PROVOKING UNEASE:
an interview with Omar Musa

Posted on July 2, 2013 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Omar MusaOmar Musa is one of those rare writers who, by hook or by crook, manages to carve a path as a poet and performer and rely on little else.  Verity La last caught up with him in June 2011, but since then he’s published a collection of poems, Parang (Blast! Publishing, 2013) and continues to perform his work throughout much of the world.  For those who don’t know him, Musa describes himself as a Malaysian-Australian rapper and poet from Queanbeyan, Australia.  He is the former winner of the Australian Poetry Slam and the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam, and is part of the international hip-hop group MonkeyKat.  Musa’s debut novel, Here Come the Dogs, will be published by Penguin Australia in 2014. What keeps this very busy man going?  Come with us.  Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about the motivation for getting Parang together.

MUSA

The motivation for getting Parang together was that I hadn’t put a book of poetry out in four years, despite doing three hip hop records in between. It felt like the right time. The catalyst, however, was the first suite of poems in the book that deal with my relationship to Malaysia. I wrote them all in about two weeks while I was in Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Borneo (where my family comes from). I was really proud of them and thought they signified a nice little departure from my more epic, rap influenced spoken word pieces towards a style that was more sculpted and economical.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk more about the poetic departure – in what way exactly is this later work more sculpted and economical?

MUSA

For one thing, the newer work is shorter. Most of the poems are less than a page long. I wrote most of them in about two weeks but took two months to pare them down to bare essentials. My older work is a bit more overblown, meant for the stage and contain a lot of internal rhyme and hip hop rhythms. They have a much longer arc. My older stuff was also a lot more spontaneous. Something like ‘My Generation’, for example, is the first draft of that poem with no edits. I wanted these new poems to mirror the effect of a ‘parang’ (machete) – swift, sharp and effective. I have a friend, Jess, whose editorial feedback I trust greatly, and I got her opinion on most of them. I think they benefited from a good re-draft.

INTERVIEWER

Earlier you mentioned your relationship with Malaysia. How do you think it influenced these poems?

MUSA

ParangMy relationship with Malaysia influenced these poems in a huge way and were the catalyst for me to put the book together. The first section of the book is entirely about my relationship to Malaysia, in particular, Sabah, the state in Borneo where my father is from. As a person with a mixed background, you have a lot of questions about your hybrid identity and where you stand with regards to the ‘homeland’.  I chose to explore these complex and rather confusing questions. I think as a second-generationer, you often tend to mythologise and simplify the ‘homeland’, which in reality is an ever-changing, modern country with complicated politics. Environmental destruction is a theme I explore in the book a lot, as I saw it up close, with much of my family working on palm oil plantations. I wrote these poems quickly, trying to capture the moment of return, the mixed feelings you have. The rest of the book was set in a more gritty urban Australian environment (influenced a lot by Melbourne) or in in-between places. The return to Borneo and subsequent poems tied it all together and made me realise I had a collection on my hands.

INTERVIEWER

The notion of ‘homeland’ is something that Australia always seems to be struggling with, and perhaps is currently struggling with it more than ever.  As a poet, and a cultural provocateur in general, what do you hope to bring to the debate?

MUSA

I hope to bring two things that might seem contradictory. One, I am trying to tell my personal story as a guy with a complex, hybrid identity* and a Muslim background, and tell it well. I want to show that my story and voice is just as important in Australian cultural life as anyone else’s. I feel like this is a vital thing to do in the public arena, where the narrative can easily turn poisonous or reductive when dealing with people of minority backgrounds.

Secondly, however, I want to explore as many different styles and ideas as possible in my writing, to show that a person of my background can/should have the freedom to write whatever the fuck they want and not be restricted to writing only about ‘ethnic’ issues (whatever they are). I bristle at the thought that I should only write on particular topics, just because of my name/ethnicity. In fact, just to prove this point, I’m going to go off and write a suite of sonnets about the mating habits of meerkats.

*The more I use terms like this, the more I think they are a bit pointless. After all, no matter what a person’s background is, in this modern world don’t we all have a complex, hybrid identity?

INTERVIEWER

I want to ask you more about that mission to ‘explore as many different styles and ideas as possible’ in your writing. As well as your performance background, and now Parang, you’re also working novel and a stage-play?  What’s the commonality between all these forms?

MUSA

I’m working on a play for the Street Theatre in Canberra named Bonegatherer and a novel named Here Come the Dogs for Penguin Australia. Bonegatherer is a historical play set in the 1800s, whereas Here Come the Dogs is very contemporary, but both of them examine the dark side of Australian society and history. I would say that all of my work leans towards the darkness, and common themes are migration, violence, loneliness and powerlessness (with a tiny bit of redemption thrown in the mix). I have always said that I am intrigued by contradiction and complexity. I would like to think that my work deals with what Cormac McCarthy describes as the ‘issues of life and death’. Stylistically I like to jump around a bit between colloquial and quite archaic language to keep people on their toes. I think often uneasiness is what I am most trying to provoke in my audience.

INTERVIEWER

Back to Parang, is there a poem that best illuminates this uneasiness that you’re trying to provoke, or perhaps even a single line?

MUSA

‘Here we are, as brave and as useless as poetry’ – from ‘Dark Streets’

*

To purchase your copy of Parang, contact Musa via Facebook at facebook.com/omarmusaqbn or put AUS$25 into his PayPal account (omar_bin_musa@hotmail.com) and he’ll sign and send a copy immediately.

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