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‘We are part of Australian history’: Behrouz Boochani, voice of exile

Behrouz Boochani: The policies of exile, and of keeping people in harsh and inhuman conditions on Manus and Nauru for so many years, are extraordinary and unprecedented. So the reaction by the public to artistic works, and works such as this book, emerging from exile in these remote islands, was hard to predict. The unprecedented nature of our situation also conditioned the style of work and artistic responses produced by those of us caught up in the Manus and Nauru prison system. When I finished the book, I could not foresee what would happen. I was more sure of the response from researchers and academics than the public reaction. So I have been surprised by the response, especially by how quick it has been. Right now, as I am talking with you, I am receiving many invitations from universities both in Australia and internationally to take part in projects. This is both remarkable and very valuable. It gives us a chance to explore, in greater depth, the nature of this prison system, how it functions, and the factors that created it.

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I think that one of the most striking aspects of the book is how seamlessly it unites literature and theory, the art of story and psychological insight, the poetic and the academic. It has touched many members of the public, and it has also triggered, as you say, projects with other artists, and thinkers, concerned with public policy and the contemporary asylum seeker experience. Can you tell us more about these collaborations and projects?

I think it’s important to point out that traditionally responses to the refugee issue have been led by humanitarian organisations and journalists. I have tried to open new spaces for discussion: literature, the arts and academia. This has included cinematic language, as in my collaboration with Arash Kamali Sarvestani, the Iranian filmmaker living in Holland, with our movie, Chauka, please tell us the time; the video installation project Remain, with Iranian-Australian artist Hoda Afshar, which is currently showing in the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art; and other films that I have been involved in. There is the play Manus, a collaboration with Iranian playwright Nazanin Sahamizadeh, which was performed in Iran and Bangladesh, and will be staged at the Adelaide Arts Festival in March. There are also works which have been published in academic journals, and discussed in Australian universities, and at international conferences, triggering new collaborations. We are looking at how to take the debate about asylum seekers forward, over the next decade. Each medium is another language, a different way of looking at what it means to be a displaced person, and an imprisoned asylum seeker.

Nazanin Sahamizadeh's play <i>Manus</i>, based on the experiences of those imprisoned on the island, is performed in Tehran. The play will soon be staged in Australia.

Nazanin Sahamizadeh’s play Manus, based on the experiences of those imprisoned on the island, is performed in Tehran. The play will soon be staged in Australia.

The number of displaced peoples internationally is on the increase. Upwards of 70 million internally and externally displaced peoples. Millions literally stateless. It is a global challenge. I think the most striking characteristic of your work has been your simultaneous long-term and short-term perspectives. As a journalist, you have expressed your responses to the daily realities, to each crisis, each incident, in blogs, social media posts, and in many articles published in the Australian and international press. I am aware that in the years that you were writing No Friend But the Mountains – typing it out on mobile phones, working through the night, and reflecting on it, as you sat by the cyclone fence of the Manus detention facility, gazing out at the forest and sea, while also witnessing the distressing scenes within the centre – all that time, you were also reporting on each death: on the murder of your friend and fellow Kurdish-Iranian detainee, Reza Barati, and each subsequent death, due to medical neglect, suicide and other causes. How are the 600 or so men still being held hostage in Nauru and PNG faring now?

When we discussed it late last year, I said that unfortunately the situation is getting worse day by day. I said that we are struggling with increasing incidents of self-harm and suicide attempts. Many men had given up and completely lost hope. My understanding was that these men had given up for two main reasons: First, because the Kids Off Nauru campaign had a negative impact on the men here. The campaign of refugee advocates, the media and public opinion was focused on kids. It seemed like they had forgotten the men on Manus. The men feared they would be left behind. Second, many of the men had been rejected by the United States — it seems that the only reason was their country of birth. The government announced the deal more than two years ago, but still hundreds of men remain on Manus.

Right now, unfortunately, the situation on Manus is even more critical. Almost every day there are suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm. There are at least 23 people in a serious condition in the Pacific International Hospital in Port Moresby, and many are struggling with mental problems.

Let me tell you an interesting story: I have worked with and witnessed many cases of illness over the years, and I have written about many of them. I was sure that I deeply understood the men when they were saying “We are afraid of death”.

But recently I discovered that I was completely wrong. I developed a serious infection on my leg last month, and I struggled with it for over two weeks. During that time, I realised how it is to be sick in a place where there are no adequate medical facilities. I felt the closeness of death, and it was a new feeling for me. For a while I thought that I might die because of the infection. Generally, I can say that many men are mentally ill because they are exhausted by years of this terrible limbo and not knowing what will happen with their lives. Still we ask this question: how much longer will we remain here? Unfortunately, we always feel the presence of death. This is the reality of life on Manus.

There is a term which psychiatrists were using to embody the predicament of the children being held on Nauru – ‘resignation syndrome’ – to encapsulate the despair and the profound sense of loss of hope they were suffering. The symptoms included withdrawal into isolation, listlessness, long periods of silence, and depression. Is this term applicable in depicting what you are seeing in the men still marooned on Manus? 

It’s a common problem on Manus. There are many people who never come out of their rooms and spend all their time in isolation. Many men have given up and completely lost hope. Almost every day we wake up to another suicide attempt or episode of self-harm. These acts affect everyone in our community. They spread a feeling of hopelessness and the sense that violence is possible at any time, in any place.

Behold the man: A still from Hoda Afshar's <i>Remain</i>, currently exhibiting at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Behold the man: A still from Hoda Afshar’s Remain, currently exhibiting at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.Credit:Courtesy of Hoda Afshar

The award raises interesting questions regarding the status of those still being held on Manus Island. One of the conditions of eligibility is Australian citizenship or permanent residence. After the judges recommended your book, the Wheeler Centre, which administers the awards on behalf of the Victorian government, agreed to waive this requirement for you. This sets an interesting precedent for other states’ literary awards and can be taken as saying: “We see you as part of us, as one of us. You should be free, and able to accept the award in person.” It also indicates you have been embraced by the Australian writing community and the organisations that support it. Has this prize, and all that it implies, affected or altered your relationship with Australia? Has there been a shift in your sense of self, your sense of belonging?

There are many conflicting thoughts. I think that the nomination for this award is a challenge against the system. It says that the Australian government is responsible for what has happened in the Manus and Nauru prison camps. It is proof that the refugees on Manus and Nauru are a part of Australian society even though they have not entered Australia yet. Those of us who have spent so many years in seclusion and exile have had a deep impact on Australia. We are now a part of Australian history. We are forever bound to this country. This relationship can never be denied. Our lives have been deeply affected by what has taken place. We will forever carry the scars.

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Although the government did not recognise our basic human rights, many individual Australians and organisations have accepted us, and see us as members of Australian society. The acceptance of the nomination attests to this. The organisers of the award ignored the nomination rules by giving this award to my book. This is a political statement from the literary and creative arts community in Australia, and all those who do not agree with the government’s thinking. I need to say that while we are fed up and tired, we don’t feel hatred towards the Australian people. It has been the Australian government that, with its actions, has shown hatred towards us. I only have one dream – freedom for all those who have been held hostage by the government.

No Friend But the Mountains bears witness, both in what it reveals and the unique literary voice in which it is written. This is what the judges, and so many readers, have responded to. You have taken the reader to places where journalists and observers were forbidden to go. And if they would have been allowed, they could not possess your perspective – the lived experience of what the system does to the soul and the spirit. How do you see it now, when you look back over the long journey from those early years, when you and the men were totally isolated and cut off from the outside world, to now, when your voice is being so widely heard, acknowledged and recognised?

I don’t often think about the past or the future because my journey has not finished yet. I am still struggling to get freedom. But when I do think back over that time, I ask myself “how did I survive?”. I have experienced so many difficult things, such as losing friends. The loss of friends makes me very sad. The question often returns: “Why did the system kill these innocent people?”

Behrouz Boochani's <i>No Friend But the Mountains</i>, which won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature.

Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains, which won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature.

A while ago I had a chance to return to that old prison, where we spent the first 4½ years [before the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre was ruled illegal by the PNG Supreme Court and closed]. When we arrived, we saw that the prison had been demolished. I sat in a place where we used to stand in long queues to get food. I thought about those hard days and asked myself: “If I did not make the movie, or if I did not write this book, what would remain?”

I was so pleased that I finished the book when I was still in that old prison. One aspect of prison culture is that when a prisoner gets out, they forget many things. They don’t remember their feelings at that time, and the details of daily life there. For example, when I was writing about hunger and starvation in the book, I don’t think I could have written about it as deeply as when I was there, going through it, and experiencing hunger.

Yes, this is the heart of what you have achieved with your book and this is what we celebrate this week at the awards ceremony. It is unjust that you could not be there in person.

Late last year you were taken to Port Moresby for a few days. You sent me a message about how amazing it was to leave Manus Island, even briefly, after so many years. One of the many devastating scenes in your book depicts the flight from Christmas Island to Manus, then the truck journey through the tropical forest and arrival in the detention centre back in August 2013 – so long ago. How do these two moments – the arrival and the temporary departure – contrast in your mind? 

I have witnessed many people visiting Manus, and then leaving, and I have always imagined that moment when I am leaving Manus forever. When I went to Port Moresby for the first time, it was a great feeling. I missed seeing a city for so many years. When I was flying, it was amazing to see the island from above. The prison was very small from the sky. But it was hard to accept that it was only for a few days, and that they would force me back to Manus. Right now, I can imagine that moment when I am flying above Manus Island, and leaving it forever. It will be a wonderful feeling.

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