I recently submitted my doctoral thesis about the intersection of masculinities, shame and suburbia in Christos Tsiolkas’ The Jesus Man and Peter Polites’ The Pillars. The research was mainly around how that intersection may lead to violence and the loss of moral compass in men. The respective protagonists both engage in abhorrent behaviour—Tommy murders a man and castrates himself, and Pano poses as a gay Muslim refugee opposing the development of a mosque. I zig-zagged through both books multiple times over the years, alongside theory from Raewyn Connell, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Elspeth Probyn and Brigid Rooney. It felt right to read cis-male writers and characters through the lens of very intelligent women, most of them Australian too.
I didn’t read much for pleasure throughout those three and a half years because I often felt guilty if I wasn’t researching or writing. It means that I’ve ended up with a TBR pile that I keep adding to, which is annoying because I know that when it’s too tall I’ll give up on words entirely and go into the wild or something drastic like that. I came across the acronym ‘TBR’ on Instagram the other day. It grosses me out to use it. My undergrads said that there is a whole section on TikTok called BookTok, which I found fascinating, and when I asked about the kind of books that BookTokers suggest or review they told me about a popular series that started out as Harry Styles fan fiction on Wattpad. I had to Google ‘Wattpad’.
I have begun to prune my TBR pile. The first book was Other Houses by Paddy O’Reilly. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention to media and press around its release in March, but I feel like the book has kind of flown under the radar and that surprises me because it’s bloody good. I kept having to jolt myself out of its reality, and Paddy’s writing is a symphony that starts on one page, mellows out for a bit, and then ramps back up on another page. I love prose that simply asks you to sit in it while it simmers and stews. That’s not to say that there isn’t a gripping tension to Other Houses because there is, and I think all novels should have that otherwise we’re just reading atmosphere for three hundred pages. I’ve been thinking more about why I haven’t seen the book everywhere and maybe it has a lot to do with the literary scene in the colony—it’s fickle. Bound by trends. Sometimes those trends are wholesome, healing, but even when that happens it shouldn’t be a trend.
I was sent a copy of Dr Jackie Huggins’ Sister Girl in the lead up to appearing on a panel with her and Damon Galgut at the Sydney Writers Festival. Sister Girl is an amalgamation of her life’s work on identity, activism, history and reconciliation. Vital work like Jackie’s makes me feel small and makes fiction seem desperate. Here’s a stunning line from her Lowitja O’Donoghue oration in 2009: ‘How can we share in this country’s vast opportunity and prosperity if we don’t understand the basic principle of respect in working together.’
Speaking of books by authors I’ve been on panels with, and on working together, I was never sent a copy of Anwen Crawford’s astounding No Document, nor was I sent a copy of Second City (which I actually contributed to). Both books come from a publisher who struck me off his list after I told him my novel, Losing Face, was picked up by UQP. He was a co-supervisor briefly and early on in my candidature. One of the things he suggested I do in the novel was make the protagonist’s queer journey more traumatic since his family is Lebanese. Lol.
I’ve also been reading reviews of Losing Face even though writers aren’t supposed to admit to reading or caring too much about reviews. They have all been nourishing except for one. The review said sometimes my writing was like transcription—as if we’re too good for transcription now. It made me think a lot about how queer people are often misunderstood. It charges me to write more and to fuck shit up. I admire how David Malouf did that. He carved out his own vibe, but he had the luxury of not being funnelled into categories (the literary scene was misguided in other ways back then). David Malouf wasn’t really ever considered an Arab-Australian or a queer writer, he was just an incredible writer. I know that those categories serve a purpose and can occasionally be a good thing but I find them damaging and constrictive—not to my writing practice, but to its reception—it’s like always comparing an apple to last season’s apple. When I read An Imaginary Life recently, I was shaken by the bravado and the vigour in Malouf’s craft. In Nam Le’s monograph on the writer, he says that Malouf doesn’t defend, so much as he owns. We need more writing that owns, and more criticism that recognises that as being a writer’s intention.
My partner is writing an MA thesis about queer abstraction and archaeologies that will accompany his sculptures. I picked up one of his little theory books called Queering the Museum and the first quote I read was: ‘…the role of the critic is not to debunk, but to assemble, not to lift the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers but, rather, to offer participant arenas in which to gather.’ Good criticism isn’t authoritative, it acknowledges that it too is an attendee in the arena, is open to discussion. I do think there are concessions though, like when a hugely popular book whose reception has gone awry is being critiqued. Catriona Menzies-Pike does a hilarious and solid job of this when she recently critiqued Trent Dalton’s books on the Sydney Review of Books.
I’ve decided I’m only reading queer writers for the rest of the year. Which brings me to Eda Gunaydin’s Root and Branch. The book is sage, personal, funny. It asks very important questions about how to be. I was at the book’s Sydney launch and, towards the end of the event, and after a hearty discussion, Eda was accosted by a weirdo who was asking ridiculous questions because he was ‘worried’ that she was making dangerous political associations in her work. The Better Read staff were great at shutting him down and ushering him away. The encounter reminded me again that queer people are misunderstood and that we are still burdened by having to educate when we are just trying to enjoy our book launches.
When I was procrastinating from marking my undergrads’ creative-writing assessments the other day, I decided to clear out the bookshelf and found a gay manga book with an incestuous plot by Gengoroh Tagame. We must have inherited it from a conglomerate book collection in one of our many share houses. I’m glad we did because it’s fascinating and I’m shocked that it has taken me thirty-five years to read manga. After I read the whole thing on my sore knees in front of the bookshelf, I stood up and added it to the TBR pile.
George Haddad is an award-winning writer and artist practising on Gadigal land. His novel Losing Face was published by UQP in May 2022. His novella, Populate and Perish, was the winner of the 2016 Viva La Novella competition and his short story ‘Kátharsis’ was awarded the 2018 Neilma Sidney Prize. Haddad is currently a doctoral candidate and sessional tutor at the Writing and Society Research Centre, Western Sydney University.