Novelist George Haddad grew up in a world of women.
His father was ill and it was his mother, matriarch Nawal, who took charge of George and his five sisters who grew up in Concord and Strathfield in Sydney’s inner west, with weekends spent with extended family in neighbouring western Sydney.
“I was the kind of kid that was stuck and attached to my mum’s legs. I was always in these kind of spaces where women were having a yarn or talking about their experiences, it was never hidden from me,” Haddad says.
The world of men and women plays a central role in Haddad’s debut novel Losing Face following Joey, a mixed race Arab-Anglo teen from western Sydney, who finds himself a bystander at the scene of a sexual assault and navigating the criminal justice system.
Haddad will be appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year, exploring themes close to his heart and work. He will be in conversation with novelist Omar Sakr, discussing masculinity and sexuality, in a panel led by Tony Birch exploring class and running a workshop titled ‘Place, Identity and Queerness’.
The tensions of migration are also part of his own story. His own mother Nawal arrived in Australia from Lebanon as a bride at 18, and shared a house in Petersham with her husband, his brother and his wife.
Neither of his parents can read or write English. It’s a reality that Haddad says is both ‘freeing’ for his work, viewed by his family as a kind of mystery, but also laced with melancholy at the gulf, and wonder at what they would think of his sentences.
It was Nawal who was a natural born storyteller, filling the house with books and taking all her kids to the library.
“My mum always says, ‘I should have been born a man’,” Haddad laughs.
He came out to Nawal during the 2017 same-sex plebiscite, after being forcibly outed by an extended family member, an anxiety-fuelled process he admits was also a relief. His sisters warned him their parents would ‘die’ if they found out, forcing a temporary estrangement in his twenties. The reality has been an adjustment and gradual acceptance.
“(I realised) actually my mum is a staunch feminist, but in her own way and in her own community. She’s not out there on the picket line, but she’s absolutely doing the work of dismantling misogyny, showing women are very strong and capable of doing their own thing.”
Although his novel takes place in the present day, Haddad, 35, admits the 1999 Sydney gang rapes are seared in his memory. The trials opened up a torrent of media invective painting all Arab and Muslim men as predatory gangsters.
It is a risky subject matter, one that Haddad pulls off masterfully, weaving a compelling narrative, exploring peer pressure, masculinity and race. He exquisitely paints the backdrop of working class western Sydney, where Arab customers take their time mulling over vegetables at Greenacre’s Abu Salim superstore and Umm Kulthum blares on the radio.
Moving to London as a young man, Haddad reflected on living between macho adolescent sub-cultures and negative media representations that cast all men like him as suspicious.
“I didn’t realise until I was an adult and I lived around the world and had come back to Sydney. I was like, oh, hold on, that was dealt with in a really f****d up way. It traumatised and shaped a lot of our experiences as Arab Australians.”
After returning from London, in his mid twenties, Haddad enrolled in Melbourne University’s creative writing program. In 2016 he won the Viva la Novella prize for his first book Populate and Perish,and in 2018 he won the Neilma Sidney prize for his short story Kátharsis.
Now a doctoral candidate and sessional tutor at Western Sydney University’s Writing and Society Research Centre, Haddad says it was only when he held Populate and Perish in his hands – a story about a young man who travels to Lebanon in search of his father – did he feel like a ‘capital W writer’.
“We’re never writing these kinds of stories, thinking that they are part of the canon of Australian literature. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we grew up not reading these stories. So hopefully now that younger people are reading these stories, they’ll see how, ‘oh, actually literature is very wide in its scope’,” he says.
Haddad sweated about perpetuating stereotypes in the book and feared diminishing the experiences of the victim. But he also wanted to be truthful to the people and worlds he observed and write from a perspective he knew. The answer was to tell a specific story about a specific family.
“All I can do is paint this picture from a side that I kind of understand, and open that conversation.”
The result is a compassionate and pointed critique of toxic masculinity and its impact not only on women, but young men, informed by his own experience as a queer teen struggling to fit into the group: “When the guys I was hanging out with were discussing women in derogatory ways or thinking about them as purely objects to conquer, I was always like, okay, I’m uncomfortable, but I don’t really know how I’m supposed to address this.
“I only realised that it was fear now as an adult. At the time, this was just a code… I was scared they were going to say something about me. I was scared that they would get violent with me or spread rumours about me. I think that’s how Joey feels.”
Lauded by Tony Birch as a remarkable storyteller, Haddad’s book secures itself as part of a new canon of Australian literature. It’s a book he admits, he never consciously sought to write.
“I feel like it was just something that my body had to write. It was completely out of my control. I don’t remember deciding to write it. I just remember writing it.”
George Haddad is appearing at the following Sydney Writers’ Festival events: ‘Place, Identity and Queerness’ workshop, Saturday 14 May, 2–5pm; ABC RN: The Bookshelf panel, Friday 20 May, 1–2pm; ‘Why I’ve Stopped Going to the Barber’ talk, Saturday 21 May, 1.15pm; ‘Class Dismissed: At the Margins of Identity’ with Tony Birch, Saturday 21 May, 4–5pm; George Haddad and Omar Sakr in conversation, Sunday 22 May, 12–1pm; ‘Place, Identity and Queerness’ workshop, Sunday 22 May, 2–5pm.
The Sydney Writers’ Festival runs from 16 to 22 May: swf.org.au.