JANUARY 18, 2020
BEHROUZ BOOCHANI SEEMS SHY, occasionally distant, until the right question is asked. Then his attention sharpens into intensity, his self-containment brightened by rising feeling and sudden gesture. He appears to be sensitive, but never nervous. He is far too thin.
We met at a hotel café in central Christchurch, New Zealand, where his eyes creased as he announced that he wanted to “try all of the coffees,” having been deprived of quality and variety in that area for so long.
Until recently, Boochani was simultaneously literary Australia’s most celebrated nonfiction author and the country’s most high-profile prisoner. Held for 2,669 days in a variety of detention centers for maritime refugees, including the notorious Manus facility in Papua New Guinea, he made use of smuggled cell phones to become the chronicler of the horrors of Australia’s offshore detention regime for refugees and migrants, the human consequences of a long-standing “stop the boats” policy. His book tapped out via the WhatsApp texting platform was published as No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison in 2018. Boochani’s liberation was realized through an invite to appear at a literary festival in Christchurch, which gave him a New Zealand visa; he arrived in November last year and shortly afterward was interviewed by the LARB.
He smokes often. As the thinning light of evening cast cigarette fumes into relief between us, he spoke about his release, the power of journalism, and the insufficiencies of the language it can adopt.
EMANUEL STOAKES: What are your feelings about Christchurch?
BEHROUZ BOOCHANI: Actually, it is 100 percent the opposite of my experience [in detention]. So, when I arrived, many people recognized me in the street and welcomed me. Really great feeling.
Your book has been very successful, winning big awards in Australia and internationally. Now you are free from the detention system after many years. Does being somewhere different, and being recognized in the street, bring home what you’ve achieved, for example winning the Victorian Prize for Literature?
Actually they tried to prevent this, they said I am not Australian. They said [the book] is ineligible. But when I receive these awards [in detention] I said I wish they don’t give me an award again, because it was hard for me in Manus to get awards when there were people around me suffering. Journalism is a challenge. I couldn’t just stay there and accept that torture, that pressure; I wanted to communicate. And work. But it took time. All of these works are an act of resistance, to keep your dignity as a human and to feel power in front of the system. Sometimes I would have a reaction from the guards.
That’s really interesting because they’re implicated in the things you’re criticizing.
Yeah, they don’t care! They get the money [from their jobs]; they said: “Well done.”
I note that your story demonstrates that social media can be put to more constructive uses than some of the very negative things that have been in the news recently.
Twitter was good because you “get close” to the politicians, you can answer them back directly, but no politician is interested, they never answer me and never mentioned my name. Actually, they didn’t want to give me power, they just want to ignore me, that “he doesn’t exist, or is doing something that is not important,” something that they didn’t recognize.
Always I try and create a language to represent our situation, so that’s why I didn’t follow the language of the government: for example, they call the prison an offshore processing center; I named it prison. They say it’s policy, I call it barbaric policy; I said systematic torture, modern slavery. I never say when I arrive in Manus, I say when they send me to Manus. In all of these works, I [revealed] a picture of innocent people, exactly the opposite of the picture that was created by the government: they say, “They are criminal,” I say no, they are innocent, they are human.
It’s interesting that you talk about being accused of being a criminal, yet it was a decision by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court that closed the detention center on Manus Island.
Actually was the Australian government that is acting illegally, not the refugees.
I think it’s not an overstatement to say that you are probably the person who has done more than anyone else, or had the biggest impact, to shut Manus down for one thing, but more broadly, to hold Australia to account. This has been through these works.
But I could not do this work without my friends.
But these journalists and others couldn’t have brought you to a wider audience if you didn’t do what you did, if you weren’t someone who had the willpower and also the ability to use language.
Through journalism people cannot understand that system, which is why I criticize the language of journalism; I shifted my work from journalism-language to art and literature. Because, for years, I was working as a journalist, I published many articles but still people couldn’t understand the system, that’s why I shifted my work to literature: to take the readers into the camp. To live with us. To feel people, you know, to understand the system.
I suppose when you’re not just a journalist you have more freedom, to convey things in full color you’re not just describing facts, you can bring the human experience into it much more directly. I notice your book is nonfiction, but it’s not purely journalistic, you include a lot of poetry, for example. And that’s not the only format you have worked in.
Yeah, but in Australia people know me through this book, but in my view the movie is more important, it is called Chauka Please Tell Us the Time. It was my biggest project in Manus. I did it on my phone, with the help of a friend in the Netherlands, his name is Arash Sarvestani. We made this movie in six months, then we send to film festivals, London, Auckland, Scotland, Sweden, many places. I think the movie is closer to poetry.
I also did a play with a director in Iran. I shared my writing with the people who worked on this. We had a performance in Iran and in Bangladesh, for refugees there. The name of the play is Manus. I also worked on a video installation last year.
Talking about other mediums, what is your relationship with music?
I didn’t read too much [in Manus] because I didn’t have access to books, but I was listening to music, a lot. To classical music, Beethoven, Mozart. I listened to those, a lot, a lot.
What is your favorite piece?
I cannot say which is my favorite, but I ask when I smuggle a phone, I ask the person who brought that for me, please put some classical music on it. Also Kurdish folk music [which has a long association with protest against oppression in the long-persecuted Kurdish communities of the Middle East], like Hassan Zirak, he is the biggest musician in the history of Kurdistan. I still listen to him to keep my connection with my homeland.
Who are your favorite Kurdish writers?
Poets. Sherko Bekas, who passed away while I was in Manus. We call him an emperor of words, of poetry. And Bachtyar Ali, he is a writer and novelist.
I guess I do have to ask you about Donald Trump.
I think Trump, he has damaged America, but he is only one person. I think, like Australia, there is a big civil society that is resisting in front of this mentality; we should recognize that America has a long history of democracy. And Trump is very small in front of this democratic culture. Yeah, they will kick him out, definitely.
Do people in liberal democracies take their rights for granted?
I think people in liberal democracies can be politically lazy. They think that democracy, because they are born in democracy, this recent generation, they forget that many people struggle to establish this, to achieve this. There is no guarantee for democracy; this is why civil society should always struggle.
Really, democracy is vulnerable. I see that Putin has tried to [tell] Western countries that democracy is dangerous or weak and he put out some comments about refugees and migrants, but, it is the soul of Western civilization. And it is the biggest achievement in the history of civilization.
Do you agree with the idea that, when your rights are being abused, even if you are fighting what seems like a losing battle, it is important to resist anyway, whether you succeed or not? I am thinking of Hong Kong, for example. There’s a great power disparity between the protestors and Beijing, but it seems that resistance, in the right circumstances, can be its own reward?
Yeah, I believe in that. You will pay a cost, but if you keep resisting, definitely you will change the system.
Why is hope important?
Hope is a very complicated concept for me. Many people in the camps did not have hope and they are in America now, and there are people who did have hope and they are still in Port Moresby. Just one thing, no one is in Manus now, it is finished.
Emanuel Stoakes is a freelance journalist and writer who often writes on issues associated with human rights. He has written for the Washington Post, the Guardian, Al Jazeera, and The New Humanitarian, among other outlets.