As a writer of short fiction who grew up in Sydney’s western suburbs, I was excited to be asked to review Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s first fiction offering: a collection of three long stories narrated by a Lebanese Muslim boy, set around his family home in Lakemba.
The Tribe gives us a glimpse of Lebanese Australian family life in all its ordinariness: the politics and passion of the extended family unit, and the struggle of first generation migrants to conciliate the old ways of their elders with the new Australia they live in – the only life and country they’ve known. The Tribe is a book that desperately needed to be written, and a book which all Australians should read.
That said, only the most remarkable of wordsmiths can successfully turn suburban domesticity into enthralling fiction, and this is the ultimate conundrum of Ahmad’s first fiction offering. He’s managed to explore Lebanese Australian life without cliché or exoticism, but if this is, as it seems, a few moments in the life of an ordinary Lebanese Australian Muslim family, what is it that makes this family worthy of words? What is it that makes this ‘good fiction’?
In what is testimony to Ahmad’s writerly potential, his book brings to mind heavyweight works of fiction, like Tsiolkas’ The Slap, which shows us extended family dynamics through the prism and precipitator of an adult slapping a child at a family barbeque. The Tribe also brings to mind Andrea Levy’s Every Light In The House is Burnin’ and Diana Evan’s 26A, which are extraordinary reads in that they manage to episodically explore family life in a way that is magical and all-encompassing. You can touch Evan’s and Levy’s characters: taste their tears, smell the dinner cooking in the kitchen.
The Tribe is in most parts a slow read, and it comes across as thinly veiled autobiography. I’m prone myself to writing fiction with an autobiographical slant – when the drama or theatrics of a specific situation lends itself to fictionalisation. (After all, as early career writers, we’re often advised to write what we know.) The beauty of fiction, though—what makes it such a spectacular form to work in—is that there are no limits, no rules, endless possibilities. And this is where The Tribe falls short.
This is a short book of disjointed fictions, one that should have been nurtured into a ground-breaking and substantial Australian literary novel, a work to re-define the meaning of the Australian family. As a short story writer I’m loathe to say it, but the format of The Tribe, part of Giramondo’s ‘Shorts’ series, does the book no great service. Touted as a series of three novellas, it is barely long enough to be a novella in total. There is no logical reason for this structuring, and the fact that each section is essentially ‘stand alone’ makes for a jarring reintroduction of characters in the second and third stories.
The first section of the book tours us through the narrator’s family home. At times, we feel as if we can touch and feel our surroundings:
Even the handles of the wardrobe are fakes. I used to think they were made of gold until they started peeling … Up top is where Dad keeps the Holy Qur’an. Sometimes at night, when I get scared, Dad will rest it under my pillow to keep me safe.
Too often though, we are detached from our surroundings, as if on a guided tour:
There’s a yellow-brick fence as you enter through the rusted gate to the house. The gate is the same height as a regular door and it’s painted dark orange. Three steps and you’re at the front door. The door is made from old, thin wood, painted brown.
The narrator in The Tribe is aged seven, nine, and eleven in the three sections respectively, and the book is written in first person present tense, which could have made for intriguing character-driven writing. Yet much of the narrator’s observation and language ill-fits a child: “I see Uncle Ehud smile back at the sheiks and it saddens me that he won’t confront them,” explains the seven-year-old narrator. “I’m scared to stare at the sun – if I look for too long I might be incinerated. It is a kind of respect forced upon us by nature” muses his nine-year-old self.
Each section opens with a clouded explanation for this adult-like perception. “I was only seven when this happened but it always feels like right now” opens the book. “I was only nine when this happened…” and so forth. One wonders at the logic of this, for we hear nothing at all of the adult this child has become, apart from these opening references.
The casual sexism and internalised racism of the narrator provide a real and very interesting layer of character and thematic complexity, but many of these throw-away statements are never fully expounded, and again, seem inauthentic when voiced by a child: “I hate diet Coke. Whenever I go to Macca’s I see fat girls order it” explains the nine-year-old protagonist. At the same age, he fantasises about marrying outside of ‘The Tribe’: “I can see her face, her fair skin and her freckles and a shy smile, nothing like the girls of The Tribe.” At another point, the child narrator’s description of his cousins sits uncomfortably: “These cousins are the reason people think Arabs look like apes. They have bumfluff on their cheeks, necks and above their lips … They really do look like three monkeys.”
There are glimmers of brilliance in this book. The juxtaposition and intrusion of pop culture and mythological references make for interesting points of humour and tension: “I think Uncle Ali looks just like him, like Elvis. He has black hair that’s always brushed back and a big jaw to support his goofy smile.” And later on: “I’ve never heard Uncle Ehud raise his voice and he always has a big smile and jolly voice. He’s like what you might get if you mixed Santa Claus and Zeus.”
The matriarch of Ahmad’s family, Yocheved, shines as a formidable character – an intriguing mixture of strength and vulnerability depending on her situation and surroundings. Her relationship with her namesake, the narrator’s sister, is wonderfully nuanced.
The second section of the book, which explores the marriage of the narrator’s uncle, seems like a complete distraction from the central story. The first section, which introduces us to the family home, with matriarch Yocheved as the anchor, and the third section, which details the catastrophic impact of her death, would sit more comfortably and coherently if read consecutively. Frustratingly, it is also only in the third and final section of the book, when the older Yocheved passes away, that we really become invested in this family – that we long to see how, and if, they will survive without her.
Ultimately, The Tribe is an ambitious and capable first offering from a unique new voice in Australian literature. Our shelves have long awaited work such as Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s, and a family such as The Tribe. It’s exciting to wonder what this writer will offer us in the years, and decades, to come.
The Tribe, by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. Giramondo Publishing, 192pp, $19.95.
Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian writer of Afro-Caribbean descent. She is the author of the poetry collections Gil Scott Heron is on Parole and Nothing Here Needs Fixing, and the fiction collection Foreign Soil.