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A Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker detained in an Australian offshore detention center has this week won one of Australia’s most prestigious literary prizes.

"No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison" by Behrouz Boochani took home the $100,000 AUD Victorian Prize for Literature at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2019. The book, detailing five years of imprisonment and exploring the tangled logic of indefinite detention, was also awarded the $25,000 AUD non-fiction prize on the same day.

"I write from inside the experience of being a political prisoner here,” Boochani, who was forced to flee Iran after publishing a series of articles promoting Kurdish cultural freedom, told The Citizen. “I try to describe how people feel under torture; how a father feels in prison, how people feel when they think about suicide.”

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The writer, journalist, and filmmaker has continuously posted on social media about the conditions inside the Papua New Guinea-based detention center since his detainment in 2013. The idea for the book arose when Dr. Omid Tofighian, an honorary associate from the University of Sydney's Philosophy Department, saw an article of Boochani’s on Facebook in 2016.

"I thought that I have to get in touch with this person and first of all, tell them how much I appreciate their work, and also to find out if I can help in any way," Tofighian told SBS. "We started a slow conversation after that, and when he found out I was an academic, he asked me if I could help him with translating.”

Sections of the novel, initially written in the Iranian language of Farsi, were sent to Tofighian via WhatsApp over a series of months. The translation took a year.

Queries arose initially about Boochani’s eligibility for the awards because he is not an Australian citizen. However, for the first time in the history of the awards, prize administrators made an exception. The book, they claimed, was “as Australian as any other entry.”

Despite the win, Boochani was unable to receive his prize in person because he is still not allowed into the country.

The paradox of Boochani’s award win has increased criticism for Australia's hardline immigration policy. Asylum seekers that attempt to reach Australia by boat are unquestionably transferred to detention centers in the Pacific while their claims are being processed. Even if they are discovered to be legitimate refugees, they are forbidden from resettling in Australia.

For Boochani, the book will hopefully work toward shifting Australia's immigration stance.

“I believe that literature has the potential to make change and challenge structures of power,” he told attendees at the award ceremony via a prerecorded message. “Literature has the power to give us freedom.”


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A Refugee in Mandatory Detention Just Won Australia's Most Distinguished Literary Award

By Madeleine Keck