Behrouz Boochani and the Penal Archipelago

“I hope one day to welcome Behrouz Boochani to Australia as what I believe he has shown himself to be in these pages. A writer. A great Australian writer”, Richard Flanagan writes in the foreword to Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But The Mountains (2018). In a comment designed to spark public conversation regarding Australia’s ethical obligation to the incarcerated immigrants on islands inside and outside our coastline, Flanagan puts into play the tenuous category of the ‘Australian writer’. Boochani’s incorporation into Australia’s literary community enunciates a paradoxical idea of nationhood, one that is flexible, discursive, and open: all the qualities that our politicians oppose. Leaving aside the probability that the writer may not wish to associate himself with Australia in future, Flanagan hypothesizes that the national borders policed by Peter Dutton can be discursively reoriented in light of Boochani’s contribution. The irony underlying Flanagan’s inclusion of Boochani thereby prompts a review of what constitutes a national literary community. Along the lines of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983), we may understand Flanagan as implying that Boochani’s work has resonated in the horizontal lines of community between Australian readers, those separated citizens located on the outskirts of Wiradjuri country in Cootamundra, retracing Makassar contact in a Yolngu Dry Season, managing cattle exports by Yawuru Broome, those Sydney-siders wondering why it’s so goddamn hot. Suffice to say that in non-Indigenous terms these sites have little in common apart from a nation-state or an adjunct place in fulfilling national mythologies, as Anderson notes. Each of these islands are produced in-common by the figure of the asylum seeker, a kinetic register of, well not camaraderie exactly, but perhaps an internalized knowledge of their complicity in the events of faraway places as writ in the newspapers. In 1969, Judith Wright wrote:

Australia is still, for us, not a country but a state—or states—of mind. We do not yet speak from within her, but from outside: from the state of mind that describes, rather than expresses, its surroundings, or from a state of mind that imposes itself upon, rather than lives through, landscape and event. (301)

Wright describes a literature of observation, working from a sense of exclusion, or, to use Boochani’s example, working to isolate and control elements in a kind of literary penal colony. Wright’s perception of Australian letters accounts for Boochani’s impact upon an Australian imaginary, our prisoner who first wrote through journalists Boochani described as providing “a lesson for people who want to seek protection in Australia” (92). Behrouz’s writing from an island-prison reverberates in the echo-chamber of Australia’s colonial history, itself prefigured by the Royal British Navy as an island to house the desperate. Boochani reflects “I came to Australia and suddenly ended up on a remote island, ended up on an island the name of which I have never heard before” (107). This is a similiar experience to that of early Australian explorers familiar with the myth of terra australis incognita. With that said, Boochani’s incarceration situates the writer in an archipelago his Australian readers were not already familiar with. This essay questions the ‘Australianness’ of No Friend But The Mountains (that is, if the term Australianness can survive the chokepoint by which cross-cultural dialogue is simplified into linguistic terms), and points to key approaches that may better understand its impact upon nationalist ideology.

Each step in Boochani’s writing indicates its mediation through many voices. It was initially composed via Facebook and the messaging app Whatsapp on Boochani’s phone to Moones Mansoubi, who organized those messages into PDFs for Tofighian to translate. During his work on the book Tofighian met weekly with Mansoubi or Sajad Kagbani, an Iranian researcher living in Sydney, while Boochani discussed the book with several friends, literary confidants, and intellectuals via phone. Tofighian described the process as “a form of shared philosophical activity … a kind of collective intention or shared agency” (“Truth to Power” 2018). That dialogue between Sydney, Egypt and Manus Island exemplifies the book’s rapid shifts in technique, style, and voice, in addition to changing conditions. These dynamics counter-point one another as Boochani’s idealized Australian landscape punctuates the waves of the Indian Ocean. Boochani articulates this sense of dislocation with visceral physicality: “[my] mind’s still caught up in the waves of the ocean/searching for peace of mind on new plains […] I am a piece of meat thrown into an unknown land” (121). The text’s palimpsestic response to displacement and incarceration resonates with the work of the Martinique poet and theorist, Édouard Glissant. The construction of a literature under surveillance evokes his concept of forced poetics, formulated to describe the way African slaves in the French-speaking Caribbean engaged in a covert discourse structured by repetition, syncopation, delirium, and choppiness (1980). That historical practice informed Glissant’s later theory of relay (1990): where a literary text registers movement from body to body, allowing each contributor to indicate certain limits to their authorial control over the resulting text. The result of relay, as in No Friend But The Mountains, is a disavowal of the single intention or single author, creating a complex plenum of signification . As with Glissant’s use of differing literary styles to defend le sans-papiers from deportation from France (1997), Boochani blends the genres of essay, memoir, poetry, and fiction into an overarching philosophical critique of the global systems responsible for the isolation, detention, and torture inflicted upon the global refugee. Both thinkers work with an imagery drawn from the experience of forced displacement and trans-oceanic passage. In a moving introductory sequence Boochani describes the changing ontological relations between peoples as they were buffeted by  waves:

Bodies are twisted into one another. Even the normal physical boundaries between families has fallen apart. Men lie in the arm of another’s wife, children lie on the chests and bellies of strangers. It seems they have forgotten the shouts and insults of earlier, and all that energy spent establishing gender-based order, because everything is disrupted now. The sovereignty of the waves has collapsed the moral framework. (16)

The splaying of bodies across one another in a shared, fitful dream represents an aberration to the prior borderlines of family-units, gender, ethnic or linguistic differences, or age. This resounds in Australia’s history of maritime arrivals and invasions. Marked by Flanagan as an emblematic text in Australia’s settler history, No Friend But The Mountains recalls the convicts chained together on  the First Fleet, andthe European crews of the Duyfken, the Tryall, or the Endeavour. As Boochani indicates, in the moment entering Australia, differentiating structures are disrupted and the “moral framework” they represent collapses in favour of a more openly relational scene.

Linking the bodies of the drowned with those remaining incarcerated in penal islands and the body of the reader, Boochani illuminate shared traumas. Recalling Glissant’s concept of relation, Boochani evokes the geographical formation of islands: the making of an archipelago. In his work, Glissant describes that formation as a womb-abyss; an event resulting in the dissolution of singular perspectives in favour of multiplicity: 

The belly of this boat dissolves you, precipitates you into a nonworld from which you cry out. This boat is a womb, a womb abyss. It generates the clamour of your protests; it also produces all the coming unanimity. This boat is your womb, a matrix, and yet it expels you. This boat: pregnant with as many dead as with living under sentence of death. (1997, 6)

As Glissant understood it, a by-product of the Middle Passage was the complete destruction of the constitutive ego of the enslaved Africans. Entombed in the depths of the ship, they were born again in relation with the drowned slaves overboard, their fellow Africans speaking other languages, and their captors. The sea becomes a maternal figure, leaving the survivors of the experience with the traumatic foundation of creolisation. From the point of passage, Glissant writes, the Caribbean subject’s “time is marked by these balls and chains gone green” (1997, 6). One can situate Boochani’s work in a similar light, the sea’s waves marking the subject with an unremittent and constitutive trauma. Boochani writes of strangers waking to a leak in the engine room: the boat becomes “an echo chamber of chilling recitations” (28), as the prayers of the world’s religions mingle in a Babel-like event. In contrast to Glissant, who writes to commemorate his ancestors who experienced the Middle Passage, Boochani finds that the discourse between waking refugees can only be described as an opaque jumble of un-interpretable intercultural codes. As Boochani reflects on the possibility of his death, he finds no meaning in tragedy, only absurdity: “I don’t find anything at all” (29).


In Glissant’s work, the experience of the Middle Passage is interpreted as a ripple-effect on the Americas: the distant lands become a geographical “alluvium for those metamorphoses” later described as métissage, creolisation,and hybridity (1997, 12). In contrast, the continental image of Australia remains distant from the refugee. Consequently, Boochani continually returns to the boundaries between known and unknown landscapes, tapping into the land’s chimera-like colonial construction. In a darkness that holds the distant appearance of Australia’s Northern coastline, the waves rocking the small boat remind Boochani of the mountains of Kurdish Iran:

There are so many mountains/

a series of mountains/

mountains within mountains/

mountains that carry on and on/ (28)

The idea of the mountaintop rising above the surface of the ocean is analysed by the post-structuralist philosopher Gilles Déleuze in the essay, “Desert Islands” (2004). He suggests that an island is “an island or a mountain, or both at once: the island is a mountain under water, and the mountain, an island that is still dry” (2004, 12-13).1 Deleuze destabilizes the fixed boundaries of the Edenic garden and Noah’s mountaintop with temporary and impermanent solace. The unreal quality pervading the Australian island Boochani seeks returns us to an island’s dynamic position as signifier of climate change. Further, what makes an archipelago is the human imagination, Deleuze tells us. Behrouz’s foresight in the above quote indicates that his work is occupied with re-arranging social and geological forms: the subjective reinterpretation of a landmass and the community. Where the mountain offers an expansive surrounding view, the island reduces perception. It was Boochani’s ill fortune to witness both the mountain under water and the island that remained dry, imprisoned in Manus Detention Centre in Papua New Guinea from 2013 until 2017, before he was moved to Port Moresby until September 2019. In July 2020 he was granted residency in New Zealand. His experience of incarceration informs his critique of the mythical narrative that underpins the nationalist protectionism of Australia’s border policies. Boochani unveils those invisible forces that produce detachment, distance, ambivalence, and non-obligation, laying the ontological ground for a planetary community against the “sovereignty of the waves” (16).

Boochani’s carceral mountain poetics resonates with Australia’s subterranean history. When Flanagan remembers the history of the incarcerated Australian writer to honour Boochani, he turns to a personal memory of his grandfather who was held as a prisoner of war. He does not mention the incarceration of Indigenous Australians on missions, reserves, and stations under the policy of the Australian settler-state or similarities between the encultured practice of self-harm at Manus Prison and the deaths of Indigenous Australians under police custody. There is much to be written on this subject in the future. Under the Kyriarchal System that Boochani holds responsible for the incarceration of both Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers, Boochani writes, “It is enough for one person to bow under the dreadful circumstances of life, enough for the world to regress into the darkest darkness right before his eyes” (317). Boochani writes damningly of Australia’s collective culpability for those it forcibly detains. While Flanagan is speaking from an individualized sense of Australia’s history, the omission of those examples represents an ideological continuation of the policies isolating and concentrating a vulnerable population. He does not follow the implications of Boochani’s argument that “everything is disrupted now” (16), that there might be other bodies entangled in the same judicial system. The torture inflicted upon Boochani recalls the forced transculturation of Pacific Islanders in Cherbourg station remembered by Yoogum and Kudjela poet, Lionel Fogarty: “an experiment to exterminate the real Aboriginal people, the full black” (Fogarty and Moore 2019). The proximity of Fogarty’s account of Indigenous survival in enclosed camps to No Friend But The Mountains illustrates a continuation of Australian settler-colonialism in the Manus Prison Camp.

In an online dialogue with Tofighian prior to the book’s publication, Boochani argues:

this work will attract every humanities and social science discipline; it will create a new philosophical language. I’m prepared to provide you information about this place so we can begin the necessary research projects.

No Friend But The Mountain blends political theory and philosophical discourse seeking to interrogate the colonial structures of the present. It asks whether our communicative structures have failed us, or if they are intended to preserve structural inequality. Beyond the panopticon of Manus Prison Camp, this structure is supported by a subservient media, a silent majority, and an entrenched system accommodating the narrow values of an insular nation. The news that does leak out only reinforces that insularity:

The journalists are staking out the situation like vultures: waiting until the wretched and miserable exit the vehicle; eager for us to come out as quickly as possible, to catch sight of the poor and helpless and launch on us […] and dispatch the images to the whole world. They are completely mesmerised by the government’s dirty politics and just follow along. (92)

We cannot see in and we are happier for it: even as Boochani meditates on the rise and fall of landmass beneath and above the waves, his gaze penetrates the rising geological formations of Papua New Guinea, Northern Queensland, and the flat plains encircling Canberra. No Friend But The Mountains is a philosophical project that raises paradoxes, examining the problem of isolation and concentration typical in the tropes of the robinsonade, the penal colony, and journalistic portrayals of island detention. It foregrounds the fact that colonial systems of torture and exploitation are global events, connecting Cairo, Manus, and Sydney. Flanagan’s suggestion that Boochani is a great Australian writer should be contextualised with the fact that he is also a philosopher of the Global South. In Moones’ introductory essay he suggests that their project is equally interested in conveying the “aggressive extraction and manipulation of natural resources, the destruction of the ecosystem, and exploitation of human bodies” (xxv). Hidden from sight on a deserted island and without citizenship, Boochani reclaims his agency by examining the system responsible for his detainment, and focusing on the sovereignty to the land itself. Boochani’s engagement with Chauka, a bird native to Manus Island, the calls of which locals use to tell the time, exemplifies an elegant solution to an interwoven problem.

Can a decolonial politics produce a ‘great Australian writer’? Two interpretations avail themselves here. We might understand Flanagan as implying that Boochani works within Australia’s discursive networks, a Frederick Douglass type who renovates our national character to demand greater things of a nation. As stated earlier however, Boochani may not wish to be connected to Australia at all. For example, responding to a Labour Party offer of third-party settlement after Boochani had successfully reached New Zealand, Boochani took to Twitter to say that “I’m in a third country now and don’t need you. If you are honest, do something for others who are suffering in PNG and Nauru”. The other interpretation is that a national community is inclusive of any writer who has had an impact upon its imaginary framework, making any contributor to it, to use Mary Louise Pratt’s term, a literary citizen. Evidently, the latter may be truer to Judith Wright’s description of an Australian literature as a state of mind. The (White) Australian writer is a colonial invention, and always has been; an artificial elaboration of literary singularity at the beck and call of the settler-state. In keeping with Australia’s lexical origins in the adjectival form, ‘Australis’ first used to designate the southern position of a landmass counterpart to Europe in Aristotle’s Metereology, Australian literature is a literature of intercultural adoption, trans-continental immigration, and continuous colonial resettlement: ways of thinking are smuggled in. In his obituary of the late Les Murray, Jonathan Dunk writes that “settler Australian poetry is European poetry written in and about the Australian continent”, marked by the taking of “a different poetics and trying it on like Lawrence of Arabia’s keffiyeh, or a possum cloak, and stitching it to some of the more mythopoetic moments of Greek myth or Judaeo-Christian theology” (2019). Quite clearly, the nation of an Australian writer cannot fully conceptualize the figure of the refugee or the continued presence of Indigenous Australians. The current surge of Indigenous Australian literature spearheaded by Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Kim Scott, Bruce Pascoe, and Evelyn Araluen have indicated some conceptual cross-over with Boochani’s work. Resonating with Boochani’s archipelagic thought, Wright emphasizes that a “self-governing” Indigenous Australian literature intersects with the planetary (2019). To rephrase then: ways of thinking are smuggled in here for want of better ways of paying attention. Flanagan’s interpretation of Boochani as a prisoner of war echoes the blindness of literary commentators towards Australia’s Indigenous history. Fittingly, when Boochani names a room in Manus Prison Australia, he identifies the moral decay of its namesake:

This space is part of Australia’s legacy and a central feature of its history – this place is Australia itself – this right here is Australia. One always feels an outstanding nostalgia for abandoned legacies […] The paintings are decaying, they have a kindergarten character – they still contain sentimental feelings. A feeling of past lives. A feeling that is weak in comparison to the architecture but nevertheless undeniable. A feeling of life that is weak in contrast to the tremendous feeling of death. (158)

Boochani describes the breaking points of the myths that constitute a national community: Australia as an outworn nostalgia. Boochani describes a sight that recalls the kindergarten larrikinism exhibited in the outworn smiles of the ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ Tourism Australia campaign that led to the firing of its architect, Scott Morrison. The same decay touches the shiny trophy embossed with the legend ‘I stopped these’ which commemorates his time as Minister for Immigration.

Perhaps anticipating an Australian reader enlisting his book as an artefact of culturak nationalism Boochani’s editor Tofighian notes that Manus and Australia share a submerged archipelagic spine:

The two islands are polar opposites. One island kills vision, creativity and knowledge – it imprisons thought. The other island fosters vision, creativity and knowledge – it is a land where the mind is free.

The first island is the settler-colonial state called Australia, and the prisoners are the settlers.

The second island contains Manus Prison, and knowledge resides there with the incarcerated refugees. (360)

Tofighian evokes a view of cultural knowledge that corresponds with Glissant’s view of relation as a shared understanding that only comes through a knowledge of the Other. In reformulating its border policy, Tofighian describes Australia as being in a permanent stasis, an overarching ignorance of the world around us stemming from original displacement. The implication is that Australian nationalism is not singular, evenly enacted, or original. In light of which it’s worth revising Anderson’s much-quoted formulation. In that view, a national community is performed by dialogic engagement with discursive mediums. In the case of Australia, the work of literary texts shuttling between various poles (or islands), reinforces the foundation of an Australian nation, not as an aggregated composite of differences as in the regionalist discourse underpinning the nationalism of the United States of America, but through adjectival association to other places. The historian Paul Carter has analysed Australian maps as open-ended composites of physical and imaginative travel. That tradition of comparative exploration is challenged by contemporary Indigenous Australian writers such as Yiman scholar Marcia Langton in Welcome to Country (2018), a curated guidebook that returns to the intersubjective points of contact underpinned in her initial formulation of Aboriginality (1993). If Australia is an aggregate of adjectives, then the inability of writers like Boochani to conceptualize a friend in our distant land may be partly due to the fact of that we’re in two places at once. The danger in that, Edward Said notes, is that those conditions allow literary actors to reclaim a literary text in a second-hand “original providence” (1982, 227). If Boochani is ever reinvented as an Australian author, then we might say that everything can be, once again, recreated under the veil of the island-continent.


1 That point was taken up recently by Katharina Piechocki who remarks that both mountains and islands both “serve as productive nuclei of cartographic productions and translational activities” (2015, 96).
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Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Glissant, Édouard. Caribbean Discourse. Translated by Michael J. Dash. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989.
Langton, Marcia. “‘Well I Heard It on the Radio and I Saw It on the Television’ : An Essay for the Australian Film Commission on the Politics and Aesthetics of Filmmaking by and about Aboriginal People and Things”. North Sydney, New South Wales: Australian Film Commission , 1993.
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Sturt, Charles. Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia. London: 1849. , 2 vols. Vol.1.
Tofighian, Omid. “Truth to power: my time translating Behrouz Boochani’s masterpiece”. The Conversation. August 16th, 2018.
Tofighian, Omid. “Translator’s Tale: A Window to the Mountains”. Sydney Review of Books. 5th November, 2018.
Wright, Alexis. “The Ancient Library and a Self-Governing Literature”. Sydney Review of Books. 28th June, 2019.
Wright, Judith. “The Upside-Down Hut.” The Writer in Australia. Ed. J. Barnes. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1969.



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Dashiell Moore

Dashiell Moore is a researcher, writer, and educational designer at the University of Sydney. His research interests lie in Indigenous studies, postcolonial literature, comparative literary studies, and widening participation in higher education, having published scholarly journal articles in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, The Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and Overland.

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