A grave, passionately concerned atmosphere resonated among the audience when three of Australia’s finest authors came together to discuss one of the moral issues our time – beleaguered people seeking asylum in Australia.
Authors Tom Keneally, Rosie Scott and Debra Adelaide spoke at a special session at the University of Technology, Sydney, about their contributions to A Country Too Far: Writings on Asylum Seekers, an anthology of 29 stories, poems, and memoirs by leading Australian writers about the experience of seeking asylum.
There was silence as Tom Keneally read part of poet Judith Rodriguez’s moving contribution to the anthology.Let the young man hang.
Let children lose their trust.
Let them despair and run amok.
And send them back.
“The idea was to get creative writers to give a human face to the asylum seeker issue,” said Mr Keneally, who contributed to and edited the book with writer and academic Dr Rosie Scott.
“The language of this debate has been debased to such an extent that spin doctors and people on the extremist fringe of Australian politics are largely responsible for the tone and direction of the discussion,” said Associate Professor Debra Adelaide, of the UTS Creative Writing program. “The fact that they are talking about the most marginalised people on earth, deeply traumatised refugees who have lost their countries, homes, and families through disasters of every kind, is lost in the storm of venom and cliche.
“We believe that the best writers can get to the heart of things in a way that almost no-one else can because of the truthfulness, power and clarity of their language,” she said.
It was with a “strange pleasure” that Debra Adelaide contributed to the anthology. “This is a thing I’d like to never have to be involved with, this is a book I’d like to never have to be published. I’d like to live in a country where these events never happen, where these issues aren’t issues,” she said.
Rosie Scott, who formulated the concept for the anthology, agreed. “We need to work against the endless spin,” she said.
Debra Adelaide pointed out the Orwellian doublespeak qualities of the language and euphemisms used for asylum seekers, where detainees in detention camps are referred to as ‘clients’, and guards ‘client service officers.’ “Language has been fashioned to mean something else,” she said.
All the contributors regarded it as their duty to reinstate truth to language, and celebrate how words can recalibrate a moral compass that has been lost in a sea of doubletalk, spin and power grabs by politicians.
Tom Keneally said human rights should not a matter of popularity. “One thing you can say about race and new waves of migration – popular opinion is always against them. So one’s blood runs cold when one hears politicians expatiate on the popularity of this policy. It should be a clincher to say that we are ratifying the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. But sadly, it’s not.
“At the end of the day we have people who have presented themselves to us and we are destroying their souls,” Mr Keneally said. “We are destroying these people by methods that are obscene to a liberal, democratic society. And in fact, the government is going to extraordinary lengths to prevent our hearing anything about it.”
He pointed out that the cost of a journalist’s visa to Nauru rose from $200 to $8,000 in February. “They’re not letting journalists in to look at the face of the damned, so we are trying to show people that face with literature.”
Underpinning the discussion at UTS was a sense of loss – loss of Australia’s identity, loss of compassion, loss of meaningful language and loss of our moral compass. It seemed panelists and audience members were united in their shame over what Tom Keneally referred to as “a policy of cruelty”.
As a call to action presenter Associate Professor Nina Burridge, who is Co-Director of the Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre at UTS, posed the burning question “What can we do?” There was talk of pro-bono advertising campaigns, more effective strategies of communication to asylum seekers, and other ways by which literature and the arts can help bring the discussion back to a human level.
Eventually the room once again grew silent as Rosie Scott made a final moving statement about the treatment of asylum seekers in detention centres. “It is a hell hole that should haunt the conscience of any Australian politician who lays claim to human feelings. We have to do something.”
Thomas Keneally Tribute
May 23, 11.30-12.30
Sydney Dance 1
Thomas Keneally: A Life of Books
May 23, 1.30-2.30
Pier 2/3, Main Stage