Behrouz Boochani: In Conversation
Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, scholar, cultural advocate and filmmaker. He was a political prisoner who was held by the Australian government in Papua New Guinea for almost 7 years. His book, No Friend But the Mountains: Writing From Manus Prison won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature, in addition to the Non-Fiction category. He has also won the Special Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Australian Book Industry Award for Nonfiction Book of the Year and the National Biography Prize, amongst others.
Boochani is an Associate Professor in Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, a non-resident Visiting Scholar at the Sydney Asia Pacific Migration Centre and an Honorary Member of PEN International. He is also a visiting professor at Birkbeck Law School, University of London.
In November 2019, the New Zealand government granted Boochani refugee status. This conversation was conducted via phone between Singapore and his residence in Christchurch.
THE UNHEARD PROJECT: You were an incredibly prolific journalist in Iran – you wrote for the university newspaper, worked as freelance journalist, and founded Werya, the political magazine that put you on the radar of the authorities. Has writing always been part of your life? How did that relationship evolve?
BEHROUZ BOOCHANI: I was writing before I ended up in Manus Prison. I may not have published a book, but I was always writing.
It started with poetry when I was younger. But I was not exceptional. Poetry was and still is a main part of Iranian and Kurdish culture. People in that region live with poetry, and poets have always been among the most important people. It wasn’t a big achievement, reading and growing up with poetry; it was common.
The reason I left Iran was because of my [later] journalism and cultural activism, which was mostly related to the Kurdish resistance. I was working with a lot of Kurdish media overseas. But I think being a writer is a process. It’s becoming. It’s difficult to say when exactly I started to write. Sometimes you’re not aware of that – that you’re becoming a writer. But I think life makes you one.
TUP: What caused this transition from poetry to journalism?
That again goes back to my background. We’re always struggling with politics in Kurdistan, because we are colonised. Whether you’re a musician or filmmaker or artist, you cannot get away from politics as a Kurd. I don’t know any Kurdish writers or artists who can create in a way that is separate from politics. Anything you write or create has to be understood in that context – even if it’s something simple about humans or human suffering.
And I hate politics. I hate it. But politics always chases me – even now, in New Zealand. It’s always there. We can’t get away from it.
TUP: You wrote your entire book No Friend But the Mountains on a smartphone from Manus Prison and sent bits and pieces out to the outside world using WhatsApp. And from what I understand, it was a whole workshop process. You were in touch with close childhood friends from Iran who served as your first critics; you were also working with translators like [Iranian-Australian philosopher] Omid Tofighian, who started out as a fan of your work. How important is collaboration to your writing, even now?
I didn’t think while writing No Friend that I would publish in Farsi or Kurdish – I was writing for an English audience. So it was very important that anything I wrote, I got feedback from people like Omid first. There was an ongoing intellectual discussion. But it was a very different process from sending someone a finished draft to edit or translate, because I was writing and Omid was translating simultaneously. For me, that was exceptional.
These days when I write, I show my work to close friends who are writers as well. That’s a hard process sometimes, because they can end up saying things you don’t like. On the other hand, it’s difficult not to share your work at all, because having that exchange really helps your writing. So we should learn how to use that feedback and learn to share our work, but also be careful whom we share our work with. It should be someone you trust – someone with the skills, and an understanding of how writing works. And you should only pick out what you need. If you just follow everything they’re saying, it can negatively impact your writing.
Right now I’m writing fiction, a collection of short stories. With journalism, you often work closely with an editor who approaches you to research a certain piece, then you both trade ideas before you start to write stuff down. But fiction is different. With fiction, I don’t think you should share anything with anyone before the draft is completed – not even to say, “I’m going to write a story about a character who does this or that…” Only when the draft is finished should you share it with someone. Everything else should happen only with the writer himself.
Writing is like a cave. When you feel somebody in that cave with you – when you’re in the process of building a world and you let someone else into that world, it can really affect your feelings, your emotions, your imagination. So a big part of writing is also protecting your space, especially when it comes to fiction.
TUP: Can you share a little more about the short story collection you’re working on?
Some of the stories are finished and some are still drafts, but I’m hoping to complete it by this year – hopefully in the next six or seven months. They’re not about refugees, or about refugee or migrant experiences…well, there is some degree of that, but they are “indigenous” stories, if one can call them that.
TUP: How would you describe this difference between “indigenous” stories and stories about migrants or refugees?
Well, it’s a word I just used, but I don’t necessarily agree with it – that need to categorise. When a white person writes something, we just call it “writing”. But when an indigenous or minority person writes something, we have a need to label it. My stories contain those cultural elements – I think that is probably a better way to describe it.
TUP: It is telling that we’re both speaking right now in a language that wasn’t used by any of our ancestors, about this need for a term to signal “non-white writing” – simply because we exist in a world that is very much seen through the Western perspective, and views everything outside of that as homogeneous. What does it mean to be a writer from a marginalised community, writing about marginalised communities in a space where such voices are still heavily underrepresented?
You’ve brought up a great point. We have a saying in Kurdish that it’s difficult to be born a Kurd – but it’s much more difficult to get away from being a Kurd. Kurdish people in the context of Iran – as well as refugees, indigenous people, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ people, women – all of us who are oppressed and marginalised, who are not represented in the mainstream…it’s very difficult to write and create from such a context. Everything we do creates fundamental change, but we are never acknowledged. Our writing, our artwork, our journalism – they will always represent a part of history and society that is marginalised. And we must recognise that. But that doesn’t mean we’re not important, because all the work to create change is coming from our side.
It seems paradoxical, but we should never forget that when we’re writing about refugees – or about any minority or marginalised community – that we will never be part of the mainstream. And we shouldn’t try to be. You cannot be part of the mainstream by virtue of that fact. If you are, it means you have lost your way.
Because the mainstream doesn’t tolerate you. It’s possible that they’ll tolerate you sometimes, or for a little while. That happened for me. And when it does, you should welcome that, and use that opportunity. But you cannot always be there. You’ll lose that position. And if you don’t lose that position, it means you’ve lost your way. Because if you remain in the mainstream – if you remain tolerated by them – it means that you are not radical, and the work you’re creating is something that’s keeping them happy.
When we are writing about minorities, we always should write in a way that makes the mainstream uncomfortable. And I don’t mean with violence. I don’t mean with anger. You can be polite, you can be very soft, and still create that discomfort. In that discomfort lies change. And when I make the majority uncomfortable, I feel happy. I feel like I’m doing something.
TUP: In that vein, your style has been something that many have tried to pin down, and failed. No Friend has been described as everything from creative non-fiction to poetry-meets-memoir, and it also uses framing techniques that reflect traditional Iranic storytelling. Your translator Omid Tofighian calls it an “anti-genre”. Can you share more about your decision to go down this route, as opposed to traditional journalism?
That kind of language was always there, because of my background in journalism and literature. But it was also partly a product of necessity. It was difficult to write about what was happening because I was documenting events that were real, not fiction, but I still had to protect myself and the people I was living with [in Manus Prison]. So I mixed some of their stories up to create new ones. In fact, one of the refugees contacted me to ask why I’d written about him. “Why did you mention my name?” He was angry. I said, “It’s not about you, it’s a character. If you read it, you’ll know it isn’t you.” And he did read it and said, “Ah yes, you’re right…but you still used my name.”
TUP: Let’s talk a little about names, because there’s a quality to how they’ve been deployed in the book. Your accounts from the prison were harrowing, so naturally there was a need to anonymise a lot for the sake of personal safety. But you didn’t simply give people pseudonyms, you described many characters according to their physical characteristics. And Manus Prison, the antagonist of the book, is a name that exists only in the world of the book – its official designation by the Australian government is the “Manus Island Regional Processing Centre”. What significance do names hold for you?
When I was a prisoner, I didn’t engage with many people. I didn’t know their names, or want to know their names. But I think part of why I named the characters the way I did was so I could create new identities for us in front of a system that called us only by numbers.
We knew we were being treated as prisoners. We knew that we were in a cage. But of course the media and the government would never admit that. The reason I referred to it as “Manus Prison” and not by its official stupid name is because we should be able to create our own language. A language which represents us and the truth, not the language used by people in power. That place was a prison, and I just used the right name for it.
TUP: What are your thoughts on refugee narratives that we’ve been seeing in the mass media? How do you think they are being portrayed, especially by non-refugee journalists?
That image I have a problem with. There are two categories. One is the right-wing media who wants to portray refugees as dangerous outsiders and risks to society. And on the side of the left, we see refugees as victims, as weak people who need protection. They may have done this to encourage solidarity and support, but that’s not the right approach either. Because refugees are not evil, nor are they angels. Refugees are people, just like everyone else.
The media often ignores cultural works, art and writing by refugees. If you approach an NGO and say, “I need food”, they’ll help you. But if you say, “I need a computer to write with” or “I need to be in touch with someone who can publish my work”, they don’t respect that. They don’t acknowledge that. They don’t think these things are as important, and that perspective needs to change.
TUP: What else can media organisations or non-refugee journalists do to ensure more responsible and equitable reporting?
It’s very difficult, and it’s very sensitive. I’ll be the first to admit that. Even when I write, I may make similar mistakes as well. Because many refugees do need protection, and we should tell their stories. But we must do so in a way that respects their dignity and identity. This should not only be the case with refugees, but also any minority community.
Identity is very important to refugees. Refugees always struggle to get their identity back as humans, not just as citizens. The media should be very careful with their use of language, and work in a way that portrays refugees as more than just refugees. Treat them as equals, not as victims. Talk about who they are, how they exist, how they live. The way you would talk about any other person.
TUP: Before we leave you, do you have any advice to offer to emerging writers?
Live. Enjoy life. Sometimes, do things you don’t like to do. And of course, practice.
For those who are in more difficult experiences, or who are living in the kind of situation I was in Iran and Manus, the best thing to do is write very openly. Be sharp. Be open about the space that you’re writing about. Don’t think about the readers and what the readers think of you. Write for yourself.
Writing is like an addiction. When you’re addicted to a kind of drug, you know how to use it after awhile. You know that you shouldn’t use it in the morning, or use it with certain food or drink, for example. You learn how to deal with it. Writing is like that, building a habit. For me, I like coffee, and unfortunately I smoke, which I hate. I’m not happy about that. But also walking and cycling I consider a part of writing, so I do that. I walk in nature a lot.
It’s not always that you’ll be able to write something every day. The best writing comes from how we live. You can’t just lock yourself in your house and just think. You should leave, meet people, see people, because stories are all around us.
I rely on literature more now. I read Kurdish writers like Sherzad Hassan and Bakhtiar Ali. I’ve been enjoying short stories too, like Hemingway. These days I have more time and more space to distance myself from politics. But still it chases me.