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Why words are more powerful than fences and prisons

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Essay | 10 minute read
A new wave of writing by refugees uses creativity to trace an outline of hope

The Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, composed his book, No Friend But the Mountains (Picador), one text message at a time from within a detention centre for asylum seekers. Earlier this year, he won Australia’s Victorian Prize for literature and delivered his acceptance speech via video from Manus Island, where he has been held for the past six years. He observed: ‘…words still have the power to challenge inhumane systems and structures… I believe that literature has the potential to make, change and challenge structures of power… I have been in a cage for years but throughout this time my mind has always been producing words, and these words have taken me across borders, taken me overseas and to unknown places. I truly believe words are more powerful than the fences of this place, this prison.’

Boochani was referring to the capacity of the imagination to serve as a refuge, to offer an escape. I often heard this sentiment during my time as director of English PEN’S Writers in Prison Committee. Many imprisoned writers used their writing to help them survive their ordeal. Boochani recognises that keeping his imagination nourished is necessary to retain his sanity: ‘the only people who can overcome and survive all the suffering inflicted by the prison are those who exercise creativity… those who can trace the outlines of hope using the melodic humming and visions from behind the prisons and the beehives we live in.’

For Boochani, writing about his experiences has a dual purpose. He uses literature to reveal the Australian authorities’ inhumane, indefinite detention of asylum seekers. He witnesses the daily horrors and systematic torture they are forced to endure, and his book gives these traumatised people a voice. Asylum seekers, who have committed no crime except to seek a safe haven are held in appalling conditions on Manus Island, brutalised and dehumanised. Stripped of their names and their words, they are reduced to a number.

No Friend But the Mountains is not strictly reportage, it is not a straightforward, non-fiction account of his detention. Boochani decided that ‘the realities of this place can be better exposed through the language of art and literature.’ His translator, Omid Tofighian, describes Boochani’s narrative as ‘horrific surrealism’: ‘It is through a rich oral and literary history of Kurdish folklore that Behrouz constructs and develops his epic chronicle. He combines this heritage with genres such as journalism, autobiography, philosophy, political commentary, testimony and psychoanalytic inquiry to create a totally unique genre: horrific surrealism.’ Tofighian also believes in the power of words to effect change. In his Translator’s Note he calls Boochani’s book ‘an open call to action’ and concludes: ‘I saw this translation opportunity as a chance to contribute to  history by documenting and somehow supporting the persecution of forgotten people; translation for me, like writing for Behrouz, is a duty to history and a strategy for positioning the issue of indefinite detention of refugees deep within Australia’s collective memory.’

Asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani stands outside the abandoned naval base on Manus island, where he and other asylum seekers were locked up for the first three years

Like Australia, the United Kingdom indefinitely detains asylum seekers. A person seeking refuge can be incarcerated for months or even years. Refugee Tales III (Comma Press) seeks to make this shocking fact more widely known through sharing the stories of those who have been victims of this cruel system and the ‘hostile environment’ encouraged by Theresa May during her time as Home Secretary. Inspired by The Canterbury Tales, writers are commissioned to listen to and retell refugees’ stories, preserving their anonymity. Why not use the refugees’ own words? Wouldn’t it be more powerful coming from them? Jonathan Wittenberg asks his subject in ‘The Erased Person’s Tale’. His interviewee’s response is that ‘he needs someone else to hear, a person outside the immediate experience to acknowledge and record what happened to him and to those whose sufferings he saw and shared. He wants me to be his witness, not because his narrative requires verification, but because of the fact of hearing himself; because it signifies that in a world which so often seeks to deny and disbelieve such accounts, his story has been absorbed by a listening heart.’

There are several books currently being published that aim to articulate truths about the experience of asylum seekers, challenge prejudice, counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the media and encourage empathy. In The Ungrateful Refugee (Canongate) Tehran-born Dina Nayeri who, as a child, was granted asylum in the US with her mother and brother, wanted to explore what it means to be a refugee. Interwoven with her family’s own experiences – arriving in Dubai, Italy and then the US – are the stories of other asylum seekers Nayeri meets: some find safety and make a success of their lives, others do not. Some continue to live in limbo. She is haunted by the experience of Kambiz Roustayi who, in 2011, defeated by the endless cycle of failed asylum applications, set fire to himself in Dam Square, Amsterdam.

Like Boochani, Nayeri understands the power of words. She writes about the desperate need for asylum seekers to find the right words so that they will be believed by immigration officers. Too often, asylum seekers are accused of lying because they forget or omit a detail. Nayeri recognises that you require more than a true story to pass an asylum interview: ‘You need to tell the story the English way, or Dutch or American way. Americans enjoy drama; they want to be moved. The Dutch want facts. The English have precedents, stories from each country deemed true that year, that month.’

This leads her to examine the very nature of storytelling and she considers ‘what our world would look like if refugees were asked, instead of reciting facts, to write a story that shows their truth in another way. What if these stories were then evaluated by professional editors, using the same skills they use to see if novels are “true” enough?’

Asylum seekers are treated with distrust; the default position of the UK’s immigration officials is to disbelieve their stories. So when an asylum seeker gets a fact wrong, misunderstands a question, or forgets something they had previously mentioned they are jumped upon by officials who immediately brand them liars. But the biggest lie, Nayeri argues is not ‘the faulty individual stories. It is the language of disaster often used to describe incoming refugees – deluge or flood or swarm…’

‘The Orphan’s Tale’ as told to David Constantine in Refugee Tales III describes such an interview. A young man is informed that now he is eighteen, his discretionary leave to remain has been revoked. He has to apply for indefinite leave to remain and pending the decision is not allowed to work or study. ‘The harder M. strove to be persuasive, the worse he became at it. Knowingly or not, they had stirred an old terror in him… he muddled things up – dates, names, locations, past and present intentions. Pretty soon they hardly needed to ask him anything. He slipped from trying to remember and answer in good conscience to trying to guess what they wanted him to say.’

Charles Fernyhough put together the anthology, Others (Unbound), because he ‘wanted to understand the tools that books give us for seeing reality from other points of view… the miraculously practical efficiency with which literature expands the boundaries around a heart.’ He was inspired by Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, which invites the reader to identify with the struggles of a slave girl, Cora, and the brutality of a slave catcher. This is what all good literature should do: open up other worlds to the reader; allow them to interrogate truths from all sides and offer them the opportunity to make up that own mind as to who they most closely want to identify with. We cannot fight prejudice unless we understand where it is coming from. Just as we cannot understand those who risk death in leaky boats or in the back of a refrigerated lorry in search of safety unless we can imagine the lives they were forced to flee. Fernyhough believes great writing also helps us ‘glimpse something of the strangeness of our own selves… challenges us to recognise our own otherness; not just to understand how people out there are different to us, but how we are alien to them. Who are the others? The answer is simple. We are.’

There appears to be a similar trend for exploring otherness in children’s fiction. Two books from Orion stand out and both contain a call to action. Onjali Q Rauf’s award-winning The Boy At the Back of the Class is about Ahmet, a refugee boy, and initially an outsider because he does not speak English. The nine-year-old narrator sets out to befriend Ahmet. She recognises that this entails finding out as much as she can about Ahmet, his past, his flight and his arrival in England. By doing so, she feels empathy for the boy and bonds with him. Together with her three friends she attempts, against all odds, to help reunite Ahmet with his parents. Rauf invites the reader to identify with Ahmet. Her narrator remains unnamed until the book’s final pages. Empathy, Rauf suggests can be learned from an early age.

‘Climate refugees’ are already a reality and the number is set to rise in the future. Sita Bramachari’s prescient novel, Where the River Runs Gold, imagines a dystopian future where climate change has devastated a country and the gap between the well-off and the dispossessed has widened. Bees are extinct and children are forced to work in airless polytunnels pollinating plants and flowers. They are locked into makeshift dormitories at night. Shifa and her brother Themba escape with another boy and attempt the dangerous journey to safety. Like so many unaccompanied refugee children, they have to survive on their wits and the kindness of strangers.

Fernyhough observes that ‘social psychologists have shown that simply imagining having contact with individuals from another social group reduces prejudice towards that group.’ Reading allows imagination to flourish and now, more than ever, we need books that encourage compassion, rather than distrust or hate. A.L. Kennedy believes it is the duty of writers to challenge prejudice. In her essay, ‘The Migrants’, published in the anthology I edited, A Country of Refuge (Unbound), she claims: ‘True art is not an indulgence, but a fundamental defence of humanity.’ She goes on to argue that writers and artists need to respond to the media, propaganda, and public opinion as ‘guardians of imagination, of wider thought, of culture’ because, she warns, ‘Imagination is, on all sides, apparently failing. And when it fails, it fails us all.’

The Australian authorities tried to stifle Boochani’s imagination. Denied pen and paper, he smuggled his narrative out of his prison via text message. It’s deplorable that wealthy countries, deemed to be fair and democratic, have no qualms about locking up traumatised people and leaving them in limbo. In No Friend But the Mountains Boochani brings into sharp focus the shocking treatment of inmates in the detention centres on Manus island; Refugee Tales III illuminates the terrible effects indefinite detention in the UK has on asylum seekers. As Nayeri points out in The Ungrateful Refugee: ‘What few broken and wretched lives the richest nations take in, they should do so graciously, as the chief consumers of the world’s bounty.’ Given our own government’s woeful failings regarding refuges it feels more urgent than ever to understand the reasons people flee their countries, why they undertake such perilous journeys to reach safety.

Media reports and documentaries are absorbed so quickly, they are easily forgotten. Stories linger in the mind for longer. Writers are equipped to rewrite the negative narratives surrounding migration, to articulate the desperation felt by people who leave their homes in search of a better or safer future. I hope readers will arm themselves with these stories, and speak up against the abuse of traumatised people. Like Boochani, I believe: ‘words still have the power to challenge inhumane systems and structures.’ These inspiring books try to do just that.

Refugee Week begins on 17 June 2019, with World Refugee Day on 20 June

Lucy Popescu will be curating the event On Refuge at Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road, London on Thursday 20 June, with authors Sita Brahmachari, Christy Lefteri and Dina Nayeri

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