Self-portrait: George Haddad


There is an anarchist in me who swells against my sensible façade. Sometimes he bangs on the doors to be let out, but because there are no handles, I can never help. I wonder if the doors ever had handles, or if someone removed them. Twice I have seen him creep out of a cut in my skin. He didn’t stay out long, perhaps disheartened by the breadth of his task. When I sit down to write, he torpedoes around inside me, disrupts the linearity of my sentences, the concreteness of my imagery, but when he is asleep, I go back and tidy everything up, make it palatable for my readers, for me, reminding myself that the best writing is aerodynamic.

George Haddad photographed at La Perouse.
George Haddad photographed at La Perouse. Photo by Joy Lai
Late one night at my desk overlooking the lilly pilly, the anarchist crawls into my head, quietens the retching neighbour, the idling motorbike in the street, and commands me to forget, to celebrate. I’d been failing to write a character that in various ways could be relatable to anyone — just like the person I was raised to be. I fear what the anarchist inside me is capable of, but I am grateful for his reminder that writing exists inside me too. That the words spiralling around the coils of my brain and spilling out of my fingers with a tap, tap, zap, are lifted straight from my DNA, my spleen, my blood — funnelled, fresh and fraught with an innate desire to tell. Still, those words are subdued, fashioned by my education, filtered through the convention of the written word and wider world. How to heed the anarchist’s advice without losing it all?

In Year 10 English at Christian Brothers College Burwood, we were tasked with writing an autobiography of our short lives. The printout still lives in a box of silly things (including a medal I won for a drawing competition and a troll doll in a tuxedo) that I’ve held onto because they chart who I am. I read over it recently and I saw the anarchist’s smile flash over the page like lightning. The form can only be described as a list poem (overlaying a sketch of a tombstone), that quite seamlessly evolved into prose. The first line was: I’m a needle in a Haystack, and the last line: One day I’ll just run. I think about hugging that angsty sticky George and telling him how impressed I am by the daring quality of the structure. Ms Knowles awarded me full marks and in the comments wrote that I would one day be a writer. At the time I wanted to be a filmmaker. I still don’t know what I am.

As a creative writing teacher, I lecture my students on the importance of writing about their experience, and of play and experimentation in their practice, of writing off the page, of not writing at all, of listening instead. Sometimes I watch myself rehearse the script from the other side of the room, but, like an elastic band, I very quickly snap back together before the chasm swallows me. That’s when I feel the anarchist trundle under my skin. I hear him guffaw.

I read over it recently and I saw the anarchist’s smile flash over the page like lightning.

My grandfather was an oral strophic poet who died in his home in the hills of Lebanon in 1987 only months after I was born. In his final years, he scrawled his poetry onto the walls of his three rooms that had not long been converted from mud to concrete. The village people couldn’t understand why he had rebelled, why he had finally picked up the pen in favour of performance. Nobody snapshot the words before they were painted over and nobody can recall any of the lines. The house is still in the family, and when I visited for the first time as an adult, I placed my hands and my heart and my ears on the walls. I heard the bleating of the goats tethered in the room below, the honking of a car horn rolling up the hill, and the clang of the morning sun.

As I lay the groundwork for my next novel, I am compelled to sharpen my tools, to reassess my moulds and reconsider what materials I might pour into them. What will it take for this novel to be novel? To be dissident, to shake my practice. What will it take for me to let go, to celebrate failure? I turn to my queerness. I pray at its altar. The anarchist rests for a moment.

George Haddad’s book Losing Face is published by UQP

This story appears in Openbook summer 2022.