More than 25% of the Australian population were born overseas, and many more have at least one parent born overseas. And yet, despite this huge number, so often Australian literature can seem insular and parochial, concerned with mythologising past glories instead of forging a path into the future. It is heartening to see, then, that Giramondo Press, run out of the University of Western Sydney, is dedicated to publishing these stories. Their Giramondo Shorts, of which The Tribe is a part, are the perfect breeding ground for up-and-coming authors from Western Sydney, the heart of immigrant Australia.
The vibrant messiness of an extended family that is so huge it forms its own community is perhaps the strongest feature of this tiny novel. In 150 pages, we meet a huge cast of characters—some important, some backgrounded—but each one is a member of Bani’s family, and therefore, a member of the Tribe. And just like any family, there are the strong ones, there are the weak ones, there are the ones that are pariahed when they make a mistake, and there are ones that hold the family together through tragedy. I don’t know how much value there is in trying to discover how much of this is based on Ahmad’s own experiences, because the argument would take away from the vividness and evocativeness in his writing here. From the first sentence, the reader is completely immersed in this world, and there is never any question that any of this could not be completely real. From the to the, there is a truth to this tale that other writers would kill to achieve, and this is achieved first and foremost through this cast.
There is distinct distance between Bani and the rest of his community. Though he is clearly aware of other cultures and communities around him (particularly the difference between his own family’s band of Islam and that of the other, larger, sects), he does not pine to be different or to escape. Nevertheless, he does find cause to worry in, say, the treatment of women at the hands of some men in the family. Bani seems more self-aware than many other characters, but it is important to remember the first sentence of the novel: “I was only seven when this happened but it always feels like right now”. This novel is Bani attempting to reconcile the raw emotions of childhood with the more self-reflective intellect of an adult looking back at his own community and upbringing.
Perhaps, though, this is not a reflection of unreliable narration, but simply that, as a seven year old, it is almost impossible to understand the history and linage to which one is inextricably linked through the simple act of being born. Culture is only important when we make it so, and for someone who has not yet been taught the ins and outs of what it means to belong to the Tribe, the intricacies of the culture are a mystery, just as they are to us who view it from the outside. Though I wouldn’t argue changing this almost perfect novella in any way, it would be fascinating to revisit Bani ten years down the track, when he is more self-aware, and more mindful of who he is and what his background makes him.
The Tribe marks the arrival of something different on the Australian literary landscape. There are few other authors marking out the immigrant experience in Australia (early Tsiolkas springs to mind, as does de Kretser’s recent Questions of Travel), but Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s lyrical approach to an immigrant community living in harmony with its surroundings is something that needs to be more prominent.