The link below is to an article reporting on a new Australian project to digitise and make available out-of-print Australian titles.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the life and work of Australian author Elizabeth Harrower who died in July.
The link below is to an article reporting on the life, death and work of Gerald Wilkes, an important figure in the field of Australian literature. Wilkes died on May 15, 2020.
Amid reports last week that Yang was to be charged with endangering state security, Foreign Affairs Marise Paynee said he was being detained for his political views and should be released.
Yang is a member of the Australian media union, the MEAA, which backed calls for his release.
I’ve known Yang for many years – he is a former PhD student of mine – and I also believe he should be released.
I’ve seen reports sent to his wife, Yuan Xiaoliang, from Australian consul visits to Yang.
The reports say Yang is sealed off from the outside world without access to legal counsel or visits by relatives, and he has been subjected to interrogations twice a day.
A novel critic
So what has Yang done that has led to his detention for so long? In a nutshell, Yang is a political dissident no longer tolerated by the Chinese communist regime. He is paying a heavy price as a long-standing critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Yang, aged 54, abandoned his career as a communist cadre to embrace freedom and democracy in his middle age.
He earned his first degree in politics from Fudan University in China in 1987 and was assigned to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with connection to the Chinese secret police. He was eventually alienated by his job and developed a strong interest in literature.
He resigned from his post and moved to Australia with his wife and two sons in 1999 to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. In 2002-2005, he published a trilogy of spy novels, Fatal Weakness, Fatal Weapon and Fatal Assassination, in print and online.
These novels used his own experiences and those of his colleagues to tell the soul-stirring stories of a China-US double agent who ultimately serves the agenda for neither side but works for his own inspiration and conviction to serve the real interests of the people.
But the novels did not bring him the fame and wealth he expected, because they were published in Taiwan and banned in mainland China. An attempt to turn them into movies in Hong Kong also failed.
The rise of the blogger
At the end of 2005, Yang enrolled in a PhD in China Studies at the University of Technology Sydney under my supervision, starting his journey as a liberal scholar. By that time, I’d become a major contributor to the emergence of the Chinese liberal camp and Chinese liberal intellectuals.
Yang got his PhD in 2009 with a thesis titled The Internet and China: the Impacts of Netizen Reporters and Bloggers on Democratisation in China. The thesis was a timely, in-depth analysis of the complicated information warfare between the internet and the CCP regime.
As part of an experiment for his PhD thesis, Yang started his own blog (available now only on archive.org) and wrote commentaries on current affairs as a “citizen journalist”.
Yang is that rare combination of a scholar well trained in both China and the West, with a firm belief in the universal values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
He chose to devote his talent and passion to online journalism in Chinese, hoping to accelerate China’s transformation toward constitutional democracy. He has published more than ten million words of online articles on this theme, earning the nickname “democracy pedlar” with tremendous following in the Chinese speaking world.
Several collections of his online articles have been published to wide audience, such as Family, State and the World (2010), Seeing the World with Black Eyes: The World in the Eyes of a Democracy Pedlar (2011), Talking about China (2014), and Keeping You Company in Your Life Journey (2014).
Yang is extremely good at explaining the profound in simple terms, using moving examples in everyday life to expose the social ills of communist autocracy and promote democratic values and institutions.
In particular, he provides timely analysis on all sorts of events around the world reported in the news, revealing the stark contrast between the harsh reality and the official rhetoric of the CCP.
Yang rarely engages in social activism, although he has maintained extensive connections with some Chinese human rights and democracy activists.
Yang has long been targeted by the Chinese security apparatus, which detained him in March 2011, taking him as one of the opinion leaders who has the capacity to mobilise nationwide social protests.
He was quickly released back to Australia due to the international media campaign and the diplomatic pressure of then Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s visit to China.
Why did he not learn his lesson? Well, he did tone down his voice after 2011. Since Xi Jinping’s rise to general secretary of the CCP in 2012, Yang adopted a soft strategy of packaging his advocacy for human rights and democracy as publicising “socialist core values” promoted by the CCP.
Yang was so successful with this new strategy that thousands of his followers organised support groups via the social media app WeChat in more than 50 cities around China. These include Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou in 2015, when human rights and democracy activists had met with brutal repression.
In 2016, when the political environment turned from bad to worse and Yang’s blogs were shut down one by one, he closed down all of the WeChat groups and substantially scaled down his online writing.
Moved to the US
He moved to New York as a visiting scholar at Columbia University in 2017. He was able to travel to China several times and Chinese authorities lifted the ban on several of his blogs in China towards the end of 2018. This gave him the impression it was safe for him to visit China.
But during his visit this January he was detained upon his arrival.
Thousands of Yang’s supporters have been in despair, engaging in heated debates about his ordeal and its implications for political development in China.
Instead of following the international norm of presumption of innocence, the CCP regime continues Yang’s criminal detention despite the lack of evidence he’s done anything wrong.
This behaviour of political persecution and hostage diplomacy clearly demonstrates the contempt China has for human rights and international moral standards.
The Australian government and public are obligated to challenge the laws and practice of the CCP regime in safeguarding basic human rights of innocent citizens. The international community are also obligated to support this endeavour for human dignity, and thus the immediate release of Yang.
Australia’s relations with China will be further complicated by the news that Australian citizen Yang Hengjun is set to be charged with endangering state security.
This is a serious charge that carries the penalty of at least three years in jail.
Yang’s wife Yuan Xiaoliang was notified earlier today that her husband would be charged, a day before the six-month deadline determining whether he is to be released, charged or have his detention extended.
Charges against Yang appear to relate to his work as a writer and blogger in which he has been sharply critical of the Chinese regime. He developed a large following on Chinese social media and on Twitter, and his criticisms will have infuriated Chinese authorities.
Yang was arrested after he returned to China earlier this year with his family. He has been held in a Beijing state security prison since then, without access to lawyers, and denied contact with his family.
Australian attempts to secure access have been rebuffed.
Canberra’s relations with Beijing
China’s decision to charge Yang comes at an awkward moment in relations between Beijing and Canberra.
Australia this week was obliged to step up its consular efforts to persuade China to allow Uyghur families to leave Xinjiang to be reunited with their Australian families.
This followed broadcast an ABC four Corners program that drew attention to the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Up to a million out of a population of 11 million in the region are reported to be in “re-education” camps.
This has drawn outrage globally.
China’s official media responded harshly to the ABC program and to criticism of China’s treatment of Uyghurs more generally. The Global Times newspaper, which tends to reflect a hardline nationalist view, accused critics of “recklessly attacking” China.
Yang’s case reflects China’s extreme sensitivity to criticism.
This episode won’t help Australia’s efforts to get its relationship with China on more stable footing after several years of difficulties.
China had objected to criticism of its attempts to interfere in Australian domestic politics via Chinese nationals associated with Beijing. This led to a freeze on visits to China by Australian political leaders. While that freeze has thawed, tensions remain.
Chinese laws affect other western democracies
Australia is far from alone among western democracies whose citizens have fallen foul of opaque and arbitary Chinese law and legal procedures.
Canada is wrestling with the cases of two of its citizens who have been held without charge since last year. China has accused the pair of stealing state secrets.
This is a serious charge that can result in the death penalty.
The two Canadians were detained after the arrest at Vancouver airport of Meng Wanzhou, daughter of the founder of the Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei. Meng is appealing attempts by the United States to extradite her to face charge of fraud.
This is a highly contentious issue, and one that is complicating relations between Washington, Ottawa and Beijing.
Apart from arresting the Canadians accused of stealing state secrets, China has also taken aim at Canada economically. It has stopped Canadian rapeseed oil imports, dealing a hefty blow to a multibillion dollar canola industry.
What the Canadian arrests, and now that of an Australian writer, demonstrates is that relations with China are unlikely to become less complicated. Rather, it is likely they will become more so.
Among challenges for countries like Australia is how to quarantine issues of mistreatment of its citizens and broader human rights abuses, from the functioning of broad-ranging bilateral relations.
Fifty years after her death, Australian writer Charmian Clift is experiencing a renaissance. Born in 1923, Clift co-authored three novels with her husband George Johnston, wrote two under her own name, produced two travel memoirs, and had weekly column widely syndicated to major Australia papers during the the 1960s.
Clift has long been overshadowed by the legacy of Johnston, whose novel My Brother Jack is considered an Australian classic. Her novels and memoirs are sadly out of print, yet she is increasingly recognised for her important place in Australian culture.
In 2018 she, along with Johnston, was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame in recognition of her work as a columnist. She is also being reimagined in fiction, as the subject of A Theatre of Dreamers (2020), a forthcoming novel by English author, Polly Samson, and in Tamar Hodes’ The Water and the Wine (2018).
The revival of interest in Clift is more than a collective nostalgia or feminist correction of the historical record, although both are relevant. Many of her readers from the 60s still remember her newspaper column, and the impact that it had on their view of Australia’s place in the world, with great affection.
Younger generations, particularly women, have also been exposed to Clift’s clear and passionate voice after the columns were published in several volumes in the years following her death. That Clift and her writing continue to resonate with contemporary Australia tells us something about both her and the nation.
The Hydra years
Much of the renewed interest in Clift is focused not only on her writing, but also on the near decade that she and Johnston lived on the Greek Island of Hydra. In late 2015, artist Mark Schaller’s Melbourne exhibition, Homage to Hydra, featured paintings depicting Clift and Johnston’s island lives, with several featuring other residents from Hydra’s international population of writers and artists, including Canadian poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen.
The same year, Melbourne musicians Chris Fatouros and Spiros Falieros debuted Hydra: Songs and Tales of Bohemia, marrying Cohen’s songs to a narrative about Clift and Johnston’s time on Hydra.
In 2018, our book, Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreams and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964, told in detail of the fabled decade of Clift’s life as a bohemian expatriate.
To date in 2019, Sue Smith’s play, Hydra, has been staged in Brisbane and Adelaide, casting Clift in ways that resonate sympathetically with the concerns of contemporary audiences. As Smith writes in her script’s introduction:
Charmian was a woman ahead of her time. We see this in the choices she made both in her personal life, whether it be scandalising the Greek locals by wearing trousers and drinking in bars, to insisting upon her personal and sexual freedom and, of course, through her work.
‘Charm is her greatest creation’
Modern readers might respond to Clift the writer, but the focus on her years on Hydra suggests there is also great interest in her charismatic personality and tempestuous life with Johnson, as their dream of a cheap and sun-soaked creative island life slowly soured.
While researching the couple’s lives on Hydra, we came across a suggestive, eye-witness diary entry by a fellow writer, New Zealander Redmond Wallis, written in 1960.
Charm is her greatest creation, Charmian Clift, the great Australian woman novelist. Charmian is very curious. She is, potentially at least, a better writer than George but she has and is deliberately creating a picture of herself … which one feels she hopes will appear in her biography some day.
The head of a literary coterie, beautiful, brilliant, compassionate but still the mother of 3 children, running a house. Sweating blood against almost impossible difficulties – a husband inclined to unfounded jealousy, the heat, creative problems, the children, the problems foisted on her by other people … and yet producing great art.
Wallis’s observations are accurate, and prophetic, in noting Clift’s capacity for self-mythologising and her belief that both she and her Hydra idyll would be remembered. Nearly four decades after Clift returned from Greece to Australia amid the acclaim for My Brother Jack, she did become the subject of an excellent biography, Nadia Wheatley’s The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2001).
But there were also failures amongst the success. The vision she and Johnston shared for a writing life on Hydra floundered amid poverty, alcoholism and illness. Their return to Australia in 1964 was an unlikely triumph for Johnston following the success of My Brother Jack, but Clift did not return with the same profile.
Wheatley also traced another of Clift’s great disappointments – her failure to complete her long-dreamt of autobiographical novel The End of the Morning, a struggle that was the subject of Susan Johnson’s 2004 novel, The Broken Book.
Clift did, however, leave an autobiography of sorts, in her newspaper articles. These often focused on domestic circumstances and everyday thoughts – ranging from conscription, to the rise of the Greek military junta after she left Hydra, to the changing social circumstances in Australia, and her daughter’s engagement.
These articles might not have always reflected the experiences of her readers – not everyone invited Sidney Nolan over for drinks – but Clift’s first-person narratives of a life lived with great passion and a sceptical eye to the consequences, garnered a large readership.
These readers responded to an incisive intellect with a vision of a culturally enriched Australia. She understood well the need for the country to outgrow its entrenched conservatism in order to realise its potential; and she emerged as a generous spirit who realised that the dreams and passions that drove her life were found everywhere in Australian suburbs.
Wallis’s detection of Clift’s hubris and narcissism paints her as a potentially tragic figure. It was a fate she perhaps fulfilled, when Johnston eventually wrote of Clift’s infidelities on Hydra. Clift took her own life on July 8 1969, an event that curtailed her voice while leaving behind a legacy of loyal and grieving readers.
A natural cosmopolitan
Clift’s is one of the voices – and one of the most important female voices – that rose above the crowd during the post-war period, as the western world unknowingly girded itself for the social revolution that was to come.
Through her columns she advocated for a bolder, more outward looking future, and as someone who was naturally cosmopolitan she was avidly interested in seeing Australia become more open to the world and better integrated into the Asia-Pacific.
She didn’t always get it right (an essay decrying the rise of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones stands out!), but she helped navigate the path to a more broad-minded and inclusive vision of Australia.
Over the years Clift has emerged as someone who was not only modern, but also engaged in that most post-modern of activities, self-creation. For while Wallis scorned Clift’s self-mythologising at the time, it might now be recognised as the finest gift of the creative artist – to re-make oneself in the image of a world yet to be made. It was her gift to her readers and Australia.
Tanya Dalziell, Associate Professor, English and Literary Studies, University of Western Australia and Paul Genoni, Associate Professor, School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, Curtin University
The link below is to an article that considers an Australian National Literature and who gets to create it.
Kangaroos are the most visible of Australia’s unique animals, but despite their charm and national icon status, Australian writers perpetually kill them off.
A kangaroo appears struggling in a rabbit trap, doomed and dying in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, while Tim Winton has one killed on the road, dissected and fed to dogs in Breath. These are just two of many Australian authors who have represented the kangaroo as a victim.
Kangaroos were a creature of wonder for early European explorers such as Dampier and Banks, but it didn’t take long for their public image to descend to that of a pest. Early settlers considered them competition, nibbling all the best pasture quicker than their sheep and cows, and they soon took up arms against the bounding menace.
The wild kangaroo population of Australia is still commercially slaughtered for dog food. In New South Wales, landholders and volunteers can be simply licensed to kill them for reasons of damage control, and some parts of Western Australia have an open permit system for non-commercial shooting. On any given day, there are usually several being mashed into the blue metal of highways, surrounded by crows and in various states of decomposition.
The expendable nature of the kangaroo may be a widely held view in Australia, but it’s a bitter irony that the creature which defines us to the rest of the world is perpetually under siege, in life and in literature.
Fiction’s dead roos
In Stephen Daisley’s 2016 novel Coming Rain, the author kills off a kangaroo with “a great thump” against the side of a truck, giving a gruesome description of the sweetening of the tail for stew.
The live joey almost has its head smashed against a tree but, owing to its “cuteness” it becomes a pet, wearing a straw hat. The stereotype of the cute joey is alive and well in children’s fiction too, but in adult fiction the kangaroo is dead.
In Tim Winton’s Breath, narrator Pikelet comes across surf guru, Sando, who has hit a kangaroo with his Kombi ute. Sando finishes it off with the jack handle from the car, pounded a couple of times into its head. His response to this act is very matter-of-fact: “This is what happens. And it isn’t lovely.”
Sando drags the “roadkill” into the tray of his ute and takes it home to butcher it. He is prepared for this, with a meat hook hanging from a tree, and he skins and guts the kangaroo. Pikelet observes this with some emotional discomfort, “shrinking from him a little” but accepts the flourbag of meat to take home to his parents who “wouldn’t eat roo meat in a million years”. He “hoiks” the meat into the bushes on the ride home.
Charlotte Wood considers the horror of roadkill in The Children, where Australian animals are killed by passing traffic and compared to contaminated “cushions”. Wood also kills a kangaroo (and a lot of rabbits) in The Natural Way of Things. Central character Yolanda snares a “large grey kangaroo” in a rabbit trap and finds it still alive:
Vainly, the kangaroo shifts and scuffles again. Then it lowers its head and lengthens its mighty neck, black eyes fixed on them, and lets out three long, hoarse snarls. Its snout fattens, nostrils flared.
Fearful of the sharp claws on its “delicate forefeet” they sit beside it, wondering how to set it free and instead bring it water and leave it to die slowly.
The image of the kangaroo is linked to death through earlier works from Australian authors too. The iconic 1940 poem, Native-Born by Eve Langley presents a detailed account of a dead kangaroo, while Randolph Stow’s 1958 novel To the Islands features kangaroos and wallabies being shot and eaten.
Australian fiction is, so often, deeply entangled with nature. Anxiety around the bush, as described in D.H. Lawrence’s novel Kangaroo back in the 1920s, is a feature of settler Australian fiction, tied together with violence, trauma and a sense of the uncanny.
Docile and violent all at once, the watchful gaze and twitching ears of kangaroos are, perhaps, reminders of that uneasiness the settlers felt.
The fact that Australian literature seems intent on killing off this national icon is deeply disturbing – but it is also deeply ingrained.
In contrast with kangaroos, thylacines are well and truly alive in Australian literature despite being extinct since 1936. They appear in over 250 works listed in the AustLit database of Australian literature, including 18 novels since 1988.
Among these are Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, Sonya Hartnett’s Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf and Louis Nowra’s Into That Forest, as well as children’s fiction, drama, film, short fiction and poetry. These thylacines often meet with violent ends, but their aliveness in fiction is astounding compared to the kangaroo.
Contemporary Australia is sentimental about the thylacine as a strange creature lost because of “ignorance”. They are now a thing of wonder, destroyed by misguided colonial settlers who are long gone. But if they weren’t extinct, would we treat them any better? Would we protect them? Often that is the point writers are trying to make by invoking the extinct “tiger” in the first place.
Our relationship with kangaroos (and thylacines), both in fiction and in reality, is symptomatic of what Stow called our “bitter heritage”. So perhaps it is unsurprising, given the violence of colonisation, that it has had (and is still having) an impact on the way writers represent the Australian landscape and all who inhabit it.
This article is based on research published in a forthcoming article for Antipodes.
Australian scientists have led many crucial scientific breakthroughs – from the manufacturing and processing of penicillin, to the first in-vitro fertilisation pregnancy. Yet there is still a need for science to be more widely appreciated in our broader culture.
One way of doing this is through storytelling. Novels with scientist protagonists can bring science to life and capture our imagination. They can personalise scholarly research and the drive for knowledge, and also make us think differently about the ethical dilemmas that emerge from scientific advances. Even stereotypical depictions of cold, obsessive “mad scientists” can get us thinking about the right and wrong way to do science, and about the role of science in culture.
Here, then, are eight stories set in Australia, presenting a variety of fictional scientists.
Dr Clive Kinnear, Wish
Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish reinterprets both Frankenstein and Pygmalion, exploring the ethical dilemmas of a group of scientists who push the limits of biotechnology to create Eliza, a charmingly human ape.
The central scientist characters – Dr Clive Kinnear and his associates – also teach sign language to the gorilla.
When Eliza’s language teacher falls in love with her, we are forced to re-evaluate our assumptions about the boundaries between animal and human, and about advances in genetic engineering.
The novel draws on actual research into ape-language acquisition carried out in the US in the 1960s and 70s. Goldsworthy also acknowledges Peter Singer, the noted Australian philosopher of animal welfare and rights, as an influence on the book.
Professor Koenig, Charades
Janette Turner Hospital’s novel Charades features a MIT physicist and candidate for the Nobel Prize, Professor Koenig, who has an affair with a provincial Australian girl in search of her lost father.
It is a wildly imaginative novel blending a personal story with nuclear physics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (which articulates that the position and velocity of an object cannot be measured exactly).
The novel playfully revolves around Koenig’s academic writing and Heisenberg-inspired ideas such as the line: “a sense of the solidity of matter, is one of our most persistent illusions.”
Dr John Parker, White Eye
According to academic Roslynn Haynes, who studies stereotypes of scientists in pop culture, many stories depict scientists as maniacal and obsessed with their research to the point of madness and moral compromise.
Dr John Parker in Blanche d’Alpuget’s 1993 novel White Eye is an Australian example of the fictional ruthless, megalomaniac scientist.
A coldblooded researcher, he uses unethical methods to produce and test a vaccine against a virus that he more or less invented. This virus makes humans infertile as a side effect.
Parker wants to use this highly infectious and extremely virulent creation as a weapon against overpopulation – and he commits atrocious crimes to achieve his goal.
Della Gilmore, Fall Girl
Della Gilmore, the protagonist in Toni Jordan’s 2010 novel Fall Girl is an equally glorious caricature of scientist stereotypes.
Della’s father and grandfather travel the country in a buggy selling ‘Ol’ Doc Grayson’s “Magical Elixir good for bursitis, thrombitis, arthritis and anything that ails you at county fairs”. No wonder, Della becomes a con-artist herself.
In this novel she impersonates an evolutionary biologist and invents a fantastic research project (to trap a Tasmanian Tiger in Wilsons Promontory National Park). Her potential sponsor turns out to be a con-artist himself – one who humbugs the humbugger.
Jordan has previously worked as a molecular biologist. And this is a funny novel that invites us to think about the power of scientific jargon. Here, science is truly fiction.
William Caldwell, Love and The Platypus
To equally pursue “knowledge per se”, to unlock “the secrets of the organism” and to act as an explorer “not of untrodden lands, perhaps, but of the mysteries of nature”.
These are the reasons why the naturalist William Caldwell travels to Australia in Nicholas Drayson’s 2007 novel Love and The Platypus.
Caldwell’s research is “purely platypusical”: he aims to determine whether the platypus really does lay eggs.
But the “spirit of discovery – that was why he was here, was it not?”
Despite the obsessive nature of his scientific enquiry, Caldwell finds much more in Australia than just extraordinary animals.
Daniel Rooke, The Lieutenant
Daniel Rooke, Kate Grenville’s protagonist in The Lieutenant, is not a scientist, strictly speaking.
However, he is erudite and eager for knowledge – a “man of science” as he is called in the book.
Rooke moves from Europe to the newly founded colony of New South Wales, where he builds an observatory.
He hopes to add to the world’s sum of knowledge as dramatically as a Galileo or a Kepler, contemplating the universe and scanning the heavens in search for a particular comet.
But what he finally studies is human nature: of convicts, settlers, fellow officers and the Indigenous people he meets.
Charles Redbourne, Rifling Paradise
British novelist Jem Poster’s 2006 novel Rifling Paradise is the story of Charles Redbourne, a 19th-century English landowner who travels to Australia to pursue his passion as an amateur naturalist.
As he plunges deeper into the wilderness, Redbourne cultivates a flexibility of mind and comes to understand that his practice of science – and the expectations he had of his journey – were sophisticated modes of ignorance.
He understands that his “approach to the natural world is imaginative rather than analytical” and his expectations concerning his scientific journey here “had been tinged with fantasy”.
Crucially challenged by an artist he meets, he changes from a believer in science and a confident taxidermist into a vegan who realises that a marvellous order – and the sublime – can also be found in the world of thought and art.
Clayton Hercules Emmet, The Flesheaters
Clayton Hercules Emmet, a character in David Ireland’s 1972 novel The Flesheaters, both invokes and destroys the scientist stereotype.
Clayton, or Clay, is a “science person” whose “days were spent at the university killing small animals and waiting for a research grant in medical engineering”. His “constant effort to add to the sum of human knowledge has something of fever in it”. Indeed, Clay lives in a lunatic asylum.
One day, while trying to talk about science at a “worker-student-intellectual happening”, he fails to advocate the value of science as a means for social progress – its “saving truth”. Clay is a 20th-century caricature of a scientist who embodies the challenges of communicating the discipline to a broad audience.
When the author Richard Flanagan described Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker currently held on Manus Island, as “a great Australian writer”, he turned tired cliché into a pointed question: what makes an “Australian” writer?
Flanagan was writing in the foreword to Boochani’s startling book No Friend But the Mountains (Picador), which last night won the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature, the richest of its kind in Australia. Boochani also claimed the award for non-fiction, worth another $25,000.
This triumph cements Boochani’s status as an Australian writer.
Boochani was arguably the most important literary phenomenon in Australian literature in 2018. In part, this is because of the distinctive qualities of No Friend But the Mountains, an epic work that moves between verse and prose, reportage and fantasy, the mundane and the historical. The fact that Boochani’s political memoir of what he calls Manus Prison was ever published in book form defies the odds.
A journalist and experimental documentary maker, Boochani wrote the book as text messages on his mobile phone, sending them, sometimes through several intermediaries, to the academic Omid Tofighian for translation into English.
Indeed, beyond the recognition of Boochani’s book as a singular achievement in its own right, its success this week highlights recent intersections of human rights activism and the vocal political position-taking of the Australian literary community.
The publication of No Friend But the Mountains was accompanied by numerous public events, such as one at the Greek Centre in Melbourne in October 2018, where the conditions detailed in the book were discussed and protested, and Boochani participated via Skype. The same month, A “National Day of Action” organised by Academics for Refugees featured public “read-ins” of the book on university campuses nationwide.
Other Australian authors have also used their voices to bring attention to the plight of asylum seekers. During her acceptance speech for her second Miles Franklin Award in August 2018, Michelle de Kretser chastised politicians for their treatment of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island. To illustrate her point, she read a list of names of asylum seekers who have died there in the past five years.
It is tempting to dismiss such actions as gesture politics by an urban elite. But each individual action has served to raise awareness of the Australian government’s policy of “offshore processing” for asylum seekers, and to fuse artistic expression with political activism in a particularly forceful manner.
At the same time, and perhaps uniquely in the history of Australian literature, No Friend has seen the translation of human rights awards into convertible cultural capital in the literary field. The author has been awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award, the Amnesty International Award and Liberty Victoria’s Empty Chair Award. These humanitarian awards have confirmed Boochani’s rapidly acquired high profile in the literary field.
Last night’s news topped all of that to make Boochani the first “non-Australian” author to win the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The Victorian government established these awards in 1985 to honour Australian writing. The specific challenge this poses to the definition of “Australian writing” can be seen as an intervention by the literary community into the field of politics. If a non-citizen who has never set foot on mainland Australia can win, who counts as an Australian author?
Ironically, perhaps, Boochani’s success simply mirrors some of the prevailing trends in Australian authorship in an age of global literary circulation, which allow writers to transcend national borders. An example of this phenomenon is Nam Le who rose to fame with the publication of his very successful The Boat. This collection of short stories, informed by the author’s diasporic identity and upbringing in Australia, soon earned him over a dozen major literary awards in Australia, the United States and Europe.
Conversely, Boochani’s status on Manus Island has been defined by deterrence, indefinite detention and the spectre of refoulement. The narrative of this experience is one that he seeks to address directly to the Australian people from beyond Australia’s borders.
With no clear solution to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru in sight, the paradox of Boochani’s award success can only contribute further to public debate over the tangled logic of indefinite detention. It shows how cultural practices and political activism can be reconfigured to correspond with the newly created literary currency associated with refugee writing. For now, at least, Boochani is an “Australian writer” because Australia is morally implicated in what he wrote and how he wrote it.