Language woken up
Detained asylum seekers tell their own stories in ‘They Cannot Take the Sky’
Australians haven’t had the present-day European experience of refugees on our streets. If families were napping outside our houses and walking single file along the highways, holding plastic bags containing all they own, thousands stuck in limbo at train stations, in squares – Melbourne’s Federation Square, a few centimetres between bodies and not one untaken bit of sandstone panel, summer, winter, they’re still there – if the living and the dead washed up at Trigg, on Clovelly, places our children go in bathers and arm floaties, how would it have been different? Would it have been different?
Their bodies not being in our everyday life means that we haven’t had to walk past, step over, re-route to avoid, feel encroached on, threatened, Monday to Sunday. None of what writer Lauren Elkin calls “drag on the tracks”: the knowledge, experienced as a piercing bodily sensation, that as we catch trains or aeroplanes to wherever, metres away in another universe stateless people are begging gods and officials to let them move away from danger and degradation towards its opposite; and when the begging gets old, there’s jumping onto trucks, crawling through the tunnels, paying all your money to, in the words of one former PM, “the absolute scum of the earth”, and giving up.
Screens, not streets: the Australian experience. Europe’s daily moral confrontation has been diffused and distorted by Australia’s detention centres being out of the way, or offshore.
In December 2010, Christmas Island locals saw a boat smash against the rocks, could hear screams. Many ran to the rocks, tried to help, threw life jackets, and later took part in recovering bodies. Forty-eight or fifty people – depends on the news source – drowned, children, babies, and Christmas Islanders have been close to other capsized boats too. They talk of being irreversibly altered. Think of recent-times Greek islands – bodies change the stakes of action and inaction alike.
If I seem like I am riding some self-requisitioned high horse, handing out gold stars for moral righteousness, I have a word for you: HA! I know people in Australia who feel the presence of detained asylum seekers as if they are camping outside their windows in the night hail – that’s how impossible it is for them to think it away – but not me. I am doing all right, sleeping right through.
I’m managing to keep a lid on it. From a country where ethnicities were deported wholesale and millions thrown in camps, raised on images of Jewish refugees turned away by the so-called civilised world – that’s me. Able to call up vivid firsthand memories of train stations filled with frightened people after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. Trained since as a historian with a focus on trauma.
This rushed auto-ethnography is an attempt to understand how it works: complicity, the consenting majority (even if it’s a discomfited majority). Doesn’t matter what the majority is consenting to, the principles stay the same.
Henry Reynolds and Why Weren’t We Told?
But we were. Are.
Primo Levi and the “grey zone”.
How much grey is left?
This complicity though is not about knowledge or moral ambiguity. Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist (also poet, singer) in his fourth year in detention, thinks it might be about language. He says, “only in literary language can people understand our life and our condition”. Government words, media words, legal words, navy words do not make people see. “Where we are is too hard,” he says.
Boochani’s voice acts as a prologue to They Cannot Take the Sky (Allen & Unwin; $29.99), a book in which asylum seekers speak directly in words of their choosing about things that matter to them. These include love, birds (Christmas Island frigatebirds, Manus Island chauka), queues, being denied your name, the effects of detaining on detention-centre personnel (“Before they get to Bali they are going to get mental illness!” – Hani), boredom, poetry, food, how it feels to scrape the bottom of psychic exhaustion, friendship, human nature (the best of, the worst of).
It’s astounding, the power of un-coopted human speech. Not picked apart for grabs and quotable quotes. Not filtered through news reports. Unvarnished, ungrammatical at times. Alive to human experience. Language woken up – yes, still possible for language, which is breaking under the weight of human suffering, corroded by officialese in tandem with the evangelese of those calling out a nation’s torpor, to speak the truth about vulnerability, resistance, freedom’s meaning, about waiting while hoping and waiting without hope. To undo some of the distance between their bodies and our bodies.
Australia is a monolingual nation in its public conversations even as it is multilingual in its homes – it is used to one language conjuring and describing lived experiences, and is not used to listening with many ears. While They Cannot Take the Sky is in English, it bears traces of other languages, contains the wildness and realness of worlds not within the experience of English language.
Manus, Nauru, Christmas Island (the rain inside “is like acid” – Hani), Woomera, Darwin, Curtin (“one water tap in the middle of the desert, surrounded by barbed wire” – Munjed).
Villawood, Port Hedland (“In my mind I was thinking, What is this country Australia? … Some of the buildings were worse than in Iraq. It was like … We came here? … I almost missed the streets of Kurdistan, running around the rubble. I even missed the ugliness.” – Donna).
Labelling They Cannot Take the Sky as oral history makes it sound worthy. But these accounts, stitched from conversations conducted over years by Michael Green and André Dao, resemble the epic monologues of the books of Svetlana Alexievich. They are at once urgent historical documents and timeless poems, relentlessly particular, accruing human experience like solar panels accumulate sun.
“Human beings speak beautifully in only two situations,” Alexievich says, “beautifully not in terms of eloquence or aesthetics but in being able to reach the depth of their being. This happens either in love or near death, when people rise beyond themselves. And all my books about Chernobyl, war in Afghanistan, World War Two – a human being in all of them is on the very edge of what they are capable of.”
The go-to word in a review of a book such as this is “humanising”. Politics and policy “de-humanise”; books such as They Cannot Take the Sky “re-humanise”. Really? I struggle to believe anyone out there still needs to be convinced that asylum seekers are human, that they deserve our compassion and, in Hannah Arendt’s much-repeated formulation, the “right to have rights”. Maybe the latter is contentious in some circles in this country, but the former – I don’t think so. No, the question is different: what does it mean that asylum seekers are human and at the very centre of our public life, haunting it, yet so easily erased from our daily actions, thoughts, spaces, lines of vision, and rendered phantom-like? Here but not here. And what happens to our conceptions of humanity when empathy (a once sturdy, persuasive idea) becomes a version of the Panadol that asylum seekers in detention centres are repeatedly told to take for all their ailments, a broken leg and kidney stones included?
I know Green and Dao and it was my idea to review this book. I wanted to review it in order to say that it is literature, not broccoli for the nation’s soul. That is this book’s beauty, it’s how it must be read.
But oh no, They Cannot Take the Sky comes with a front-thicket of long endorsements from Nobel Prize winners and Miles Franklin winners and Commonwealth Prize winners and our Koori writers and our writers of colour and our activist writers and our queer writers … as if, without this turbocharged up-sell, the book doesn’t stand a chance. I cannot blame the publishers for thinking they need all the blazing guns they can get (see the earlier point re M Tumarkin sleeping well-ish at night). But the consequence of this approach, coupled with the large font that screams “Important Resource!”, “Booklist!”, is that the book is likely to be viewed in a certain way. Worse: the deal seems to be it is they who suffer and we who write rousingly about their suffering, and in this insidious little set-up, well, when they get to write or speak it’s rarely the big-league literature, more like, you know, an underfunded community festival in a rented scout hall.
Don’t condescend to this book, Australia. Alexievich winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 – was this not enough to show that the world’s vulnerable people speaking unforgettably about love and death may be the most important literature written today?
I won’t pick out killer quotes from the book to prove my point. And I won’t cannibalise any of the monologues. I caught myself searching for bits more galvanising or devastating than other bits, and stopped. No baiting, no whetting of readers’ appetites. This book is literature alongside Arnold Zable’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and Nam Le’s ‘The Boat’.
“I have two backlights when I write,” Alexievich says, “a human being in time and a human being in eternity.”
They Cannot Take the Sky is part of Behind the Wire, a multi-platform oral history project documenting the lives of asylum seekers detained by the Australian government. The project comprises a podcast called The Messenger (co-produced by, and available through, The Wheeler Centre), and an exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum until 2 July. Behind the Wire’s team, helped by hundreds of volunteers, has been working nonstop for two years. Their mission is a sustainable infrastructure that lets asylum seekers narrate their experiences and exercise control over what is talked about, which bits enter the public domain, when, in what form.
Behrouz Boochani says, “The people in Manus prison, they have learned a lot about life because of such pressure on them and because of much suffering. If they survive, they have something for the world. You can write a book about anybody in Manus prison.” He also says, “I think Australian civil society is defeated.” I know he is right about the first and still hope he is wrong about the second.