I wrote the other week about the lack of diversity of voices in Australian literature, and singled out Giramondo Press for publishing The Tribe, a novel about Muslim Australians. I must eat my words here, and congratulate Penguin Australia for punting on Here Come the Dogs. Not only is this about non-white Australia, about a third of it is in verse.
Omar Musa is a celebrated slam poet and rapper, though his work has always tended more towards the literary and less towards mainstream hip hop. It is great, then, to see him turn to the novel—an art form perhaps intrinsically linked to the dead white man—and reappropriate it, tearing down some of the conventions we have come to expect, and instead force it to conform to his ideas.
Solomon, Aleks and Jimmy don’t fit in. A wake of ruined dreams lies behind them, and they now find themselves in their late twenties with little direction in life. Solomon once dreamt of being a basketball player. Aleks finds himself with a family that is less than perfect. And Jimmy doesn’t know who he is. Instead, they hang around the Town, arguing about hip hop and girls.
Some novels have titles that are natural, while others feel forced. There are others, still, that only make sense once you are in the thick of the action. For quite some time, the only dog in Here Come the Dogs is Mercury, a racing greyhound taken in by Solomon, who feels sorry for the animal. This is an animal that has been used and abused, simply for the entertainment of other people.
Though Here Come the Dogs is not explicitly set in Queanbeyan/Canberra, Musa’s background comes to the fore as he tries to explain what life is like in the Town and in the City. Anyone who has lived in Canberra or Queanbeyan, I suspect, will easily see these two cities in the novel: the City is where the public servants live in their bubble of hipster coffee, wide roads and public art, while the Town is the dirty cousin that everyone tries to ignore. Solomon, Aleks and Jimmy are the dogs of Australia, the ones that have been abandoned by everyone, left to fend for themselves once the shine wears off.
The Town is where Musa’s Australia lives: the Australia that is not all white, the Australia that is a little bit dangerous, the Australia that is forgotten by the political machine until it suits them. There are some very contemporary references here, including the recent moves against Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and it is clear that there is no love lost for politicians like Damien Crawford, a rather terrible (though depressingly accurate) caricature of much of contemporary Australian political discourse. And while this is a novel deeply concerned with the local, if one were so inclined, much of this could be expanded to the national without much stress.
In between the hip hop and the basketball, Here Come the Dogs is probably the closest we’ve come to a state of the nation novel from a young Australian writer in a long time. Though not as obviously angry as early Christos Tsiolkas, Musa is also trying to force the marginalised into the mainstream—an admirable project that hopefully gains traction. Here Comes the Dogs is a muscular portrait of an Australia that cries out for wider recognition.