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They Can­not Take the Sky

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Maria Tu­markin

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 re­cent­times 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 de­ten­tion­cen­tre 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 front­thicket 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 mul­ti­plat­form 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.

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