Behrouz Boochani: "I didn't want to become a writer.
It was a process of becoming"
Kurdish-Iranian born journalist Behrouz Boochani. (AAP)
This year, Behrouz Boochani is judging the SBS Emerging Writers' Competition alongside his friend, Wiradjuri writer Tara June Winch.
By Candice Chung
To Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, writing isn't just a way of life but the path to real change. The acclaimed scholar, cultural advocate and author of the bestselling book, No Friend But the Mountains, is a judge for the 2021 SBS Emerging Writers' Competition.
On the topic of 'Between Two Worlds: stories from a diverse Australia' - the theme of this year's competition, the author cites his own life as a "big example".
Being in the liminal space between cultures, places and identities is something Boochani knows intimately.
"To become a refugee, actually, or [having to] leave your country or homeland, I compare it to death. [It's] like you could die once and [are] born again...Sometimes I think these two worlds impact on each other. [They are] not absolutely separated," he says.
Even before his displacement, the New Zealand-based author recalls the push-pull of his rural upbringing in Ilam - one of four Kurdish provinces in the west of Iran - and the city life he came to know as a working journalist in Tehran.
"I'm a village boy, which is a part of my identity, and I really loved it. And I think it hugely impacted on the way I understand culture and people...[Later], I lived in the capital city as well. And it's happening again now that I am in a completely different world [in Christchurch]."
This year, Boochani is judging the SBS Emerging Writers' Competition alongside his friend, Wiradjuri writer Tara June Winch. The pair met at the 2019 Ubud Writing Festival, and have since been in regular correspondence, swapping ideas, bonding over comparative literature and what it means to be Indigenous writers.
"Literature is creating change," says Boochani.
It's important that we hear from those who are on the margins of the society, he says. Because only then, can we have real diversity of thought in our society.
"[People] like diversity, and they like multiculturalism. But they always talk about food and different colours. I think the most important thing with diversity is that we hear different perspectives and new ideas...We shouldn't make it superficial," he says.
"Literature is creating change," says Boochani. It's important that we hear from those who are on the margins of the society, he says.
The 38-year-old's haunting, autobiographical work, No Friend But the Mountains, is proof that there are urgent truths to learn through stories from the margins. A winner of the 2019 Victoria Prize for Literature, Boochani's book details the early months of his six-year incarceration on Manus Island.
Written in Farsi, the draft was composed entirely in text messages and sent secretly to translator Moones Mansoubi and Sydney University academic Omid Tofighian to be intermittently edited and translated.
"The very existence of the book is a miracle of courage and creative tenacity," writes author Richard Flanagan in its foreword.
In 2019, the book won him an invitation to speak at a writing festival in New Zealand, where, shortly after, he was granted political asylum and a research fellowship at the University of Canterbury.
These days Boochani claims his freedom with long walks and cycling trips; listening to short stories, and occasionally letting a favourite track of Chopin or Tchaikovsky accompany him. But writing is never far from his mind.
"I didn't want to become a writer. It was a process of becoming," he explains. "Sometimes, the political situation forces us to write. For me, it was like this. I had to write. I didn't have a choice. I had to work as a journalist...I had to write to teach people how important it is to keep their culture. How important it is to speak with your children in Kurdish language. How important it is [to preserve] Indigenous culture."
"Sometimes, the political situation forces us to write. For me, it was like this. I had to write. I didn't have a choice."
Recently, Boochani co-wrote a meditative piece about nostalgia and home with Winch titled, 'When We Talk About Time' for the 80th anniversary issue of Meanjin. He notes that the idea of home can be fertile grounds for creativity, even if you were displaced, even if you've begun to put down roots in a new country.
So does he consider New Zealand home?
"It's really difficult to call a place home, but I have a strong connection with place. Everywhere I go, I feel a creative a connection. That's why I say that when I leave a place, a city or a village, a part of me always remains."
His advice for aspiring writers is simple - get to work.
"I don't mean writing. I mean get a job and work. And just experience new things.
"If you don't experience life, if you don't spend time, if you don't share your moments with the different layers of the society...[you] become a narrow-minded writer. So for me, alongside reading and writing, which are very important, I think life itself is very important. Literature is about life. Literature is life."
SBS wants to hear your story...because there's a writer in all of us. Submit your story of 1000-2000 words that speaks to the beauty and/or challenges of being Between Two Worlds in diverse Australia and you could win up to $5000 and kickstart your career. Entries are open from August 16-September 16. Go to www.sbs.com.au/writers for more information and register here to enter.
Listen to SBS Voices' new podcast, The New Writer’s Room, in the SBS Radio app, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Behrouz Boochani is a special guest on SBS Voices’ new podcast The Writer’s Room, the companion podcast to the SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition. Behrouz's episode drops on September 14.