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Asylum Seeker Wins Australia's Biggest Literary Prize, But Can't Accept It In Person


This year, Australia's most prestigious literary prize went to a man who could not physically be there to accept the award. Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian-Kurd barred from entering Australia. Like more than 1,000 other asylum-seekers, he was turned away at the border, and he's being held on Manus Island in Papua, New Guinea. That's where he wrote his prize-winning book in a series of text messages. It's called "No Friend But The Mountains." Boochani's imprisonment makes him very difficult to reach. But after he won the award, I called Professor Omid Tofighian of The University of Sydney. He translated the book into English, and I asked him to describe the purgatory where the author is being held.

OMID TOFIGHIAN: In 2013, the Australian government decided that they're going to put a policy in place that exiles people who come to Australia without documents by boat. So he was taken to Christmas Island, which is part of Australia, and was imprisoned there in a detention center. And then after about a month, he was exiled to Manus Island by force. And he's been there ever since. And there's - the tension there is indefinite. So they could be released tomorrow. They could never be released, and you wouldn't know. And I think that is part of the systematic torture that Behrouz really tries to convey.

SHAPIRO: The book doesn't read like a typical memoir. It's not a one, two, three, four, five narrative. How would you describe it?

TOFIGHIAN: I think of it more as an anti-genre because he blends testimony with his own kind of reflections on his life and his experiences. He mixes those with folklore, with myth, with epoch, with political commentary, with history, psychoanalysis and also philosophical reflections. So it's hard to classify, and I think that's what's important about it, that the way it was written, his experience and also the mode of production and the style - all of them speak to each other in terms of the fragmented and the disrupted nature of the whole experience.

SHAPIRO: Could you read us a paragraph or so just to give us a sense?

TOFIGHIAN: Absolutely. In fact, I've chosen a paragraph that I think really reflects the system that Australia has created to not only control and subjugate the people in the detention center but also the people on the island. So with that context, I'll begin. (Reading) Primitivism, barbarism and cannibalism - the engagement of the local community with the refugees is conducted through fear. The imprisoned refugees feel that they are in a nightmare. Their feelings about the locals are transformed into a nightmare, a nightmare turned into a reality, a nightmare within the prison, a nightmare with the sound of locals, a nightmare drumming with their footsteps. The Kyriarchy produces terror, inhibitions of terror, foundations of terror, two groups living in terror.

SHAPIRO: You visited him recently. I know he used to be in a de facto prison, and he has a bit more freedom now. Can you tell us what the conditions are like?

TOFIGHIAN: So now he's in one of three smaller detention centers, so it's still basically a caged area. Their lives are still controlled. They still don't have any idea what's going to happen. The detention is still indefinite. However, Behrouz also talks quite at length about how the systems of control and punishment and subjugation and humiliation have transformed him in different ways now. So the same kind of persecution they were facing in the original prison may not exist. There's just a new form of control.

SHAPIRO: So now I have to ask you about this great honor and great contradiction of receiving this pre-eminent Australian literary prize from the country that is keeping the author of this book imprisoned.

TOFIGHIAN: This is a really important point that so much of his book, his experience, so much about the Australian policy, the border politics in Australia, is surreal. You know, it has this really absurd quality about it and this kind of, like, unfathomable nature to it, but it's - and it's also horrific. So his receiving of this award is basically an extension of that. It's part of the surreal nature of the whole experience, which is reflected in the book and also the horrific nature of it. So he's been accepted by the literary community. He's won this award based on, you know, the quality of the book, quality of his writing and his ideas, but Australia won't allow him to enter their borders.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Omid Tofighian, thank you so much for talking with us.

TOFIGHIAN: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: He is the translator of Behrouz Boochani's book "No Friend But The Mountains," which won Australia's Victorian Prize for literature. The book is expected to be released in the U.S. later this year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.