The Other Half of You by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Michael Mohammed Ahmad is a force. His appearance on the ABC’s Q&A in 2018 is burnt into my brain. Never before had I witnessed such a scorching critique of racism in Australia on TV. While host Tony Jones teed-up Ahmad with questions about Peter Dutton, it was Jones himself and guests John Marsden and Trent Dalton whom Ahmad took to task – with the help of Maxine Beneba Clarke – dismantling their complacency on issues of race one swift blow at a time. Jones had labelled Ahmad’s Miles Franklin shortlisted novel The Lebs ‘confronting.’ Ahmad agreed and proceeded to confront some more, and I cheered him along, astounded that someone like me seized their moment on live TV to cut so directly to the heart of the Australian soul.
The process of truth-telling in Australia hardly consists of easy jabs at bogeymen like Dutton – it is broader, deeper. In the genteel milieu of letters we must also confront our complicity and complacency. And so I wonder how readers will receive The Other Half of You, the third book in Ahmad’s loosely linked autobiographical coming-of-age trilogy focusing on Bani Adam, a young Lebanese-Australian Muslim man now in his early twenties in Western Sydney. Bani is like ‘us’, in that he reads. He also studied Arts at uni and is a dedicated amateur boxer. But he is also caught between the traditional expectations of his family and community, namely marriage to someone within his tribe, and the aspirations of someone with a tertiary education and a desire to write.
You could argue that The Other Half of You is not as confronting as The Lebs. Written as a letter to his son – in short to explain how I came to be with your mother, an Anglo Australian – it is an uncompromising look into the struggles of migrant Australia, and glows with the tenderness and introspection granted by this formal epistolary device. It is a fundamentally generous book that deserves to be read carefully. Ahmad’s is a crucial voice.