Spotlight – Michael Mohammed Ahmad
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The global novel exists, not as a genre separated from and opposed to other kinds of fiction, but as a perspective that governs the interpretation of experience. In this way, it is faithful to the way the global is actually lived–not through the abolition of place, but as a theme by which place is mediated. Life lived here is experienced in its profound and often unsettling connections with life lived elsewhere, and everywhere. The local gains dignity, and significance, insofar as it can be seen as a part of a worldwide phenomenon.
-Adam Kirsch, The Global Novel: Writing the World in the 21st Century
I had a wonderful talk with Michael Mohammed Ahmad, editor of the anthology After Australia, founding director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement, author, and so much more. Our conversation opened up doors for me to explore the promotion of literacy around the world, which is something to bring into conversation more here at Dragonfly. Sweatshop is a literacy movement based in Western Sydney. The movement provides research, training, mentoring, and employment opportunities for emerging and established writers and arts practitioners from Indigenous and non-English speaking backgrounds.
About the Book
This interview will explore Dr Ahmad’s novels, but focuses primarily on After Australia (published by Affirm Press, in partnership with Diversity Arts Australia and Sweatshop Literacy Movement).
In this unflinching anthology, twelve of Australia’s most daring Indigenous writers and writers of colour provide a glimpse of Australia as we head toward the year 2050. Climate catastrophe, police brutality, white genocide, totalitarian rule, and the erasure of black history provide the backdrop for stories of love, courage, and hope.
The anthology features 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. It’s edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. The original concept is by Lena Nahlous.
Chat with the Author
Mary: First, I would love to know more about the Sweatshop Literacy Movement, of which you are the founding director. How did this movement come about and what kind of success has it had?
Michael: Sweatshop is a literacy movement based in Western Sydney, devoted to empowering culturally and linguistically diverse communities through reading, writing and critical thinking. Over the past decade, Sweatshop has mentored an ongoing ensemble of emerging and established writers from the region who have come to be known as the Sweatshop Writers Group. Sweatshop has also facilitated writing workshops and residencies in schools and universities, produced publications, podcasts and short films, and we have presented book launches, seminars, readings and performances at writers’ festivals across Australia.
It is difficult to know exactly how successful we have been in meeting our goals, but it always brings me great joy to think about the thousands of young and emerging writers that we have supported over the years—witnessing their intellectual development and providing them with public platforms to share their stories. I am particularly proud of the ground-breaking anthologies Sweatshop has produced in recent memory, such as Sweatshop Women, which is Australia’s first publication produced entirely by Indigenous women and women of colour, and Racism: Stories on Fear, Hate & Bigotry, which features thirty-nine short stories and poems about the real-life experiences of racism faced by Australians on a daily basis.
Mary: You have also written some novels: The Tribe, The Lebs, and The Other Half of You. What are these stories about?
Michael: The Tribe was the first novel I wrote in a collection of works on Arab and Muslim Australian identity. It is told from the perspective of Bani Adam, a fictional version of myself as a child. The book details Bani’s domestic experiences within a large Lebanese-Australian family.
The second novel I wrote in this collection is The Lebs. The book follows on from The Tribe, only this time the stakes are much higher. Bani is now a teenager and he is dealing with many of the usual issues teenage boys face— coming to terms with his gender, sexuality, race, and class whilst also trying to obtain an education. This is complicated for any normal teenager, but for a ‘Leb’ growing up in the post-9/11 era, what I am describing is a war zone—Bani faces a political climate that is dominated by news headlines in Australia and around the world which have demonised and homogenised young men like himself as criminals, gangsters, sexual predators and terrorist suspects.
I wrote The Tribe and The Lebs with very clear intent: I was young and idealistic and genuinely believed that I could improve the global perception of Arabs and Muslims through my stories. But when it came to my most recent novel, The Other Half of You, writing it was like crying—the book just fell out of me involuntarily. I remember the night my son was born; his mother was asleep in her hospital bed as I sat in the darkness before her. I was cradling Kahlil in my right arm and writing on my phone in my left hand. At the time, I did not know why I had suddenly felt this tremendous urge to write; the words were just pouring from me. Later, when I read over what I had typed, I discovered that I was reliving the surreal and mystical scenes I had witnessed during Jane’s labour and Kahlil’s entrance into this world. These words ultimately became The Other Half of You. If there is such a thing as a soul, and if it’s possible that your soul can somehow be transferred onto a page, then my soul now exists inside this one book.
Mary: I found you by way of a Discord community called Rewilding Our Stories, where one of our community members gave the After Australia anthology a really nice review. You edited the anthology, whose authors are Indigenous and writers of colour, writing mostly speculative or modern urban fiction and prose. How did this anthology come about?
Michael: In 2019, I was asked to develop a new anthology which imagined Australia in the year 2050. Originally conceived by the executive director of Diversity Arts Australia, Lena Nahlous, the publication would bring together Indigenous writers and writers of colour from every state and territory in Australia. Together, they would create a collection of short stories and poems in the literary form called ‘speculative fiction’. In the aftermath of the Black Summer Bushfires and amid the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the #BlackLivesMatter protests, I could never have speculated that by the time the publication was complete, it would look more like a picture of our current reality, rather than our inevitable future.
As the editor of the anthology, I pictured a book that would imagine a world after empires, after colonies, and after white supremacy. So I called it After Australia. However, the writer of Martu ancestry, Karen Wyld, sent me a story that intertwined three historical timelines, disentangling the complexity of contemporary Indigenous identity. And award-winning author, Roanna Gonsalves, wrote a love letter to the printing press, which examined the Governor’s Order in 1814. All at once it occurred to me that Australia’s future could only be written on the foundations of our past and present.
Mary: As with a lot of fiction that explores environmental losses, some of the stories deal with climate change and intersect directly with oppression in the form of racism and bigotry. What are your thoughts about the intersectionality of ecological and socio-economic tragedies? Do you think things will ever get better?
Michael: Firstly, with regards to the question on the relationship between ecology and socio-economic tragedy, I strongly recommend the book, Is Racism an Environmental Threat?, written by one of Australia’s greatest anthropologists and intellectuals, Professor Ghassan Hage.
Secondly, with regards to the question of whether things will get better, let me take it back to After Australia: I think by far the most unique aspect of the anthology is the way in which all the stories and poems converge into a unified voice, speaking for our past, present and future as a whole. Wiradjuri writer, Hannah Donnelly, guides us on this journey with her collection of stories, titled ‘Black Thoughts’. In spite of the challenges we currently face as a nation, Hannah’s words remind us that there is hope as the world continues to unravel: Our time is a loop. We’ll find our way back, before, after…
Mary: What power do stories and art have in bringing about a more just world, and what other projects is Sweatshop doing right now to expand that goal?
Michael: More broadly than just ‘stories’ and ‘art’, I believe in the power of literacy to bring about a just world. The entire Sweatshop movement was inspired by the work of African-American civil rights activist, feminist, and writer, bell hooks, who argues that, ‘All steps towards freedom and justice in any culture are dependent on mass-based literacy movements, because degrees of literacy so often determine how we see what we see.’
In terms of other projects Sweatshop is doing right now—thank you, this question presents a perfect opportunity to announce that Sweatshop, Affirm Press and Diversity Arts are currently developing a follow-up to After Australia, called Another Australia. This time I have taken a backseat as the sub-editor, and the wonderful Tongan-Australian writer and general manager of Sweatshop, Winnie Dunn, is at the helm as the editor.
Another Australia will feature a new cohort of super-talented and award-winning First Nations and POC writers, including: Osman Faruqi, Declan Fry, Amani Haydar, Jamie Marina Lau, Shirley Le, L-Fresh the Lion, Mohammed Massoud Morsi, Sisonke Msimang, Anne-Marie Te Whiu, Sara Saleh, and Nardi Simpson, and poetry and linocut illustrations from Omar Musa.
Definitely keep an eye out for Another Australia, which will be hitting bookshelves in July 2022!
Mary: I am so excited about that! Did you want to talk about any of the writers or experiences in After Australia in more depth? Do the stories all take place in Australia?
From the groundwork laid-out by the writers I’ve already discussed in this interview—Hannah, Karen and Roanna— the other contributors each interpreted the theme of the book in their own unique and personal way: Zoya Patel detailed a dystopian (not-too-distant-and-kind-of-already-here) future where bushfires have ravaged the ACT and our neighbouring islands have drowned. As the brown people are trying to get in throughout Zoya’s story, in screenwriter Michelle Law’s story, the brown people are trying to get out, while under the occupation of a fascist society that makes 1984 look like The Little Mermaid. Meanwhile, Noongar author, Claire G. Coleman, introduces us to the Ostraka Law of 2039; her story subverts the notions of systemic institutions, and explores both the physical and psychological prisons that manifest in a racialised society. Newcomer Sarah Ross re-writes her experiences as the child of an interracial same-sex couple amidst the rubble of the Taj Mahal; and emerging poet, Kaya Ortiz, plays out our future as a lyrical exercise in multiple choice. Multi-award-winning author and illustrator, Ambelin Kwaymullina sends Australia 2020 a dire message from the Ngurra Palya of 2050; and writer and cultural critic, Khalid Warsame depicts an environment that will likely feel the most mundane and safe among all the stories in After Australia, until, you realise it isn’t.
Perhaps the most controversial contribution in After Australia is written by the poet Omar Sakr. In his short story, titled ‘White Flu’, Omar dissects the vivid texture of multicultural suburbia against a global pandemic that will be frighteningly familiar to readers at this moment in time, only this particular virus has selected ‘white’ people as its primary casualty.
And lastly, in an equally prophetic story, the playwright and author originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, named Future Destiny Fidel, lays bare the tragic future and destiny of so many young black men. Future’s story, ‘Your Skin is the Only Cloth You Cannot Wash,’ recounts an incident in which he was going from door-to-door selling solar panels to the residents of Mount Ommaney, Brisbane. Suddenly he is confronted and arrested by a group of white police officers, after a complaint had come through from a concerned citizen about a strange black man wandering the neighbourhood. Future’s story arrived on my desk at the same time that protests throughout the United States and the rest of the world had erupted, following the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a white police officer; and a lesser known incident in which an innocent African-American man from Georgia, named Ahmaud Arbery, was violently gunned-down by two white vigilantes that claimed he looked like a suspect in several break-ins in their area.
Reflecting on all these stories now, I’m remembering what a truly special collection After Australia is, and I really hope people take the time to read it.
Mary: Do you have any other thoughts to share or any personal stories you are working on now?
As a matter of fact, something kind of odd happened yesterday while I was praying at Auburn Mosque: The ghost of Christopher Hitchens appeared before me and said, “Stop wasting your time, there’s no afterlife.”
Mary: Anything else to add?
Michael: In a country where Indigenous people are regularly assaulted and killed by police; where young African men are demonised as ‘gangsters’ by our news media and politicians; where Pacific Islanders are overrepresented in our prisons; where Muslims cannot conduct their Friday prayers without ever wondering if an Australian-born white supremacist is lurking outside with a machine gun; and where we cannot go into self-isolation without blaming four-and-a-half billion Asians; solidarity between all Australians—black, brown and white—is central to our survival.
Mary: I can’t thank you enough for this brilliant insight into your wonderful work with literacy, people, and our planet. It’s truly inspiring.
About the Author
Michael Mohammed Ahmad is an Arab-Australian writer, editor and community arts worker. He is the founding director of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. In 2012, he received the Australia Council Kirk Robson Award in recognition of his outstanding achievements in community cultural development. Mohammed’s debut novel, The Tribe (Giramondo, 2014), won the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelists of the Year Award. His second novel, The Lebs (Hachette, 2018) received the 2019 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Literary Award and was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award. Mohammed received his Doctorate of Creative Arts from Western Sydney University in 2017.