Spotlight On / Adrian Mouhajer

‘I really believe there’s a lot of ancestral knowledge that pertains to the power of storytelling. It’s not only a way to bridge cultural gaps but also a way to teach, critique systems, and build community.’

In our Spotlight On series, we chat with a member of the Writing NSW community to celebrate their success and learn more about their writing practice. This month we put the spotlight on Adrian Mouhajer, spoken word poet, writer and editor of the anthology Stories Out West. Adrian spoke with our Administration Officer, Nevenya Cameron, about their latest short story, editing other writers’ work to inspire their own and the power of storytelling to understand one another.

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Congratulations on having your piece ‘Driving a Mercedes but Living in a Rental’ published in Sweatshop’s latest anthology Povo. In only two pages, you capture the class divides prevalent in the Lebanese community in Sydney. What were the challenges of conveying this theme when working with such a short form?

Thank you! Writing in short form doesn’t come naturally to me. I like to write how I talk, which means I can be pretty wordy. My first draft was way longer than it needed to be. I was so focused in on getting every detail right, even the ones that didn’t really matter in the long run. I can be a bit of a perfectionist, unfortunately.

Cutting down my writing has always been a bit tough for me, but my mentor, Winnie Dunn, has been a huge help in that regard. She’s really taught me a lot about “culling your darlings” i.e trimming the fat when you’re editing your own work. It’s easy to get attached to your own writing, and it’s easy to get sentimental when you’re writing about someone you love. But I wanted to make sure my piece was meaningful, not just sentimental, so I had to be strict with myself when cutting out sentences and let go of some personal favourites. And I’m glad I did! The final draft turned out way better than I had ever expected.

I’m looking forward to working on more short-form writing, like vignettes. It’s a challenge to say more with fewer words, and I’m excited to continue to develop my skills across the board when it comes to writing.

You edited Stories Out West (2023), an anthology exploring the queer POC experience in Australia’s most multicultural area. How does editing other people’s work inform your own creative writing practice?

Winnie Dunn really hit the nail on the head at her recent book launch for Dirt Poor Islanders at Better Read than Dead [bookshop]. I remember nodding furiously when she started talking about learning the most about writing and how to be a good writer through editing other people’s work at Sweatshop. I feel like I’ve learned so much more about how to improve my writing and being a good writer through editing the work of other writers, not only in Stories Out West, but in workshops as well.

Sweatshop really kickstarted my growth as a writer with their monthly writing workshops. I’ve learned so much through not only receiving feedback, but also giving feedback to others. Critically listening to someone else’s work and then figuring out how to give helpful feedback really makes me think about my own writing and what I could be doing better as well.

Sometimes, I spot things in other people’s writing I hadn’t even noticed I was doing in my own. It’s a real eye-opener and helps me think more critically about my work and informs my own creative writing practice extensively. It also helps me discover new ways to tackle issues in my own writing that other writers may be struggling with.

Stories Out West was my first foray into the formal editing world, and it was a real privilege to be able to work with writers like Jenny Nguyen and Mark Mariano. I learned so much from developing and editing creative pieces with each of the writers. I was surprised to find how inspiring editing someone else’s work could be.

Every time I read Stories Out West, I can’t help feeling so happy and proud of all the writers involved. I really can’t express enough appreciation for the way they trusted me with their work, and I couldn’t be prouder of what we all created together. They really put their heart and soul into it.

Editing is such a transformative process, and both writer and editor learn so much about writing through that process. Watching each piece go from a workshop chat to a rough draft and then going back and forth with edits to a final polished version is a pretty amazing thing. Some of the stories changed so much along the way, you’d never think they were once the same piece.

Seeing other writers’ work evolve like that continues to remind me of the potential in my own writing, which inspires me to continue my creative practice and develop my skills further.

In the introduction to Stories Out West, you write:

‘Throughout many conversations with our parents, we’ve found that the tools we initially used to discuss gender and sexuality have been crafted from White ways of talking … Our parents believed that we had become ‘Westernised’ and that we wanted to detach ourselves from our culture.’

How do you feel storytelling can bridge cultural gaps in understanding queerness?

I really believe there’s a lot of ancestral knowledge that pertains to the power of storytelling. It’s not only a way to bridge cultural gaps but also a way to teach, critique systems, and build community. Storytelling is a form of resistance—it helps preserve culture and identity.

First Nations people have been the original storytellers on this land for eons, and for them, storytelling isn’t just a cultural practice—it’s how they keep their identity alive. In Palestine, storytelling also holds immense significance, serving as a didactic tool, a form of political critique, and a cornerstone for communal identity. It is important to continue to amplify the stories that are coming out of Gaza, especially in the wake of the ongoing genocide. We need a ceasefire. And we need it now.

Stories are incredibly powerful. Storytelling can bridge cultural gaps and foster understanding, in not only queerness, but in almost anything because it puts an issue into a context that makes it far more relatable and accessible for a wider range of audiences.

When we share stories based on our own experiences, especially those that cross different parts of our identity, it can really help people understand more complex and diverse experiences of gender and sexuality. Storytelling helps you find that common ground to open up conversations and build up empathy. As an example, I found it much easier to approach discussing trans experiences with my father in the context of religion, because I was able to start from a common point.

In our religion, there’s a fundamental understanding that the soul and body were separate at one point before you are born, and that it stands to reason that sometimes a soul can end up in the wrong body. When this happens, there are things you can do to help yourself feel more comfortable in that body. From this perspective, I was able to really get my dad to open up more to the idea of what my being trans truly meant, which was something I thought was impossible before I tried a different approach.

Your writing has included short stories, poems, essays and performance. Which audience do you feel connects most with the themes in your work?

There’s something special about the audiences who really connect with my poetry. There’s nothing like reading out one of my super emotional poems like my ‘Romance in Ramadan’ piece, which is featured in the Emergence anthology, and then having someone come up to me afterwards, telling me how much they loved it and how it moved them to tears. It’s even more special when it’s someone who’s related to it because they have similar experiences, and its made them feel seen. I really enjoy those moments of connecting with my community.

I like to joke sometimes that my “useless superpower” is making people cry, but in a good way. I’m a bit of a cry baby myself, so it’s nice to share that emotional connection with others. It feels really special.

With much of your work produced for the spoken word poetry scene, do you write first for the stage, or for the page?

Even though I started out performing in the spoken word poetry scene, I mostly write my poems to be read on the page. My style isn’t really “slam poetry”—when I perform, I usually just read my poems straight from the page. It’s the same way I’d read one of my published poems. Pauses and all.

I love writing down my poetry and working on it. There’s something really therapeutic about it, and I have happily filled whole books with my poems. There are some pieces in my journal that I don’t think I’ll ever perform, simply because they’re meant to be read. I like the idea of people sitting down with my work and taking the time to absorb every line at their own pace.

You were the runner-up for the 2023 Writing NSW Varuna Fellowship, congrats! What are the highlights and challenges involved with presenting a range of themes in one single collection of poetry?

Thanks! Having a bunch of different experiences can be tricky when you’re trying to put together a poetry collection that’s about you but can’t possibly cover everything. It’s a lot like the challenge I had with my piece in Povo, where it came down to what I leave out and what must stay in.

People keep telling me not to try to fit my whole life into one piece. They say there will always be more chances to tell my stories, so I should take my time and focus on each part. Honour each section instead of trying to cram it all in like I’m trying to fill luggage. Easier said than done, especially with my anxiety! But I’m getting better at it. I really want to spend more time investing in my creative practice, writing more prose and focusing in on building future manuscripts, one polished piece at a time.

Which Australian writers are you currently reading, watching or listening to?

It may not surprise you to know that I’m currently reading Dirt Poor Islanders by Winnie Dunn. Loving it so far!

As for what Australian writers I’m watching or listening to, I’m really stoked for Mark Mariano’s upcoming podcast series Find and Tell, but it isn’t out yet so instead I’m listening to The Serious Danger podcast while I wait (im)patiently.

If it counts, I’m watching a few events at the upcoming Sydney Writers Festival in May that involve some iconic Australian writers and poets. I’m really looking forward to ‘A Line in the Sand’ and watching/listening to all the poets, including one of my personal favourites, Jazz Money.

Adrian Mouhajer is a queer non-binary Lebanese-Australian writer and editor from Western Sydney. They have performed their poetry for Bankstown Poetry Slam, Queerstories, Eulogy for the Dyke Bar and Cement Fondu. Their work has been published with Sweatshop, Hardie Grant Books, SBS, Aniko Press and Diversity Arts Australia. They were shortlisted for the 2023 Writing NSW Varuna Fellowship, 2022 SBS Emerging Writers Competition and the 2021 Sydney Opera House Antidote Mentorship for Diverse Emerging Writers. Adrian edited the anthology, Stories Out West, which centers LGBTIQ+ First Nations and CALD writers with a connection to Western Sydney.

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