Interviewing the Stars: Omar Musa

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The whole time I spent at the West Writers Our Stories Forum was brilliant but the absolute highlight of the day was the interviews that I had with Omar Musa and Christos Tsiolkas. Being able to speak to them was the coolest and most anxiety-inducing part because I had not prepared for the interviews in advance and was not really that familiar with their work. In hindsight I shouldn’t have worried, they were two of the nicest people. Omar Musa, who was asked to talk with me pretty much on the spur of the moment, greeted me with a grin and a hearty handshake.

Elena: So, what was your favourite story growing up? Did you read a lot when you were little?

Omar Musa: Yes I did, but I’m trying to think of a really, really good answer. I’ll tell you a book that I really loved as a kid, that’s maybe a cop-out but I loved A Wizard of Earthsea. Have you ever read that?

E: By Ursula…

OM: By Ursula Le Guin. And I thought that it was so deep and recently went back to it and read it. It combines stuff about human nature but also this complete fantasy world and this joy of storytelling. And so I went back and read that after finishing my novel because I want to get back to that you know. I have been reading such kind of historical, psychological stuff, which that is, as well, but it had that kind of pure, adventurous storytelling and that is what I wanted to get back to. What else? And things to do with journeys. This is a better answer. I loved Monkey Magic. I don’t know if you remember the TV show about these kinds of animal spirits in China taking a lady, sorry, a young monk to India to get the sacred scriptures…

E: I’m pretty sure that I have actually seen that one.

OM: That is the greatest TV show ever. Things to do with a journey I love.

E: So what is your favourite story now? Do you have a favourite?

OM: I think a lot of the stories I really love are quite archetypal stories as I mentioned, the journey, something like the hero returning home and finding out that things have changed, like the Odyssey. I like things like that. The great archetypal stories.

E: So what kind of stories did you read a teenager? Are there any you wish you had read?

OM: Oh of course. Look, you know you’re never going to be able to catch up on all the reading you need to do in your life. What did I read? I read a lot of poetry as a teenager not as much fiction. And I have always been attracted to the darker side of human nature. Things to do with death and jealousy and kind of, life problems and love problems. So I always really liked Robert Browning because his poems were always stories. Yeah, that’s a good answer.

E: So do you have any stories that you would recommend for teenagers to read?

OM: You have really caught me off guard here. Okay, one story, he’s actually here, a guy called Nam Le, he’s a Vietnamese-Australian short story writer and he’s got a short story with a really long name. It is something like Love and Compassion and Piety and Sacrifice [N.B. ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’]. But it’s about his relationship with his father and about being a Vietnamese boat person coming to Australia and it is also about being a writer. It is also one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. So find the name of it and that’s one that everybody should read.

E: What’s your favourite place to read?

OM: In transit. Again we are returning to the journeys. Being on a plane or a train or a bus is my favourite place to read.

E: Why?

OM: I’m not sure. I like in-between places. I like the fact you’re by yourself and you can be transported into another world while you are literally being transported to another place.

E: That’s a very nice symmetry there. So are you reading anything now, apart from the Earthsea Quartet?

OM: Well I’m not reading that now but I am reading Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas. And I am reading a book about the maritime history of the Malaysian-Indonesian archipelago, which is really, really fascinating. It’s all about trade, religion and culture in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. Learning about the history of where my ancestors come from is pretty fascinating.

E: So just on the stuff you do, you write poetry?

OM: I rap, I write poetry and I just wrote a novel. And I am working on a play.

E: Cool. What kind of play?

OM: It’s a play about the dark history of where I grew up, Queanbeyan and I am only on the first draft so I can’t really tell you all that much about it. But it’s about dark history and silences in history.

E: Is there a really big difference for you between writing rap, theatre and a novel?

OM: No. I mean I am always trying to deal with the same type of issues. I would say matters of life and death and redemption but obviously the styles are really different. It was a huge challenge for me to write a novel, it was so different from writing the poetry. It was like running a marathon rather than sprinting a hundred metres.

E: Would you do it again?

OM: I will do it again. If I am granted the time on this earth. And the madness to get involved in something like that again. But I am already planning my next book. It’s about a blind Malay transgender sea captain leading a journey into time but it will probably take about five years to write. So everyone will have to wait for that.


 

That’s it from Omar Musa, who came across as a genuine individual; I am definitely going to start reading some of his work soon. Next up will be my interview with Christos Tsiolkas!

Elena Demosthenous is a seventeen-year-old student who likes reading, hanging out at 100 Story Building and speaking about herself in the third person.

Image by Rachel Main 2014, courtesy of Footscray Community Arts Centre