Offshore/ashore: Australia’s refugee writing

In Richard Flanagan’s foreword to No Friend But the Mountains, he states that Behrouz Boochani is ‘a great Australian writer’. The notion of what constitutes Australian literature has always been a bit nebulous. At first blush, it seems easy to define: writing by Australians. But then, who are these Australians? And by what definition could Boochani be considered an Australian writer? As Keyvan Allahyari and Paul Rae wrote in The Conversation, ‘If a non-citizen who has never set foot on mainland Australia can win [the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award], who counts as an Australian author?’

Few would argue against a canon of Australian literature that included voices such as Tim Winton, Helen Garner, David Malouf, Peter Carey, Alexis Wright and the like. Looking to the past of Australian writing, expatriates such as Miles Franklin and Christina Stead have contributed a great deal to this country’s literature and its ongoing scholarship.

Approaching Australian literature with a transnational perspective, however, broadens what can be considered Australian. Transnationalism in Australian literature has been posited by a number of literary academics, such as Michael Jacklin, Ken Gelder and Robert Dixon.

In an article entitled ‘Australian Literature-International Contexts’, Dixon has outlined six agendas for furthering the transnational in Australian literature. Three of these are of particular interest when considering the literature produced on Manus and Nauru.

Dixon argues that biography is an important category to understand the connections between Australia and the rest of the world, and that this taxonomy ‘would need to consider not only those lives lived beyond the nation but also those that remained within the nation while identifying with international cultures.’ Further, he suggests that it should be considered how careers in writing are enabled by certain social movements. Lastly, Dixon suggests speaking not of Australian literature but of literature in Australia – that is most, if not all of the writing occurring in Australia.

The idea of a transnational Australian literature has been readily applied to the many local cultures, for instance to Vietnamese-Australian writing, Ukrainian-Australian writing, Latvian-Australian writing and so forth, wherein these writers continue to publish and circulate their work in language other than English. For many migrants and refugees across Australia’s history, continuing to write and finding an audience in similar communities has been natural. Michael Jacklin notes that much of this writing activity in Australia went unnoticed within the literary studies field for a long time.

Combining Dixon’s ideas with Jacklin’s view of transnational Australian literature allows a definition of Australian literature that includes writing by someone who doesn’t live on Australian soil. The literature, art and music produced on Manus and Nauru are more than this, though. This is creative work by those who have been deliberately excluded from Australia, and whose very existence is controlled by this government. Their work can hardly be read without considering the policies of successive Australian governments.

Nor is this output confined to Behrouz Boochani alone. Writing Through Fences is an organisation that brings together people who have been incarcerated as part of Australia’s immigration detention regime, mostly from Manus and Nauru. The organisation supports writers, artists and musicians in their creative endeavours, pairs them with mentors, and organises exhibitions. ‘There is too much distance between peace and where we are’ writes Rahman, a detainee on Manus, and a member of Writing Through Fences. Shamindan Kanapathi, another writer from Manus, in a response to Peter Dutton has stated that ‘we don’t have the energy or cynicism that is required to invent symptoms or exploit Australia.’ Others prefer to express themselves through poetry, such as Nauru detainee Arezo, who asks ‘do I exist only as cavities?’.

Behind the Wire is an oral history project, encompassing online stories, videos, a book, and a podcast. It seeks to provide perspective on mandatory detention from those who have been detained. In the foreword to They Cannot Take the Sky, published by Behind the Wire, Christos Tsiolkas says that he hopes that ‘many of the narrators will be the writers of a great new wave of Australian literature.’

Even once we accept that Manus and Nauru writing is Australian literature, what good does this do? The atrocities continue. Self-harm and suicide attempts continue. But inching towards claiming this book means inching towards taking responsibility. This is Australian literature in that it is Australian policy. Accepting its Australian-ness is part of understanding how the policies of mandatory detention work to remove refugees from public discourse.

In a 2016 essay for Overland, Boochani explored Giorgio Amgamben’s theory of the state of exception in reference to Australian detention policies. Now an essential practice of western democracies, exception laws respond to conflict, economy and disasters in a way that suspends or rejects usual constitutional rights. Everything is portrayed as a matter of national security, most notably so-called ‘border protection’. Understanding the exception that is Manus and Nauru (and Christmas Island) is essential to understanding Australia as a country and as a democracy today. This is a process that simultaneously excludes and binds Boochani and his contemporaries from and to Australian law. Every story that comes out of the detention centres serves to promote the idea that this is what happens when you try to enter Australia illegally.

The literature of Manus and Nauru is a literature that speaks out against the political discourse that silences ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ (or, as in the library subject terms used to file Boochani’s book, ‘illegal aliens’ or ‘alien detention’). These existing discourses have worked to produce either invisible refugees or pitiful ones – as Boochani’s translator Omid Tofighian says, the ways in which refugees are contrasted with citizens, as broken, tragic, struggling, desperate and mystic. ‘Each trope has the potential to reduce refugees to essentialist, voyeuristic, patronising and disempowering narratives.’

Reducing refugees to these tropes allows them to be viewed not as silent but as unnecessary voices in the Australian discourse. Further to this, the manner in which the detainees have been imprisoned has also ‘denied their entry into communities of thinkers and planners.’ Boochani’s work, along with the writing and art of other detainees, is a significant undertaking in owning the refugee narrative and in directing – forcing – the Australian public, wherever possible to read the truth of the state of exception.

There are many significant developments in Australian writing and publishing at the moment: writing by people of colour such as through Sweatshop, poetry by Indigenous people, feminist memoirs by young women, queer young adult literature, and a slew of debut writers supported across the industry by institutions such as the KYD First Book Club and Emerging Writers Festival. However, none are so inextricably linked to the ways that Australia operates as the literature and art of Manus and Nauru detainees.

No longer can we read innocently when this new Australian literature exists. We must accept Manus and Nauru literature as one that exists outside of the commercial interests of the book and publishing industry. Documenting the horrors of mandatory detention, this literature is a project that forces the public to bear witness to the reality of Australia in all of its ‘horrific surrealism’ – another of Tofighian’s descriptions of Boochani’s work. Quite simply, the literature of Manus and Nauru is necessary in order to comprehend Australia.


Artwork: Abbas Alaboudi

Clare Millar

Clare Millar is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and bookseller. She edits poetry and nonfiction for Voiceworks and is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn. She has been published in The Lifted Brow, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Voiceworks and The Age/Sydney Morning Herald. She tweets at @claresmillar.

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