Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh's blurb on the back cover of Omar Musa's new book says it all: "This stunning debut novel has such swaggering exuberance that it will make most other fiction you read this year seem criminally dull. You have been warned."
Born to Australian journalist Helen Musa and Malaysian poet Musa bin Masran, Omar Musa, an ANU graduate with two poetry slam wins, three hip-hop albums and two poetry collections under his belt, has just published his first novel, Here Come the Dogs.
First, listen to Musa perform My Generation. It's like hearing Allen Ginsberg recite Howl (you can find them both on YouTube). There's that same savage humanity, that same relentless pounding of the waves that wears down the rocks of convention and oppression. Like Walt Whitman, Musa is simultaneously sophisticated and "one of the roughs" without any whiff of slumming it. His art is life lived and reflected upon.
Now try Here Come the Dogs, a coruscating baroque mix of genres, styles and registers, flowing seamlessly in and out of verse, prose, interview, lecture, dream-sequence riff and rippling stream-of-consciousness roulade.
First, here's some verse: "A young black guy called Remi is warming up the stage/with a DJ and a drummer/and while it's sampled beats/they sound fresh,/unlike anything else at the moment./Rarely see a black dude in Aussie hip hop.//It's troubling, ay."
Now here's some prose: "A semicircle of 10 men, all white, most of them smoking. Aleks is in the Aussie yard. There's the Islander yard, the Aboriginal yard, the Lebanese yard, the Asian yard, the Terrorist yard and the Boneyard for people who need protection: dogs, rapists and informants. The heat waves unspool in great ripples, and through it the inmates walk in lines with the jerky movements of marionettes. High winds today. Aleks feels as if he is in a dream within a dream, marooned somehow in a place as lonely and desperate as a space station."
"A third of the book is poetry," Musa says. "I wanted to play a bit fast and loose with language. I wanted to reflect the randomness and chaos of the real world. I wanted an unruly book."
Central to Here Come the Dogs are the experiences of buddies Solomon Amosa, his half-brother Jimmy and Aleks Janeski as they rap and "graff" and fight and love and argue and curse and swelter in a Sydney summer where the livin' ain't easy.
"The book deals with complex issues of migration and powerlessness," Musa says. "I'm not in the business of making fence-sitter art. I'm quite dictatorial about it. But I still want it to be something people pick up and read."
There is both "blood and redemption" in the book. There is also romance - of a sort. "It's about love and not just anger and frustration," Musa says. "Perhaps the work is more romantic than I am as a man. I think I probably am a romantic: it's just hidden deep down somewhere."
As a performance artist, Musa had to confront the prospect of his words hardening into print. "This is the first time I've really felt that my words have solidified into something unchangeable," he says. Still, he seems to be able to have it both ways, like a jazz musician departing from a standard tune.
Musa also wanted Here Come the Dogs to be "a book of dreams", not just in the aspirational sense but in a more literal way. "It's a book of these men's interior lives and dreams. And yeah, dreams can be dealt with in a really pretentious way. But I think they're inescapable. I like reading about dreams, I like writing about them, they're a part of our daily lives, whether we're awake or asleep. They had to be in there. Ultimately, Here Come the Dogs is a book of dreams."
Unsurprisingly, hip-hop culture permeates the book and is inextricably bound up with the migrant experience, the outsider experience, the human experience.
"New migrants are often demonised," Musa says. "Even people of the hip-hop generation are seen in a stereotypical way. Hip- hop is how (the characters in the book) try to find redemption in their lives. I was interested in getting beneath the surface of all that. If we paid a little bit more attention to the stories of our neighbours, we might just all get along a bit better."
Here Come the Dogs is published by Hamish Hamilton ($30). Omar Musa will launch the book at 7.30pm on Thursday, August 14, at CNR Kitchen, 44 Lake Street, Northbridge. Special guests include Marksman Lloyd and Sarah Pellicano. RSVP email@example.com or phone 08 9227 0930