The link below is to an article reporting on the big winner at the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for 2019… and he wasn’t allowed to attend.
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.
It is a matter of wonder that Behrouz Boochani was able to write No Friend but the Mountains at all. He did so while in Manus prison, using text messages in Farsi on smuggled mobile phones. Egyptian and Australian academic Omid Tofighian worked closely with Boochani to translate the text into English. In a detailed introduction to the book, Tofighian explains that Boochani’s writing contributes to a Kurdish literary tradition. He describes his style as “horror surrealism”.
This is not how I experienced the book. Although the imagery Boochani shares is horrific, and the brutality of the prison environment is almost beyond belief, Boochani is bearing witness to a system of detention that is part of contemporary Australian policy, and to which he is an on-going victim. This is no piece of imagination.
For me, the book invokes Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for its use of insanity and humour to explore the brutality of authority, and Shahram Khosravi’s ‘Illegal’ Traveller for its meditation on state techniques for exclusion through the eyes of the excluded.
The book begins with Boochani boarding a boat somewhere on Java, hoping to reach Australia. In elegant prose, he brings to life the refugee journey through detailed observations of his fellow travellers. He describes a rapid collapse of order:
Men lie in the arms of another’s wife, children lie on the bellies of strangers. It seems they have all forgotten … the energy spent establishing a gender-based order.
A storm destroys the boat with waves the size of mountains that transport him back to the mountains in his native land.
Where is this place? Why is my mother dancing?
After being rescued, a short interlude on Christmas Island begins the clinical process of dehumanising the asylum seekers. They are issued flip-flops and ill-fitting clothes, regularly strip-searched, exposed to CCTV in toilets, moved from cage to cage through layers of bureaucracy, and finally escorted (or carried) by two guards per prisoner to an plane bound for Manus Island.
From this moment, the sense of a journey ends, and the book is a meditation on survival in a prison system intent on destroying the prisoners’ will.
Australians accept detention on Nauru and Manus as a “necessary evil” to prevent an uncontrollable flow of asylum seekers to Australia by boat. Boochani dissects this necessary evil. He sits us on a white plastic chair, our feet on the wire border fence, overlooking the jungle.
There is no silence. Only the constant grind of an old tractor generator, the whirr of fans, the noise of hundreds of prisoners crammed into a space the size of a football field, the static of the guards’ walkie-talkies signalling an incident.
Boochani takes us on a sensory tour of the Manus prison. The smells – body odour and bad breath, rotting vegetation, diesel and excrement. The rubbing against one another in the tight spaces – flesh on hairy, sweaty flesh.
The uniforms are reminiscent of dystopian regimes – nurses in orange carrying boxes of yellow pills, local guards in purple, medical staff in white, and Australian federal police in flak jackets with shields and black gloves with metal spikes.
The heat is oppressive. The bottled water so warm it does not quench one’s thirst. The only relief is a huge shade tree in the middle of the complex.
We learn of the daily routine, the constant queuing for meals, for the toilet, for cigarettes, for the telephone. Through a detailed analysis of how these queues operate, we begin to understand the way institutional power breaks the spirit of the prisoners by pitting one against another, and using an unbending authority to remove all human compassion.
In one incident, a man cannot swap his place in the telephone queue to speak to his dying father because the regulations make no provision for it. An appeal to a higher authority brings out the Boss, backed by 12 police officers. The Boss places his hand on the shoulder of The Man with the Dying Father (as Boochani calls him) and calmly explains that the rules are the rules.
The queues mean that stronger prisoners eat well, and weaker ones starve. Bouchani marvels at the fortitude of The Cow, a brick of a man, who is prepared to sit in the heat of the sun for hours to ensure his place at the front of the meal queue.
In the first few months of detention, there is still a sense of resistance. Maysan the Whore entertains prisoners most nights with wild dancing in innovative costumes of bed sheets, “pretending to be happy as a form of revenge”. But eventually Maysan begins to deteriorate. “We must find another way to cope with exile”, Boochani laments.
Boochani shares his own weakness, anger, frustration and despair. He does not romanticise these feelings. He simply observes.
Periodically, he tries to make sense of his experience, musing on the strategies of oppression. He describes Manus prison as a Kyriarchal system, a system of total psychological control.
The generator, which Boochani calls Mr Generator, breaks down periodically, leaving rooms unbearably hot and filled with mosquitoes. Just when the tension is unbearable, the generator resumes.
Games are not allowed. When prisoners create a makeshift backgammon board on a table using bottle lids, it is destroyed.
How can it be that soccer balls are prohibited, but cigarettes are always available?
Milk is offered as a special treat. The allocation is always half a cup. If a cup is overfilled, even slightly, it is removed and binned. Why not just redistribute the milk? The lack of logic “confines the mind of the prisoner”, Boochani writes, “leaving him just trying to cope”.
The toilets flow with excrement. They are a place for sex. A place to cut wrists with a razor. Despite risk of punishment, people prefer to piss behind bushes after dark.
The sights and sounds outside the walls are important for retaining hope and sanity – the sound of the ocean just behind a thin strip of forest, the coconut trees, the chauka birds and crickets, the sunsets and phases of the moon, the white flowers along the sewage line.
The prisoner’s imagination is always occupied with the world beyond the fences.
Poetic streams of consciousness intersperse the narrative, and Boochani is occasionally transported back to the Kurdistan of his childhood. At these moments, the reader is with Boochani at the fence as he lets his mind run free, interpreting the confusion of his existence in this place of torture. These interludes make the book more intensely personal without descending into romanticism or self-pity.
The book ends with the description of a riot in the prison. The full brutality of authority is unleashed in response. We learn that The Gentle Giant, Reza Barati, has been killed.
No Friend but the Mountains reveals that Manus prison is designed to break the will of refugees so they see no option but to return home. It leaves no doubt that any prisoner who chooses to repatriate has been driven to do so through the brutality of the prison system, in clear breach of Australia’s non-refoulement obligation under the UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention.
Every Australian should read this book and marvel at the extent of our brutality, the human cost of a “necessary evil”.
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No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison is available in bookstores and online.
The GM picks me up from the airport. I call him the GM because after the PNG Supreme Court ruled the Manus Island immigration detention centre illegal, this man was able to leave the prison and find work as the general manager of a lodge in Lorengau town. Behrouz Boochani has arranged for me to stay at that lodge.
The GM’s Manusian colleague and another refugee accompany him. Driving into town we see police blocking part of the road beside a school; some locals are dispersing, others are gazing over at a cluster of trees.
I find out afterwards that the body of Hamed Shamshiripour has just been discovered among those trees beaten and with a rope around his neck.
Hours later, I meet Behrouz for the first time at the central bus stop in Lorengau. I always imagined him holding his smart phone – an inseparable union. A Kurdish journalist, writer and refugee from Iran, Behrouz has been incarcerated on Manus for five years. Since the start of 2016 I have been translating his journalism, communicating with him through WhatsApp.
During this time, his phone has been a lifeline to the outside world. He has shot a film and written articles on it – texting them to those beyond the prison fences – and now his book, No Friend but the Mountains.
We greet each other as he finishes a phone call. Australia’s border regime has stolen prime years of his life – he is weary and famished, but proud, vigilant and resolute. This is despite having had nothing to eat all day, the heat and sweat, being traumatised at the loss of a friend and the responsibility of reporting and communicating with the Australian and international media.
Over some days we get to know each other personally for the first time, and I meet others and translate articles in response to this latest tragedy. Then after the intensity, stress and anger have faded a little, we begin reviewing the chapters of No Friend but the Mountains. I have already translated about 80%.
Behrouz began writing from the very beginning of his exile and incarceration; he persevered after his phones were confiscated twice and stolen once. I began translating in December 2016; for one year I translated as he wrote using his smart phone.
Behrouz had text-messaged parts from various chapters to Moones Mansoubi, his very first translator beginning in 2015 and a translation consultant on this project. She would sort the texts into chapters on his instructions. Mansoubi then emailed me the PDFs – each chapter was one long text message of between about 9,000 and 17,000 words.
As I was translating from Farsi to English, I consulted regularly with Behrouz through WhatsApp. He would often add sections and make changes.
My translation process also involved weekly sessions with either Mansoubi or Sajad Kabgani, an Iranian researcher living in Sydney. While I translated, Behrouz continued to finish the book while communicating with his friends and literary confidants, Janet Galbraith, Arnold Zable, Kirrily Jordan and Mahnaz Alimardanian in Australia, and the intellectuals and creative thinkers Najem Weysi, Farhad Boochani and Toomas Askari in Iran.
Here on Manus, Behrouz reads the Farsi while I check the English. We stop and discuss sections, meanings, nuances and changes; we also digress and explore ideas, symbols, stories and theories far beyond the pages of the text. Describing his thinking and writing process, he explains:
The book is a playscript for a theatre performance that incorporates myth and folklore; religiosity and secularity; coloniality and militarism; torture and borders…
The translation method requires a form of literary experimentation. And the process is a form of shared philosophical activity.
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Trying to preserve the sentence structure when translating Farsi literature into English results in unnecessarily long and cumbersome passages. Literature written in Farsi mostly consists of sentences with many elaborate and varied consecutive clauses. The subject is at the beginning and the verb is usually placed at the end.
The patterns and flow of adjectival clauses, synonyms and poetic and cultural images and allusions enable Farsi readers to move smoothly through the extended sentences due to a combination of melody, imagination, anticipation and consolidation.
In English, the same chain of clauses within a sentence becomes too awkward to read, losing much of its rhythmic thrust. Splitting sentences into many smaller ones is helpful. It also reflects the disrupted and fractured subjectivity and modes of knowing of those who are imprisoned refugees.
In this book, political commentary and historical account meet philosophical and psychoanalytic examination; these are framed or supported by myth, epic and folklore from various traditions, particularly Kurdish, Persian and Manusian. It is an anti-genre. I call the style “horrific surrealism”.
In significant places, noun phrases and monikers are also capitalised to emphasise personhood and Farsi prose is translated into English verse. For instance:
Killing time involves a simple trick /
Reach out and hold another sunset /
Another one of the thousand-colour Manusian sunsets /
Then, reach out and hold another night /
Another one of the dark island nights /
A futile cycle … /
Night and day revolving /
Under the shade of an old tree.
Behrouz and I had a mutual understanding; in fact, the translation team embodied a kind of collective intention or shared agency. Our literary and philosophical interpretations evolved throughout the process. But the shared goal from the start was to produce a visceral narrative, a riveting masterpiece that exposed one central aspect of the detention regime: systematic torture.
Behrouz Boochani will appear by video link at Melbourne Writers Festival on August 29.
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No Friend but the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison is available in bookstores and online.