Iranian-Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani didn’t have access to a laptop or typewriter, so he wrote his memoir through texts on WhatsApp. Now his book, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, has been awarded the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, Australia’s highest-paying literary prize. Boochani’s book actually won two prizes: the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize for Non-Fiction, worth A$25,000, and the overall Victorian Prize for Literature, which is Australia’s richest literary prize, worth A$100,000.
Boochani could not attend the ceremony to accept his award, though, as he lives in an offshore detention center on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Boochani was taken to Manus Island after he was picked up by Australia’s Navy while trying to reach Australia by boat. He fled his home country of Iran in 2013, after the police raided his office and arrested several of colleagues.
As his appeal for asylum is made to the Australian government, Boochani has been stuck on Manus Island ever since, a place that human rights activists have dubbed “Australia’s Guantanamo.” “I left Iran because I didn’t want to live in prison for a long time, or be killed by the system there,” he said in a prerecorded acceptance speech. “Unfortunately, I ended up in another prison, but a prison that was created by a country that claims it is a liberal democracy.”
Boochani began to chronicle his experiences by typing notes on his cell phone. He sent passages of his writings via WhatsApp messages in Farsi to his translator, Omid Tofighian. The messages were eventually stitched together into a 416-page autobiographical account, which the judges for the Victorian Prize called “a voice of witness, an act of survival. A lyric firsthand account. A cry of resistance. A vivid portrait through five years of incarceration and exile.”
In the book, he writes about his experience on the island, noting, “We are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up simply for seeking refuge.”
According to the South China Morning Post, Boochani hopes the prize will draw attention to the plight of the more than 1,000 people who live in Australia’s offshore camps.