Russell Crowe held a surprise birthday party for thirty-year-old slam poet Omar Musa. There was a cake in the shape of a book and an inkwell. Guests were not allowed to buy a gift but had to bring something they’d made themselves. I wonder what the characters of Omar Musa’s debut novel Here Come the Dogs would think about that.
The main arc of the character Solomon in Here Come the Dogs is framed around his relationships with women. Initially he is in a relationship with the white middle class university student Georgie. Georgie is instantly dislikeable because of statements like ‘So I think I’m going to Africa these holidays to do some aid work.’ Solomon challenges her about this statement, identifying people in need in their own community. Georgie is a deliberate cliché; people from culturally diverse backgrounds can recognise this person in their lives. She has been rendered on the page without sympathy, without complexity. When Solomon breaks up with her he says “I’m not gonna fuck some colour into ya and I’m not gonna fuck that white guilt outta ya.” Georgie is a two-dimensional meme: Solomon ends the relationship with the same coldness that Musa used to create her. His resolution comes in Scarlett, a bisexual tattoo artist from New Zealand. She has an understanding of his background, traditions and artistic passions, helping him find the contentment that he never had with Georgie.
Towards the end of the book we learn that the third character, Jimmy, is sexually aroused by fire. He suffers from ‘pyrophilia’. At the start of the novel we watch Jimmy fail at negotiating women and work. Musa describes him as ‘beige’ – his cultural background is indeterminate. The novel climaxes with Jimmy masturbating while he overlooks a fire. Initially Jimmy deals with mental illness in the form of psychosis, hearing his dead father’s voice, while at the end, when he becomes the firestarter, he suffers the impulse control disorder of pyrophilia.
The character of Aleks is reminiscent of many people in Australia; he is caught between worlds and has a simple world view. He comes from a Macedonian background. He has a blue-collar job as a painter and is a part-time career criminal. His simplicity is charismatic. This aspect is rendered in detail. Bodies in rooms gravitate toward him and he switches between the role of loved family member, father and commander. His views are authentic to a diaspora, all of which have been raised between differing nations – amongst the trauma of the motherland and sobriety of Australian suburbia. He muses on resolving the economic complexities of his ancestral lands. “If every Maco in Australia went back to the homeland with even $20,000, it would save the failing economy,” he says. His simple solutions are reminiscent of the way many people in diasporic communities think they can solve the problems in their homeland. Every Greek in Australia has a million-and-one resolutions to the Troika chokehold on our homeland. “Go back to the drachma,” they say. These views offer simple resolutions to complex issues. The character Aleks embodies this.
These are the three main characters in Here Come the Dogs: Solomon, Jimmy and Aleks. The first two are fatherless and all three sit in multiple cultures. Jimmy identifies Solomon as bilingual because of the way he communicates across socio-economic cultures. Both Solomon and Aleks have an ancestral home and a diaspora they belong to. I make the connection between being fatherless and sitting in multiple cultures because it’s impossible to look at the role of youth from diverse communities without recognising that the Australian state has no place for them. A post-structural reading of the text can easily claim that these orphans of Australia replicate the patriarchal role of the father/state through hip-hop. The book states “Hip-hop was a ready-made culture for the fatherless, those born of fracture – family, culture.” The characters’ devotion to all aspects of this culture manifests with their tedious conversations and musings about hip-hop, unpacking the nuances that outsiders are unaware of. The characters’ dialogue about differing accents of Aussie MCs, the varying musical styles between Melbourne and Sydney and styles of Graf. The dialogue is white noise while the political and economic world further disempowers them and their attempts for sovereignty over their lives.
So. What would the characters in Here Come the Dogs think of birthday parties held by Russell Crowe? The answer is in the text. When reading the novel you can see what these characters think about white people and what they call “Anglos”. Solomon challenges his then girlfriend Georgie when she announces she wants to go to Africa to do aid work. After this announcement an Eritrean hijabi adjusts her headscarf and looks away. In this moment we see that Georgie is blind to the people around her. Insensitive even. Next a redheaded girl talks about what she got out of helping orphans in Bangladesh. “It felt really amazing to give something back.” The redheaded girl’s statement is an indictment on a certain world view, where even altruism is selfish.
Just before Aleks goes to a stand over job we get an understanding of how people with strong cultural traditions see white people. The person he is doing the job with is “A white guy, Dave” who looks like a starving mongrel with “Yellow teeth, oily skin, no sense of loyalty, no honour, no culture.” Aleks sees the physical imperfections as a manifestation of broader imperfections of white Australians. Dave’s lack of loyalty, honour and culture is seen as a deficit and its irreconcilable with the world Aleks comes from. Aleks has tradition and heritage, a blueprint of values that Dave doesn’t have. Aleks would have a birthday party and there would be traditions and practices he would follow. I doubt very much he would get a cake in the shape of a book; perhaps he would even laugh if people made their own gifts of poetry and song for him.
Peter Polites is a writer and editor. He is an Associate Director at Sweatshop.