Tag Archives: George Haddad

The Book Group and George Haddad’s Losing Face

George Haddad, Losing Face (UQP 2022)

Before the meeting: This book is part of the wealth of interesting new writing to come from culturally complex Western Sydney over recent decades. I’ve blogged about some of it, including poetry by Maryam Hazam, Eunice Andrada and Sara M Saleh, and fiction by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Luke Carman, Felicity Castagna and Suneeta Peres da Costa. I have mentioned George Haddad at least once in this blog, for his short story ‘Broken Zippers‘ in Overland 237. This is his first novel.

Joey is in his late teenage years, part of a Christian Lebanese community in Western Sydney, working in a supermarket and pretty aimless. He’s friendly with Emma, who (I think) is an ‘Aussie’, which in this context means of British or Irish heritage. Joey’s Aussie father has been absent for most of his life. He gets on well with his mother, and their mostly amiable bickering is a key pleasure in the first chapters. Joey’s younger brother occasionally looks up from his phone to join the conversation. Tayta Elaine, Joey’s grandmother and the family matriarch, completes the portrait of a warm, supportive, noisy family.

Trouble starts for Joey elsewhere. He goes to a music festival with Emma, his best friend Kyri, and Boxer, who’s a bit of a bully from school days. The drug-infused euphoria of that event takes a dark turn when Boxer and Emma start to make out, but the real trouble comes a couple of weeks later when Joey and Kyri again go out with Boxer and an even worse bully: the four of them pick up a young woman, Lisa, on the train, drugs are involved, and they sexually assault her. What had been charming and engaging sketch of life in a particular community now coheres into a narrative charged with moral jeopardy.

The story is plainly told. In particular, the story of what happens with Lisa is given without evasive language. Joey is not a witness to the worst parts of what happens, and we are given all the mitigating circumstances, but we do see how he participated in precise detail, including the moment soon after the event when he apologises and she acknowledges his apology. But she goes to the police the next day, and Joey and the others are charged sexual offences. Joey’s friends’ and family’s disappointment and anger leave him isolated, and the approaching trial becomes the focus of the narrative. As readers we see a lot of nuance, but though we feel for Joey, the question of accountability hangs heavy over the story – so that the outcome of the trial becomes a secondary consideration. It’s beautifully done.

Meanwhile, Tayta Elaine’s story unrolls in alternate chapters. Apart from being a widowed matriarch, she is addicted to gambling, and much of her sections is taken up with her internal self-negotiations in which she justifies feeding far too much of her pension into poker machines and committing mild frauds to stay afloat. These sections are much less convincing. I feel they were there as necessary ballast to Joey’s story: his generation isn’t the only one to be morally compromised. But this narrative doesn’t grab with nearly the same force.

While thinking about this blog post, I read a short review of the book by Bri Lee in The Monthly. My impression that she is uncomfortable at being asked to empathise at all with a character involved in sexual violence, but she’s too polite to repudiate the project outright:

Joey believes his part in the crime wasn’t as bad as others. What’s often excruciating for a post-MeToo reader is to try to divine whether or not the author believes in outdated ideas or if it’s just the characters who do. Losing Face walks this very old tightrope: what is the difference between re-presenting the problem and actually critiquing the problem?

This is quite misleading. It’s not just Joey who sees his ‘part in the crime’ that way. Lisa doesn’t want him charged, and police charge him with a lesser crime. This is not to say he’s blameless or that he sees himself as blameless. He’s racked with guilt and doesn’t know what to do. There’s very little resource around for him. Bri Lee concludes her review, ‘Elaine is looking at herself in the mirror at the end of the book. Joey is not.’ We must have read different books. In my reading Elaine has gone even further down the path of addiction and bad stuff has happened to her, but she has little or no insight into her own responsibility for her misadventures (not that we blame her, given her tragic back story): she sees only that men are bastards. Joey, by contrast, has decided to change his life.

I hope it’s not a spoiler to give you part of the book’s final conversation between Joey and Tayta. If a mirror is involved, Tayta may be holding it up, but it’s Joey who is looking at himself:

‘I tell you something, Joey. Deep in the mind, any man from all time, no matter what they like to fuck – women, other men, goats – deep in the mind, they still believe woman is weaker than man.’

She stood up. Joey was empty.

She walked towards the garden and kicked with her slipper at a weed growing from a crack in the concrete until it dislodged. ‘And this is why that shit happen to the young girl in the car park with you and them kleb.’ She sounded like she was swallowing her tears. She bent over, picked up the weed and flung it into the garden. ‘And this is why, all around the world, men always doing shit to women in car parks.’

Joey’s anxiety had indeed lifted like magic earlier, and it turned like magic too.

(Page 256)

Just before the meeting I reread the book’s Prologue, which I had forgotten. It’s in the form of an Arab folktale about a terrorising djinn who agrees to leave the women of a camp alone if they gave her the manhood of all their boys. The women do so, and when the little boys grow up, they don’t grow beards, have no gusto for work and must be led, confused, through the desert.

I went into the meeting wondering what to make of that, and wondering what anyone else had made of Bri Lee’s review.

The meeting: This was the first time many of us had been together in person for a long time. We marvelled at the excellence of the bring-a-plate meal, and the luxury of sitting maskless around a table to eat it.

It took us a while to get to Losing Face. Our host was fresh from a battle with a government department in his local area, and there was much experience-based lamentation about bureaucracies. I was able to relay some wise words passed on to me by an employee of that department who had heard it from an old man when he was young: ‘Always remember that the department has no heart to break and no arse to kick.’

We all liked the book. In the process of discussing it, we came to appreciate the way our sympathies and expectations were managed. At first, the sexual assault scene feels like a nasty incident that may well turn out to be one of a sequence. Joey does his best to reassure himself that he’s a decent person, and as we go along with him, or not, we’re uneasy about the moral universe of the novel. When the police knock on Joey’s door it comes as a surprise, and we’re ambivalent: we’re apprehensive for Joey, who has our sympathy, but relieved that this is not going to be a novel in which the main character descends into callous depravity.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but will say that for such a short novel, Losing Face includes a lot of complexity about moral responsibility and the workings of the law. I’d forgotten some of the surprise twists of the legal proceedings.

Joey’s Aussie father – who turns up when Joey is in trouble – struck a chord with our gathering of mostly Aussie-fathers. A little paradoxically, the Western Sydney setting felt familiar and somehow comfortable to us inner-western Sydney types. There’s a queer dimension to the story, which someone felt was a bit tacked on, but someone with relevant experience said his gaydar went off very early in the book. Someone asked, ‘What will Joey do next?’ and we realised that the ending is wide open. I think we all felt that he’s in the process of changing his life, that he’s not going to just shrug off the whole episode, but we had a number of scenarios.

This month’s Chooser was one of the two who couldn’t make it to the meeting. Sadly he had to bask remotely in the glory of having chosen well.

Overland 227 & 228

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 227 (Winter 2017)
—-, Overland 228 (Spring 2017)

overland227It’s not that I read Overland out of obligation, but I do feel guilty if I leave an issue sitting on my to-be-read pile for too long because – among other things – Overland offers left perspectives that aren’t all that easy to come by elsewhere in the Australian media. So here’s a slightly guilty blog post about the two most recent issues.

The star of the winter issue (No 227) is Evelyn Araluen. The journal kicks off with her article ‘Resisting the Institution: On Colonial Appropriation, which takes recent activism around statues commemorating colonial ‘heroes’ as a starting point, and develops into a (for me at least) powerful introduction to the field of decolonial theory (as opposed to postcolonial theory):

Decolonial theory provides the Indigenous subject with the tools to deconstruct and challenge colonial infiltrations into our worlds and minds, but decolonial practice within the academy is restrained to that which the institution regards as profitable. In other words, it is safely contained within the classroom, in the form of critical frameworks, unsettling questions or creative-thinking asseignments. Outside of the university, I have given late-night workshops on decolonial theory to anywhere between two and 200 people, often squished together in a leaky tent.

Later in the journal her short story Muyum: A Transgression, winner of the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, is equally powerful and challenging.

There are the regular columnists, Giovanni Tiso (on owning and keeping books), Alison Croggon (on kindness as a political act), Tony Birch (on his family history, racism and the Australian constitution) and Mel Campbell (on where writers’ ideas come from –  ‘an idea is a promise, not a commodity’). There are solid articles on the gambling industry (by Dan Dixon), tiny presses that publish poetry in Australia (Kent MacCarter), GLBTQ+ politics in contemporary Singapore (Ng Yi-Sheng), Professor Richard Berry and scientific racism (Helen Macdonald), and how much social transformation we can really expect from technological advances under capitalism (Lizzie O’Shea). ‘Pregnant in Mexico’ by Tina Cartwright is a tiny memoir that feels as if it was carved, to good effect, from a longer piece.

There are two short stories in addition to Evelyn Araluen’s prizewinner. ‘Broken zippers‘ by George Haddad, which could serve as a grim companion piece to SBS’s Struggle Street, stands out for me.

There are fourteen pages of poetry. The two poems that spoke most strongly to me are ‘Crossing Galata, Istanbul‘ by John Upton, a tourist poem acutely aware of the limits of its touristic perspective (that’s a mangled quote from Adam Aitken), which captures the feel of Galata Bridge in Istanbul; and ‘The Apology Day breakfast‘ by Ali Cobby Eckermann, which is what it says on the lid, but with a deep, bitter-sweet twist.

The winter issue features the weird photomedia work of guest artist Yee I-Lann.

overland228Sadly, I hadn’t read all of the spring issue (No 228) before it mysteriously went missing on a trip to the supermarket. as a result my vote  for the outstanding items mightn’t be completely valid. But I recommend this edition for Eileen Chong’s poem ‘The Task’ and Olivier Jutel’s article ‘Paranoia and delusion‘.

The Task‘ (do read it at the link; it’s short) is at first blush a straightforward childhood memory of eating crabs, but it drew me in on a number of levels. First, a splendid moral complexity: the crabs have eyes, so we – and the remembered child – know they’re sentient, so there’s no minimising of what’s involved when they are killed and pulled apart, but at the same time there’s frank enjoyment of eating them. Then the opening – ‘We fished with lines, not nets’ – suggests a whole other, metaphorical reading: so by the time we reach the final couplet there’s a strong sense that we’re not talking about crabs any more, at least not only crabs, but something about Chong’s creative process as well:

I left the claws to the others,

preferring only what I could mine
through my own precise undoings

Olivier Jutel’s article is a formidable intervention into the general conversation about Donald Trump.

Domestically, he has mobilised, however chaotically, the most retrograde forces in American society, who experience through him a carnivalesque transgression in ‘Making America Great Again’ one tweet, post and triggered liberal at a time.

He had me at ‘carnivalesque’. The article goes on to rip into the ‘liberal’ media’s obsession with the Russia connection, seeing in it a revival of Cold War emotions, and argues that the Democratic Party is completely at a loss for an adequate political response to the Trump phenomenon, falling back on, among other things, ‘the libidinal deadlock of politics as comedy’. I can’t claim to have followed the whole argument (Jutel is a PhD candidate who quotes Lacan), but if you feel the need of a gust of fresh air amidst the abundant Trump-based sarcasm and despair, this could be the article for you.

Again the regular columnists are worth reading: On coal by Tony Birch (who quotes Murrawah Johnson, spokesperson for the Wangan and Jagalingou community, ‘We’ve seen the end of the world and we’ve decided not to accept it’); On experimentalism by Mel Campbell; On confusing reason and authority by Alison Croggon. Giovanni Tiso has a full-blown article, ‘Dynamite for the people‘, a lively piece on the European anarchists of the late 19th century, and how they differ from 21st century terrorists.

There are, as always, solid articles: Jessica Whyte on the politics of human rights; Mark Riboldi on virtual reality in fact and fiction; Roqayah Chamseddine on conspiracy theorists, those that are nutty and those that turn out to be right. I lost my copy before I got to Michael Brull on Saudi Arabia and Qatar or Chris di Pasquale on religious freedom under the Soviets: they’re up on line or soon will be, but I have trouble with sustained reading from a screen, so I’m sadly giving them a miss.

I did read the winners of the VU Short Story Prize: the winner, Breeding Season  by Amanda Niehaus, and first runner-up, Wharekaho Beach, 1944 by Allan Drew are both excellent. I missed the discussion between Jennifer Mills and Peter Carey about his short story ‘Crabs’, first published in Overland an amazing 45 years ago. It’s a nice idea for an institution like Overland to revisit past glories – I hope there are more interviews like this in the pipeline.