cop out on their behalf – but they just said to me, “Look you’ll never be bored if you have a piece of paper and a pen. You can draw something, you can write something.” And that served me pretty well through my life, I didn’t need anything else. I didn’t need computers, wasn’t really much into telly, I just had the page and the pen, my imagination and my voice.
AW – I wish I could tell my nieces that!
JD – Following on nicely from that question, with the rise of corporate and PR speak, do you think we are partly in a battle to rejuvenate the sincerity and the meaning of our language and communication?
OM – That’s a really good question I think. I mean especially growing up in Canberra, you hear all this absolutely pretentious, garbled public service speech that actually obfuscates everything and saps the meaning away from words. Sometimes you don’t even know what the hell someone is saying. They can talk to you for three hours and they still can’t tell you what they do every day, and they’re pushing bullshit around the room like dung beetles. And so I think that there needs to be a push to sharpen and essentialise language and sculpt it to try and convey important complex messages with sharp clarity of speech. But that might just be my own personal stylistic decision, because I’ve always been into writers who do that, like Roberto Bolaño and Ernest Hemmingway and people like that who let the emotions and the vivid imagery shine through a simple language, or seemingly simple language.
Um, but I think in public spaces as well in Australia, you know, you hear politicians and they’re talking and they’re managing to hide the truth with all this kind of speech and even online as well with all this “LOL-speak” and everything like that – I think people don’t take as much care with language as they should. Maybe it’s just not valued.
JD – It kind of narrows the perception of the world around us. Even the activist world has been captured a little bit by the same sort of language. I guess partly because it works, it’s effective, but it’s sort of narrowing things as well in the long term.
OM – I agree with that actually. There’s another form of language that’s weirdly prescriptive, the PC language that leaves no room oftentimes to discuss complex issues. It’s very rigid in its rules. So I think we’re fighting against a lot of things. But as poets, we can play pretty hard and fast with it all I think. Hopefully we’re changing it…
JD – A question I have to ask, if Federico Lorca, Robbie Burns and Pablo Neruda were alive today, would they be dabbling in hip hop?
OM – (laughs) That’s the question people always ask isn’t it – Shakespeare as well. A teacher the other day asked me about Chaucer. Well I think so, because I always see these type of people who manage to convey emotion in such a strong way and tap into that ancient spirit of poetry and story-telling – they are just different branches of the same tree. They’re trying to get to some essential truth about humanity. Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? Where do we come from? So I think that, because hip hop artists maybe are some of the most vibrant story-tellers and poets of this generation, then perhaps.
Yes, Lorca would have been dabbling in it a little bit I reckon. I mean, God I love his poetry. “Wood cutter, cut my shadow from me.” That’s one of the greatest lines in the history of poetry I think.
JD – This is a cheeky question because I am trying to write an essay at the moment and this might help me with it. We live in a world where most media is written by and for an urban elite. I know that you speak differently. Why is it important to speak the languages and voices of what we like to call ‘the suburbs’ in Australia?
OM – Well to me, in a way it replicates the battle against the cultural cringe. You know because we as Australians often look to London or New York and feel that we need to be validated by them, that we don’t have enough substance or creative vitality and oftentimes within Australia we think the same thing – that something is not of value unless it’s been validated by Melbourne or Sydney. We have a certain mythology within Australia that there are certain places that are of more importance than others. You know the coastal ideal, the dead heart, maybe the bush a little bit, and then there’s these stories from inner city Melbourne and Sydney, but I want to raise the stories of the flat blocks and people running around doing graffiti, petty criminals, migrants who are demonised and told to go back to where they come from in these seemingly boring suburbs. I want to raise that to the level of myth and say that these stories are full of grandeur and dignity and resilience and they are just as important as the stories that come from elsewhere in Australia. That’s really important to me. To paraphrase Werner Herzog, he’s one of my heroes, the great film director, he said that, “Part of art is extending sympathy where it has not been extended before, and finding stories where they have not been looked for before.” And I’m hell-bent on doing that.
JD – It’s also where the majority of people live.
OM – Yeah, exactly, and it’s the Australia that I know and that lot of people know. Somewhere like Queanbeyan where I grew up, surrounded by Islanders, Macedonian immigrants, Greeks, Italians, Aboriginal people, sometimes that world is not spoken to in Australian letters, and I think it should be, it has to be.
JD – You mentioned ‘mythology’ there, do you think a lot of the popularised notions of the Australian character or identity, you know this ‘fair-go’ and egalitarianism, and sticking it up to authority, do you think much of that is deluded and mythical?
OM – Well I think that idea of egalitarianism maybe is. We like to think of ourselves in that way, and probably we get it better here than in other parts of the world, but you only have to look at the impoverishment of Aboriginal communities to see that that’s patently bullshit and that not everyone gets a fair-go in this country. You see the rise of Islamophobia, you know, the fair-go is only extended to a few select people oftentimes.
But maybe sticking it up to authority, I think that probably is part of the Australian character… but then maybe not as well when we see the quality of the politicians that we have, that people have sleep-walked into having a really conservative government that’s screwing the whole place up. Yeah, it’s a hard one. I talk about myth, but at the same time I don’t want to simplify things too much, we have to have complexity and nuance in our literature and show how messy it is. That’s what I was trying to do with ‘Here come the Dogs’, there were certain scenes there where you don’t know whose side you’re on and that, I guess, to talk about intersectionality in some way, where everything is so messy when gender, class and race come together that it’s difficult to take sides. But we want to take sides and be reductive and stereotype people, but you can’t because everything is such a shifting cultural battleground.
JD – And one more thing, why is it important to speak and write creatively and publically?
OM – I think because poetry is as essential to human experience as breath or blood. I think because we’re taught oftentimes to express ourselves in a really limited number of ways, particularly as young men I think, you know, expressing ourselves through sport or violence or material things, and I think it just provides another facet – a productive and positive way of expressing yourself and telling a story.
And the world’s just better with it – isn’t it?