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.

World Refugee Day – #StepWithRefugees

World Refugee Day was denoted by the UN General Assembly in December 2000, and has been celebrated on June 20 ever since. Why 20 June? Because this was the date on which many African countries had already been celebrating Africa Refugee Day. The Day’s aims, as for all UN International Days, are “to educate the public on issues of concern, to mobilize political will and resources to address global problems, and to celebrate and reinforce achievements of humanity.”

It’s probably worth, at this point, sharing the definitions provided by the UN on its World Refugee Day site:

  • Refugee: someone who fled his or her home and country owing to “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”, according to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. Many refugees are in exile to escape the effects of natural or human-made disasters.
  • Asylum seekers: someone who says he or she is a refugee and has fled his/her home as refugees do, but whose claim to refugee status has not (yet) been definitively evaluated in the destination country. (And we all know how hard some countries can be, don’t we.)
  • Other related groups – Internally Displaced Persons, Stateless Persons and Returnees – are also included in their list.

There’s always been movement of people escaping their homes for a safer, more secure life, but over the last century they have included Jews escaping persecution before, during and after WW2, Southeast Asians (particularly Vietnamese and Cambodians) escaping civil strife around the 1970s, people of diverse backgrounds escaping the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, and the ongoing movement of people from multiple countries in the strife-ridden Middle-east, and South and Central Asia.

Anyhow, each year has a theme, with this year’s being:

#StepWithRefugees — Take A Step on World Refugee Day

I figured that one step could be to highlight some fiction and non-fiction Aussie books that might help educate us about the experience and lives of refugees, and thus in turn mobilise some action. So, here’s a small selection (alphabetically by author):


Behrouz Boochani, No friend but the mountains

Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister sister (1998) (my review): While I’m not sure the word “refugee” is specifically used in this book, Blay’s extended family left their home-land of Poland, after experiencing the atrocities of the Second World War, because post-war anti-Semitism meant it was no longer “home”. “We could feel we were not welcome”, Blay’s aunt Janka tells her.

Behrouz Boochani’s No friend but the mountains (2018) by Iranian-Kurdish journalist who has been on Manus Island since 2013 – an inhumane and unacceptable situation. Most Australians will know this book, because it has won multiple literary awards over the last few months, including the Victorian Prize for Literature. I wrote about taking part in a marathon reading of it a couple of months ago, and Bill (The Australian Legend) reviewed it last week.

Anh Do’s The happiest refugee: My journey from tragedy to comedy (2010): I haven’t read this, but it’s hard to ignore. Do and his family came to Australia in 1980 on a boat from Vietnam. He was 3 at the time. His book chronicles the horrors of that trip, and the challenges of the family’s early years in Australia.

Alice Pung’s Unpolished gem (2006), Her father’s daughter (2011) (my review): Pung was born in Australia a year after her Teochew Chinese parents from fled Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge in 1980. Her two books share her experience of being the child of refugees. I have also written about a conversation between her and Sam Vincent at this year’s Festival Muse.

Olivera Simić’s Surviving peace: A political memoir (2014) (my review): Academic Simić writes about the challenges of being a refugee from the wrong side. It’s a moving, but also analytical, analysis of the long term impact of violence, on those who find themselves in the centre of it, though no choice of their own.

Fiction (long and short)

Hans Bergner, Between sea and skyHans Bergner’s Between sky and sea (1946) (my review): This is a gut wrenching story about a group of Jewish refugees from the Nazi invasion of Poland, bound for Australia on an old Greek freighter. The story is reminiscent of the historical MS St Louis which kept being turned away from port to port.

Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of travel (2012) (my review) and The life to come (2017) (my review): Migration has featured in a few of de Kretser’s books. In The life to come, a do-gooder employs refugees to serve food at her party, while other characters in the novel stereotype refugees and migrants. In Questions of travel, too, de Kretser reveals misunderstandings about refugees and other migrants.

Irma Gold’s “Refuge” in Two steps forward (2011) (my review): A short story about a medical officer in a detention centre, and her reaction to the dehumanisation she’s forced to be part of. Most of the stories we read focus on the refugees and asylum seekers themselves, so I appreciated reading this story from another perspective.

Nam Le’s “Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” and “The boat” in The boat (2009) (my post): These two autobiographical short stories bookend the collection. They draw on his life and on his family’s experience of migrating to Australia from Vietnam as boat refugees, in 1979, when Le was just one.

AS Patric, Black rock white cityAS Patrić’s Black rock white city (2015) (my review): Patrić’s Miles Franklin Award winning book is about two refugees from the Yugoslav Wars, who, academics in their own country, are forced in their new one to work as cleaners and carers. Fiction, but oh so true! This is a complex book which fundamentally questions how are we imperfect humans to live alongside each other.

Arnold Zable’s Cafe Sheherezade (2003): It’s a long time since I read this unforgettable novel. As its name suggests, it contains multiple stories – in this case of Jewish refugees from World War 2. The novel’s cafe is based on an actual cafe in Melbourne which was frequented by displaced Jewish people. The book is confronting and affecting, and affirms the importance of memory and story to survival.

Once I started looking, I found, in fact, that I couldn’t stop. I apologise to all those authors I’ve read but not listed here, but hope this sample is representative.

Now, I’d love you to make your contribution to this commemoration of World Refugee Day by sharing some of your reading on the topic.