Interview: Michael Mohammed Ahmad talks The Lebs ahead of the Miles Franklin award announcement

Michael Mohammed Ahmad is an Arab-Australian writer, editor and teacher. He is also the founder and director of Sweatshop, a literary arts collective based in Western Sydney that helps develop work by culturally diverse writers. He is also the award winning author of The Tribe and his most recent work, The Lebs, which has been nominated for multiple awards, winning the NSW Premier’s Award and has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award.

The Lebs takes readers into the world of protagonist Bani Adam and his experiences of power dynamics, cultural and social frictions and toxic masculinity as a student at Punchbowl Boys in Western Sydney.

Ahead of the unveiling of this year’s Miles Franklin winner early next week, we caught up with Michael Mohammed Ahmad to find out more about the novel and his thoughts on the nomination.

The Lebs has already been nominated for multiple awards and won the NSW Premier’s Award, how does it feel to be a potential winner of the Miles Franklin award with this book, especially for its potential to encourage the possibly disenfranchised young people of colour that rarely see themselves represented in Australian fiction??

It feels like a terrible burden. I wear it with pride.

You’ve described it as semi-autobiographical, having grown-up in Sydney’s west and Punchbowl in particular. How autobiographical is it and is this important to your writing? 

During an extremely vicious review of The Lebs on Radio National, one critic said, “You can see the author too clearly in the text.” Considering that this reviewer did not know me personally and has never even met me, I found her statements to be deeply offensive and prejudiced.

If you want to know Bani Adam, read The Lebs.

If you want to know me, come and say hello next time you’re in Bankstown.

The book has been described by many as confronting, especially in regards to race and gender, were you nervous about its reception, and can you elaborate on the necessity of these confrontational aspects?

Asking if I was nervous assumes that I knew it would be confronting. But, what has been confronting about The Lebs for some Australians was simply part of my normal and everyday experiences growing up as a second generation Arab-Australian Muslim boy in a post-9/11 era. So if a reader finds my writing offensive, they probably need to interrogate their own privilege.

Ruby Hamad recently wrote in meanjin that she found many of the reviewers may have misinterpreted the nature of the book. How have you found the reviews overall?

Mixed – but I don’t hold that against my critics.

Australians tend to like their multiculturalism packaged in a very simple way: ‘Diversity is our strength – let them in’ or ‘Diversity is our downfall – send them back.’ Any book that refuses to sit on one side of this spectrum is going to be difficult to comprehend.

It could be said that the characters’ behaviour can be understood by their marginalisation by white Australia, can you see a corollary between the characters of your story and what’s been happening on a national front around so-called “Sudanese gangs” in Melbourne?

Yes. And also, a corollary between the characters of my story and the demonisation of Arabs and Muslims in the early 2000’s, the demonisation of Vietnamese in the 90’s, Greeks and Italians in the 60’s and 70’s, Chinese in the 40’s, Irish in the 1800’s, and where it all begins, the ongoing demonisation of Indigenous people from the moment of colonisation.

The Miles Franklin Literary Award was established using funds bequeathed by the My Brilliant Careerauthor upon her death in 1957, and celebrates novels presenting an uniquely Australian experience. The overall winner will be chosen from the six shortlisted authors, winning $60,000 in prize money. This year’s winner will be named on July 30th. For more information on the prize, head to the Perpetual/ Miles Franklin website.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs is available now through Hachette Australia.