It’s rare that there’s such buzz around a short story before it’s even published.
Omar Sakr’s contribution to the anthology After Australia “White Flu” has already garnered the poet a contract to transform the short fiction into a book.
The story, about a flu that is rumoured to target white people - which was written before the global Coronavirus outbreak - has also raised considerable ire on Twitter including violent death threats for the author and unconscionable hate-traffic to his social media handle, including photos of the individual responsible for the Christchurch Massacre and footage from that event, targeting him.
The reaction was based solely on the first paragraph, shared by Sakr on the platform.
Sakr had shared the prose after seeing his story in print for the first time. “I was just really excited. I wanted to share the very first part – obviously I didn’t want to give it all away, I want people to buy the book, I want people to read the story and read all the other great contributors as well. I’m very aware of the absence of queer Arab Muslim literature. I know the scarcity of the kinds of work that I do. I’m always excited to share it. I didn’t expect to have such a vitriolic and violent response.”
The tweets are too explicit to share here, but they are a direct infringement of Sakr’s right to safety. I ask him about the risks he faces as a writer and whether they deter him in any way. For Sakr, the intensity of the response to “White Flu” is an escalation of anything that preceded it. He admits that he has some “racist blowback” for his work in the past but nothing at this level.
“All the trolls seemed to be feeding off each other,” he says of the intense chatter that followed his initial tweet. This included a thread on 4Chan and an article on a far right website that attacked his race, his sexuality and further amplified the perception that Sakr promotes the “erasure of whites” in this work.
In response, Sakr says: “They totally miss the irony of a piece of fiction with this premise when they send me literal images of Muslims being murdered. They have entirely missed the point.”
In the story itself, Sakr notes that there is an ambiguity if the disease, the “white flu”, only targets white people. In addition, the premise is a thoughtful interrogation of the ongoing racialisation of language around illness. The story questions the impact of this trend and asks what would happen if that was reversed.
“SARS, Ebola, Zika, MERS [Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome]…. Even though anyone can get those diseases, the way it is handled in the media and pinned to racism is striking,” Sakr says. He also mentions Donald Trump’s recent reference to the Coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus” as further evidence of this bias.
“The speed with which it [Covid-19] was racialised, and Asian people started getting attacked, validated my decision to create this fictional premise,” he says.
"I’ve not seen my story told. I’ve not seen my family’s story really told."
In addition, Sakr was thinking about what he calls the “white supremacist talking points in the mainstream media” in 2018 with the use of the term “white genocide" to describe attacks on South African farmers. What Sakr calls a myth, has been validated as such by organisations such as the Pulitzers and the BBC: “You can always be prescient when you look at history,” Sakr says of the language that referenced the “fictional premise of white demise”. Sakr reflects on what he sees as a bitter irony: “That phrase - white genocide - does inspire real violence; it does inspire white supremacist murders and violence. I wanted to ask, what would happen if I make it real in a story?”
Through the story “White Flu” Sakr hopes to make people confront their own prejudices. “This story is an indictment on Jamal, the central character,” Sakr says. “What I really want to tackle, in the novel as well as this story, is apathy. The fact that disasters happen everyday and we in the West, in particular, just go about our daily lives. This is being an Arab Muslim in the western world: seeing catastrophes happen to our people and our homeland, and everyone not giving a shit. I don’t understand it. I wanted to try to understand it by flipping it.”
Sakr says he looks forward to ongoing debate within his community. "I’ve not seen my story told. I’ve not seen my family’s story really told," he says. "I do think there is a lot of power and value in that and I hope that we do have that contest amongst each other. I’m much more confident we can do that non-violently than I am with white people of the sort who are replying to me on social media."
After Australia, edited by Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad, is published on 9 June by Affirm Press in partnership with Diversity Arts Australia and Sweatshop Literacy Movement. Other contributors include Ambelin Kwaymullina, Claire G. Coleman, Future D. Fidel, Karen Wyld, Khalid Warsame, Kaya Ortiz, Roanna Gonsalves and Sarah Ross. Hannah Donnelly, provides a context for the collection with a prologue, interlude and epilogue. You can buy the book here.
Dr Kylie Boltin is a Walkley award-winning producer/journalist and NSW Premier's Literary Award winning screenwriter.