Forget the mantras of the power-hungry, proclaiming that the 21st century belongs to this or that nation, heralds the rise of such and such a power, or is the manifest destiny of one or other land mass. This century is the time of the migrant – whether she or he is a legal, economic, political or “illegal” variant of that great mass of humanity that is on the move throughout the world.
Things were simpler and more humane once. Refugees fled war and other forms of oppression, including disasters such as drought and famine; they were helped. Persons seeking asylum had been persecuted and prosecuted in their homelands because of their beliefs and behaviour, their ideologies and ideas; they were welcomed. Immigrants were those most fortunate ones who, emigrating from their native countries, had been granted prior entrance into their newly adopted homes.
But now, as tens of millions of people battle hunger, political, ideological and religious repression, diminishing resources and the relentlessly impoverishing effects of late capitalism, the migrant has become the bogey, filled with evil and mischief. Degraded and downgraded by bureaucratic categories – asylum seekers, say, being a nominal notch above economic refugees (“Here to take our money”) – migrants more than any entity show the pain of being caught between the proverbial rock and hard place.
Among the worst places to be stuck is on one of the Pacific Ocean islands that Australia uses to ensure that migrants never reach its shores. Boats of migrants are intercepted by the Australian authorities, who maroon their occupants on remote islands while “processing” their immigration cases. The system is designed to produce a minimal entry rate and to detain would-be immigrants for year upon year in concentration camp-like surroundings that the Australian state euphemistically and disingenuously calls “offshore detention centres”.
It was an exquisite piece of social justice, then, that Australia’s major literary prize, the Victorian premier’s award, should go to a Kurdish-Iranian writer who, as an asylum seeker, has been kept on the hellish Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for almost six years. Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison won both the $25 000 non-fiction prize and the $100 000 Victorian prize for literature at the awards on 31 January.
The book tells the story of Boochani’s journey from Indonesia in search of asylum in Australia, his capture and incarceration. At least as remarkable is that Boochani wrote the book using text messages. The “manuscript” of thousands of text messages was translated by Omid Tofighian and then published by Picador Australia.
Banned from setting foot on Australian soil, Boochani gave his acceptance speech from Manus Island by video link. Below is a full transcript; you can also see and listen to Boochani delivering his speech by video.
“When I arrived at Christmas Island six years ago, an immigration official called me into the office and told me that they were going to exile me to Manus Island, a place in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I told them that I am a writer. That same person just laughed at me, and ordered the guards to exile me to Manus.
“I kept this image in my mind for years, even while I was writing my novel – and even right now, as I’m writing this acceptance speech. It was an act of humiliation.
“When I arrived in Manus, I created another image for myself. I imagined a novelist in a remote prison. Sometimes I would work half naked beside the prison fences and imagine a novelist locked up right there, in that place. This image was awe inspiring. For years I maintained this image in my mind. Even while I was forced to wait in long queues to get food, or while enduring other humiliating moments.
“This image always helped me uphold my dignity and keep my identity as a human being. In fact, I created this image in opposition to the image created by the system. After years of struggling against the system that has completely ignored our individual identities, I am happy that we have arrived at this moment.
“This proves that words still have the power to challenge inhumane systems and structures. I have always said that I believe in words and literature. I believe that literature has the potential to make change and challenge structures of power. Literature has the power to give us freedom. Yes, it is true.
“I have been in a cage for years but throughout this time my mind has always been producing words, and these words have taken me across borders, taken me overseas and to unknown places. I truly believe words are more powerful than the fences of this place, this prison.
“This is not just a basic slogan. I am not an idealist. I am not expressing the views of an idealist here. These words are from a person who has been held captive on this island for almost six years. A person who has witnessed an extraordinary tragedy unfold in this place. These words allow me to appear there with you, tonight.
“With humility, I would like to say that this award is a victory. It is a victory not only for us, but for literature and art and above all, it is a victory for humanity. A victory for human beings, for human dignity. A victory against a system that has never recognised us as human beings. It is a victory against a system that has reduced us to numbers.
“This is a beautiful moment. Let us all rejoice tonight in the power of literature.”