Writing is a solitary endeavor. When the solitude shifts and becomes self-doubt, I find solace in reading, especially stories that remind me of the hope that drives the will to tell a story and, through that telling, perhaps to make a difference. Writing is a gesture of hope based on the paradox that the unique story we tell is also the story we hold in common; that our solitude can become the basis of our shared humanity. Reading is as close as any of us will ever be to entering the consciousness of another person, to understanding the felt experience of another.
What happens when the material circumstances of a writer’s life are too remote to understand? I write from the perspective of a political refugee to an audience that, for the most part, has little to no direct memory of immigration, of having been set adrift from their ancestral homeland, unmoored from language and family by a force well outside any one individual’s control. When my solitude shifts, reading brings me back to myself. Reading helps me understand how other writers address problems of form, the shape of a story; and it reminds me no story occurs in a vacuum “outside” of history but rather in a material context driven by the decisions we make and the decisions to which we acquiesce, collectively and in silence.
In frustration at my own limits, I turned recently to Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison. Prison narratives demand a great deal from readers, and this one is no exception. Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer and scholar, fled Iran in 2013 and lived for months as an undocumented refugee in Indonesia. On his first attempt to get from Indonesia to Australia, the vessel capsized. On his second attempt, he nearly drowned; the boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy; and he and his fellow asylum-seekers were taken to Christmas Island. Boochani spent one month on Christmas Island, then he was transferred by the Australian government to a detention center on nearby Manus. Like so many thousands of fellow refugees, he went in search of asylum and found instead a Kafkaesque place–an extra-judicial no-man’s land between hope and despair, neither salvation nor purgatory, where he has been since 2013.
As writers we might be tempted to classify No Friend but the Mountains as an interesting memoir. Look deeper, however, and discover in Boochani’s work a testament to the will to write, to represent his experience to an audience that probably cannot understand, however empathetic and broad-minded. Indefinite detention is a legal abstraction for most people living today in the wealthiest nations of the world, where the life or death search for political asylum is generally perceived as a personal choice and not the foreseeable outcome of a long history of neocolonial military and trade policies. Will we understand or won’t we? Regardless, Boochani tells his own story; he tells the story of political refugees, of asylum seekers, and our shared humanity.
Writing from the squalor and violence of a detention camp, Boochani composes No Friend but the Mountains in fragments–text messages sent out surreptitiously from prison and later translated into English by Omid Tofighian. The narrative is shattered, its form reflective of a shattering experience. At points the author’s observations, distilled, become allegory. There are scenes that evoke Brecht and Beckett and aphoristic reflections reminiscent of Adorno. There are poems so starkly literal that, as John Felstiner observes of the Holocaust poet Paul Celan’s work, “reality overtakes the surreal” (Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew).
Here, for example, is Boochani’s description of the journalists designated by the Australian government to record for posterity the transfer of undocumented refugees:
The journalists are staking out the situation like vultures: waiting until the wretched and miserable exit the vehicle; eager for us to come out as quickly as possible, to catch sight of the poor and helpless and launch on us–
Click, click /
Waiting to take their photos /
–and dispatch the images to the whole world. They are completely mesmerized by the government’s dirty politics and just follow along. The deal is that we have to be a warning, a lesson for people who want to seek protection in Australia.