I had planned another post for this week, but that can wait, as Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has reminded me that it is Refugee Week, and I thought that should take priority. Lisa has posted on a book relevant to the week, and includes in her post a link to a reading list of books she provided last year. Do check her posts out, because she also briefly describes the successes and failures of Australia’s treatment of refugees.
Refugee Week was first commemorated in Australia in 1986 in Sydney, and became a national event in 1988. It runs from Sunday to Saturday of the week which includes 20 June (World Refugee Day), so this year it actually runs from Sunday 20 to Saturday 27 June. Its aim, as you can imagine, is “to inform the public about refugees and celebrate positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society” in order to encourage Australians to welcome them and help them become integral part of our community.
Before I get to my main topic of refugee literature, I thought it would be worth reminding us of a book that was not written by a refugee but which, among other things, makes a point about the contributions made to Australia by postwar European refugees. I’m talking Madeleine St John’s The women in black (my review). For baby-boomers, this novel brought back the suspicion with which Australians viewed, for example, the strange food introduced into Australia at the time, like salami, for example! My sense is that we learnt a lesson from this and are now more welcoming of the wonderful new foods refugees can bring to us. But, of course, refugees bring much more than simply food to a country. For St John’s Europeans, this included more cultured or intellectual interests, and greater equality between the sexes.
Recent refugee literature in Australia
There is a wealth of post-war European refugee literature published in Australia, but for this post I want to focus on more recent literature. And probably the best known recent work of refugee literature in Australia was/is Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains. As it turns out, this Kurdish-Iranian asylum-seeker to Australia has ended up in New Zealand. However, his book, which he wrote on a mobile phone and transmitted in a series of single messages, won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Nonfiction. It was translated from Persian into English by Omid Tofighian.
Refugee literature comes in various forms – memoirs, of course, of which Boochani’s book is an example, but also novels, poetry and drama. Most commonly, it’s the next generation whose voices are heard, than the adults who came here.
These “next” generation writers include those who came as quite young children. They are true bearers of both worlds. Anh Do, author of the memoir, The happiest refugee, is an example. He came to Australia as a Vietnamese boat-person in 1980 when he was just a toddler. Nam Le, author of the short story collection, The boat, was a baby when his parents arrived here, also as Vietnamese boat people. Two of the stories in his collection deal specifically with the experience of migration, but all, as I recollect, confront the idea of survival which must surely have been inspired by his family’s experiences.
Another example is AS Patrić, who was a child when he came to Australia from Serbia (and the Yugoslav Wars). He won the Miles Franklin Award with his debut novel, Black rock white city (my review), which graphically portrays the feeling of displacement experienced by refugees.
Alice Pung, by contrast, was born in Australia a year after her parents arrived as refugees from Cambodia. She has written memoirs about her family, including Her father’s daughter (my review).
Indian-born Aravind Adiga’s novel, Amnesty (Lisa’s review), has recently been shortlisted for the 2021 Miles Franklin award. He is not a refugee, and does not live in Australia, but his novel deals with with some of the most complex issues confronting Australia at the moment, that of people coming to Australia via people smugglers, seeking asylum but not deemed to be refugees. This novel forces its protagonist to confront his status, while also looking at how his position in Australia makes this such an issue.
Refugee literature makes many contributions to our literature. One is refugee writers’ willingness to challenge literary norms and genres, and to push boundaries. Boochani and Patrić are particularly good examples of this. Another is the focus they bring to our perception of Australian culture and identity, confronting us with issues like racism and promoting social justice causes. Alice Pung’s writing exemplifies this. Both, though, force us to rethink the status quo, and to see both our literature and our culture through different eyes and we are, surely, richer for it.
I’m afraid that this is a brief post because, as some of you know, I am family and grandchild visiting in Melbourne. However, I hope I have done at least a little justice to Refugee Week.
I’d love to you to contribute to the discussion, with, for example, your own favourite examples of refugee literature – and why you like them.