Michael Byrne will host a session of the online Newcastle Writers Festival on Sunday, April 5, at 1pm, with Behrouz Boochani. #nwfstoriestoyou on Facebook and YouTube
It was a surprise that shifted into a confusion and, like so many other surprises, it closely followed a confession. From the moment that the Kurdish journalist and human rights advocate Behrouz Boochani recently said that, despite the Australian government holding him in detention in a Manus Island prison for six years, it never actually mattered to him whether he made it to Australia, our most basic assumptions about refugees felt like they had been undermined.
This could be because some of us still perceive asylum seekers, even artistic and humanitarian scholars like Boochani, through a lens of our own designation. Regrettably, we have been taught that the refugee crisis is more often about us, about protecting our borders and our way of life. The obvious reality, so cleverly hidden from us, is that it's not about us at all. Without imagining that there are two distinct groups - or even that Australian-born citizens are themselves a single, monolithic cultural entity - the asylum sought by others, from wherever it may be, is actually about the refugees themselves. It is about their experiences, not our assumptions.
A book like Boochani's No Friend But the Mountains: Writings from Manus Prison, published in 2018, is an almighty reminder of this, of how perceptions and realities can sometimes bear almost no genuine relationship to one another. Forget for a moment that Boochani composed this distressing yet wholly poetic piece of literature on a contraband mobile phone; that on a device hidden from the detention centre sentry in the cavity of his mattress, he condensed his harrowing experiences into individual text messages - tapping them out in the dark in Farsi - before he secretly sent them across the world to be translated, collated and eventually published to unanimous acclaim. Forget it for no other reason than because the author himself would prefer it that way.
... the asylum sought by others, from wherever it may be, is actually about the refugees themselves. It is about their experiences, not our assumptions.
The facts that Boochani would prefer you to remember are not those from his personal past. His lens is focused more widely than that. It is no longer about him. When I spoke to Boochani in the lead-up to the Newcastle Writers Festival, it instantly became clear that he didn't want to talk about his torture and starvation, about his suffering at the hands of an Australian government who, cynically and unceasingly, markets human rights abuses as border protection measures. He wanted to talk about a different kind of past - the Australian past that its governments seem determined to forget.
"We all need to look at Manus Island as one part of a much bigger picture", says Boochani, now an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at UNSW and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Sydney (though he cannot come to Australia). "There is a similarity between how the Manus Island refugees have been treated by your government and how Aboriginal people have been treated over time. It is a story that exists but there is a willingness by those in power and even in the education system to pretend that it doesn't. But pretending will never make it go away."
Although the author has also become reticent to specifically talk about his book or about any singular experience that he so evocatively captured within it, I did manage to draw his attention to a particular, illuminative passage. I mentioned it to him because it might, in part, explain the confession I mention earlier - his statement about making it to Australia. In that passage, at least in a metaphorical sense, Boochani reveals that he may have already been here. "This space", he writes, "is part of Australia's legacy. This place is Australia itself."
"When I say that in my book", explains Boochani, "I am describing a part of the detention centre that housed refugees and families long before I arrived there in 2012. Before then, from 2001 until 2007, there were hundreds of people and many families who were staying there. We didn't know very much about those refugees who were there at that time."
Boochani was relieved of some of that uncertainty soon after he was granted a 30-day visa to visit New Zealand, to address a Christchurch literary festival in November 2019. Travelling on a UN passport, his journey from Papua New Guinea required a 19-hour stopover in the Philippines, before he was permitted to land in Auckland, to the relief of a waiting Amnesty International team. A proud local Kurdish community opened their arms to him as well.
"When I arrived in Auckland, I had only been there for a week before I was attending an event where I was asked to make a speech to a small Kurdish audience," he remembers. "After the event was finished I met a man, about 60 years old. He told me he had been in detention on Manus Island all the way back in 2001. He said that we had the same story. It was very moving for me. Here I was, meeting a man who had been exiled by Australia 19 years earlier. It was a remarkable thing."
Now living in Christchurch, from where he is expected - although yet to be confirmed - to request political asylum from the New Zealand government Boochani is achieving remarkable things. His relative comfort, however, should not be mistaken for complacency. Even for a distinguished journalist, film and theatre maker, author and academic, his commitment to combining activism with the arts is incredibly impressive.
"It is because of those people still in detention that I continue to work. The Australian people need to know exactly what is happening, about the 13 innocent people who have died in this system and about the $9 billion that has been spent keeping it going. We need to put pressure where it is needed. There is so much work still to be done and I want to help with doing that work."
Michael Byrne will host a session of the online Newcastle Writers Festival on Sunday, April 5, at 1pm, with Behrouz Boochani. #nwfstoriestoyou on Facebook and YouTube.