It is wonderful to have the Malaysian-Australian poet and author Omar Musa for our ‘Behind the Book’ segment. Omar has released three poetry books, four hip-hop records, written an acclaimed one-man play (Since Ali Died), and received a standing ovation at TEDx Sydney at the Sydney Opera House. His debut novel Here Come the Dogs was published in 2014 and was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and the Miles Franklin Award. He’s back with a bang with his latest release Killernova.
You got drawn to traditional woodcarving techniques in Borneo. Was it there when you thought you must write this book?
Omar- It was probably in February when I knew that I wanted to get something out this year that reflected a bit of a new state of mind and maybe where I was at artistically as well. This has also been the first time when the art I created came from a more joyful, playful place as opposed to the darkness that often defined my previous work. I thought this would be a nice snapshot of a new artistic direction.
How did you come up with the title Killernova?
Omar- I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me about the title of this book. To be honest, it was a word that I invented because I misheard the real word. The actual word is Kilonova. And I thought it was a Killernova because it was so destructive. Around 130 million years ago, when two stars or black holes combined, there was an explosion. I thought it meant that it killed everything at its par. I had used that word as a metaphor for when a huge cataclysmic event happened in our past. Even though their effects are invisible to the human eye, they’re still all around us, and they inform the way we behave.
I also wanted this book to be like an explosion of ideas, so that way the book is also a kilonova.
Let’s hope this book explodes in every bookstore and becomes a megaseller.
Omar- Let’s hope so. Once you put your work out into the world, it’s no longer yours. Hopefully, it resonates with people, and that’s something they can enjoy.
How does it feel to see the labour of your love finally out in the world?
Omar- I would say at the moment for me, it’s 50-50 vulnerability, fear, nervousness, and then on the other side, gratitude. Most of us wake up with different anxieties and fears. And one of the best ways I’ve found to combat those fears is to remember what I’m grateful for. When I get nervous thinking about how will people judge me? Will they not like what I’ve put out there? Will they hate my writing? Then I also feel grateful even to have this opportunity, to be able to put my words on paper and have it out there in public.
You’re a master of all trades, whether it’s poetry or rapping or novel writing. Which form of art would you say is more challenging to write?
Omar- I think the novel have tested my discipline the most. I found writing the novel the hardest thing, and you can tell because I’ve released four hip-hop albums, three poetry books (now four) but one novel. It takes a particular type of concentration over a long period of time.
You mentioned, “I carve my stories in wood. My ancestors sailed in wood; they will carry me out in wood.” Do you wish to say something about it?
Omar- I was trying to get into the complexities of what wood means to me, historically, but also in the present day. I talk about this beautiful connection that I’ve been able to find with my ancestors.
Can you describe your writing experience for Killernova?
Omar- This book is all about layers. I tried to create a book that seems like a bright, colourful, fun experience, but also, when you go deeper, there are all sorts of complexities and levels. Even in the poem, Nutmeg, there’s a metaphor of a cake that has all kinds of layers in it, but you can’t see them until you slice it. That’s the same with our lives.
Killernova has a great collection of poems. Do you have any favourites that you’re most attached to?
Omar- I feel Nutmeg. There’s another one called Paleochannel which is probably one of my really honest poems. I was initially scared to write that.
You also mentioned in the book- ‘I hate everything I’ve ever written, and I will hate this too’. What makes you say that?
Omar- I think this goes for many people, that there’s an inbuilt sense of discontent. I have an eternal frustration that I’m not able to perfectly depict or articulate my thoughts because the language or a brushstroke with a carving tool is by nature imperfect. That also makes it beautiful, but I find frustration when trying to convey this vision that I have in my head.
What do you believe readers are going to take away from reading Killernova?
Omar- I hope that it helps people get through their hard times. Whatever they’re dealing with- whether it’s depression or addiction problems or heartbreak, hopefully, this book will relieve some of their sorrows. Also hope that it exposes readers to a part of the world that they might not have ever known or thought about. I want to build a bridge with this book for people to think about or learn something new.
The book also speaks about the isolation of lockdown. So, what was your coping mechanism?
Omar- Well, it was very difficult. I do live by myself. I found help in seeking mental health advice from professionals, exercising, gardening, and then at a very elemental level, letting my imagination fly. Especially through writing and through my woodcuts. I was also trying to cook some good meals now and then.
How many rewrites did you have to go through for Killernova?
Omar- Oh, there were a lot of rewrites. The whole front section was not set in Southeast Asia. Because I knew it was coming out in Australia, it was all about Australia. About the flag, about bushfires, and Queanbeyan. Then I thought the stuff that I was most passionate about and proudest of were about Borneo and Eastern Malaysia and Indonesia, and the ocean and the waves, so I started over again.
When you’re not writing, what do we see you doing?
Omar- Oh, I love playing basketball, Thai kickboxing. I love gardening. I do a lot of it. I grow rare chillies that I buy online. So overall- exercising, gardening and then cooking.
What are you working on next?
Omar- I’m writing a play for a Sydney Theatre Company. I come from a theatrical family, but I haven’t worked much in the theatre. So, I’m quite nervous. But it should be exciting to work with actors and to write for someone other than myself. I’ve also been surrounded recently by a lot of glass artists. I am hoping that if I stick around long enough and I’m lucky, maybe I could work with glass at some point. And then I would love to make another book like this, but with recipes like a Cookbook.
Killernova was published on 30th November 2021 by Penguin Books Australia. You can purchase the book here.
Read our book review for Killernova here.