Willa McDonald

When journalism isn't enough: 'Horror surrealism' in Behrouz Boochani's testimonial prison narrative

The journalist, filmmaker and author, Behrouz Boochani, has been forcibly detained on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG), for the past five years at the direction of the Australian government. His prison narrative, No friend but the mountains (2018), uses prose, poetry, allegory and political theory to depict the conditions the refugees and asylum seekers endure in detention. Described by his translator as 'horrific surrealism' (2018a: xxx, 2018b: 367), it was written on a smuggled smartphone hidden in Boochani's mattress and sent out bit by bit in text messages via WhatsApp to translators in Australia. Written in Farsi, the language of the oppressors of the Kurds, and translated into English, the language of his jailers, it is a powerful indictment of Australia's immigration policies, particularly as they affect refugees and asylum seekers arriving at Australia's north by boat from Indonesia. This paper examines No friend but the mountains as an example of a politically motivated text that functions not only as prison narrative but also as literary memoir and testimonial literature. It is the latest in Boochani's ongoing efforts to witness the experience of imprisonment on Manus Island, while resisting Australian government policy, and calling for the humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers

Keywords: Behrouz Boochani, testimonial prison narrative, No friend but the mountains, refugees


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Note on the contributor

Dr Willa McDonald is Senior Lecturer in Media at Macquarie University where she teaches and researches creative non-fiction writing and literary journalism. A former journalist, she has worked in print, television and radio, including for the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin, the Times on Sunday, ABC TV and ABC Radio National. She completed her doctorate at UNSW in Australian Studies. Willa’s books are: Warrior for peace: Dorothy Auchterlonie Green (2009, Australian Scholarly Publishing) and The writer’s reader: Understanding journalism and non-fiction (with Susie Eisenhuth, 2007, Cambridge University Press). She is currently writing a cultural history of Australian journalism through the lives of some of its best practitioners.