Behrouz Boochani, Manus Island and the book written one text at a time | Australia news
Behrouz Boochani became a well known and award-winning voice from Papua New Guinea’s remote Manus Island, acting as a source for journalists in Australia and internationally, writing his own articles and creating a movie, Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time.
Boochani is one of thousands of asylum seekers to be sent to offshore processing camps in Papua New Guinea, or the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru, under Australia’s policy, which was developed to stop the growing number of people seeking asylum by boat.
Boochani could not physically attend his book launch on Thursday night because the Australian government has refused to let him or the thousands of others in the same situation over the past five years settle in the country.
Instead he Skyped in from the refugee accommodation centre where he lives in East Lorengau.
The book has been described as a fusion of styles, part creative writing, part strategic resistance. It was sent largely via messaging services such as Whatsapp to interpreter Moones Mansoubi over almost five years. His phone was confiscated twice.
“The main reason I wrote this book on my phone, and sent it out bit by bit, was really that I didn’t feel safe with the guards and authorities,” Boochani told Guardian Australia.
“Because they, at any time, could attack our room and take our property. In February 2014, during the riots, all the refugees lost our property. Seven months ago in November, when they relocated us, we lost our property again. So imagine if I had written this book on paper. I would definitely have lost it.”
In that five years Boochani has seen or experienced every major event in the detention centre including riots, murders, deaths, self-harm, suicide attempts, shooting attacks by intoxicated PNG soldiers and last year’s 23-day standoff when detainees refused to be forcibly removed from the centre into what they said was unsafe alternative accommodation. Boochani was arrested during the standoff.
“For a long time I tried to describe the situation on Manus Island, to describe the life in Manus prison camp, but I think the journalism language doesn’t have the capacity to describe this life, and the suffering and how the system is working here,” Boochani said.
“I worked on this book for five years. I thought that the best way for me to express my thinking and to tell the story of Manus prison camp and the stories of Manus Island – and Nauru as well – is to write a novel.”
Boochani said he was a novelist first, before filmmaker or journalist, and said writing had helped him survive.
“I could keep my identity and keep my humanity,” he said. “This system is designed to take our identity, designed to reduce us to numbers.
“The best way for me, I can say I survived through my artworks, through my journalism work.”
Boochani would like to leave the island but not to come to Australia. Like other refugees, he has kept his situation secret from family. They do not know he has written a novel.
“I try to protect them, like other refugees here, they always care about their families, they don’t tell the real story,” he said. “It’s very strange and hard to explain this, but I didn’t tell them yet. They sometimes hear things and they know I am doing some work, that always I am writing.”
Five years after the relaunch of Australia’s offshore processing regime, both camps have technically been closed but hundreds continue to languish without a clear future.
A few hundred have resettled in the US under a deal struck between the Australian government and Obama-led US administration, others have settled in PNG or temporarily on Nauru. Many others remain in a limbo – Boochani included.
“Until now, they didn’t do an interview with me,” he said of the immigration authorities. “I don’t know [why]. Many people are the same as me, so I don’t want to say it’s a kind of punishment, I don’t know.”
• No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison is published by Picador Australia and released on 31 July. It will be launched at the University of NSW on 2 August, presented by Live Crossings, UNSWriting, Pan Macmillan Australia and Picador.