Peter Dutton once insisted Behrouz Boochani would not be allowed to come to Australia. Boochani just did – and he says he was always confident he would prove Dutton wrong.
He casts it as a victory of culture over politics, of resistance overcoming power.
“When you resist, you create something,” Boochani says.
The Kurdish writer and refugee is in Australia to promote his latest book Freedom, Only Freedom, a collection of work he wrote while in detention, alongside essays from experts on migration, refugee rights, politics and literature.
Boochani was locked up in offshore detention for six years, during which he wrote and published the award-winning No Friend But the Mountains.
He eventually settled in New Zealand.
Boochani says while he feels his writing and advocacy has impacted Australian politics, he does not feel like an Australian writer.
“I am a Kurdish Iranian writer. But I think this work is a part of Australia,” he says.
“I don’t live in Australia, but I am connected to this country through my work. And I cannot forget about those years. And we have had an impact on Australia, we challenged Australia, we cannot get away from that. It will be there forever.”
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Boochani fled ethnic persecution in Iran in 2013, attempting to arrive in Australia via boat from Indonesia, before being detained in the Manus Island detention centre.
There Boochani witnessed the “brutal side” of Australia and its politics, and penned his first book via compiled WhatsApp messages.
“We have faced the dark side of liberal democracy, and that’s why our voice is important, because we understand, we see politics in Australia in a unique way, our perspective needs to be shared here.
“We were exiled by politicians, who have politicised human rights, and they have been using refugees as political tools. And so this work, alongside other work, is part of building resistance knowledge,” he says.
Boochani reflects on comments by Dutton, who in 2019 said Boochani “wouldn’t be permitted to come to Australia”. Dutton’s words were in response to New Zealand’s decision to give the writer a visa to attend an event, eventually granting him refugee status.
“I was confident I would eventually come to Australia. I was confident that resistance, that challenging power structures would end in success. And politicians, they don’t remain, but culture remains. Literature remains. Arts remains. And that resistance remains. And when you resist, you create something.
“Some of those politicians who barred me from coming to Australia, they’re gone. But I am here,” he adds.
Boochani says his freedom, and his current visit to Australia, are testament to the “historical” power of writing, but that he will always be affected by his time in offshore detention.
“I’ve learned how to live through this story, and this experience, that has been a big part of my life. It’s not easy to just get away from that. I was imprisoned for six years. I am carrying something around forever.
“And, of course, I have some anger, a political anger. It can be a positive thing to work to continue to challenge the system.”
He says he is disappointed to see offshore processing still in use by the Australian government, with the Refugee Council of Australia reporting that as of September this year there were 111 refugees on Nauru. When data ceased being published at the end of last year there were 105 in Papua New Guinea, in Port Moresby and Goroka.
“Australia is delusional in many ways,” Boochani says. “I think Australia should be honest, and face the reality that a colonial mentality still exists, and it should be fully, deeply recognised. That’s when we will see a fundamental change.
“I think nothing has really fundamentally changed in Australia. Two hundred people remain in Port Moresby and Nauru, and the government has done nothing to help them, to settle them.”
Boochani’s new book was written in collaboration with Moones Mansoubi and Omid Tofighian, who describes the work as “horrific surrealism”.
“Horrific surrealism is an interpretive schema that we used to try to understand everything to do with the situation, the political situation, the violence on the border, the experience in the camps and Behrouz’s own individual journey,” Tofighian says.
They wanted to show that refugees can be knowledge producers, Tofighian explains. “Refugees are having a unique perspective on the world that can teach us things, they can show us things about state violence that many of us never knew existed.”