It is terribly hard to write about this book. For years, along with many other Australians, I have been deeply ashamed of the government’s treatment of refugees. When I think of it, I am humiliated. But here I am, sitting at my comfortable desk, groaning along with the crowd who voted against Scott Morrison as Prime Minister — yet my life hasn’t changed radically. I won’t become homeless, stateless or incarcerated.
Behrouz Boochani, a professional journalist who fled oppression via Indonesia, wrote this book using a mobile phone and Whatsapp. It was mainly written after he was forcibly removed from Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre – Manus Prison – following a 23 day siege. He is still living on Manus Island and has no idea of his future.
Boochani was awarded the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature. And I remember feeling personally embarrassed when a self-righteous aspiring writer wrote a letter to The Age complaining that the rules, which she had followed assiduously, had been broken, because Boochani is not an Australian citizen. Why not? Read the book.
Indeed, the award may offer Boochani a degree of protection, as he says: ‘Being known, perhaps, and my work being recognised and supported by organisations and other thinkers and artists perhaps gives me an element of protection.’
The book is a beautiful piece of writing. It has been described as ‘anti-genre’. In one sense it is a piece of social reporting, yet it is also a poem that has grown from the Kurdish literary tradition. What courage — what persistence!
He graphically describes the horrific outcomes of the use in Manus Prison of a Kyriarchal system of social domination where the principle is to turn prisoners against each other. He also writes poetic descriptions — flowers, ‘gasping as though in love with the cool ocean breezes’.
We start off by experiencing, through his poetry, the truck ride to the boat in Indonesia: ‘we look up at a sky the colour of intense anxiety. Every so often someone slightly adjusts their position on the truck’s wooden floor to allow the blood to circulate through tired muscles’.
A terrifying boat trip. Inhumane and unexpected imprisonment on Christmas Island, and then a plane to Manus. Where there is ‘a confrontation of bodies, a confrontation of human flesh’, and where ‘the untreated sewage spilling out around the facility produces a smell … so vile that one feels ashamed to be part of the human species.’
I don’t suppose any of the government personnel who make decisions about immigration policy have read this book. Quite apart from being a beautiful piece of literature it is an important document and we must not blench from reading it.
Boochani’s work will continue to be revered in Australian literary circles. Indeed, his poem ‘The Black Kite’ is in a book, The Sky Falls Down, to be launched next Saturday 13th July at Readings bookstore, Glenferrie Road Hawthorn, 2.00 pm.