Reviewed: George Haddad, Populate and Perish, Xoum Publishing
The idea of a ‘motherland’ remains a strong motif in the mind of the migrant. For those of us directly or indirectly displaced by war, economic aspiration and/or existential opportunity, the motherland has an enduring meaning: while not necessarily a ‘home’, it may call to mind roots, beginnings, a sense of tradition, an ‘authentic’ sense of self. I’d even say it’s a diasporic obsession, at least for the sheer force of its presence in the art created by members of different diasporas.
But this obsession is often oversimplified for its allegorical power alone. It is, I suppose, a part of human nature to seek out our origins, in order to get closer to solving the puzzle of the self. Going back to where we came from, even if this place of origin may have been diffused by centuries of movement and imperialism.
In George Haddad’s debut novella Populate and Perish—winner of the 2016 Seizure Viva la Novella prize—the motherland is estranged, found and lost again. Those familiar with Australian history may recall Arthur Calwell’s infamous post–World War II slogan ‘populate or perish’, when it was feared that the Australian settler colony would die out if there were no new (European) imports. The decades following inverted the slogan: the new imports rallied against further imports of those they didn’t deem worthy—even though their new home hinged on the bloody displacement of Indigenous inhabitants in the first place. Populate and Perish is surely a reference to post-millennium conservative clarion calls (the book is set in the first decade of this century, in a time of Safeways, no smartphones and print copies of VICE magazine), when xenophobic fears of population growth were presented as environmental and economic concerns.
But this book doesn’t centre exclusion so much as locate joy and vigour in spite of life’s injustices. Nassim (mostly known as ‘Nick’) is a call centre worker turned sex worker. He is ‘treading water’, someone with ‘no boyfriend’ and ‘no career’, an apathetic and disenchanted second-generation Lebanese-Australian gay man who just wants to get on with as few hitches as possible. During a casual conversation in a coffee shop with his earnest and politically-minded twin sister, Amira, they decide to visit their place of birth—Lebanon—to try to find their father, whom they’ve never met, and to whom their now-deceased mother always referred to as ‘the kalb’ (‘the dog’).
Much of Populate and Perish revolves around this trip, a sort of tentative homecoming disguised as a holiday. As Nick reflects early in the novella, after his white yoga buddy Holly expresses excitement on his behalf, ‘I couldn’t feel the excitement she was describing about the trip, it was just something that had to be done.’
As with the many books that use the subject of ‘homecoming’ as an axis with which to explore the idea of cultural identity and ‘belonging’, Populate and Perish leans into the feeling of strangeness amid familiarity. During their layover in Abu Dhabi, Nick is proud of being able to recognise the Arabic announcements sounding over the PA, even if he had nearly, by accident, pissed into a trough meant for washing in a Muslim prayer room. A shop in Beirut emits smells that remind him of his mother’s pantry, yet he finds it peculiar when the agent for their rented apartment arrives and makes ‘no attempt to park the car conventionally’.
He tries making out with a man on the dance floor of a secret queer club, only to be pushed away (‘we couldn’t do that here’). Amira is constantly fascinated by the sights and sounds of Beirut. When they finally meet up with their mother’s sister’s family, their aunt Muna, ahmou (uncle) Michael and cousin Jalal, some things begin to click into place.
But it is also at this point where the idea of ‘homecoming’ is complicated: while Nick and Amira derive a sense of gratification from hearing about their mother’s pre-migration life, they find out that her family had not been Muslim; she had converted to Islam after a marriage of convenience to the mayor’s son Ahmed. After they discover that Ahmed had committed sins against the religion, the mayor—guarding against the moral judgements that would inevitably come from their fellow townspeople—arranges to send Nick, Amira and their mum to Australia. This clue prompts a further search for their father that leads them to his brother Hassan’s house, only to reveal another version of their parents’ story. It is possible that their father had left for Australia with them, but even that is uncertain. As Hassan divulges, ‘We never heard from Ahmed again.’
Through frank, conversational prose, Haddad evokes a buoyant atmosphere that, while literal at times, is propelled by a sinuous plot that is filled with constant surprises. Beneath Nassim’s and Amira’s search for their roots is also a story about migration’s failed promises and the tragedy of family secrets. For those of us not lucky enough to be born into families where ancestral records are neatly preserved across generations, how can we ever really know the truth of our origins? For reasons that include civil strife, family estrangement, so-called disrepectability, shame or an impulse just to ‘move on’ in a new place of residence that prioritises survival, histories become engulfed by the present.
When Nick realises that their search for ‘the kalb’ has reached a dead end, he muses: ‘There was nothing to do except look out at Lebanon and accept it for what it was, for its cedar trees, its caves, its concrete. For breeding us, regardless of who our parents were.’
The pursuit of resolution that persists in much of the Western canon is largely a literary trope inherited from ancient Greek literature; the satisfaction of a cute little bow tie is often preferred over a sense of fatalism or unknowability. Even in a time when the idea of a capital-C ‘Canon’ is increasingly under pressure, one could argue that it still lingers in much fiction originating from the Anglosphere, stories that juxtapose an agon and a telos. Sometimes we see this reflected in Anglophone diasporic literature, where a happy ending is given precedence over the trauma that protagonists endure: the refugee finds peace in their new home; the poor immigrant works hard and becomes wealthy; the queer person finally comes out and is accepted; et cetera. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these types of stories—they can serve as a respite from the harsh realities of life, an offering that privileges fantasy. But what of the many tricky facets of existence that simply cannot be reconciled? Fiction, sure, but at least give me one goddamned inkling of plausibility.
Haddad’s lack of interest in resolving Nick’s story feels deliberate. The tension of Populate and Perish is that there is no way to know. Towards the end of the book, after the twins’ return to Melbourne, Nick experiences a moment of vulnerability and calls Amira (‘Do you think mum lived a nice life?’). In turn, she reassures him: ‘Nicky, don’t think about it too much. Mum lived, she lived and died and that’s all we know.’ This could be read as a conception of time that is expansive and non-linear; a non-Western understanding of time that ties corporeality to an assembly of pasts, and yet is also a part of many possible futures. Or, as Amira posits, ‘But what if we just let fate fashion us? What if we just let life wheel us along organically without so much resistance and intervention?’
If Haddad falters slightly in the closing pages—the last scene is set outside a bulk-billing clinic where Nick gets into a minor altercation with a woman who insists on being the first patient to be seen at the clinic and who, when rebuked, resorts to racist retorts, only for a man to step in and abruptly be seized by a cardiac arrest on the street—it has more to do with the persnickety requirements of narrative. As the man takes in his final breaths, Nick attempts to provide comfort and unthinkingly calls him ‘Ahmou’, which triggers a visceral response: ‘The man reacted to the word “ahmou”, as though he had just realised something … “Nassib,” he said, as he took one last breath and departed.’
This review is full of spoilers, but it is impossible to comment on the book’s intentions without referring to its very last lines, which despite their heavy-handedness are imbued with both finality and limbo. At the mention of ‘nassib’, Nick thinks, At first I thought he had said my Arabic name, Nassim, but I quickly realised what he said was nassib, the Arabic word for fate. Then he literally walks away. This meta deus ex machina would seem lazy in another book, but here it serves to bring home its central logic: that reconciliation is nothing more than an illusion, a fruitless wish that is best left to the unexpected. •
Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in the Lifted Brow, the Saturday Paper, Kill Your Darlings, Swampland and Overland, among others. She is an editor at Liminal Magazine and a commissioning editor at the Feminist Writers Festival.