Behrouz Boochani

The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. In this special PEN World Voices Festival edition, Ari Zatlin interviews Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian poet and journalist who has been detained by the Australian government for more than four years on the remote Manus Island. Boochani’s work will be read aloud tonight for the opening night of the PEN World Voices Festival. Purchase tickets here.

1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as a “writer’s identity”?

I have been living in a prison for near five years and I have been under systematic torture for years. This system is created to humiliate people and destroy their personality. In other words, the system has been trying to take people’s identities by humiliating them. For instance, they have been calling us by numbers for years. This way of addressing people reveals that the system does not want to recognize us as human beings. Living in a situation like this, where every single element of the system is trying to take your identity, it is very essential to retain your identity. It is the key factor to survival, to feel that you are more than a set of numbers and that, importantly, you are human. It also reminds you that you are still alive.

To answer this question, I won’t consider other writers living out of this remote island; but for me, living in a prison like Manus prison gave me a unique setting to create some of my artwork. So this situation had an important impact on my work. Writing always helps me to redefine myself as a kind of human who makes a stand against a system that has constantly been trying to humiliate me to take my identity.

Thinking about identity and understanding is one of the main challenges in my life. I was born in Kurdistan and started to explore and understand the world through Kurdish language, but when I went to school, I had to learn Persian. I can say it was the beginning of this challenge when the system was trying to force me to forget everything about Kurdish culture and language. I was living in Iran, the country was trying to take my identity, and it is still denying that there is a Kurdish nation. I have been living my whole life under a system that wants to define my identity in a certain way and to dictate “who I am.” Definitely, being a Kurd has a deep impact on my works in Manus; and there is no doubt that nature and also Kurdish culture feed my works. It’s a very complicated matter.

2. You’ve written about Australia as an inherently violent, colonialist nation. Yet in many regards, Australia continues to maintain its image as a “developed,” liberal country and is often held up as an ideal when it comes to controversial topics such as gun violence. In this age of “fake news” and “alternate facts,” what do you think needs to happen to disrupt this manicured image and for the crisis on Manus to be discussed within the context of a violent history?

I have been thinking about the policy of exile over the past five years. I think this policy was established based on a colonial mentality. Australia is using the tiny islands for its political aims and does not need to answer to anyone. I can see how people on Manus Island are angry at Australian authorities; but the Australian authorities don’t care and make both locals and refugees victims of this policy to the same extent. Here, I would like to mention that my thoughts on colonialism were not formed in the past few years. I was born in Kurdistan, a place that is separated among four countries. The central governments have been controlling Kurdistan lands during the past century and my understanding about colonialism is entangled with my soul. When they exiled me to Manus, I found out about a different kind of colonialism; then I did some research and realized that Manus prison is a result of a long history of colonial mentality and is rooted in Australian political culture. There is no way to get an understanding about Manus prison without studying Australian modern history. My writing and artistic works represent a history of people who have been living under discrimination and racist systems. Australia has a long history of ignoring and oppressing Aboriginal people and also keeping innocent refugees in indefinite detention. What people around the world are seeing from Australia is based on the official history, but I believe there is a history of people who have been forgotten in the history of modern Australia. I’m narrating a history that is completely different from what has been told to people around the world about Australia. I think this kind of writing, eventually, will help the next generations of Australians gain a better understanding of their history, and it is work for the Australian people because this kind of history is a part of Australia and no one can ignore it.

3. You’ve spoken of writing as a “duty to history.” How does this duty to write affect your daily life? Is writing something that you rely on, or does it feel like a necessary burden?

I spend most of my time reading, researching, and working with people who are around me. It is very important that I hear more stories from people. I think everyone in Manus has a very individual and unique story. We have some common and shared experiences and many of us have a similar backgrounds, but each person has an individual story to tell and I collect these stories and sometimes I write about people.

For years, I wrote many articles on refugees’ stories, but I think journalistic language is not strong enough to describe how suffering is and how this system is working—and that’s why I wrote my first book, which is a novel. This book is my serious project along with my movie that I directed with my colleague Arash Kamali. I spent four years on this book, which will come out in May. It is my first book and in the future I will publish some other books. Manus prison, in my view, is a very complicated issue, and we should understand it in a philosophical and historical way. More research should be conducted about Manus prison. Sometimes I feel this book is the beginning chapter of my work on this issue.

4. In addition to your writing, you’ve also codirected a film while at Manus, which has received international attention. What was unique about reporting through film instead of writing? Did film as a medium allow you to explore areas that writing alone could not, and were there moments when it was a challenge to the storytelling?

Cinema has a particular language and has a capacity to depict something that is hard to say in other arts. Also, it always receives more attention from media, more than any other kind of art. When I was working on my movie Chauka Please Tell Us the Time, it was so important for us to send our voice through cinema—and we were successful, as the movie got screened in some important international film festivals. Literary language is different and special for me, though, and I know myself as a novelist and I think I can illustrate any situation through literature better than other kind of art. Literature has this potential to make me able to describe this system that I would call “systematic torture,” and I am able to take the readers into the prison to understand deep human suffering. Literature is my main tool.

5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today?

The biggest threats to free speech are the populist governments that are creating fear for the sake of national security. We can see in Australia how the government established offshore policy on the basis of two concepts: “national security” and “national interest.” The Liberal government did not allow any journalists to have access to Manus and Nauru prison camps in the past five years only because of national security. Also, they ruled that if any staff working in offshore detention send out any information about what is happening, they must go to jail for two years. It is unbelievable that a western country is doing this, but it is true. These days, the Australian government is introducing a new bill to limit media in terms of freedom of speech in the name of protecting national security. I think these kinds of policies to limit the media are related to offshore policy in some ways. When the media did not put pressure on the government to have access to prison camps, they had to expect that the dictatorial manner of the government toward refugees would, one day, knock on their door too. Most of the Australian media have been silent about the refugees’ plight, and it is not freedom of speech, it is a systematic censorship.

6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Is there anything you wish you could take back?

One of the most daring things I have done was to publish confidential documents about how the Australian government has been running the prison camp. I was able to include some documents about how Hamid Khazaie died under Australia’s care. Here is one of the articles.

I have written about all of the refugees who have been killed by the system, and in those works have exposed how the government and the companies they’ve contracted are guilty of killing these people.

7. You’re very active on Twitter. Can you elaborate on the importance of social media and technology in reporting from Manus and on social media as a form of literature/writing?

Social media plays a very important role in exposing what Australia has done on the two islands. For me, using social media is unavoidable because the government banned journalists from having access to the prison camps. I have been using social media to report, and when I tweet something or share on Facebook, media make contact with me to get more information. Also, I am able to update the refugee movement and advocates in Australia and their work can be stronger because they have access to this information. I am also recording what happens in the prison camps, and my social media pages are a very good source for academic researchers who are working on these issues.

8. You are one of the only voices currently reporting from Manus—are there other voices that the media has overlooked?

We were not allowed access to mobile phones for more than three years, and we were only able to get information out on smuggled phones. That limited the number of people who could get their voices heard. More recently, many refugees have been sharing their ideas and feelings and stories on social media. This is very important because the media can use all this information and also check reports against each other and understand what is happening here.

9. In several of your pieces, you discuss the daily protests in the camp. What is being discussed in these spaces, and by whom?

We were protesting for about three months inside the prison camp, and during the last 23 days were left without running water or food except what we could smuggle in. During that time, we had a public meeting every day. Everyone had the chance to talk. We emphasized some key concepts during those meetings that were important to us, especially “peace,” “love,” and “humanity.” The protest was completely democratic and peaceful, because we wanted to show that we are not how we’ve been depicted by the government. We wanted to show that we represent the values of humanity, and are completely against fascism, dictatorship, and violence. Our way was exactly the opposite of how the Australian government behaves.

10. What is the most essential thing for international citizens, who may be geographically distanced from you, to understand about the refugees on Manus Island?

It’s very important that people around the world know and feel the deep suffering that the refugees have been enduring. The refugees are not criminals; they are people just like others.