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After attending a launch of the anthology of writings on asylum seekers: A Country Too Far, I was delighted when my library service purchased the book at my request. I was intrigued to see what some of the brightest Australian literary stars would have to say about the plight of asylum seekers. Edited by Rosie Scott and Tom Keneally, the volume attracted contributions from 27 fine Australian writers, giving evidence that the thinking people of Australia do not support our government’s inhumane policies towards refugees.
I have shared here some thoughts on the entries that had the biggest impact on me.
The anthology opens with Moonlight by Rodney Hall which has excellent imagery and beautiful writing. It’s a tragic story and written well enough to draw in the reader despite being a short story. The story is haunting, for example, the final line takes place as the overloaded fishing boat capsizes after the crew callously escapes:
A silky sheath of water folds in over the rails
The writing felt a little inexperienced by perhaps over using imagery. I was left feeling confused about why Hall had his protagonist stay awake all night and observe the crew panicking but not do anything about it. I like to imagine that the family were rescued and are now settled comfortably in Australia with PR status.
The strongest contribution to the anthology, I felt, was A Folly of History by Tom Keneally who elegantly argues against the barbaric approach adopted by the Australian Government. He opens his essay with a description of the actions of Sir Robert Jackson, an Australian naval officer who convinced Prime Minister Chifley in 1947 to accept 170,000 displaced people into Australia. He goes on to mention the humanity of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who welcomed thousands of Vietnamese asylum seekers between the 1970s and early 1980s. Similarly in 1989, Prime Minister Bob Hawke declared that the 42,000 Chinese students in Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre were welcome to stay in Australia if they chose. Between 1996 and 2008 the Australian media and government created hysteria against asylum seekers (13,000 arrived by boat during that period) which led to the construction of expensive off-shore and on-shore detention centres. Besides the inhumanity of the conditions of indiscriminate detention for men, women and children, the individual detention costs are equivalent to those of a university education. Keneally closes his essay with an outraged statement that in 2013 Australia had over 1,000 asylum seeker children in detention. Keneally writes very clearly and makes easy-to-follow arguments.
It is where we have chosen to take ourselves, and we are content to watch our politicians announce these arrangements with a demeanour of civic piety and earnest moderation.
The Stranger by Christos Tsiolkas
This short story is as gritty as one can expect from Tsiolkas with a focus on casual male sex. The story stands out from the rest by not pretending to know the back-story of the migrant, instead he is a terse casual sex partner. Similarly, the protagonist does not try to develop an intellectual relationship with the migrant, instead maintaining a position of privileged distance.
The Garden by Denise Leith
This short story gripped me from the beginning with it’s gentle central character Sa’eed and the empathy of his regular visitor Siobhan. Leith captures the language of longing so often used by Arab writers when Sa’eed recalls moments of tenderness with his wife.
Obligation to Need by Raimond Gaita
This essay makes a rather complicated argument, based on the writing of French philosopher Simone Weil, that I was not able to follow fully. Considering my advanced reading and cognitive abilities I’m surprised that I struggled to follow his argument and I suggest that Gaita should have reworked his essay more to make his arguments more obvious and persuasive.
Zahra’s Lullaby by Arnold Zable
For me this memoir of Faris (survivor of the Siev X disaster) was the most powerful of all contributions to this volume. It is an eloquently told account of why Faris fled Iran, how he came to board the overloaded fishing boat (organised by Egyptian-born smuggler Abu Quassey) with his wife and daughter. How the boat sank, his wife and daughter died, and three boats came, saw the survivors and then vanished. Faris is a shell of a man, haunted by the deaths of his wife and daughter and the agony of being abandoned by those 3 boats. My throat was choked with uncomfortable emotions as I read this haunting memoir.
Camp Ahitereria, New Zealand by Stephanie Johnson
This short story contains an interesting twist in that it’s set in the future, when Australia has become inhospitable. Australians are seeking asylum in New Zealand but are locked in detention centres like our Manus Island facility. It’s well written and drew me into the alternative reality and makes a powerful argument of how ludicrous it is to lock up asylum seekers because who could imagine Australians being locked up like that en masse?
The Master Shavers’ Association of Paradise by Debra Adelaide
This short story is well written with a likable central character and believable story. It seems that Adelaide researched conditions in an offshore centre because it fits descriptions from recent reports. I liked the descriptions of the angry silent men who have lost their humanity because of detention. It’s a sad but hopeful story that draws the reader in and ultimately the reader is left wondering what will happen to the protagonist. I was pleased that the protagonist made the most of his situation and tried to maintain a positive mindset unlike the angry silent men.
Asylum: A Secure Place of Refuge by Alex Miller
In his essay Miller makes the argument that most Australians are migrants and that indigenous Australians welcomed us here. Whereas the mentality of many refugees and migrants to Australia is to stop more migrants and refugees from entering Australia.
Australians, new, old, naturalised, and unnaturalised, with the exception of the Aborigines themselves, live in a place that is manifestly not their own. Australia is a place of which we are… custodians for the brief period of our lives…we are surely bound by the imperatives of our common humanity to make welcome here those who seek refuge from tyranny…
The Singer and the Silence by Geraldine Brooks
This contribution appears to have been written in a hurry and doesn’t offer much that is new to the reader. The focus on her father’s story was weak. The best parts are her mental response to the car driver and arguments that I’d love to use but without substantiation I’m unsure of whether it’s true or just arm waving.
While the Drum Beats ‘Stop the Boats’ by Elliott Perlman
I expected more from a writer who spent 6 years researching displaced people and racism for his novel the Street sweeper. His personal anecdote was weak and he must have lived a sheltered life if that’s the strongest interaction he’s had with what may actually have been a 2nd or 3rd generation, migrant. I did like the way that he brought the scale of the non issue into question against the actual problems in Australia but politicians and media alike prefer to focus on asylum seekers.
In summary it’s an excellent anthology that is good to dip in and out of. I do however think that it would have benefited from more careful screening and editing and I would’ve liked it if each writer shared a couple of lines about their inspiration and research for their contribution.