The Hip-Hop Novelist to Add to Your Reading List
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s a new canon being written, and Omar bin Musa might be on the syllabus.
By Sanjena Sathian
A poetry reading usually means a somber affair: A thin volume open on a lectern, a black-turtlenecked writer, spare verse. Golf claps. Two-thirds of this kind of affair go that way. Except when Omar bin Musa, a 32-year-old novelist, poet and musician, breaks the polite rhythm of the morning.
He takes the mic to center stage and spits rhymes. Australian Musa is a rare author whose presence on the page and on the stage contain a similar power — hypermasculine yet vulnerable. The winner of the Australian poetry slam, called one of Sydney’s top young novelists in 2015, and the invitee to many of the literary events of the year (including this, the Zee Jaipur Literary Festival), Musa debuts in the U.S. this year with Here Come the Dogs, a novel of prose and verse. It’s full of grit — cocaine, greyhound racing, basketball and the “toxic masculinity,” as Musa says, of young men raised on porn and punches.
You get the sense that Musa’s interested in exploring difference in an unselfish way.
Musa is part of a literary generation expanding what the academic establishment called “multicultural” literature in the 1980s. You might smell British novelist Zadie Smith in him, or Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz. Musa tells us he also harbors some Calvino and Nabokov. His protagonists hail from Samoa, Macedonia and nowhere at all — one character obsesses over his absent father’s unknown heritage. And Musa himself hails from Australia, which has “quite a complicated ethnic genealogy” that’s gaining literary prominence, says Ken Gelder, professor at Melbourne University. As the country is embroiled in debates over immigration, migrants flow from Hong Kong, China, South and Southeast Asia. Musa is half Malay, half Irish; while studying in America, he says he was often mistaken for Mexican. But you get the sense that Musa’s interested in exploring difference in an unselfish way — not just to tell you what it feels like to be Omar bin Musa, but also what it feels like to be an element of this generation. (See his poem “My Generation,” which opens a la Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”)
Competitive performance poetry, Musa’s initial stomping grounds, funnels writers of color into the mainstream, Gelder says. Miles Merrill, director of the Australian poetry slam Musa won eight years ago, says the form launches local kids onto the stage of the Sydney Opera House in front of a “mainstream audience” of 600 people. Merrill says Musa began writing slam poetry like “hip-hop without the music, with a really clear rap structure to it” — not a bad thing, he says, but rhythm can distract from content. Today, he says, Musa’s style encompasses new forms.
“One hand washes the other,” Musa says of his multiple genres. “And I’ve kind of got four hands.” His work weaves together hip-hop’s Public Enemy, Chuck D. It also channels his illiterate Malaysian grandmother, who used to tell stories to herself as she tapped trees for rubber to make a living, and the sermons his father gave. “I have a bit of the preacher in the way I deliver my words,” he says. The first time Musa realized poetry’s power was at age 8, when the Indonesian poet W.S. Rendra — an Islamic convert who “filled stadiums” with people seeking his words — “came around for a curry” while touring in Australia. “My father told me, This stuff is dangerous.” (Bombs were once thrown at a Rendra performance.)
Before life on the stage, Musa lived less glamorously. He spent some of his 20s in London launching his music career after winning a “realise your dreams contest.” The dream was shitty: He filed papers, drank too much. He waited tables in Australian Parliament — political talking heads appear on TV throughout Dogs; you can tell Musa eavesdropped on power. His childhood: Musa’s actor-trained father led prayers and spent his days reading the Quran. Musa is delicate when speaking about Islam — it’s “a complicated relationship,” and he no longer practices. While Islam infused him with a sense of social justice, he says, Musa balks recalling someone who urged him to be “the face of moderate Islam.”
There’s another lexicon hanging over Musa’s work: academic discourse on race and gender. If you were to go for Musa’s jugular, you’d aim with an estrogen-tinted bullet. Originally, Dogs was full of meatier female characters, but they didn’t make the cut. It’s an artistic choice — the book was simply a story about boys. He was writing women in a “rather contrived” way, he says, out of a fear of seeming misogynistic. And he edited elements of the novel with the female gaze in mind, cutting a threesome scene between two men and a drunk woman. “A writer I respect told me it was a shame, because that really got at the heart of it all.” What you do find in Dogs— a manifestation of Musa’s hyperawareness — are a few conversations between posh private-school kids about intersectionality and the theory of identity, a contrast with the rest of the novel.
Musa ends his set with an unreleased poem. He’s taken off his Golden State Warriors jacket and wears a white-rimmed T-shirt with a blue ethnic print. “My atheist mates think it’s something I can jettison/Like a dead star that I used to wish upon,” he rhymes about his faith. Then he ascends into the refrain: “This is too hard to say/ It’s getting too hard to say.” Nonetheless, the audience is with him.