The first contribution in this absorbing book, ‘Moonlight’, by Rodney Hall, is a wonderful piece of writing – restrained, poetic and beautifully imagined. An unnamed man from an unknown country keeps watch over his sleeping wife and child on the open deck of a boat taking them through the night, away from death and, so he believes, towards safety. He looks out over the sea and the emptiness around him, listening to the pulse of the engine and asking questions without answers.
There are plenty of other gems among the 29 chapters on the asylum-seeker experience, all of them from well-known writers and covering a wide range of genres, voices and moods.
There are essays, stories, poems, reimaginings, recreations, and personal encounters. We are taken through the crises at home, the dangerous journeys over land and at sea, the detention camps, and the attempt to build a life after the camps.
Arnold Zable’s story ‘Zahra’s Lullaby’ introduces us to Faris Shohani, who could be Rodney Hall’s Everyman some years on. A survivor of SIEV X, he is haunted by what happened at sea, dreaming every night of what he has lost, and yet grateful for what Australia, finally, has given him.
Raimond Gaita’s essay ‘Obligation to Need’ gives us a new way of thinking about asylum seekers:
Angry and bitter, the dispossessed will ask: ‘Why merely because some people are fortunate to be born on a particular location on this earth, should they enjoy the fruits of the earth and be able, in the name of sovereignty, to deny it to others? ‘… No-one can sensibly believe that anyone can live wherever they want to. But if we rise to the question’s simple moral force, we will, I believe, rethink the relative importance we attach to rights, on the one hand, and to our obligation to need, on the other.
Via philosopher Simone Weil, Gaita says that our attraction to the heroic concept of inalienable human rights undermines our capacity to respond truthfully to the reality of affliction. He invites us to consider suffering, and our response to it, not only through the lens of rights and dignity but also through that of love and tenderness.
In the introduction to A Country Too Far, co-editor Rosie Scott tells us that ‘the idea of this anthology was to ask some of our most admired Australian writers to bring a different perspective and depth to the public debate on asylum seekers.’
So it’s a polemical project, issuing out of despair at the tone of the present public discussion. It exists to give comfort to those of us bewildered at the lack of compassion in the public sphere and in our elected representatives, as they enact more and more punitive and irrational policies.
This leads to some powerful and impassioned writing, but also to some inconsistencies. Geraldine Brooks and Elliot Perlman are both world-class writers, but in their contributions to this anthology, I’m not sure that they have anything much to say, at any rate nothing that isn’t more fully explored in Tom Keneally’s essay, ‘A Folly of History’. It’s as though the real point is that these famous writers have participated in the project, rather than what they’ve written.
Perhaps this also explains the lack of context to the contributions – without combing through the Introduction and Acknowledgments it’s difficult sometimes to know if a story is true, or is fiction, or when it was written. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, but I found it a bit disconcerting.
Some constant themes emerge across the genres – writers are bemused by the public’s fixation on boat people, when their numbers are so low in the scheme of things, and the lack of public concern about asylum seekers who come by plane, who are 75 per cent of the total. They ask why first and second-generation migrants are often more hostile than other Australians to the new arrivals. Kim Scott and Alex Miller point out that white Australians are also boat people, who were welcomed by the Aboriginal owners. The gratitude of asylum seekers, even after long imprisonment, for the refuge that Australia offers them is humbling and it becomes clear that that harsh policies won’t stop people seeking out boats, a point Tom Keneally makes very eloquently. He says that some advocates saw the Malaysian Solution as the best of the many options so far offered, but it was struck down by the High Court.
And yet there is also resilience, hope and the kindness of strangers. Denise Leith’s short story, ‘The Garden’, was inspired by a poem written by former refugee Hassan Sabbagh, who spent four long years in detention. It is a fine portrait of a lonely but resilient man, his decision to establish a garden in the detention centre, and his feelings about the female volunteers who visit him.
Bella Vendramini’s story of how, as a 17-year-old banged up in a Spanish jail, she helped two Somali fellow prisoners escape is jaw-dropping in its depiction of the naivety and self-confidence of youth. Does it have a happy ending? We don’t know – her Somali friends disappeared in the direction of Switzerland – but it’s more likely than in Judith Wright’s anguished memoir about how, similarly young and naive, not understanding the danger he was in, she failed to help a young Jewish man she met in Budapest after the war.
Fiona Macgregor is always interesting, and through her discussions with Jiva from Sri Lanka via London, who is working with African dancers, she reminds us that all asylum seekers are not the same. Many are more educated than we are, and one of their displacements is a loss of class. There are schisms and complexities within the communities, between those who come as refugees and as skilled migrants.
The two futuristic stories, by Kathryn Heyman and Stephanie Johnson, are compelling, providing the ‘intensification of reality’, as Rosie Scott calls it in her introduction, that brings home the elements in today’s society that would fit well in a future dystopia.
Another favourite of mine is ‘The True Story of My Father’ by Sue Woolfe. She writes of a childhood of family secrets, her father’s lifelong shame at his desperately poor origins, and jumping ship in Australia, and her discovery of the truth, layer by layer unfolding.
And John Tranter’s poem, ‘Homeland’, which ends with a hint of the complexity of dispossession:
See, the couples dressed up, there
in the background of the village wedding photo
mostly dead now,
shot and murdered,
among the beasts in that stadium, some escaped
and grew, learning enough cunning to survive.
And the place is every dirt road,
lit by smoking flares. Yet
there is kindness.
fetch of disparate peoples
assigned to come possessionless into massive
But there are many other powerful contributions, and with a subject that is so contested and heavy with emotion, it is good to have these 29 very different ways into it.
Thomas Keneally and Rosie Scott (eds) A Country Too Far: Writings on Asylum Seekers Penguin Australia 2013 PB 280pp $29.99
Kathy Gollan is a former executive producer and editor for ABC Radio National.
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.