On January 31, 2019, Behrouz Boochani was announced as the winner of the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature, worth $100,000. He also won the Prize for Non-Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, worth $25,000. His book, No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is composed entirely of text messages sent to his translator on the messaging platform WhatsApp. Written over the span of five years about injustices and inhumane conditions on Manus Island where he is being detained, Boochani was unable to attend the ceremony.
Ironically, the same government that funds these two literary awards is also the same that operates the various offshore Australian immigration detention facilities where Boochani and thousands of other political prisoners, asylum seekers, and refugees are being detained. These various, outsourced detention facilities, located on islands off of the main continent, have often come under fire for their vile conditions and inhumane treatment of prisoners.
The guidelines for the Victorian Prize for Literature state that writers must be Australian citizens or permanent residents; Boochani is neither. Absolutely deserving of his accolades, Boochani’s book is an important one. Not only does it highlight the power of literature, but it is also a harsh reminder that immigrants, refugees, people of color, and other minorities do not and should not be deemed “exceptional” in order to be deserving of life and freedom.
Born in Ilam, Iran and a journalist by trade, Boochani fled his home country in May 2013 out of fear of persecution after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps raided the office of his magazine, Werya. On his way to declare asylum in Australia, the boat he was traveling in was intercepted by Australian authorities who detained him on Manus Island.
Manus Regional Processing Centre, which is part of Papua New Guinea, operated from 2001 until its official closure in October 2017. Some asylum seekers/political prisoners refused to leave the facility out of fear of being attacked by locals if resettled in a new location. The remaining refugees, including Boochani, remain on Manus Island without any electricity, water, or food. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there is little prospect for long-term resettlement for most of the remaining refugees.
As Boochani said in his acceptance speech, literature has the power to change lives and government policies. At a time when Australia aims to erase and hide refugees, Boochani reminds us that he, like others, have a voice that must be heard.