Omar Musa and The Fire Down Under
You may perhaps find it unusual to come across a literary novel suffused with references to underground rappers like Jean Grae, Masta Ace and Oddisee. But Here Come The Dogs, a new novel by Omar Musa, tells the story of three displaced and frustrated young men in small town Australia who share a love of underground hip-hop culture and contains references to all the above-named musicians (and more). However that these hip-hop references are being made in Australia, where the story takes place, and not America, is perhaps even more surprising.
Musa, of Malaysian origin, is from Queanbeyan, New South Wales, Australia, a place he has described as an “alphabet of exiles.” He is an acclaimed poet, and has published two poetry collections, The Clocks and Parang, He is also an accomplished and active rapper as known for live Slam Poetry as he is for his printed work.
The novel is told in both first and third person, with flashbacks and dream sequences, and although the book contains long tracts of free poetry, the prose itself is remarkably lyrical. Flatblocks between houses are “like dice tumbled from an unseen hand”; construction cranes, “like predatory birds.” A boy lighting leaves on fire creates “his own handheld Hiroshima.”
One imagines the main characters as folks Musa might have known growing up. Solomon, Jimmy and Aleks are all hardcore rap fans. Solomon is half-Samoan and orphaned, a womanizer and failed basketball star who seeks a meaningful life. His half-brother Jimmy, a call-center worker and amateur beatmaker, dreams about the return of his own father (different from Solomon’s) while he saves up for a car. Aleks, a barely-literate “Maco”–a Macedonian immigrant–is brutal to his enemies and gentle to his friends. “Guns are nothing new to him–in the Balkans, most homes would have one,” Musa writes.
Scarlett, the only female protagonist, is a New Zealander of Chinese origin who speaks “rudimentary Samoan.” She is a tattoo artist and b-girl who strives to surmount the dead-ends Australia offers her. “You want it uncomplicated. But it doesn’t come like that–it only comes broken and weird,” she tells Solomon, describing the difference between she and he…