By Deb A.
There is something slightly different about the coverage of the 2019 winner of one of Australia's most prestigious literary prizes; it is as though there are too many angles to address at once. The Victorian Prize for Literature honours the best in Australian writing, but the winning book was not written by an Australian citizen or permanent resident. It did not take shape in a traditional way: It was neither scribbled into a notebook nor typed into a laptop. No; the winning author, Behrouz Boochani, is a Kurdish-Iranian refugee living in detention on Manus Island. He wrote his non-fiction book, No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison, in Farsi and primarily on WhatsApp, sending his work message by message directly to his translator to ensure it would not be destroyed.
The Wheeler Centre, which organises the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, called No Friend But the Mountains "a voice of witness, an act of survival, a first-hand account, a cry of resistance, a vivid portrait through five years of incarceration and exile," It made an exception to its rules on the recommendation of its judges so that Mr. Boochani could enter the competition, noting that the story of asylum seekers on Manus Island is an Australian story and therefore including No Friend But the Mountains for consideration was in the spirit of the awards' intention. The Australian government did not make an exception to its rules, however; Mr. Boochani was not allowed to accept his prize in person in Melbourne. Instead, his translator, Omid Tofighian was there in person, watching the author deliver his speech via video link.
"This award is a victory," Mr. Boochani told the audience. "A victory for human beings, for human dignity, A victory against a system that has never recognised us as human beings. It is a victory against a system that has reduced us to numbers."
Mr. Boochani is a journalist who fled Iran after several of his colleagues were imprisoned. He has chronicled life in detainment for The Guardian and filmed and codirected a documentary, Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, on his phone. The centre where he was originally detained was closed in 2017; since then, he has lived in facilities that Amnesty International described as "moving refugees and asylum seekers from one hellish situation to another." Upon receiving the Victorian Prize for Literature, he told The Guardian that his "main aim has always been for the people in Australia and around the world to understand deeply how this system has tortured innocent people on Manus and Nauru in a systematic way for almost six years."
Follow Behrouz Boochani on Twitter: @BehrouzBoochani
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