“Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity or genuineness,” wrote Benedict Anderson, the late, great Irish historian of nationalism, “but in the style in which they are imagined.” It’s a line that should ring in the ears of those who have spent time reading the recent explosion of fictions by Australian authors from Middle Eastern backgrounds. Figures such as Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Omar Sakr have written novels that ache with a sense of lost connection – whether to language, culture, religion, people or place – yet do so in a manner so vivid and charismatic, their woundedness takes on a distinct character.
George Haddad’s first novel is the most recent addition to this growing canon. Like his peers, Haddad has built a creative career at the intersection of raw experience – in Haddad’s case, as a first-generation child of Lebanese migrants raised in the western suburbs of Sydney – and the liberating possibilities of higher education, particularly the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University.
Losing Face shares with Mohammed Ahmad’s trilogy of autobiographical novels a keen eye for that hybrid culture formed by the clash of Arabic language and Levantine– Mediterranean mores with the “bogan aesthetic” of white Australia. But it also shares with Omar Sakr an added complication, in that it explores the challenges of growing up queer in a traditional and hyper-masculine society.
Joseph Harb is the sweetly passive vehicle for Haddad’s concerns. He’s an Anglo–Lebanese teenager who has grown up in a suburb of the Canterbury-Bankstown area of Western Sydney – a place where half the residents were born somewhere else and most of these came originally from Lebanon – and, aged 19 and packing groceries at a local supermarket, can’t really conceive of life elsewhere.
Joey and his brother, Alex, have been raised, fatherless, by two strong women. Mother Amal left her “true blue” Australian husband when the boys were very young. They treat her more like an older sister than a maternal figure. Elaine, Amal’s mother, is a spry widow and a more traditional presence in her grandchildren’s lives. Though “Tatya” Elaine has lived in Australia for decades, her memories stretch back to village life in the old country.
Haddad is very good on the awful dynamics that can drive masculine friendship in the suburbs. Joey has made efforts to grow away from his schoolmates, would-be drug dealers and amateur standover men, but the past is hard to escape when you still live on the same streets as your Birrong Boys High alumni.
That residual social grip leads to a tragedy. Joey has been pushed to spend one last night out with his old schoolmates when they pick up a girl on the train while on the way to buy drugs. She joins them for a smoke in a public park, but the encounter shifts in nature. What begins as an ambiguously consensual sexual encounter between the girl and one of the young men ends up as gang rape.
Joey, who spends the evening too stoned to speak or act, knows that a line has been crossed without his connivance or agreement. Nonetheless, he believes he has sinned by omission. When the police arrive days later and place him under arrest, Joey retreats into fatalism: “He had done what he had done and maybe whatever happened to him from here was viable. A sort of calm came over him. Maybe he would try to die as soon as he had the opportunity.”
This turn in events lends Losing Face its central narrative focus, but it also reveals some weaknesses in Haddad’s approach. The author has said that the notorious Sydney gang rapes of 2000 were burnt into his memory and fed into the story he tells here. Yet events are described in terms determinedly downbeat, even affectless. Readers are not successfully enjoined to care.
This is not a moral failure on the author’s part; Haddad is thoughtful and earnest in his examination of the assault and its aftermath. What consent for a young woman means under the influence of drugs, while threatened by the proximity of several stronger men, is interrogated again and again, particularly by characters, including Elaine, whose innate sympathy for Joey is tested by their own bitter female experience.
The failure, rather, occurs on the level of the sentence. Haddad’s prose can be awkward, as if his descriptive terms were slightly out of sync with the meaning he intended for them. Where an author such as Michael Mohammed Ahmad uses migrant idiolects to comic effect, or to generate pathos – turning them to literary ends, in other words – Haddad’s writing feels closer to plain transcription.
Nor are sexual matters fully realised here. Joey’s nascent homoerotic attraction to a Serbian man his age is touched upon without being pushed into truly dangerous territory. Where Haddad has spoken with uncommon candour about his own coming out as a young adult, a move forced upon him by a family member, Joey’s emerging sexuality generates little corresponding guilt or domestic tension.
None of these criticisms should detract from Haddad’s broader achievement, which is to help sing into existence a culture that is defined by what it does not possess. The young Lebanese of Haddad’s Western Sydney lack the language and culture of their forbears but have not been admitted into the society of their new neighbours.
They are pressed against the window of a settler society that has already committed its foundational crimes, accumulated its wealth and drawn hard borders around caste and class. What is left to these interlopers is the flair with which they announce their dissatisfaction. Haddad joins his peers in creating an imagined community that might yet become a real one.
UQP, 280pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 11, 2022 as "Losing Face, George Haddad".
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