Monday musings on Australian literature: Refugee literature

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

Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountains

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.

AS Patric, Black rock white city

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.

22 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Refugee literature

  1. There is no doubt in my mind that the best written book of refugee experience is No Friend But the Mountains – I saw in passing Boochani writing this past weekend in the Age about the violence of the Australian government’s treatment of the ‘Biloela’ Sri Lankans – though Back Rock White City is also an excellent work. Who can I mention that you have not? I can’t think of any pre-War refugees unless Judah Waten’s parents were. But Lily Brett’s parents were Jewish post-War refugees. And then there’s Confessions of a People Smuggler by Dawood Amiri who didn’t quite make it here, not to the mainland anyway. We seem to have forgotten these days the fiction that excludes parts of Australia from Australia for the purposes of determining the status of refugees.

  2. No Friend but the Mountains is such an amazing story…and inspiring. Although it exists as a reminder of all the stories like his, which have gone unrecorded, unknown, unmarvelled at.

    My favourite source on the topic this year, so far, as part of my Between Places reading project, is Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, both the book and the film. If you have to choose, choose the film, because it may serve as a doorway into the book. A phenomenon.

    A more recent read, and more personal one, Refugee by Emmanual Mbolela. Very direct language and although rooted in his personal experience, he summarizes complex topics in succinct and clear paragraphs. In its own way, this, too, would make a fine introduction.

  3. Black Rock White City was a brilliant read. The Happiest Refugee was fun, less literary but easy and amusing. There is also ‘Songs of a War Boy’ by Deng Adut – wonderful, very sad.

  4. I’m so appalled by what we do to refugees that the thought of reading how THEY feel about it fills me with dread. I am an escapist.

  5. I reviewed ‘No Friend But the Mountains’ a while back, an excellent book. And while I haven’t read Anh Do’s biography, my younger daughter has read (and reviewed) many of his kids’ books!

  6. A couple of teen ones to add to your list – One Thousand Hills –
    and, of course, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Morris Gleitzman’s Felix series deals with the issues of refugees after WWII and Songbird by Ingrid Laguna is a lovely middle grade story. Tristan Bancks has a book called Detention, which I have yet to read and The Bone Sparrow is one of my colleagues favourite teen books.

    Many, many picture books cover this topic too – for instance – Teacup by Rebecca Young – Treasure Box by Margaret Wild – My Two Blankets – Suri’s Wall.

    • Thanks for these Brona. I should have thought of Shaun Tan. He isn’t a refugee I believe but he certainly covers that experience of outsiderness a lot doesn’t he.
      I’m not at all up with contemporary young adult and children’s writing in this or any subject area, so I appreciate your contribution greatly.

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