“Most of the time, they changed your name into a number—they called you ABC1, ABC2,” explains Hani Abdile about the time she spent interned in one of Australia’s notorious immigration detention camps on the Pacific islands of Manus and Nauru. “By the time I finished eleven months, even if you call me Hani all the day, I would never say yes. If you call me my boat number, I would say yes. Or they would call you Detainee, like that is your name.”1 And Abdul Aziz Muhamat explains about another detainee, Aziz:
He’d been standing near the gate when a security guard had called someone’s name three or four times. The man was standing nearby but he didn’t reply. Aziz told the guy to call his ID number instead—the man responded immediately. “Look, man, no one is pretending here. Why should he pretend?” Aziz told the guard. “We forgot our names.”
The treatment of those held in indefinite detention by the Australian government at Manus and Nauru has drawn increasing scrutiny and criticism at home and abroad. Alongside these public responses we can now put firsthand accounts by the detainees themselves. In 2017, They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention, a collection of testimonial writings by detainees from several Australian offshore sites, was published, allowing the words and names of the likes of Hani and Abdul and Aziz to emerge.
This was followed in 2018 by what was described at its Australian launch as “the first artistic voice emerging from an undocumented carceral space: Manus Prison.”2 This book, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, has just been awarded Australia’s richest literary prize, The Victorian Prize for Literature.
The author is Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist and asylum seeker, who has been detained by Australian authorities since 2013 and is currently held on Manus Island. The award is in part a response to Boochani’s appeal to readers not to “reduce my book to only political issues” but rather, to “read this book as art, to read this book in the way that they read other writers’ work. … The important thing for me as an artist is that people read my book as a piece of art. [This is] the first thing. It is very important for me.” This insistence on the book’s aesthetic achievement is grounded in Boochani’s sense that journalistic language falls short in communicating the plight of the detainees to people outside the camps because “Where we are is too hard. I think only in literary language can people understand our life and our condition.”
Before writing No Friend but the Mountains, Boochani had published extensively on the situation on Manus Island in the Australian press. His manifesto “A Letter from Manus Island” was published in late 2017 after the Australian government was forced by a ruling of the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court to close the detention center on Manus. They then moved the detainees by means of draconian transitional processes to new and inferior conditions.
The manifesto frames the resistance of those remaining on Manus as a formal statement of enduring defiance but also of exchange or interchange with the world beyond both the island and the nation, a continuing renegotiation of the borderscape:
What are the conditions and the framework that give rise to a resistance constituted by half-naked men on a remote island known as Manus? And what are the messages that this resistance is attempting to convey?
The refugees are overpowered.
The refugees have had extraordinary pressure imposed on them.
The refugees have resisted an entire political system; they have stood up to the power of a whole government.
From the very beginning right through to the very end, the refugees only used peaceful means to stand up and challenge power.
The refugees have asserted their authority.
The refugees have claimed power.
The refugees were able to reimagine themselves in the face of the detention regime.
Boochani’s political message resonates clearly, but its literary dimensions are also evident. The manifesto addresses its audience in the present tense, invoking a shared space of address, and then moves to the past tense in order to record formally, to commemorate, the achievements of the detainees in resisting the Australian government in the face of their decimation through ongoing detention. Its use of poetic anaphora, or repetition, anchors the shifting rhetorical frames of the address and makes explicit its desire to speak to a particular audience.
Boochani’s writings imagine and speak to a regime of truth telling that is determined by the violence of the asylum seekers’ condition and by the urgency with which they must communicate across the thick space of the Australian border. They draw on and contribute to a literary tradition that Carolyn Forché has called “poetry of witness,” works that, Forché writes, “bear the trace of extremity within them, and are, as such, evidence of what occurred.”3 The direct address made by Boochani’s work sets its literary truth in train and frames its consequences in an imagined futurity, conjured, as Australian author Christos Tsiolkas notes in his foreword to They Cannot Take the Sky, in “the thrill of a new language and the rush of eloquent storytelling.”
“Where we are is too hard. I think only in literary language can people understand our life and our condition.”
No Friend but the Mountains provides a searing account of Boochani’s five years in offshore detention; his struggle as a writer is to communicate the devastating truth of the carceral regime in what he insists on calling “Manus Prison.” Narratively, the book moves from the refugees’ passage across the ocean from Indonesia, through their offshore apprehension by Australian authorities and subsequent transportation to Manus Island, to the escalating tensions and riots and the dismantling and relocation of the prison.
These upheavals are driven by the crude demands of prison authority, the daily deprivations and constraints that, in the context of a system based on indefinite detention, constitute for Boochani nothing less than authorized torture.
In the course of the book, the experience of the Manus detainees becomes more precise, as the object and consequence of the practices of this torture; but it becomes at the same time more capacious, coming to figure humanity itself. Chapter 10, “Chanting of Crickets, Ceremonies of Cruelty,” opens with the poetic invocation of “human being” as constituted within Manus Prison, as itself defined by “affliction”:
The human being is born enduring affliction
The human being lives while enduring affliction
The human being dies by enduring affliction
The human being realises affliction
This figure, enacted in Boochani’s characteristic use of anaphora, is driven by a form of temporal violence. The refugee is caught endlessly in the moment when the suspension of international law and human justice makes detention—particularly, as in the case of the Australian detainees, indefinite detention—the mode of punishment.4 These truncated and heavily repetitive lines speak to the arrest of time, the halting of sequence, the stasis of human being as affliction. They then make possible a point of extraordinary human connection. The chapter circles around the pain of toothache:
My toothache began to settle. Perhaps when the forces of two forms of affliction, from two separate origins, collide, one has to succumb due to the impact and resistance. Maybe something like this had occurred for me. My toothache was directly connected to interweaving nerves deep within the core of my gums. And my affliction was facing off with the affliction of another just a few metres away—behind the fences—it sounded like hopelessness—my toothache was forced to withdraw. Maybe we shared the same feeling of affliction; one and the same substance: the affliction at the root of the moaning, the affliction down there in the depths of my soul.
The speaker poetically confuses and conflates the physical pain of his own toothache with the sounds of pain from those around him, in an experience of shared humanity (indeed shared affliction). At the same time, in a dark irony, this passage also speaks to the dimensions of the detainees’ isolation, the truth, in fact, of the loss of their names.
The Right to Have Rights
Boochani imagines his writing as part of a vast intellectual project of engagement with what he calls “the phenomenon of Manus Prison.” This endeavor “will attract every humanities and social science discipline; it will create a new philosophical language.” In this, the project works against the ways that knowledge is being controlled and delimited in the functioning of the border-detention system; as Omid Tofighian comments, “Manus Prison as an ideology hinders or eliminates opportunities to know; to know in nuanced and multidimensional ways both about the violent atrocities and about the unique lived experiences of the prisoners.”
The project is, moreover, at heart fundamentally creative; as Boochani explains:
The refugees held in Manus Prison have modified their perception and understanding of life, transformed their interpretation of existence. … They have become distinctly creative humans, they have unprecedented creative capacities. And in my view, this is incredible, it is phenomenal to witness.
The aesthetic, philosophical, and political reach of this project is informed also by its technological capaciousness—Boochani writes and publishes through a range of digital media, as necessitated by the fact of his detention. Omid Tofighian outlines the complicated process by which this book was produced and attests at the same time to the ways this makes the larger project possible:
Behrouz wrote his whole book (and all his journalism and co-directed a film) through messaging. Sometimes he would send me his writing directly via WhatsApp text. But he usually sent long passages of text to Moones Mansoubi, … another of [his] translators, who arranged the text into PDFs. … In some cases, Behrouz would text me new passages later on to add to the chapters, usually for placement at the end. The full draft of each of Behrouz’s chapters would appear as a long text message with no paragraph breaks. It was this feature that created a unique and intellectually stimulating space for literary experimentation and shared philosophical activity.
No Friend but the Mountains is the extraordinary culmination of an immense, intense, and sustained effort undertaken by Behrouz Boochani in profound connection with a number of translators, writers, intellectuals, and artists. It tells the larger truth of Australia’s policy of offshore detention. It joins a substantial and long-standing international corpus of writing from detention, in resistance, and in the face of torture and affliction. In its poetic and locutionary force, it also constitutes perhaps the most important work of Australian literature to be published this century. And as Boochani observed, via video link, in his January 31 speech accepting the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature, it is, most of all, “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.
- Hani Abdile, “When I become famous, I’ll give Tony Abbott a job.” In They Cannot Take the Sky. ↩
- Martine Antle, launch speech for No Friend but the Mountains, University of New South Wales, Sydney, August 2, 2018. ↩
- Carolyn Forché, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (Norton, 1993), p. 30. ↩
- In an unpublished paper, “Indefinite Detention,” presented at the January 2018 MLA convention, Judith Butler argued that indefinite detention itself becomes a form of punishment. ↩