Refugee writer wins Victorian Prize

Refugee writer wins Victorian Prize
Behrouz Boochani
Feb 1 (Agencies) | Publish Date: 2/1/2019 12:24:48 PM IST

 An asylum seeker and journalist detained for years by Australia on an island in the Pacific has been awarded the country’s richest literary prize.

Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian Kurd, wrote No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by text message from inside a detention centre.

It won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature, worth A$100,000 (£55,000).

Boochani remains on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and is not allowed to enter Australia.

The controversial detention centre in which he was held was closed in late 2017. He - and hundreds of others - have since been moved to alternative accommodation.

Australia has a strict policy on any asylum seekers who arrive by boat, vowing that they will never be resettled in Australia, even if found to be genuine refugees. It says its policies are necessary to deter dangerous attempts to reach the country by sea.

Alongside the prize for literature, No Friend But the Mountains also won the Prize for Non-Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, worth A$25,000.

Speaking to the BBC from Manus Island on a night when fellow writers who won awards were celebrating in Melbourne, Boochani said the prizes gave him “a very paradoxical feeling”.

“In some ways I am very happy because we are able to get attention to this plight and you know many people have become aware of this situation, which is great... But on the other side I feel that I don’t have the right to have celebration - because I have many friends here who are suffering in this place.

“[The] first thing for us is to get freedom and get off from this island and start a new life.”

The book was written in Farsi during the years in which Boochani was held in the now-closed detention centre, mostly through WhatsApp messages sent to the translator, Omid Tofighian.

“WhatsApp is like my office,” he said. “I did not write on paper because at that time the guards each week or each month would attack our room and search our property. I was worried I might lose my writing, so it was better for me to write it and just send it out.”

Boochani, who was first detained in 2013 after arriving by boat from South East Asia, has become the most well-known voice from inside Australia’s controversial offshore detention system.

The entry guidelines for the Victorian Prize for Literature stipulate that writers must be Australian citizens or permanent residents. However the Wheeler Centre, which administers the literature awards, accepted the recommendation of its judges and made an exception for Boochani’s book. Australia’s refugee policies have been widely covered by the world’s press and criticised by the UN and global human rights groups, although some European politicians have praised them.

But Boochani wants readers of his book to understand what he says has been a “systematic” attempt to strip refugees and asylum seekers of their “identity, humanity and individuality”.

“We are not angels and we are not evil,” he said. “We are humans, simple humans, we are innocent people.”


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