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Kurdish asylum seeker wins Australia's richest literary prize

Writer Behrouz Boochani, who has been supported by Sydney PEN since he was incarcerated on Manus Island in 2013, has won the both the 2019 $25,000 non-fiction prize at the Victorian premier’s literary awards and the $100,000 Victorian prize for literature.

Mr Boochani, who appeared in a live broadcast from Manus Island at a special sellout PEN/UTS event on 5 September last year, following the release of his book No Friend But The Mountains, did not attend the ceremony – he is still imprisoned on Manus. In the broadcast, he explained how he wrote his book one text message at a time.

Mr Boochani’s translator Omid Tofighian, in accepting the awards on his behalf, said one cannot underestimate the impact such awards will have on Australian politics and Australian refugee politics. He described the Australian government’s actions in this case as “one of the most vicious forms of neo-colonial oppression taking over the world at the moment” and said that to recognise this book through such awards and draw attention to the narrative will have repercussions for many generations to come.

In an acceptance speech delivered by video link, Behrouz Boochani said when he arrived at Christmas Island six years ago and said he was a writer, prison guards laughed and ordered him to exile on Manus. 

In a bid to maintain his dignity and identity, he imagined himself as a novelist in a remote prison. “This image was awe inspiring. For years I maintained this image in my mind, even while I was forced to wait in long queues to get food, or while enduring other humiliating moments. I created this image in opposition to the image created by the system.”

He said his book and the awards prove that words still have the power to challenge inhumane systems and structures.

“I believe that literature has the potential to make change and challenge structures of power. Literature has the power to give us freedom.

“I have been in a cage for years but throughout this time my mind has always been producing words, and these words have taken me across borders, taken me overseas and to unknown places. I truly believe words are more powerful than the fences of this place, this prison.

“With humility, I would like to say that this award is a victory. It is a victory not only for us, but for literature and art and above all, it is a victory for humanity. A victory for human beings, for human dignity. A victory against a system that has never recognised us as human beings. It is a victory against a system that has reduced us to numbers.

“This is a beautiful moment. Let us all rejoice tonight in the power of literature.”

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