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Asylum Seeker Wins Literary Prize for Book Written via WhatsApp

Iranian-Kurdish writer and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature for a book he wrote through WhatsApp texts over five years while living in a Papua New Guinea detention center, where he is still imprisoned.

Manus Island regional processing facility (via Wikimedia Commons)

On Thursday, Iranian-Kurdish writer and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani won Australia’s highest-paying literary prize for a book he wrote through WhatsApp texts while being held in a detention center in Papua New Guinea for five years.

Called No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, the book was awarded the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature, which grants the winning author 125,000 Australian dollars (~$90,000). Unlike previous winners, who include some of Australia’s most prominent writers, Boochani could not attend the ceremony to accept his award, as he remains in detention.

Boochani fled his home country of Iran in 2013 after the police there raided his office and arrested several of his journalist friends. He tried to reach Australia by boat, but the country’s Navy intercepted him and sent him to an offshore detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, where he’s been held ever since.

Boochani is among 600 refugees who remain in the island’s notoriously harsh camps despite Australia having closed its “regional processing center” in 2017. Under Australia’s migration policy, asylum seekers arriving by sea are barred from entering the country; detainees at offshore processing centers are told they’ll never settle on the mainland.

Shortly after arriving on Manus, Boochani began chronicling his experiences by typing notes on his cell phone. He sent passages of his writings via WhatsApp texts in Farsi to his translator, Omid Tofighian. These piecemeal texts were eventually stitched together into a 416-page autobiographical account of the horrors of imprisonment in what human rights activists have dubbed “Australia’s Guantanamo.”

The award committee referred to the book as a “voice of witness, an act of survival. A lyric first-hand account. A cry of resistance. A vivid portrait through five years of incarceration and exile.”

The judges’ report read, in part:

Boochani has produced a stunning work of art and critical theory which evades simple description. At its heart, though, it is a detailed critical study and description of what Boochani terms ‘Manus Prison Theory’… [He] provides a new understanding both of Australia’s actions and of Australia itself. Distinctive narrative formations are used, from critical analysis to thick description to poetry to dystopian surrealism. The writing is beautiful and precise, blending literary traditions emanating from across the world, but particularly from within Kurdish practices.

Boochani, 35, recorded an acceptance speech for awards ceremony attendees. “With humility, I would like to say that this award is a victory. It is a victory not only for us, but for literature and art and above all, it is a victory for humanity,” he said in the speech. “A victory against a system that has never recognized us as human beings. It is a victory against a system that has reduced us to numbers.”

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