News People Manus asylum seeker wins major literary prize

Manus asylum seeker wins major literary prize

Behrouz Boochani was detained on Manus in 2013. Photo: AAP
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A Kurdish journalist who has been in limbo on Manus Island for more than six years has won this year’s $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature for his novel, written in detention.

Behrouz Boochani scored the top prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his poetic memoir No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, which gives an insight into life on Manus through an autobiographical account.

Mr Boochani, who could not attend Thursday’s ceremony in Melbourne,  also won the Prize for Non-Fiction, worth $25,000.

Since being detained in 2013, Mr Boochani used only his mobile phone to write the book, sending messages to his translator Omid Tofighian mostly through WhatsApp. 

Speaking to The Age, Mr Boochani said that that winning gave him “a very paradoxical feeling”.

“I don’t want to celebrate this achievement while I still see many innocent people suffering around me,” he said.

“I demand freedom, give us freedom.

“We have committed no crime, we are only seeking asylum.”

Because Mr Boochani is neither an Australian citizen or permanent resident, his book was deemed ineligible for the NSW Premier’s Awards and the Walkley Foundation’s book awards.

But the eligibility criteria was for the first time overlooked by the Wheeler Centre, the Victorian prize administrators, to award him the prizes.

It’s director Michael Williams, said the chairs of all the judging panels reached a unanimous decision.

“That’s a group of people who arguably have a horse in the race in a different direction.”

Judge Gig Ryan, one of those judges, said while Boochani was not an Australian citizen, “he, and his statelessness, are Australia’s responsibility”.

His work was “certainly the most unusual book in its style, in its peculiar mix of almost coolly sociological study and impressionistic poetry”.

Mr Boochani said he hoped the awards would shine a light on the fate of refugees on Nauru and Manus Island and help end “this barbaric policy”.

“This award is important because it brings enormous shame to the Australian government,” he said.

Accepting the award on Boochani’s behalf was his translator Mr Omid Tofighian.

“You can’t underestimate the impact that [this win] will have on Australian politics and Australian refugee politics – not only in Australia [but for] displaced and exiled people all over the world,” Mr Tofighian said.

“This is one of the most vicious forms of neocolonial oppression that is taking over the world at the moment – and to address this book in this way and to recognise it and draw attention to the narrative it is presenting will have repercussions for many generations to come.”

-with agencies.