Joshua Klarica reviews Son of Sin by Omar Sakr
By Omar Sakr
Reviewed by JOSHUA KLARICA
On Laylat al-Qadr, Islam’s sacred Night of Power, the young protagonist of Omar Sakr’s debut novel, Son of Sin, dies. Jamal is dead, if death is to be filled with the absence of what life could have been. On the night angels descend to wipe clean the slate, Jamal finally gives himself to desire of another boy and so comes alive in the same moment he suffers a more ancient, eschatological demise. Sakr’s novel then obsesses over the subtle parallels – simultaneous yet unable to meet – between what one can be born into and born as: into a lineage of faith and adherence, as a bisexual male. One demands the refusal of the other, and here begins the stasis from which young Jamal is ruled.
A prominent Sydney-based poet, Sakr’s turn to fiction is similarly preoccupied with the themes of The Lost Arabs, his earlier collection. Jamal is queer, gauche, third-generation Turkish Lebanese and subject of the novel’s bildungsroman plot. Like his counterparts in poetry, Jamal is cornered by the intractable ties of family and a modern identity floundering on diaspora legacy. Unrest is commonplace, thickening ‘the air, a vestige of the wars that flung his people here’ (p193). Yet life in Australia is preferred to Turkey and Lebanon, and such tension is ‘the smallest price to pay’ for it (p93). So, Jamal becomes the reprobate to this history’s largesse, the unbeaten track keeping in line of sight the path clearly set out by the labours and pains of his forbears.
The novel is demarcated into two passages of Jamal’s life. First, with his family during Ramadan as his schooling comes to an end, and, afterwards, temporarily relocating to Turkey to live with his estranged father. Jamal is a zombie throughout, fixated on desire yet pulled through events as though unable to oppose them, though agency were something not yet bestowed upon him within the echelons of family. The twain embodiments of Jamal’s sexuality and faith – obligations he vacillates between – accumulate victories against the other and in doing so gradually wear down Jamal’s resolve, a sort of death spiral that none around Jamal can name. Sakr offers the trials of a queer Muslim teenager as introspection on the mechanisms that drive these adjectives and challenge their absolutes.
To love a man as a man is the ultimate sin, and no shortage of his community fail to remind Jamal of this. His body tied to his sin, Sakr imbues Jamal with the ability of flight, often described as vacating the space he is in: Jamal disappears beside his mother as she smokes (p43); absents his body as he becomes a spirit up alongside the bats in the trees (p53); inhabits the feeling ‘inside (of) Ali’s heart,’ before ‘falling out of Jihad’s eyes,’ as his cousin’s battle (p62). By quitting the present so frequently, Jamal remains without voice to challenge while proving unable to detach from his community. Earlier in the novel, Jamal laments that ‘[t]here was no proof you could trust, except the word – that was the measure of faith, and perhaps why they kept failing’ (p26). There is no word to absolve Jamal. Community sustains the sublunary quagmire that jars Jamal’s psyche, burying him.
Sakr advances the plot chronologically but refuses to let Jamal dwell in the present. Jamal’s imaginative and histrionic nature, his circumstance, his criticism: all form a dragnet that preoccupies him. He yearns to be good but cannot wholly convince himself of what this means or looks like. Frequently, an instance of the present has its roots located far deeper within Jamal’s psyche: police violence harks back to Jamal’s first trip in a paddy wagon (p63); waving to the neighbours dredges up the confusion of Christian youth group attendance in boyhood (p78). Sakr insists we return to the origins of tragedy and tenderness as they continue to reappear. This is the world of which Jamal is convinced: everything comes from everything before it, blossoming, smothering, trampling.
Sakr’s prose is certainly fluent enough to accommodate this movement in time, however in pursuit of instantaneous depth Sakr can err toward an overreliance on this tool. Jamal routinely obsesses over what might have been and the ‘moment of possibility’ lost to him forever (p46), and such relentless undulations across time can begin to lose their punch. Take the example in which Jamal parses the wrong look that ignited the Cronulla Riots as comparable to the private instance of an irate cousin’s glare (p94). Electing to process such largescale violence through the prism of ones limited lived experience is consistent with Jamal’s impression of his centrality to misfortune, yet even by this relatively early stage of the novel such propinquity to this violence can seem somewhat shoehorned, while the motives of the riots require little interpretation.
Set circa 2005 and beyond, Jamal endures violence-induced lockdowns in Sydney’s west, the 2017 plebiscite and its bigots, toxic masculinity, Trump’s Muslim ban – all beside life’s more penetrating tragedies, the loss of loved ones, abandonment, sexual assault. Sakr constructs a teenager who is dramatic and colourful but withdrawn, so couples some of the darker moments of recent history with a difficult and burdensome teenage coming of age and coming out. Jamal does not have the fortune of subtlety in either of these quests, and Sakr doesn’t pretend he does.
In lesser hands, Jamal’s pessimism, buttressed by deleterious events, could threaten to overcook the significance of a life Sakr wants us to value. Yet while these events pile up, what rubbishes any threat of monotonality is the vitality of Sakr’s prose. In juxtaposition to Jamal, who has no ease within his language, Sakr shows how effortlessly he is able to move through it. Applying the poets whet for register, Sakr can make delicate the injustice of attacking, swarming police like water to sand (p61), and then describe someone as, simply, ‘fucking funny’ (p69); replacing page breaks with ampersands furthers the notion that this narrative is happening, and happening, both breaking the idea of chronological time and stuffing it; engaging motifs of bats, snakes, and ropes; the application of green and blue adjectives as markers of masculinity and caution – Sakr’s bag of tricks is precise and calculated, rendering the lines of Son of Sin with precision and care, leavening ruin with beauty, horror with lyric.
And yet, while queer stories like Jamal’s can often carve out a small space in which the subject achieves dignity and the welcome of complacency, make no mistake that Sakr is tempted here. Despite Jamal’s learning he has always been visible, and always held space, Sakr refuses to indulge this position as a resolution. Setting the narrative before significant social events of the recent twenty-first century seeks to remind the secular world that despite what progress may have been made, Abrahamic faiths remain bound to the word. For subsequent generations, diaspora presents an incongruity between old world virtues and contemporary practice. Jamal grapples with a family life that has ‘unconsciously replicated a way of being that no longer exist(s)’ (pg179), and always will, and so Jamal will continue to live a life on the edge, along the contiguous lines of faith: in what he is, and what he believes.
Following a skirmish between the police and his family, Jamal overhears his cousin, Fatima, recounting the story to friends. What starts as ‘tremulous’ and exciting eventually, by way of repetition, settles. Our stories can be sharp with life, says Sakr, though ‘each telling dull(s) the edge’ (p64). Jamal’s story is not unique of its time, yet its experience in Sakr’s hands is acerbic and candid and dedicated, like the first telling of a story. Rather than dulling, Son of Sin further prepares Australian literature for the normalising of queer religious lives within it, colouring a quietly suffering concentration of its populace, and suggesting there is a space to be held, if we allow there be.