Australia’s richest literary prize goes to Iranian asylum seeker

ID : N-4236 Date : 2019/02/02 - 12:31

(Persia Digest) - The winner of Australia’s richest literary prize did not attend the ceremony.

His absence was not by choice.

The Guardian reports that Behrouz Boochani, whose debut book won both the $25,000 non-fiction prize at the Victorian premier’s literary awards and the $100,000 Victorian prize for literature on Thursday night, is not allowed into Australia.

The Kurdish Iranian writer is an asylum seeker who has been kept in purgatory on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for almost six years, first behind the wire of the Australian offshore detention centre, and then in alternative accommodation on the island.

Now his book No Friend But the Mountains – composed one text message at a time from within the detention centre – has been recognised by a government from the same country that denied him access and locked him up.

It is, he said, “a paradoxical feeling”.

“I really don’t know what to say,” he told Guardian Australia in a conversation before the main award was announced, when he only knew of the non-fiction prize. “I certainly did not write this book just to win an award.

“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, and end this barbaric policy.”

Boochani speaks via text messages, because his internet connection keeps cutting out – the same method he used to write the book, an autobiographical account of his attempt to make the journey from Indonesia to Australia and his subsequent incarceration.

Under Australia’s hardline immigration policy, asylum seekers who try to reach the country by boat are processed at offshore centres.

For an asylum seeker kept in offshore detention to win such a major prize “brings enormous shame to the Australian government”, he said.

Accepting the award on Boochani’s behalf was his translator, Omid Tofighian, who worked with interpreter Moones Mansoubi to translate Boochani’s Farsi text to English.

“You can’t underestimate the impact that [this win] will have on Australian politics and Australian refugee politics – not only in Australia [but for] displaced and exiled people all over the world,” Tofighian said.

“This is one of the most vicious forms of neocolonial oppression that is taking over the world at the moment – and to address this book in this way and to recognise it and draw attention to the narrative it is presenting will have repercussions for many generations to come.”

The awards are split into seven categories, which are judged by a panel. In 2017 and 2018, women won each category, and they dominated the winners’ list again this year, with Elise Valmorbida winning the fiction prize with The Madonna of the Mountains; Kendall Feaver winning the drama prize for her play The Almighty Sometimes; Kate Lilley winning the poetry prize for Tilt; Victoria Hannan winning the $15,000 unpublished manuscript prize for Kokomo; and Bri Lee winning the people’s choice award for her memoir Eggshell Skull.

This is a transcript of the speech Behrouz Boochani delivered via video link on 31 January 2019:

"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.


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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."

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