The Lebs: challenging literary traditions and perceptions of Australianess
Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad, whose new novel The Lebs was written as part of his Doctor of Creative Arts.
In the opening paragraph of Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s new novel The Lebs the main character, a young Lebanese Muslim man, references ‘thug life’, swears five times, describes a teacher’s eyes as having a ‘tabouli blaze’ and points out that the setting, Punchbowl Boys High School, has a ‘bulletproof glass shield’ at reception and a ‘White’, capital W, principal.
This might seem like challenging content to some, but according to author Dr Ahmad, who wrote the semi-autobiographical work as part of his PhD at the University’s Writing and Society Research Centre, “so too is being a young, Lebanese Muslim man in Western Sydney.”
“As a young Muslim man, I was always trying to reassure people that we – Muslim men from Western Sydney - weren’t scary. But now, and through this work, I have taken a new approach. I want to challenge these views by writing authentically about these experiences, and forging a place for this unique ‘Leb’ voice in Australian literature,” says Dr Ahmad.
“Beyond this, I want readers from Western Sydney to relate to this work, and use the book to have critical discussions about their experiences – empower them to believe that their voice matters.
“I don’t think that many in Western Sydney believe their voice could be seen as literature, but great literature, whether it be Shakespeare or James Joyce – it all looks like they’re saying these grand things about the universe, but actually, all of their work is specific to a particular identity, a particular culture and a particular time, so it’s no different to stories of the Western suburbs of Sydney. "For anyone who is from the region, or from a diverse background, there is something unique about who you are and what you have to say about your identity which can have an influence on the whole world. And I hope this work reminds people of that.”
The novel, which deals with themes such as identity, race relations and masculinity, is also informed by Dr Ahmad’s tireless scholarly research – which made up half of his PhD project. His research project, based on representations of Arab Australian identity, was written concurrently with his novel, a process which he says helped his writing process.
“My research project and novel were intertwined, but when it came time to publish – I thought that publishing creative scholarship would be a more successful way to reach the people I wanted to reach,” says Dr Ahmad. Dr Ahmad also hopes his new work will encourage aspiring creative writers, especially in Western Sydney and from diverse backgrounds, to pursue creative endeavors – but only if they’re willing to put in the hard work.
“My success has nothing to do with luck, it’s all hard work. I’ve studied creative writing for ten years and completed three degrees – an arts degree, an honours degree and now a PhD, all from Western Sydney University. It’s hard work, but the great thing is that the opportunity is there,” he says.
“If you are willing to do that hard work, there are places like Western Sydney University, which will support you. With hard work and the right support anyone can, like me, go from being a Lebbo from Punchbowl to being an established writer.”
Beyond Dr Ahmad’s publishing credits, he is also an editor, teacher and community arts worker. He is the founder and director of Sweatshop, a literacy movement in Western Sydney devoted to empowering culturally and linguistically diverse artists through creative writing.
His debut novel, The Tribe – which was a prescribed text for literature students at the University, and a prequel to The Lebs – received a 2015 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelists of the Year Award. His essays and short stories have also appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, The Guardian, Heat, Seizure, The Lifted Brow, The Australian and Coming of Age: Australian Muslim Stories.
The Lebs is published by Hachette Australia. For more information about the novel, and to order a copy visit their website.
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