Omar Sakr remembers looking up and seeing a small plane trace “Vote No” in big, smoky letters that left a trail like clouds in the sky.
It was 2016, as the same-sex marriage debate raged in Australia.
In Son of Sin, Sakr’s debut novel, the young Arab Australian protagonist – a believer, a sinner, and the son of an absent father and a violent mother – also looks up and sees that writing in the sky. Sakr writes:
“He was used to ignoring their nonsense. The whole country was debating the legal validity of love, churches and mosques and Liberals unleashing all the hatred and fear they’d spent so long cultivating. He was used to the negative will of strange millions, too.”
Sakr tells ABC Arts that it was an “incredibly ugly and incredibly hurtful” experience.
“You were suddenly now having to have a conversation that, to be frank, is something any sensible person would recognise we had many decades ago, and did not need to have again; it was really just an excuse to hurt us,” he says.
George Haddad, author of Losing Face, also remembers the lead-up to the same-sex marriage plebiscite as a time of unwarranted scrutiny: “It felt like we were suddenly, for no reason, being judged in a kind of weird, contemporary witch trial of the digital age, where everyone was having their say about someone else’s happiness, someone else’s life.”
Haddad came out to his mother Nawal in 2017, after he was outed by an extended family member without his consent.
“It really became quite an anxiety-inducing thing,” he recalls.
In their new novels, Sakr and Haddad, draw from history and memory to create moving narratives centred on bisexual protagonists living in Western Sydney.
Like Sakr and Haddad, the characters they wrote into life – Jamal Khaddaj Smith and Joey Harb respectively – have much in common: they belong to migrant communities; they are sons of single mothers; they are not rich; they live in a country where people who look like them have learned to be careful around the law; they’re bisexual; and they’re uncertain about what they believe and with whom they belong.
You can picture Jamal and Joey sharing a joint, each knowing something about loneliness.
‘It was harder to live it, to be honest’
Sakr has previously drawn on his own experiences in his poetry collections These Wild Houses (2017) and The Lost Arabs (2019).
“People are always going to have these ideas about writers’ lives informing their work. If you’re going to come to my work with that assumption, then I’m going to run at it,” Sakr told ABC RN’s The Book Show.
He dubs Jamal his “distant avatar”, through which he tells the story of a young man’s sexual awakening and struggle to locate himself within the faith, traditions and family ties he has inherited.
The novel depicts the harrowing physical abuse Jamal experiences at the hands of his uncle and later, his mother.
But Sakr finds tenderness for her, and that warmth suffuses Son of Sin.
“After I wrote my first poetry collection, I realised that it was really, really important that I give as much love as I could to the characters who are representative of my family members, because you only get what I give you, right?
“So, I made a concerted effort after that to give the context to my mother: how she is a product of her environment, and the violence that was inflicted upon her first.”
Sakr also embeds letters from his father, WhatsApp messages from relatives and even things his aunty said to him, in the novel.
He says he is often asked if it is hard to share these details with readers.
“It was harder to live it, to be honest; to live it and survive it,” he says.
Sakr doesn’t just write about his family memories – he also writes about the racist political climate in Australia in the 2000s.
In the novel, Jamal watches the Cronulla Riots of 2005 unfold, and later comes home to the aftermath of a raid by the Middle Eastern Organised Crime Squad (a police unit formed in response to the riots).
“It was incredibly frightening to see what I saw on the news, but also to hear the conversations that were going on around me – all the talk of reprisals and of gangs,” recalls Sakr.
A different perspective on history
In Losing Face, Haddad too is interested in exploring the aftermath of an event that dominated the national conversation: the brutal gang rapes of six women in Sydney’s south-west in 2000, by a group of young men including brothers Bilal and Mohammed Skaf.
Haddad was 13 when the crimes made headlines.
“Coupled with September 11, that was the kind of onset of this ‘othering’ of Arab — really, of ethnic — men,” he recalls.
“I remember it as a kind of consciousness being layered over how I performed in my everyday … I was conscious that I was now perceived as part of a violent group.”
In Losing Face, Joey is present at the scene of a similar crime; he does not willingly participate but does not stop it from happening either.
The choice to write from the perspective of a perpetrator kept Haddad up at night.
“It was really troubling for me to think that someone, or a survivor, might be offended by this, that I’m shedding light on the perpetrator of the crime rather than the victim; but ultimately, I can’t speak from that victim’s perspective,” says Haddad.
Instead, he shows us much of the trial through the eyes of Joey’s grandmother, Elaine. Widowed, wrestling with a gambling habit and a pile of unpaid bills, she feels like an “entirely useless matriarch”, yet Haddad makes her the moral centre of his novel – and it is she who isn’t ready to let Joey off the hook.
Haddad has five sisters, and was particularly close to his mother and his aunty – to whom he dedicated Losing Face.
Losing Face was informed by Haddad’s research into masculinity, shame and suburban life in contemporary Australia, as part of his doctoral thesis at Western Sydney University.
He explored similar themes in his prize-winning 2016 novella Perish and Populate.
“When I’m around other men who don’t see my queerness, I can be privy to really problematic things. I find it really hard to speak up in those situations and that probably has something to do with just being scared for myself. I think that plays out in Joey as well,” he reflects.
Sakr has also found that his masculine presentation can render his queerness invisible, with some family members reacting with “real disbelief” when he came out to them.
“I’m 6′1″[185cm]. I’m bearded. I do have an almost stereotypical Lebanese masculine presentation, right?”
In letters, his father seemed to say he might accept Sakr’s queerness if he appeared more feminine. “There’s just really simplistic gender politics going on in the community, I think,” says Sakr.
For now, Sakr is comfortable with how he looks, partly because he’s happy to demonstrate that there are different ways to be queer.
“But then I also have to acknowledge that were it not for the pressures that I feel, I would present differently. There is in our culture this strong sense of discretion and humility, which I think is weaponised against women, but also against queer and trans people.”
Sakr had no model for how to be open about his sexuality and still be part of the community when he was growing up.
“I’m getting emotional thinking about it because it’s such a shame,” he says.
Through Jamal, Sakr embraces this full-hearted vulnerability, sketching out an unabashedly bold and complex portrait of an Arab Australian man.
He also writes explicit sex scenes.
“I enjoyed writing those the most – everything else was so painful and it felt like this is the joy,” says Sakr.
He also wanted to undermine what he sees as “mainstream pressure to sanitise queerness and make it palatable”.
“The way that [queerness] is typically shown is to have them holding hands or saying they love each other, and it’s like, ‘No, we f***.’ Yeah, we hold hands, yeah, we love each other, and yeah, we can be cute, but I wanted that heat to be present in the work, in the way that it was present in my life.”
Haddad takes a different route but arrives at that same place of rejecting shame. When Joey finds himself connecting deeply with Ivan, a boy he meets at a concert, there are no labels attached. It feels effortless.
“It was a definite, concerted effort to challenge stereotypes,” says Haddad.
He wanted to write about a character who was gradually coming to accept his queerness — rather than struggling to come to terms with it.
A new era in Arab Australian writing
Sakr is elated to be working at a time where there’s so much incredible Arab Australian writing finding an audience.
He name-checks Sarah Ayoub’s The Cult of Romance, Yumna Kassab’s Australiana, Amal Awad’s The Things We See in the Light, Amani Haydar’s The Mother Wound, Sara El Sayed’s Muddy People, Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Other Half of You and Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Coming of Age in the War on Terror — and Haddad’s Losing Face.
“There’s a lot to celebrate,” Sakr says.
Haddad agrees, even as he expresses impatience that his and Sakr’s books are considered a special subgenre of Australian literature.
On a personal level, Haddad knows he now models to a younger generation what an openly queer Arab Australian man looks like. Yet, he finds it tough to be visible and vulnerable in this way.
“This is the thing that I’ve struggled with the most: I have a lot of bigoted and homophobic relatives who, if they were aware of my career and of the things that I’m saying publicly, would probably bring my parents grief.
“And certainly, I worry about that vulnerability and that visibility, but if we keep hiding away or we keep trying to kind of shade things, what are we saying about our existence?”
Sakr says he’s learned to use language in a way that emphasises healing: “Instead of saying you were hurt, say you were changed. Then it becomes about seeing what those changes were and that also enables you to imagine how you can change again.
Son of Sin by Omar Sakr is out now through Affirm Press. Losing Face by George Haddad is out now through University of Queensland Press.