The winner of Australia’s most esteemed literary prize could not attend the ceremony.
Today, Kurdish Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani won the Victorian Prize for Literature for his book, No Friend But the Mountains. Composed one text message at a time from an offshore detention center in Papua New Guinea, the novel has won a $25,000 and $100,000 prize in a country that denied this author refuge and continues to detain him. One of Behrouz Boochani’s greatest achievements should highlight what many perceive as present-day Australia’s greatest shame.
IMAGE VIA SBS NEWS
The experimental format of Boochani’s book was not an artistic decision—it was a necessity. While seeking refuge in Australia, the author was detained on Manus Island, a notorious offshore detention facility. Since he feared for his safety and the safety of his work, he wrote his novel entirely over WhatsApp messenger—and over the course of five years. He was right to be afraid: during his time at the detention center, he witnessed suicide attempts, riots, and murders. His phone was taken twice. “Imagine if I had written this book on paper,” Boochani said, “I would definitely have lost it.”
IMAGE VIA BLANK GC
Boochani might have won a significant sum, but money was never his aim in writing the book. Instead, he sought to share his experience of immigration and detention:
My main aim has always been for the people in Australia and around the world to understand deeply how this system has tortured innocent people on Manus and Nauru in a systematic way for almost six years. I hope this award will bring more attention to our situation and create change.
Image Via MO MAgazine
Although the detention camps have been legally closed, their continued existence bodes ill for Australia as a nation and for the people still left inside. LGBT+ people particular have suffered in these camps: in Papua New Guinea, homosexuality is still a crime. Gay men in the immigration detention facility can face up to fourteen years in prison. Boochani describes the camps as “barbaric.”
Boochani may have written the book to spread awareness of these cruelties, but, he admits, there was also another reason. Writing helped him to keep his humanity, his identity, he said. Writing was the thing that allowed him to survive.
Escaping from Iran, a Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochan ended up in the refugee camp on Manus Island, where he had been illegally detained for five years. During these years without freedom, Boochan wrote down his thoughts, anxieties, and memories on his WhatsApp, which has now been compiled into a book.
In 2013, there were a lot of Middle and South Asian refugees flooding into Australia, longing for political protection. The Australian government stated that those refugees who do not have appropriate documents of identification would be transferred to Manus Island, New Guinea, or Nauru.
Behrouz Boochan is one of those transferees. After his company Werya was attacked by Iranian military, Boochan was put to flight to Indonesia, from where he and the other seventy-five refugees took boat to Australia. However, he was blocked by the gate of this country and forced to stay on Manus Island. This stay then turned into a five-year-long detention.
Manus Island | Image via Google Map
Though in 2016, the detention center on the island was considered illegal by New Guinea government and should be dismissed immediately, the government didn’t come out a package of solution about how to place those detainees. American government took some; yet Boochan was left on the island with the other five.
Boochan’s documentary and book | Images via Wikipedia and Amazon
Originally written in Persian, the content of No Friend But the Mountains had been typed on Boochan’s WhatsApp and then sent to his friend Moones Mansoubi in Australia who translated the text messages, one by one, and complied them into a book. During the period of composition, Boochan’s phone had been confiscated twice.
The main reason I wrote this book on my phone, and sent it out bit by bit, was really that I didn’t feel safe with the guards and authorities. Because they, at any time, could attack our room and take our property. In February 2014, during the riots, all the refugees lost our property. Seven months ago in November, when they relocated us, we lost our property again. So imagine if I had written this book on paper. I would definitely have lost it.
He recalled that the process of WhatsApp writing was hard:
I wrote this book on the phone and sent it out bit by bit. I wrote all the book on WhatsApp. WhatsApp was like my notebook. For example, some nights I could write two pages or one page, and send it out to my translator. And when I finish my chapter, I [tell] him that it is chapter 5, or it is chapter 6, or it is chapter 7. My translator put them together in PDF and sent it back to me, and I read it and say, “Yeah, it’s OK, it’s exactly what I want.” So it was a long process, a very hard process.
No Friend But the Mountains is a fusion of fictional creative writing and documentarian political resistance. Boochan said:
For a long time I tried to describe the situation on Manus Island, to describe the life in Manus prison camp, but I think the journalism language doesn’t have the capacity to describe this life, and the suffering and how the system is working here…I worked on this book for five years. I thought that the best way for me to express my thinking and to tell the story of Manus prison camp and the stories of Manus Island – and Nauru as well – is to write a novel…The best way for me, I can say I survived through my artworks, through my journalism work.
Still being detained on the island, Boochani expressed that some people had been moved to the US, Nauru while some are still trapped, including himself. The following is an excerpt, according to The Guardian, from No Friend But the Mountains, from which readers may see how nervous and anxious Boochani, a prisoner, may be:
A cage – high walls – wire fencing – electronic doors – CCTV cameras
Surveillance cameras gazing at 20 individuals
Men wearing oversized garments
Men with loose-fitting clothes hanging off them.
Early in the morning, at six, guards came in like debt collectors and heaved us out of bed. Within a few minutes they took us to a tightly confined cage. It is now almost two hours since they brought us here. These hours have been really tough. It is hard being imprisoned … being locked in a cage. We have now been in prison on Christmas Island for a whole month. It is hard being a prisoner.
I sincerely hope that the walls, the cage, and the fence may be broken down soon… And again those political actions that have violated human rights should be critically examined.