KHALID WARSAME: There's only so much people of colour can say or do...
A personality quiz in his early teens predicted Khalid Warsame would be a journalist or author. That’s exactly how life has turned out.
Writer, editor, and arts producer, Warsame has forged a career in the Australian literary scene. A former fiction editor at the Lifted Brow and co-director of the National Young Writers Festival, Warsame is also in the process of writing his first novel.
His work has been featured in The Saturday Paper, Overland Literary Journal, The Big Issue and most recently the anthology Growing Up African in Australia.
MEET KHALID WARSAME.
KHALID WARSAME. I come from a family of one other person who reads books, which is my dad. Books and literature weren’t something I was initially into as a child, but I guess I developed a love for it in time.
I remember in prep my teacher used to give me a book to calm me down, if I was nervous or excited, or acting out. It set me up for a lifetime of quietly curling myself up in corners.
THE PIN. When did you get into reading?
I have a narrative in my head that I’ve talked about before, the truth is I can’t pinpoint an exact moment in my childhood of when I got into reading, or what it truly means to me. I suspect its like this for most people.
Is it the same with writing?
KW. Oh no, that’s different! Writing is something I wanted to do from the age of 11 or 12. I recognised early on that it was a lifestyle that suited me. I had a romantic and silly idea of being a writer, which doesn’t quite line up with the reality of it.
I remember doing an internet personality quiz when I was 13 or 14 years old. It told me that the profession that best suited my personality was a journalist or author. Those kind of things can be really influential to a child, and I’m glad it actually ended up working out for me. It just as easily could have been a disaster. Or it might be in the future. Who knows?
Your contribution to Growing Up African in Australia, Idle Thoughts, what is it about?
KW. In 2015 there was one of those typical moments where the Australian media discovered that there were African people living in this country, which they seem to do every few years. There was this thing about African youths and a brawl in Melbourne. Every time African people come into the news, I’m asked to write something about it, which I almost never do. I’m not very good at writing think pieces or writing in reaction to news cycles. I think that kind of writing can be important and interesting, and there are certainly a lot of writers who I admire—like Ruby Hamad, Sisonke Msimang, and Evelyn Araluen—who are able to turn around a thoughtful and deeply considered piece in reaction to a recent event, but I’m not one of them.
In this particular case, I had a piece that I had been working on and when I was approached by an editor to write something in reaction to those events, I sent it through. Looking back, I had wanted to write a polemic but there were specific length constraints, so it ended up being more of a personal essay.
It’s a strange essay, written in a style I had been experimenting with at the time, with long unwieldy sentences and a kind of strident, in-your-face voice, quite different from my normal writing voice, which is mild and a bit somber. The piece recalls specific events in my life, things like encounters with the police, and systemic racism and the impact it has had on my life and the lives of people around me in my community. If I wrote it again today, I don’t think it would write it the same way.
It would be interesting to see how you would change it…
KW. For one thing, I have stopped writing so overtly about race for the white gaze. I’ve grown disillusioned with the idea of educating white people by performing my life on the page. The pessimistic part of me believes there’s only so much you can say or do to convince others of your humanity.
People of colour in this country have been tearing ourselves open trying to tell people who we are and that we deserve more dignity and respect and I’m not interested in appealing to the empathy of white people, which has always been conditional. I’ve become disillusioned with the mode of writing toward ‘if only they could understand us and accept us.’
In separate conversations with contributors to the anthology Manal Younus and Rafeif Ismail we discussed the idea that there are two narratives placed upon people who have come to Australia as refugees - either you’re the successful refugee or the absolute failure. What are your thoughts on this?
KW. I think when we talk about narratives, we have to ask the question: who are these narratives for? Which Australia are we talking to? Are we talking to Australia as a settler colony that was explicitly built and continues to be maintained on a racialised grammar of subjugation and violence against Indigenous people? Or are we talking about an idealised version of Australia as a civil and tolerant society that is capable of welcoming and accepting people from different backgrounds, is dealing in an honest way with the original sins of its founding, is interested in human dignities and rights, and doesn’t have leaders that are willing to sell out their own citizens because it is politically expedient to do so? Because only one of those countries is a real one.
I think also that at a certain point one has to question if these narratives imply a lack of imagination, a lack of understanding, or if it is a deliberate strategy to marginalise folks? For how long can we talk about counter-narratives and fight against the dominant narrative, when the very notion of there being narratives at all is one that presupposes and privileges a white gaze?
It’s no surprise there are only two narratives, I think it suits a lot of people for there to be two narratives. I think the very notion of a narrative is suspicious. Why do our lives have to fit into a narrative, anyway? Why can’t we just be?
I know I sound frustrated when I talk about this, and I am, but I’m also hopeful that we can move beyond this idea that people’s right to live anywhere is conditional on a morally dubious acceptability test.
You’re currently working on your first novel, and you previously discussed moving away from writing certain narratives, what can we expect from your first novel?
KW. It’s the first manuscript length work that I’ve writing to the view of eventually publishing and is a culmination of a lot of my interests. I’m in the middle of writing, so can only speak about it vaguely, but basically it’s about an architect who is commissioned by an eccentric rich guy to design a building that he things will save humanity. In writing it, I’m thinking through a lot of the questions I have about bio-political orderings, the interactions between bodies and places, and how the built environment shapes our interactions with each other. It also explores the problem of not really knowing what is going on inside other people's heads and the body as a point of anxiety.
Getting back to Idle thoughts, I noticed power seems to be a key theme and character. Was it an intentional decision to place power as a character in the piece?
KW. That’s an interesting reading of it. I’d say yes, but there’s a lot to say. Power is persuasion and I was trying to write a piece that talked about the effect of power without having to explicitly name it. It’s a strategy to disarm the reader so that the persuasive work of the piece can be done by almost just slipping it under the door. I’m not sure how successfully I manage to do this.
Possibly it’s the impact of reading the anthology in its entirety, possibly it’s the impact of Idle Thoughts as a standalone piece…
KW. I’ve been reading the book as well and I think Idle Thoughts works much better as a part of the anthology than it does as a stand-alone piece. The essay requires you to do a lot of your own work, but as part of Growing Up African in Australia the context is already there.
The pieces surrounding it do the work and mutually reinforce aspects of the collection as a whole. It’s surprising how those things come together and how work can be transformed when placed together.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
KHALID WARSAME. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time being afraid and suspicious, so I probably would run away if I was confronted by someone claiming to be an older version of myself. However, if I did manage to corner younger me, I’d probably tell him that he should never start smoking and that a lot of what he’s being told about masculinity is a con.
Find Khalid at his website
Published May 2019