With a writing style that’s thematically similar to Irvine Welsh (and with praise from the man himself on the front sleeve of his book), Malaysian-Australian Omar Musa is Art on Two Legs. Besides being an accomplished spoken word artist (check out his TEDxSydney performance – it’s both powerful and fluid, sliding through the backyards of Canberra like a carefree skateboarder), musician and poet, last year he published his first book, Here Come the Dogs, a story about three disaffected youths. Penang Monthly talked to him when he was in town for a two-month artist’s residency at Hotel Penaga to chat about identity, belonging and Russell Crowe.
How do you identify yourself? Do you see yourself more as Australian or Malaysian? I’ve always said that I’m Malaysian- Australian. If I really had to be specific, I guess since I was born and raised in Australia, I’m more Australian than Malaysian. But I’m interested in this idea of becoming a hybrid identity; people will always want to make you choose sides, and I’ve decided to have that hyphen to show that it’s actually okay to be in between cultures.
At the same time I’ve always had a lot of connection with the Malaysian arts world. My parents met here in Penang in the 1970s (my father is Malaysian, my mother Australian) and every time I come back here I’d meet up with people who are involved in theatre or visual arts. I’ve tried to keep strong connections with the spoken word community here, particularly in KL and Penang, and I’ve started to connect with Sabahan artists.
There are recurring themes in your work: race, identity, belonging and disenfranchisement being some of them. Was it because of your experience growing up as a minority in Australia? I think the main influence in my work is growing up as somewhat of an outsider, trying to find a sense of belonging. In Australia people could tell me to go home back to wherever I came from – you deal with a lot of racism, Islamophobia – but then here, people see me as very Australian, so I’m always stuck in between worlds. To add to that, I grew up in quite a religious family whereas Australia is very secular; I grew up in a really working class place but I went to quite a prestigious private school; I grew up in a place that was a mix between urban and rural.
So I guess in all these different ways I felt like a bit of an outsider, and I think I’m not alone in that. Many people grow up feeling this way, and it can often lead to you feeling disenfranchised or lost, needing a place to belong. But if you think of it in a different way, you can see it as a very enriching kind of process. I try to be more positive and think about it that way; it’s probably easier when you’re young and insecure to fall into the negative sense of dislocation.
In that vein, art – be it spoken word, music, fiction, poetry – helps people who are in that sort of dilemma to find themselves. Definitely. I think that there are certain minorities in Australia who are often spoken about and discussed, but you don’t hear directly from them, and that’s quite a disempowering thing. In the news we’re always hearing about “young Muslim men”, “young Aboriginal men”, whatever, but not from them. And so these people feel like they’re deprived of a voice.
I believe it’s a very rebellious and revolutionary act for people just to tell their stories and have a place where they can feel safe enough to express themselves and talk about their history in a nuanced, complicated way. I think that’s the problem in Australia, and definitely here I see it all the time – people are so reductive about their neighbours, so quick to reduce people to stereotypes, whatever they might be. I think it’s a major flaw in society if we can’t be compassionate or empathetic enough to extend a hand and try to understand someone else’s story. Storytelling can be seen as something very frivolous that can affect no social change, or you can see it as something very revolutionary in helping people to understand each other.
Do you see yourself as giving voice to the voiceless? I’m not sure I necessarily believe that I’m doing that. It’s a massive burden for anyone to shoulder. What I’m more interested in doing is telling my stories – telling them with skill and boldness and fearlessness – and hopefully it may set an example for other kids.
In terms of subject matter, I just want to explore. With Here Come the Dogs I was speaking about quite a particular cultural milieu: the Australian hip hop world, graffiti... There wasn’t really anything in there to do with Malaysia or Malaysian- Australian characters because I chose this book as a way to examine other identities, nationalities and ethnicities. But then with the next book I’m going to focus a lot more on Malaysia and the archipelago. With my first book, I’ve dealt with the Australia that I know, and now I want to turn to Malaysia.
Can you tell us more about your next book, and how it has brought you to Penang? I want to write about a blind Malay transgendered sea captain (chuckles). I proposed this to the Asialink Foundation through the University of Melbourne – they’re trying to build connections between the Australian arts world and different Asian countries. I think I was quite a good fit: I'm Malaysian- Australian, I’m writing about Malaysian characters – it made sense. It was a massive honour to come stay at this awesome hotel for two months and just soak it all in, talk to people, wander around and have the time to write and read.
Omar performing a poem titled Fireflies.
Among many things, you’ve won the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam, performed at TEDxSydney, received praise from Irvine Welsh… What do you consider your best accomplishment? My first instinct is to say praise from Irvine Welsh; that was like something had come full circle, because I’d read Trainspotting when I was 13 and he was an influence on me – I suddenly realised that you can find stories in unlikely places, create literature out of slang.
But I think the greatest accomplishment was writing a novel – it’s a really difficult thing to do. Now I respect anyone who has written a novel, even if it’s the biggest piece of sh*t ever. Even if it was Fifty Shades of Grey, someone had to sit down and write. A poem can be written in five, 10 minutes, but a book, even if it was terrible, needs dedication. Also, I felt that writing a book was a combination of my arts-making practice to this point – to the age of 31 – because all my poetry, my poetic instincts, my rhythm from rapping, my storytelling, all went into that book. That’s the apex for me right now, but I also see it as the foundation. Now I have to build up on that.
Final question: Russell Crowe threw you a birthday party. What was that all about? (Chuckles) Russell is a really interesting guy. He was very hospitable and generous. He contacted me on Twitter because he had found one of my poems. He’s a massive poetry fan – he told me that he really wanted to be a poet when he was young, but instead he made the decision to become one of the most famous movie stars in the whole world, which is probably much more lucrative (laughs). He loves poetry, and he loves Australian poetry. He came across me on YouTube and he contacted me and we just kept in touch a little bit. One time when I was in New York, he called me from a private number. I answered it and there was this voice on the other end saying, “(In a gruff voice) G’day mate, this is Russell.” I was like, oh my god.
He invited me to come and perform with him at this charity-fundraiser event he was throwing in Coffs Harbour. I stayed with him and he threw me a birthday party on my 30th birthday. I’ll never forget it. It’s cool that he supports young artists and it gave me respect for him to see that he still holds himself to a very high standard of performance. And he got me a nice birthday cake.
Watch out for Omar Musa at George Town Literary Festival 2015, happening November 27-29.