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The Metaworker Podcast | 002 The Dog in You by Omar Hussain

Episode Description: 

The Metaworker Editors (Matthew Maichen, Elena L. Perez, Marina Shugrue, Darin Milanesio, and Melissa Reynolds) talk to Omar Hussain about his wonderful piece “The Dog in You.” We introduce the larger idea of the podcast, Omar reads an excerpt, and then we talk about the piece, morality, and interpreting stories in different ways than the author intends.

Referenced in this episode:

The Dog in You by Omar Hussain on The Metaworker website
Lobster by Rachel Reeher in SmokeLong Quarterly

Author Bio: 

Omar Hussain is a writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, transplanted to Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Magazine, The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Dream Noir, Fleas On the Dog and (mac)ro(mic), among others. Omar’s beta-test novel, The Outlandish and the Ego, debuted in late 2017. It received some praise, remarkably.

Episode Transcript:

Mathew Maichen (00:00):
Hello! My name is Matthew Maichen. I’m the editor-in-chief of The Metaworker.

Elena L. Perez (00:07):
My name is Elena Perez. I’m the managing editor of The Metaworker. Hello!

Darin Milanesio (00:13):
Hi. My name is Darin Milanesio. I’m also an editor and one of the original founders of the magazine.

Marina Shugrue (00:21):
Hi, I’m Marina Shugrue. I’m our communications coordinator. If you’ve ever emailed us, you’ve probably talked to me.

Melissa Reynolds (00:30):
Hi, I’m Melissa Reynolds. I’m the newbie. I did an internship here and then you all invited me to stay, and I’m very happy to be here

Mathew Maichen (00:41):
And our guest…

Omar Hussain (00:45):
Hello, this is Omar Hussain. It’s great to be here.

Mathew Maichen (00:48):
Oh, thank you so much. So, what we’re doing, basically, is we’re talking to some of our authors of some of the most interesting pieces that we get. This one, I was really excited about it because of the difference in the voice from so many other fiction pieces. So, we did it once with “The Dinner Party”, and now we’re going to try to make it a regular thing. My goal, my larger goal, really—I think this is all of our larger goal—I’m saying “my” [and] this isn’t fair, we’re a team. We don’t like how fiction gets published on the internet, and then it just kind of disappears? No one talks about it. No one gives it the attention that it deserves to have, and there are pieces of art that really deserve that attention and discussion. They really deserve to be thought of critically and seriously. So, with that out of the way, I am going to turn things over a little bit to Omar. Omar, basically the floor is kind of yours, here. We offered you the opportunity to read an excerpt from the story, or just to talk about it. I just kinda want to hear what you want to present about it.

Omar Hussain (02:25):
Yeah, no, I appreciate that. And I appreciate the kind words at the top. This is a really cool thing that you’re doing, and I agree. I mean, there’s so much great work and art that gets produced these days, but there’s such an influx of channels that it gets pretty difficult to give the pieces that really deserve our attention, the attention it deserves. So, I hope this continues, I hope it’s successful, and if it’s not, I hope it’s not because of me. So, “The Dog in You”, you know, I think, as a writer myself, when I attend these kinds of readings, I’ve always found it really interesting to hear the backdrop for the writer that’s talking about their work rather than just jumping into the piece itself. I think so much of [the] origin of art is just where you are on a creative journey in and of itself. And this piece, I think, if memory serves me correct, I first put fingertips to keyboard in late fall of ’19, maybe early winter. I had just finished the first draft of the novel I’m working on now, and as that generally goes, I was really high on the draft and would later start to tear it apart, but I was kind of eager to try something a little different and quickly my mind’s going to: well, once this current book is wrapped, what would be next? What was the kind of story I’d want to dig into? What would excite me? For me, at least, I return to a lot of the same stuff, thematically, and I think “The Dog in You” is an amalgamation of many of these themes that have swirled around me for years and years. Central to that is the premise of sanitation, or sanitizing ourselves within civilization. And in thinking about that, and particularly looking at places where I’ve lived and how they’ve changed over time and how we’re getting farther and farther away from a sense that we’re really just these beasts with fine clothes draped over us. What kind of commentary would I even have on that? And adjacent to that is the notion of the animal itself, the dog in the story, or dogs in general. You know, I think when you talk with people who really love dogs, it’s always a lot of the same stuff that comes up. You know, they’re so human, it’s a fascinating partnership between humans and canines, and how did we come to this domestication. I think what gets lost in all that is I think part of the reason we love them so much isn’t that we see them in us, but we see us in them, that primal and wild side. You can never remove that. Depending on where you are and the environment you’re in, there’s always opportunities, no matter how cleaned up it is, no matter how…like if the story is set in San Francisco for a reason. I mean, that place has changed dramatically, but no matter how much money rolls into that area, or any area, there are always going to be these rocks where, if you look on the underside of them, there might not be something you want to see. And when that happens, what are you going to lean on? Who are you going to be? What happens to you after you look at the underside of that, I think is always an interesting question for me. So, I just want to read a little bit of this and then turn it back over to everyone. And I’m going to take it from the top.

Omar Hussain (06:26):
“My self-destruct button pops up. It sits idle with flirt and temptation, just atop my ribs. Throbs with each perfectly pained thump of my heart. I hear a dog cry so fearfully that I know torture is upon it. I know that this is one of those wrong-place, wrong-time, make a decision now or your life will forever be changed kind-of-nights. The dog cries again. The self-destruct button pulsates—begs me to undo my ultra-sanitized life made up of happy hours, salaried paychecks and weekends spent binging Netflix. Urges me to take one step into the darkness and interrupt this injustice I’ve accidentally stumbled upon walking home from the bars. The beast howls in misery once more. My bones crackle with freeze. Paralyzed in place, I’m an upright mound of meat and tendons and uselessness. The dog continues to yelp in agony. The wicked lash brought on by a whip. Over and over. A yelp. A faint whimper to follow. I hear a gruff chuckle from a man I can’t see. He stands on the other side of the iron gate, separating the injured dog and me. His whip clutched in his hand, breaking down the animal. The San Francisco night is abusive in its presence. This alley, drowning in shadow, cuts across two streets in the Outer Sunset, where inclined rows of suburbia blur into a mess of white picket fantasies. Houses have long since turned off their lights—when the black sky threatened everyone back into their bedrooms and into the comfort of their dreams. The dog faintly barks. The whip, the coiled tool of torture cocks ready with thick braided leather and strikes, biting into the dog once more. It bellows. I turn around and face back in the other direction. Stare at paved concrete, uncovered by streetlight, the journey back home guided by corner signs. My neck thumps with adrenaline and my feet start to move me forward. I’ve tracked only ten paces when I sense it—a faint buzz on my conscience growing to a hypersonic scream—something other than the moon illuminating my cowardice. The reason behind the self-destruct button. Mother. It was the summer that she took me camping. It was in Pescadero. Just a twenty-minute drive from Half Moon Bay. Mother didn’t like camping. She knew I wouldn’t either. That was the point. The whip breaks the serenity of the evening yet again—my neck twisting to face it. The self-destruct button gyrates. It tells me it’s time to ditch the life I’ve created—the life bound by normality. A path to 401k. It tells me that most people would run from this. It dares me to press it. To give my life real meaning. Free it from safe decisions governed by fear. By helplessness. By inaction. It dares me—over and over—to press it. So I do.” I think I’m going to stop there.

Mathew Maichen (09:21):
Thank you so much. Man! So, the first thing that I think of when you talk about your sanitized life, or our sanitized lives, is how radically different of an impression the author and the reader can have of a piece and both of them be valid. Because—I’m just going to speak for myself here—when I read “The Dog in You”, I really had an impression of it from an almost moral, largely moral, perspective. This idea of, um, if you’re going to do the right thing, there are these problems. One: you run into the issue of stepping out of line, right? Because people who are going to do something right that matters, are usually not the people who stand in line. And so I saw that in it. I also saw kind of the collateral damage that comes from ‘doing the right thing’. Because what happens in this story, ultimately, is the protagonist frees the dogs, right? And the moment that he does…I’m not sure what degree of murder he becomes guilty of, but definitely some degree of indirect murder. And so, it’s just this fascinating idea of, you know, these dogs are being abused and the self-destruct button…you could have all these things, everything could be reasonable in your life and normal, but you don’t want to do that, you want to free the dog. There’s that conflict, right? So, I find that really fascinating. I totally see that ‘nature’ reading of it, now. I see that animal side of it now, but when I was reading it, I also saw it from such a moralistic perspective. It’s fascinating to me that you can have those different impressions and they both work.

Melissa Reynolds (11:53):
I did as well. When I read it, I thought it was really interesting how, in this instance, doing the right thing almost meant the protagonist is willing to sacrifice his own life because…’self-destruct’, you think of this guy blowing up and ending his life. It was interesting to me that this choice came down to ‘I’m going to die if I do this’. So, it raised the stakes for me, because I got the sense that the character was going into this expecting for it to not turn out well for him.

Mathew Maichen (12:31):

Elena L. Perez (12:32):
Well, yeah. It’s also about stepping out of your comfort zone. This can apply not only to something as drastic as self-destructing, life and death, right? It can just be something so simple as having the courage to speak up in a mundane setting, like in an office setting, or speaking out when you see something wrong. This guy sees that these poor dogs are being abused and he could just walk away, ignore it and say, ‘oh, I I’m not strong enough’ or ‘oh, I don’t have the authority to stand up to this guy’, and you see that in the story. That’s what I liked, when I read it, was that I could see that thought process. ‘Oh, I see that this is wrong and I should do something about it, but am I the right person’, you know? And so he has to kind of work himself up to say ‘I am the right person. This is something I should stand up to do’. The scenes of the mother kind of reinforce that. They build this tension of whether or not he’s actually going to get the courage up to do it

Mathew Maichen (13:47):
That—thank you so much for bringing that up because the next question that I was going to ask was [about] our impressions of the relationship with the mother. Because I sit back there and I look at what’s in the story and I actually don’t know. Is he defying the mother or is he going along with the mother when he does this? Because they have this relationship that is really ambiguous, right? It’s so complicated in so few words and I’m sitting here, like, is this abusive? Probably. I don’t know. It’s really interesting. I don’t know whether, when he does this, is this an act of rebellion against her or is this rebelling against society and doing what she asks of him?

Elena L. Perez (14:51):
Yeah. It kind of shaped him in a way, right? You’re not sure if it’s a good thing or bad thing. Maybe it’s a combination of both, but either way, she’s encouraging him to step out of his comfort zone, whether it’s for his own good or to self-destruct.

Marina Shugrue (15:08):
It’s really fascinating, I think, because it is…that scene with the mother is such an obvious external conflict, but ends up driving this later internal conflict that the character has with hitting the self-destruct button, releasing the dogs…what do you do then? It’s fascinating because both are things that the narrator is coming up against again and again and again.

Mathew Maichen (15:34):
Yeah. There are other questions that I have, actually, for general discussion. I’m curious, ’cause I don’t think I’ve asked these questions because we did end up discussing this piece. So, the way that we do things is we give everything a rating, and if they’re of a certain threshold, we discuss them before we decide whether to accept or reject them. And we did discuss this, but we largely discussed it on the basis of: do we want to publish it? There were certain questions I wanted to ask, even in that discussion, that I never got to ask, and the mother thing was one of them. The other one is, isn’t it fascinating when in the narrative the self-destruct button is actually pushed? I actually showed this story to some friends who don’t normally read literary fiction that much, but one of the things that they commented on is how it’s weird that the self-destruct button is not pushed when he releases the dogs. There’s a delay. I am not looking at it right now, but there’s a specific point after he releases the dogs when it is pushed, and it’s not with the action itself, it’s largely with the result of the action. I found that really fascinating.

Elena L. Perez (17:01):
Yeah, because it was at the point where he actually decided, within himself, to do this thing. I found it fascinating that the next paragraph talks about that. The mother says, “Today, you’re going to learn what it means to kill your comfort”. That was the connection for me, that pushing the self-destruct button is the moment when you decide to do something.

Mathew Maichen (17:30):
Oh, I see. I see. Hmm. I’m looking at it again. I think the moment he decides to do something is really the point when it gets pushed, right? I’m looking at the point when it says “zero”, that’s what I’m looking at, because he releases it and then there’s a countdown, right?

Elena L. Perez (17:48):

Mathew Maichen (17:48):
There’s a countdown and it says two seconds, and then there’s that paragraph with his mother, there’s “guttural sounds eviscerate silence”. What’s fascinating is the man is being bitten and attacked and we’re still not at zero yet. The countdown only goes down to zero after the whole thing is done. That’s when it goes down to zero.

Elena L. Perez (18:20):
I see what you’re saying.

Mathew Maichen (18:22):
Yeah. That’s what I meant. I was wording it poorly, but that is what I meant. And that’s just so fascinating to me.

Elena L. Perez (18:28):
Yeah, maybe at the point when he pushes the button, he hasn’t fully thought through…it’s a spontaneous decision and it’s like it was happening in slow motion. You make the decision and then you’re so calm and collected as you’re doing this thing that you’ve decided to do, but you don’t really think beyond the moment and so it doesn’t fully hit you until “zero”. The point you’re talking about, when he sees the consequences of his decision and has to figure out how to deal with it.

Marina Shugrue (19:08):
Yeah. I was going to say, I feel like that countdown is not so much about the decision, it’s about the transformation that happens as a result of this action. It’s just happening in a really small, contained thirty seconds in this particular instance, but when we make big changes and big decisions like this, you go through that period of transformation, and it’s coming out at the other side. Who are you at the end of the countdown?

Mathew Maichen (19:37):
Yeah, that’s right. ‘Cause now I look at it and I think you’re both right. That it’s ‘who are you’? How do you go back to your old life? Well, you have to. You’re now at a point where it’s over and you have to go back to some form of your old life, but everything is different now.

Elena L. Perez (19:55):
I would say not necessarily your old life, but the new reality, whether it it’s the same or altered afterwards. I mean, at the end, he walks away with the dog, so that’s kind of a metaphor for him accepting what he’s done and just going with it.

Mathew Maichen (20:20):
Yeah. Fascinating. So, I actually want to turn it over to Omar again. Hearing us talk about this, what is the impression that you have, and is there any strong feeling that you get listening to us talk about it? Not in the sense that we’re wrong, but in the sense that: does this add to your appreciation of your own work or does this make you think of it in a different way?

Omar Hussain (20:50):
Well, I think when you first gave your reaction, it did throw me for a loop for a second, you know? In that your interpretation initially seemed that you thought different from the way I sort of framed it up, but I think whenever you’re addressing what is effectively the social contract—whether you are complying with it or you’re defying it— delivers with it a moral delineation that you have to be thinking through the moral code. With the latter, defying the social contract, which is what occurs here, if you are doing it for purposes of your own systems of morality or a nurtured sense of instinct, you have to also be prepared for the repercussions. As you do so, there is a process of those repercussions effectively being absorbed into you and, as well, your interactions with the outside world. So, I think a lot of what you all said was pretty far in line. I mean, I knew the stuff with the mom would be fodder…the people that I’ve showed the story to consistently went back to that. They used the singular use of mother almost like a punch point in the story. That being said, I kinda think just from experiences and workshops and whatnot, interpretations are always…I always get a kick out of them. Doesn’t matter to me if it’s in lockstep with when I was punching out these words. I think back to the days when we could actually get our hands on liner notes for albums, and we would be looking at the lyrics, if they provided them, and we try to figure out what the songs maybe meant. Unless you ever got ahold of an interviewer with the principal songwriters [who] just gave it to the world, that was like a gift from them to you to shape however you want it. You got to believe whatever you felt from that. And to me, that’s the greatest power of art. So, it’s super cool hearing you all talk about the piece and how you think about it. That being said, I think it was pretty darn accurate.

Mathew Maichen (23:23):
Yeah. ‘Cause the one core consistency is the process of making that life-altering decision that is out of step with what you are supposed to do, right? Whatever interpretation you’re taking of it, the way that this story describes that thought process is ultimately the thing that made me kind of fall in love with it a little bit. The moment that this came up for discussion, I was like, ‘Ooh, Ooh. They heard me’. It was really fascinating to me, and I really appreciate you being here to talk about it.

Omar Hussain (24:07):
Yeah, this was great. Thank you for having me.

Melissa Reynolds (24:08):
I just want to give some compliments here. I thought that this was very strong. I felt immersed in the story and there wasn’t any point at all that my attention wandered. I was in thrall the whole time. So, I just want to give my compliments to the chef, so to speak.

Omar Hussain (24:27):
Thank you, I appreciate it.

Elena L. Perez (24:31):
Yeah, same. I just really liked the way the tension built and the alternating between the scenes with the mother and then the scene in the present, I thought, was really well done. So, awesome job.

Omar Hussain (24:41):
Thank you. I mean, that was definitely a risk. I was never fully sure that the pieces fit as they should, but I appreciate that.

Mathew Maichen (24:58):

Elena L. Perez (24:59):
They definitely fit. You got it, you’re fine.

Mathew Maichen (24:59):
I was just going to say, I think that it’s hard to know when you take a risk like that. For people who haven’t read [it], what he does with the past and present in “The Dog in You” is he doesn’t use breaks, which has become the kind of de facto way of designating, ‘Oh, we’re in a different scene now’. It just kind of flows. And it’s very dangerous to do that because you worry that the reader’s orientation will get lost—where they are, when they are. But, this is a story about making dangerous decisions, so it makes sense.

Elena L. Perez (25:46):
Quite fitting.

Mathew Maichen (25:48):

Omar Hussain (25:49):
It’s as close to method acting as writers can get.

All (25:52):


Mathew Maichen (25:57):
Great. In that case, one of the things we want to do with this is, we want to kind of erase this wall that is set up between publishers and writers. A lot of the time when I submit to literary magazines, there is this inscrutable…you know, your work was rejected. Why was your work rejected? I don’t know. So, we have these discussions partially because we want to talk about: ‘why did we accept this’, ‘what did we like about it’, ‘why did it work so well’? Hopefully, people can gain something from that.

Darin Milanesio (26:40):
Yeah, I have a question for Omar. I’d love to flip it back on him and ask him—and this is totally selfish from The Metaworker’s perspective—but I just can’t help but be curious of: one, how did you discover The Metaworker? Then looking over The Metaworker, and then you wrote this story: why submit this story and not something else?

Omar Hussain (27:03):
I think I came across The Metaworker the same way I’ve come across a lot of different literary platforms, which is the writer’s community. So, whether that’s on Twitter, through the MFA—I’m an MFA student at NYU—I couldn’t tell you specifically the moment I stumbled upon The Metaworker. It’s a combination of any of those things. Why this piece for that? Well, I do try…this is something that I think most writers try to do is, every piece you write, it’s a painting, and so you have to be thinking about what gallery would this be best suited for? How would it look hung up on that wall? Is this more of a cafe piece, and so on and so forth. So, you have to try to best gauge the style and the aesthetic of each spot. And there’s something about The Metaworker from an openness to a grittiness perhaps, and, you know, the tone or the voice of this thing is a little different.

Darin Milanesio (28:16):
Awesome. Thank-you. Yeah, that’s great to hear. I love hearing the analogy of the gallery and fitting the painting to the right gallery. That’s cool. We don’t get to hear stuff like that from the people that submit to us. I have one more close-out question. All of my favorite podcasts do this whenever there’s a writer. What is a recommendation you have? It could be anything that’s kind of inspired you recently, something that’s really grabbed your attention, something you think artists and writers should be paying attention to—a novel, a short story, could even be a TV show.

Omar Hussain (28:48):
Yeah. Since this is on the shorter end of fiction, I think it’s right on the cusp of flash, maybe a little bit over, I’ll keep it in that same sphere. There’s a piece of flash that I read, middle of last year, it’s called “The Lobster”. I remember the author’s first name is Rachel, and I want to say the last name is Mealer, but I could be wrong, but it was published in SmokeLong. [“The Lobster” by Rachel Reheer]. If you get the chance, you should check this out because the use of sensory as an overlay for trauma in this piece is amazing. On top of that, it’s just a weird, incredibly creative device she uses. So, check it out. Again, it’s called “The Lobster”, was on SmokeLong Quarterly. I can’t quite get it out of my head, to tell you the truth.

Darin Milanesio (29:47):
Awesome. Yeah. we’ll try to find that and we’ll put it in the Discord. Thank you.

Omar Hussain (29:51):
No problem.

Mathew Maichen (29:52):
Okay. Thank you so much, Omar. I think that we will be wrapping this up, unless there are any other thoughts that we want to share.

Marina Shugrue (30:03):
I just want to say, thank you so much again to Omar for doing this with us. That insight into why you decided to submit to us is really, really cool to hear and all your insights into why you wrote the piece and what your thoughts were behind this were fascinating. We love to hear stuff like this. So, this has been really cool. Thanks.

Elena L. Perez (30:24):
Yeah. Thank you.

Omar Hussain (30:25):
Thank you. I mean, it’s cool that you guys do this. Please continue to do it. Can’t wait to hear future editions.

Mathew Maichen (30:32):
Thank you so much.

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