March 2022

Noted

‘Son of Sin’

By Dion Kagan
Cover of ‘Son of Sin’
Poet Omar Sakr’s debut novel depicts coming of age as a queer Muslim in Western Sydney

“[W]hat was dread if not desire’s other face”? For Jamal Smith, the eponymous son of sin in Omar Sakr’s debut novel (Affirm Press), coming of age as a queer Muslim in Western Sydney is animated by these twin feelings. Alas, for Jamal, desire tends to get lost in the dread.

Inside his head, there’s an ever-expanding directory of proscription and sin: Judgement Day, “the eternity of hellfire that might await”, and even before that the Punishment of the Grave, which is worse than Hell. Outside, there’s Australia, that “ugly weight” where young Muslim men are harassed by police at the football. In the local neighbourhood, a “scabby” kid has a “fucked-up black lip”, ripped clean off when he went too far taunting an angry pit bull. Jamal’s brothers and cousins get arrested in the front yard. The Cronulla riots are on TV. These are all dreadful reminders “never to lose sight of fear’s purpose”.

When we first meet Jamal, during Ramadan, he strives to observe the rules. But the facts of his origins – absconded father and abusive, irreverent mother – have already branded him ibn haram, a sinful boy. In this way, his story furthers ideas that Sakr explored in The Lost Arabs, his award-winning, second poetry collection, in which Australia’s ambient Islamophobia and colonial violence seep into the home, and reproduce themselves in intimate family violence and scapegoating. Jamal is a folk devil not only for his family’s “sins” but for the minority stress they endure. And then there’s his own secret, the ultimate taboo crowning the ever-growing tree of sin, which sends further “tendrils of dread down his spine”.

Some of the better-known characters of Australian queer fiction, small pool that it is, are angry young men: think of Christos Tsiolkas’s hedonistic Ari in Loaded and swimming prodigy Daniel Kelly in Barracuda, both tormented by conflicting expectations and bottled-up desire. Sakr’s Jamal is less explosive and, I think importantly, less heroic. While other boys in his family are “loud and brash”, “the fires of injury burning bright” in their eyes, he withdraws into fantasy books, wrestling privately with the djinn who comes and smiles malevolently at him in the depths of night. If the better part of his story feels anguished, consider the opening couplet of Sakr’s poem “A Beautiful Child”: “You are not as tired of diaspora poetry / as I am of the diaspora”. Jamal put me in mind of Sara Ahmed’s “melancholic migrant”, a figure who draws attention to social systems – racism, patriarchy, hierarchies of sexual shame and so on – that, for some in our community, literally foreclose the possibility of happiness. Stories of melancholic migrants disrupt the compulsory happiness at the heart of nation-building, and are transgressive in that sense – an ideological bomb. Son of Sin’s catharsis, in the gentler, more redemptive mood of its final act, comes with Jamal’s gradual recognition that his family’s shames are not his own: “it was not innate, and he might have only been picking up what was projected around him, as his presence was enough to disturb his family, to shake loose what they tried to keep buried”.

At the level of the line, Sakr has a poet’s sensibility, and he writes haunting images and insights worth lingering over. But there are parts of the world of this novel, especially the backstories belonging to each of Jamal’s parents, that feel sketched in a hurry. When Jamal concludes that his life has “too many characters, too much death, nothing at all like the kind of spare, elegant novels they study in school”, his reflection reads like an artist’s statement about the novel itself, if not a defence of its rougher edges.

Dion Kagan

Dion Kagan is a writer, researcher and the author of Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post-Crisis’.

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