Interview: Michael Mohammed Ahmad on his new novel The Lebs and the inspiration behind it

The Lebs is the confronting and compelling new novel from award-winning novelist, editor, and community arts worker Michael Mohammed Ahmad. Following the release of the novel last week we caught up with Michael to discover more about the novel, the inspirations behind it, and his take on the state of diversity in Australian literature.

Mohammed’s essays and short stories have appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, The GuardianThe Lifted Brow and The Australian. His debut novel, The Tribe, received the 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelists of the Year Award, and was subsequently adapted by Mohammed for the stage. His new novel The Lebs, narrated by the romantic dreamer Bani Adam, takes readers into the halls of Punchbowl Boys High School, an enclave of hyper-masculinity, hostility and apathy.

What was the inspiration behind The Lebs?

Two years ago, Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, publicly proclaimed his belief that second-generation Arab-Australian Muslims from Lebanon are the mistakes of the Fraser Government. My inspiration behind The Lebs is Peter Dutton, I dedicate this book to him, on behalf of all the dumb Lebs who are ruining his beautiful white nation.

What do you hope readers will take away from the novel?

I hope readers will be challenged (but not offended) to think critically about who we are as a nation, specifically, a multicultural nation.

The Lebs is your second novel, do you feel your approach to writing has changed since writing The Tribe?

Yes, and more than that, my approach to writing changes every day – every experience, every interaction, every thought, every breath, influences how I will write my next sentence… Even this one. And that one…

You also adapted your first novel for the stage, do you envisage doing something similar with The Lebs?

Yes. Both The Tribe and The Lebs are influenced by the Arab Oral Storytelling Tradition that flows through my veins, which is called Hakawatti.

In this way, both texts are organically suited for stage adaptations, but not in the traditional sense of a play, rather as the spoken-word performance of the Bedouin poet.

A lot of different ideological groups have attempted to lay claim to the meaning of ‘Australian’ often through decrying what is un-Australian – what constitutes ‘Australian-ness’ for you?

For me, un-Australian-ness constitutes Australian-ness. And I say that as a very proud Australian.

There are several writers working in Australia currently who are helping push the definition of “Australian Literature”, yourself included, who are some of the writers (emerging or established) you think we need to be reading, and why?

Ellen van Neerven. Omar Sakr. Maxine Beneba Clarke. Peter Polites. Julie Koh. Omar Musa. Maryam Azam. Why? – you’ll have to read their books to find out!

It’s been two or three years since you and several other writers from minority backgrounds were awarded the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist award, do you feel there has been shift in those intervening years towards a more diverse Australian literary voice?

Having a large commercial publisher like Hachette showing a commitment to publishing culturally diverse writers suggests a move in the right direction, but what more can be done?

Yes, so much has changed, and improved, since Maxine, Ellen, Omar, Alice and I won that award.

Certainly, publishers like Hachette and many others are headed in the right direction, and my only advice is that they keep at it, don’t think that just because you published a black woman or a brown man that your job is done. Diversity needs to be the rule of Australian literature, not the exception.

Could you talk a little about the work you do at Sweatshop, some of the projects you have on the go, and how people might get involved?

Sweatshop is a literacy movement I founded in 2013 which is devoted to empowering culturally and linguistically diverse communities throughout Australia through reading, writing and critical thinking.

We are currently running two writers’ collectives, one for CaLD and Indigenous writers and one exclusively for women of colour, and we are in the process of producing a series of publications and performances. To find out more and to get involved, you can visit the Sweatshop website and follow Sweatshop on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

PS: I’m totally aware of how much this answer sounds like it came out of a brochure.

Now that The Lebs is out in the world, what’s next for you?

A boxing match: Michael Mohammed Ahmad vs Donald Trump

The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmad is published by Hachette Australia, RRP $27.99 and is available now.