Behrouz Boochani, who has won the top literary prize instituted by the government of Victoria, is the top Australian writer of the year, but technically, he is not Australian. Not yet. He is a Kurdish asylum-seeker who has been held since 2013 on Manus Island, one of the locations where the Australian government has controversially offshored his kind, where conditions are reported to be far less than acceptable. Other writers have earlier protested against the facility, which Boochani refers to as Manus Prison in his book, No Friend but the Mountains, a work which is notable for spanning multiple genres. Indeed, it won both the fiction and non-fiction prizes, and Boochani has collected $1,25,000.
The process by which the book reached the printed page is as amazing as the author’s versatility. Punched out on a mobile phone in a series of messages in Farsi, it was translated by the academic Omid Tofighian at the University of Sydney. Not only is the author a stateless citizen from another continent, his work was transmitted across geographies, from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea to the heart of Australian academia and global publishing in English.
For at least half a decade, the global refugee crisis, fuelled by lakhs of people fleeing war, political violence and economic upheaval, has tested the humanity of nations. In that time, the migrant and the refugee have come to represent the face of globalisation far more powerfully than any multi-national CEO. Now, an asylum-seeker has won a lucrative prize and found his place among the literary greats of the world, completely erasing the distance between the refugee and the global entrepreneur. But the irony remains: Australia’s latest man of letters cannot set foot on Australian soil.