February 2, 2019
Refugee wins Australia’s most prestigious literary prize—isn’t allowed to enter the country
by Alex Primiani
One of Australia’s most prestigious literary prizes was just awarded to Kurdish-Iranian refugee and journalist Behrouz Boochani. According to NPR‘s Colin Dwyer however, due to the country’s immigration system, Boochani was not allowed to enter the country to receive the prize. He has been incarcerated on the small island Manus, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, since his first attempt at immigrating to Australia in 2013.
Dwyer writes that Boochani wrote the book, called No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison while imprisoned, sending passages via WhatsApp texting.
During Boochani’s years-long detention, he wrote his book in Farsi, in dispatch after dispatch sent via WhatsApp, which [Omid] Tofighian then translated into English and organized. The result is a hybrid text that eschews easy classification, combining journalism, poetry and critical theory to craft what the prize’s judges called “a new understanding both of Australia’s actions and of Australia itself.”
Omid Tofighian, Boochani’s translator, stepped in to accept the honor for Boochani at the ceremony earlier last week. He read off comments from Boochani, his thoughts on winning the award: “I have always said I believe in words and literature. I believe that literature has the potential to make change and challenge structures of power,” he said. “Literature has the power to give us freedom.”
According to Isabella Kwai and Livia Albeck-Ripka at the New York Times, Boochani found solace in writing during his imprisonment at Manus Island, though “the suffering he has witnessed on Manus Island deeply saddened him.”
Australia’s immigration policy bars anyone from entering the country if they arrive by sea. Boochani, who fled Iran due to political persecution, was detained off the coast of Australia after he boarded a boat from Indonesia. The New York Times cites that “more than 3,000 refugees and asylum seekers have been sent to Australia’s offshore detention centers on the Republic of Nauru and Manus Island.”
And while the prison on Manus Island closed in 2017, sending many of its prisoners to resettle in the US, some were relocated to other facilities throughout the island.
The New York Times spoke with one of the literary organizations involved in awarding the Prize, Michael Williams of the Wheeler Center. According to Williams, the awards are typically only given to writers who are Australian citizens. But with Boochani’s book they saw a very clear, and important, Australian message.
An exception was made in Mr. Boochani’s case because judges considered his story an Australia story, said Michael Williams, the director of the Wheeler Center, a literary institution that administers the award on behalf of the state government. “We canvassed the critical and broader literary reception of the book, and we made our decision on that basis,” Mr. Williams said. ‘This is an extraordinary literary work that is an indelible contribution to Australian publishing and storytelling.”
Boochani actually took two of the several prizes the committee awards: both the Victorian Prize for Literature (seen as the highest honor), and the award in the nonfiction category. The Awards come with a 125,000 Australian dollar prize (or $90,000 USD).
Alex Primiani is senior publicist at Melville House.