Prison Books in the Time of Refugees

Prison Books in the Time of Refugees

Refugees are often treated like prisoners, yet their stories differ. The editor of the Polity of Literature series surveys recent and past books from both refugees and prisoners to discover the unique insights opened up when refugees begin to write and publish.

Every prison book arrives in our hands with a plot—a man is in shackles; how will he ever be free?—and a mystery: how did this testimony surpass the prison wall and come to be in our hands? Simply to hold a prison book is to be caught in this mystery. Ahmet Altan, the Turkish novelist now serving a life sentence in Silviri Prison, near Istanbul, observed as much in his book, I Will Never See the World Again: “Add the sentence ‘I write these words from a prison cell’ to any narrative and you will add tension and vitality, a frightening voice that reaches out from a dark and mysterious world, the brave stance of the plucky underdog and an ill-concealed call for mercy.”

Altan is wary of the mercy, which he knows is the writer’s deliberate conjuring trick. But he also commands an unusual power. “I possess a godly arrogance—one that is not often acknowledged, but that is unique to writers and has been handed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years. I possess a confidence that grows like a pearl within the hard shells of literature. I possess an immunity; I am protected by the steel armor of my books.” This explains how the prisoner Altan can persist as the writer Altan, unbowed, possessed of a faith that manifests as courage in the face of an implacable enemy. We see him in prison with his head held high, carrying the weight and power of literature. He narrates a few scenes of writing by hand at the small, plastic table that he shares with his three cell mates, and we feel the same weight and power in the book held in our hands. Naturally, we wonder how it was that he managed to smuggle the pages out, and the power in.

Illustration of the eyes of Ahmat Altan, circled by a quote: "I write these words...from a prison cell. Wait. Before you start playing the drums of mercy for me, listen to what I tell you."

The prison book is epistolary—a letter written from the inside to the outside, very often to specific persons outside. In practice, we also include accounts written after the fact or by someone else, as in the case of the earliest prison books, Plato’s Crito and Phaedo. These dialogues depict two conversations with Socrates during the month he spent in prison facing the death sentence. Plato’s telling is second-hand. While he witnessed the conditions of his teacher’s imprisonment (a stone cell, a pallet bed against the back wall, at its head a small table with an oil lamp, a stool to sit on, the door guarded by a warden who also brought things that Socrates asked for) he cedes the telling to two other men, Crito and Phaedo, friends who also visited Socrates in prison. Rather than recounting his own conversations, Plato has Crito and Phaedo recall theirs, the latter commenting as an aside, “I believe that Plato was ill.” The ending is well known (Socrates drank the hemlock, as he was ordered to by the Athenian court that found him guilty of being a bad influence on youth), and, from Crito and Phaedo, we learn what Socrates thought about in the days leading up to his death.

All prison books accept and reenact the logic of prison, which begins with a line drawn between inside and outside (the very definition of “law”). How will someone locked inside ever find freedom outside? Seen this way, the ending of Crito and Phaedo is a bit of a twist—in prison Socrates is free. His full freedom, he explains to Crito, comes from inclusion in the state. However regrettable it may be, prison and the death sentence are now the forms that his inclusion takes. Crito offers to arrange escape into exile outside the city walls, but to leave the city would deliver Socrates to a lawless wilderness (even other cities are not Athens). Instead, he drinks the hemlock, a final act of freedom. Prisoners who petition for release to find their freedom outside, usually describe their incarceration itself as lawless, refuting the state’s claims while retaining the state’s logic—in law there is freedom, in lawlessness none.

Boethius, an influential 6th-century Italian politician brought down by rivals in the court of King Theodoric, accepted the death sentence and used his time in prison to write The Consolation of Philosophy. Accepting the power of law (the King’s word is sovereign, even if it’s wrong) Boethius concludes that his Earthly freedom is far less important than the state of his soul. “Lady Philosophy” comes to offer her consolations, mixing verse with prose and thirty-nine songs, sharing the ideas that provide solace for a man afflicted by ill fortune. Boethius’s refuge is the same one that Altan smuggled in: literature. Alone in a cell, writing puts him in dialogue with a rich human history that he carries in his head. This is a strange and beautiful book, a serene middle-finger to injustice and mortality that circulated in most European languages for the next thousand years, shaping the core of Medieval scholastic writing while finding its way into Milton, Chaucer, and Dante, among others. It begins, almost as an aside, with an assertion of innocence. The law alone grants freedom, and Boethius’s has been taken from him wrongly.

From Plato and Boethius to Altan and, more recently, Behrouz Boochani, the prison book has flourished within this narrow political space—an individual is locked in or locked out, rightly or wrongly, staging the drama of the law, either broken or prevailing—across all differences of time and place. Class, race, gender, and epoch have torqued this formula through its long history without ever breaking it. The exceptions—de Sade, Jean Genet—prove the rule.

The clarity of prison books is appealing and they seem to do well in the market. They’ve also become a standard part of social movements, a kind of martyrology that however true or politically useful, suffers from a conservative formal sameness. The prison book is an expression of prison logic, capable of telling only a handful of stories, all with more-or-less the same plot.

When it coalesced as a genre in the 16th and 17th centuries (after changes in penology put greater numbers of literate men in jail) prison writing was mostly an upper-class concern, the task of religious leaders, aristocrats, and royals whose misfortune had put them behind bars (Thomas More, Sir Walter Raleigh, Ben Johnson, Thomas Decker, Hugo Grotius, and a few kings among them). While imprisoned in Lollard’s Tower and Newgate Gaol, Samuel Sheppard wrote his pastoral poem, “The Faerie King,” lampooning the prison writing of King Charles I. Historian Thomas S. Freeman recalls that in England servants were often locked up with their masters, so it was possible to have a going publishing concern in this or that jail, with servants bearing manuscripts away to the printers. “Almost anything could be brought into the prison by those with sufficient funds,” Freeman writes. One example he cites is of Stephen Gardiner, ordered by the Privy Council in 1547 to be “held in the Tower without books, manuscripts, paper, pen, or ink,” who nevertheless “wrote two major works of theology, one in English, the other in Latin. The second of these works was over eight-hundred pages. Both books were printed while Gardiner was confined in the Tower.” Hugo Grotius, condemned to a life sentence in Holland’s Lovestein Castle in the 1620s, escaped by hiding in a trunk full of books, a small portion of his prison library.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, prison writing shifted to the middle and lower classes (helped by the spread of literacy), and the scope of its political intentions grew. The “political prisoner” became a figure of importance in the larger drama of social movements. Louise Michel, the French schoolteacher who was a leading figure of the Paris Commune of 1871, spent two years in various prisons before being convicted of sedition and sent to the harsh penal colony of New Caledonia. Her memoir, The Red Virgin, tells the story of her six productive years spent in that deadly hell (studying tropical botany, fraternizing with the indigenous Kanaka people, teaching them to read and write, and supporting their insurrection against the French) and her triumphant return to Paris, where a crowd of 10,000 greeted her at the Gare St. Lazare. The Red Virgin was published to great acclaim.

Since Michel’s time many important social movements have produced similar tales of wrongful punishment, and used them to instruct and inspire their followers. Adolf Hitler and Mahatma Gandhi used prison writing as deliberate elements of their political strategies. Gandhi composed his seminal resistance text, Satyagraha in South Africa, in jail. And Hitler, of course, wrote Mein Kampf in the posh apartment where he spent his two-year imprisonment for the Munich “Beer Hall Putsch” of 1923. The power of these books is instrumental—that is, they’re useful for compelling certain desired outcomes. They aren’t “literature,” as Ahmet Altan knows it, so much as they are tracts that have traction. Their value can be measured by their power to make things happen in the world. Leon Trotsky’s My Life, Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Václav Havel’s Letters to Olga, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, Angela Davis and Bettina Aptheker’s If They Come in the Morning, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, and Antonio Gramsci’s Letters from Prison are all examples of this. They’re powerful books. Mein Kampf remains far and away the best-selling prison book of the last thousand years.

Modern political movements rely on markets to spread the word, especially when the word manifests as a commercial book. Whether a writer intends it or not, alignment with the genre of prison writing enables certain strategies that publishers understand and will pursue. These strategies tend to weaken a book’s links to the what we call a “polity of literature” (a realm in which usefulness and instrumentality are of no concern, the same realm that Ahmet Altan smuggled into prison inside of his head) and situate it more firmly in the world of useful consumer goods. Publishers want to sell books, which sometimes puts them at cross-purposes with writers.

A case in point is No Friend But the Mountains, the superb, troubling account by Iranian-Kurdish writer Behrouz Boochani, about his experience as a refugee. The book carries the subtitle “Writing from Manus Prison,” as well as an elaborate interpretive apparatus, added by Boochani and one of his translators, Omid Tofighian. These were not deployed as marketing tactics, but as something else entirely, interpretive tools meant to frame and focus the discourse around the book and refugee writing in general. In a long post-face, called “Translator’s Reflections,” Tofighian explicates what he calls “Manus Prison Theory,” describes Boochani’s incarceration as an element of the “border-industrial complex” (echoing Angela Davis’s concept of the “prison-industrial complex”), and argues that the “Offshore Processing Centre” (later changed to “Regional Processing Centre”) built to detain refugees on Manus Island, is in fact a prison.

The word "prison" changing letters to become "processing"

The argument must be made because in its dealings with refugees Australia cleverly changed the names of everything. This is one of the disturbing realities that Boochani’s book reveals. Manus Island had all the worst features of prison, and more; but the Australian government tried to preempt any discussion of it by avoiding the word, or voiding it, as journalist Masha Gessen says autocratic governments do, in her recent book Surviving Autocracy. If this isn’t prison but a “processing centre,” those in it are not “imprisoned;” they’re simply enduring a “process.” (Australia calls the prisoners “clients” and their guards “client services officers.”) The nation-state’s active role, imprisoning, disappears with the noun, blurring state actions into a neutral condition of “processing.” The nation itself can even disappear, hidden behind the word “offshore.” The land might be part of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the guns and guards might belong to Australia, but the Manus Island Offshore Processing Centre isn’t “in” PNG or Australia. The detainees find themselves in the same stateless arrivals lounge where Edward Snowden spent his days and weeks, waiting to cross into Russia. Someone moved the lines—the very definition of lawlessness. There is no nation, only a swiftly expanding wilderness. Boochani’s and Tofighian’s linguistic gambit is to engineer a rescue from this desert island by insisting on inclusion in the logic of prisons, a place where the law still prevails and one can write a prison book, or petition for freedom through the correct application of law.

Writing a book on Manus was not easy. Like Socrates, Boochani needed a whole team to get the report out. Boochani has been entirely forthcoming about the collaboration, which extended well beyond Tofighian, who was the last of three translators helping create the English text from Boochani’s roaring stream of WhatsApp messages, in Farsi. Boochani sent the texts by smartphone from Manus to Australian translator Janet Galbraith and later to Iranian-Australian translator Moones Mansoubi, both of whom work with a refugee aid organization founded by Galbraith, Writing Through Fences. Boochani completed a few articles this way, for The Guardian, and other English-language newspapers, before hitting the vein that would become No Friend But the Mountains. The river of material that started in 2014 went to Mansoubi, who Frankenstein’ed them into PDFs (piling together fragments that she felt made a viable whole, what she and Boochani would call a “chapter”) and sent these to Tofighian, who rendered the documents into English and gave each chapter a name. Among the many ghost-effects of this collective process was the need, when at last an Iranian publisher stepped up to publish “the original” Farsi edition, for Tofighian to reverse engineer it—by translating backwards from the English that had been published as No Friend But the Mountains. In effect, this is a book with no original—it’s all translation.

But every book needs an author, especially a book marketed as “a true story from the front lines of the refugee experience.” Thus, an account that Boochani and Tofighian both describe as “literary and not journalistic,” using “entirely manufactured” composite characters “inspirited by the logic of allegory, not reportage,” carries the labels of “non-fiction” and “memoir” on its journey through the market. Most editions feature Boochani’s haunting face in a melancholy wash of blue on the front cover. This paradox reached its tragicomic apex when Tofighian, standing before a full-screen image of the cover at an event in Utrecht, the Netherlands, declared that “Behrouz does not want to become the face of the refugee crisis.” Tofighian’s clarity had the great advantage of exposing the gap between writing and selling books. Indeed, the text that Boochani scripted is literary—richly “inspirited by the logic of allegory,” and of a quality and vision that’s rare—but the commodity called “the book” is another thing entirely, needing an author to give it a face.

Illustrated portrait of Behrouz Boochani

“The author” is itself a kind of prison, another element in a system predicated on isolation. The reason why publishers drill down so hard on the biography of the author—marketing an isolated face and its life—is because consumers are hungry for it. A prison book needs a prisoner for its hero. Ahmet Altan is aware of the limited range of narratives that prison offers, but he’s comfortable enough in the prison of solitary authorship to not do much more than make fun of them. He soldiers on. This is what Boethius did too, and many others since. Altan does it with brilliance and a clear knowledge of both the stakes and the limits of his game. Relatedly, as described in an earlier “Polity of Literature” essay, Bettina Aptheker and Angela Davis undid prison logic by co-editing and co-writing a book while Davis was in prison and Aptheker free, with contributors from both inside and outside. It’s interesting to see that the book’s new publishers have effectively undone their work. Verso markets it as “edited by Angela Y. Davis,” eliding Aptheker to sell the alluring story of the isolated prisoner inside, writing to freedom outside. The same pressures bear down on Boochani, whose compositional process erased the lines that the state wanted to draw around him, but whose publishing success has now put him in the prison of “the author.” His face and life host the state’s preferred story of an individual, corrupt or virtuous, meriting punishment, redemption, or rescue.

To say “‘the author is a prison” is not to say this constraint is imposed against anyone’s will. Even when the face or biography of the author is withheld, readers strain to form a picture of the individual whose life authorizes the work. At least I do that. I like to guess who an anonymous author might be. I’ll comb the text for clues, looking for the life behind the story, and if I fail to find enough to give me a vivid and robust picture, I’ll call the book “poorly written.” It’s a curious hunger. What does the withholding of an author’s identity undermine? Perhaps we’re uncomfortable with the notion of collective authoring—the claim that reality arises from the field effects of individuals together, and not from the subjective intelligence of one person. Ironically, reading restores this collective knowing. We are all the authors of a text’s meanings, even if we try to pin it on the author.

No Friend But the Mountains is beautifully written, and Boochani emerges as a vivid character, nervous, brooding, taking refuge in the delirium of his cigarettes. It’s one of many refugee books published in the last five years, as the ordeal of stateless persons became a political issue of great concern. In addition to Boochani’s book, I’ve seen news of a dozen or more others, telling the stories of displaced people trying to find safe-harbour in this or that nation-state, other than their own. So far, I’ve read six. Boochani’s, Gulwali Passaray’s The Lightless Sky, Samar Yazbek’s The Crossing, Malala Yousafzai’s We Are Displaced, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah’s Homes, and Sandra Uwiringiyimana’s How Dare the Sun Rise. There are many more. Most give credit to co-authors and translators, the necessary helpers of non-English speakers recently arrived in an English-speaking market; and, interestingly, quite a few of the authors are children. This may have more to do with readers, and less with who’s actually writing. The largely European and North American audiences that consume these narratives (as a way to understand refugees) are drawn to the imagined helplessness of children.

Refugee books have a few things in common, some shared by prison books, others not. Unlike most prison books, the refugee stories feature long, harrowing journeys. Boochani’s opens, “Two trucks carry scared and restless passengers down a winding, rocky labyrinth…” This is the beginning of a trackless journey through remote, impossible landscapes and two disastrous voyages at sea that only end with Boochani’s safe arrival on Manus Island after a hundred pages. Gulwali Passaray’s The Lightless Sky, told by a twelve-year-old Pashtun boy from a conservative Afghan family (written with British journalist Nadene Ghouri; easily the best-written of the children’s narratives), delays the journey, but then devotes about two-thirds of its 350 pages to a much longer ordeal, two years that Passaray spent trying, failing, and trying again, to reach Europe via smuggler routes.

These ordeals defy summary. They’re suffered by people whose homes and lives have been destroyed, or might have been destroyed since they left (how would they know?), who by leaving are criminalized for crossing borders without papers and must survive at the mercy of human traffickers who measure their lives in cold columns of numbers: profits and loss. There is no law, only competing groups of armed strangers who may or may not be police, who may or may not offer shelter, and who may or may not hold them captive for ransom or sell them as slaves. The shocking turn, which makes these entirely unlike prison books (and it happens several times in every refugee narrative), is the arrival at a threshold of law—be it a national border, a prison gate, or the NGO rescue boat—that turns out to be false. For example, in this scene in Boochani’s journey: Nearly dead after a shipwreck at sea, he finally arrives at Christmas Island, the part of Australia that was the goal of most refugees crossing the South China Sea. Disembarking, he learns that it’s no longer Australia, not for him anyway. Christmas Island has been declared not-Australia “for all purposes of refugees or resettlement.” By standing on this shore in his stateless condition, Boochani and the other survivors nullify its existence as part of the state. There is no nation anymore, only this ever-expanding no-man’s land, a wilderness that the refugee seems to carry with him wherever he goes.

Sudden, awful violence is one feature these books have in common with most prison books. It’s tempting to imagine an epic scale of violence and attribute refugee suffering to the extremity of the dangers they face. Certainly, that’s a first level of the terror that refugees encounter. If only the UN relief mission would offer them safe passage on an airplane or a is tempted to dream. And what a dream that would be, infinitely better than the hell to which life has delivered them. But Abu Bakr al Rabeeah’s Homes, another beautifully written child’s account (an as-told-to authored by the skillful Canadian writer, Winnie Yeung), challenges this easy assumption by depicting a kind of violence very unlike prison. Homes tells the story of a middle-class Syrian family that must flee the war in 2012. After a series of “internal displacements” (a euphemism to distinguish the uprooting of human lives within national borders from the uprootings that force refugees to cross borders) al Rabeeah’s father secures UN help. Now, after two years of living inside a chaotic and merciless war, 13-year old Abu Bakr rides a UN van to board the airplane that will take him and his family to safety, in Canada:

There were so many different kinds of people. I saw my first Chinese woman. I saw a young guy with a bushy beard, just like many Muslim men had, but his was blond…The air on the airplane was strange: it hummed. My throat felt dry and lights were oddly bright…But I was terrified too. When I heard the engines come to life, I pulled my seat belt even tighter. A crackly voice spoke to us over the speakers while the flight attendants pointed to the little monitors in front of us that talked about emergency procedures. Never before had I paid so much attention to a video. Masks? Flotation devices? Ya Allah...Then, the plane roared to life and surged forward. The balls of my feet dug into the floor and I leaned far back into my seat as we raced faster and faster. The runway screamed below me, the gigantic metal wings caught the air, and the plane climbed up, up, up. Ya Allah, ya Allah, ya Allah. It wasn’t so much a prayer as it was a plea.

To dismiss this plea as the nervousness of a frightened child is impossible in the wake of the atrocities Abu Bakr and his family survived. Also, it would blind us to the debilitating onset of PTSD that afflicted Abu Bakr just as severely as it did Gulwali Passaray, a boy the same age who faced injuries and cruelty so extreme and recurring it would be obscene to make a summary list of them here.

Illustration of a flying airplane with a boy's head replacing the nose

Passaray’s account includes a scene even more bewildering than Boochani’s arrival at the faux-Christmas Island. It happens midway through, after Passaray has landed in a Turkish prison, not on any charges, but as an undocumented Afghan who will be given the choice of paying his own way back to Afghanistan or getting on a bus (a coach) to the border of Iran and left there to fend for himself. Aside from not having the money, Passaray, by this time thirteen, is too ashamed to return home. His mother sent him on this journey with two strict instructions: stay with your brother and never come back. He’s already lost his brother, and the shame of disobeying his mother is too much to even consider returning. “Around fifty of us were packed into a large coach, two to a small seat, our sweat and breath intermingling. I sat next to Mehran. Every six hours we pulled over to go to the toilet. They gave us very little water, so it was hard to go.” Four days later, as the bus ascends into high mountains on a cold, lightless night, they arrive at a remote pass. Jeeps come to drive them along a dirt road bordering a fence. Then “we were told to get out of the jeeps and wait by the fence…The soldiers who had been driving the jeeps rushed to the wire, unclipping a long strip of electric fencing. They told us to wait but get ready.” The order comes, Go, go go! “People walked slowly at first, gingerly, carefully. Then suddenly they started running, going in all directions…

We broke into a run with them.

Then we saw some police waving at us. “Come this way. Over here.” There were eight of them, all carrying horsewhips.

We started to run toward them, but then we heard other voices, shouting at us. “No, not that way. We are the police. Come here, over here.”

“It’s the mafia,” a frightened voice shouted. “The Kurds. They’re in police uniforms. Run.”

“Where do we go?” I was panting both from fear and from the running—the weeks in the prison had left me exhausted and weak.

As everyone ran in panic, I lost hold of the others’ hands as we were knocked and buffeted, swept along with the frightened herd. The ground was rough and rocky, and I thought I would fall and be trampled. My chest was hurting so much I couldn’t catch my breath.

Headlights appeared, then a few men wearing uniforms and carrying torches walked toward us. Suddenly there were more cars, trucks, motorbikes. The men with the horsewhips were upon us, their whips making cracking, splintering sounds as they struck at the running bodies. They managed to coral maybe half of us into a semi-circle…

I had no idea who these men were, but I truly hoped they were really the police.

It turns out they are, in fact, the Iranian police, but that doesn’t prevent them from trying to sell Gulwali, Mehran, and a dozen others to the feared Kurdish traffickers. It takes a senior policeman’s intervention to stop the corrupt younger officers from completing the sale, and both boys end up in an Iranian jail. But there’s no trial, no charges, and no sentence. The law means as little inside the jail as it does outside. For a price, the jailers will feed them. For a higher price, they’ll put them on another bus to the Afghan border. Otherwise, the boys can stay and die. Despite the presence of prisons and jails, Gulwali’s tale is anything but a prison story. He and his friends find themselves in the same situation that Socrates refused when he refused exile outside the city walls: cast out into a brutal wilderness.

Exile beyond the reach of the law, however brief or prolonged, births in these books a kind of hallucinatory prose that Boochani’s translator, Tofighian, termed “horrific surrealism.” It’s an original and evocative phrase (the best of his interpretive frames), and well describes the style’s powerful effects. Of horrific surrealism Tofighian says, “reality is fused with dreams and creative ways of re-imagining the environment and horrific events and architecture.” No Friend But the Mountains is marbled with such scenes, including this one at Manus Prison:

The bloodied body of a young prisoner is carried in the arms of his friends and G4S guards towards the main gate of the prison. He is like a corpse being carried during a funeral procession. The concrete floor of the bathroom is covered in blood. He has slit his wrists with one of those blue-handled razors. He has cut into his veins…

The scene is like a festival: a festival of blood, a festival of the dead. Witnessing scenes of blood is a catharsis that purifies the emotions and psyche. The scene is a mirror that reflects the prisoners, and they gaze into it. Not one individual has the courage to admit that he is in some way fascinated with this scene, not even to whisper it quietly to the person next to him. These are the wonders of the creature known as human.

As night falls, all the senses become heightened, all the senses transform into those of a hunter, poised for action, in case a horrific incident takes place in one of the bathrooms. If blood is the primary substance and the source of all afflictions, it seems necessary that blood should spatter everywhere. It is enough for one person to bow under the dreadful circumstances of life, enough for the world to regress into the darkest darkness right before his eyes.

Similar hallucinatory scenes of violence occur in The Lightless Sky, The Crossing, We Are Displaced, and even Homes, when the reality of war bursts open in the shop-lined streets of Abu Bakr’s neighborhood:

Our shoes crunched on glass shards as we inched towards the patio doors to see what carnage lay just beyond our garden wall. Out on the street, ruined flesh. A torso without a head. And blood, trickling streams of it. Puddles soaking into the pavement.

All I could do was stare as Father and Naser rushed past me to help. I pressed my temples to try to stop the ringing in my ears. The smoke and dust burned my lungs. Minutes later, Father returned, half-dragging a young man with blood spurting from his neck. Father shouted, and out of nowhere, a white scarf appeared. My mother and sisters helped the young man into the bathroom where they bound his neck as best they could. And as I just stood there watching, the stranger stared blankly at himself in the bathroom mirror. The white scarf bloomed red. My sisters fussed around him while my mother adjusted the scarf again to slow the flow of blood. Finally, he managed a smile and mumbled his gratitude.

“Bakr! Come!” I snapped to at the sound of my father’s voice. Father and I helped the stranger back out onto the street and into one of the many cars waiting to help transport the wounded to the hospital. The girls followed us out and I heard one of them whisper, “He’s so handsome…”

Wherever violence blows the world open, the mind stretches for imagery to contain it. It’s interesting to see the child Abu Bakr’s limited resources—the resolution he reaches for in his sister’s “feminine” comment—as against the broader range of Boochani’s imagination and references. At these extremities, we’re reminded why those seeking to understand the refugee experience should look to adult writers, even if their complexity makes it harder for us to organize our feelings of virtuous pity. Boochani can be infuriating. In No Friend But the Mountains he’s a fully developed character, as often petty, scolding, or petulant as he is insightful or brave. His knowledge of war, dispossession, and literature is considerable, and this makes for an especially dense, poetic reporting. Tofighian has rendered great stretches of it as an interweaving of prose and verse, a visual echo of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy.

Because the imagery is so strange and specific, almost private, these passages read like interior monologues as much or more than as descriptions of external reality (when they are, of course, both). We sail inside the mind of a man whose surroundings have become entirely nightmarish, as if he’d been deposited not on a remote margin of Papua New Guinea, but in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Boochani and Tofighian locate the origins of this style in Kurdish folktale traditions, and the links they describe are convincing. But for me, who knows nothing of Kurdish folk tales, these passages—the “horrific surrealism” that I found common to all the refugee books—put me in mind of the so-called “captivity narratives” of the early Modern era. The best known were Spaniard Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s 1542 account of the eight years he spent lost in the North American wilderness, The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca; Puritan settler Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 tale of her capture and three-month enslavement by the Nipmuc tribe in colonial Massachusetts, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson; and several related stories of white women taken away from “civilization” to live among strangers whose intentions and culture were entirely mysterious to them.

Because of their narrow, intentional role in a corrupt enterprise, early captivity narratives have stayed with us (and recently come back into some prominence) only through the lens of post-colonial studies. They’re inspected, like tissue samples in the postmortem of some prolific killer, to better understand the pathology of colonialism. Omid Tofighian’s interpretive frames for No Friend But the Mountains largely come from this discipline, too. His focus is a post-colonial future, not a colonial postmortem, but the tools are similar and the instrumentality of the books is complete. Held in the frame of these interpretive projects the captivity narratives and refugee writing exist less as literature (in the way Ahmet Altan means when he speaks of his secret powers) than as tactical elements in a political struggle—as instruments of activism. I don’t mean that post-colonial studies is a form of political activism (though for many of the best in the field, that is the case); only that the objects of study are always studied as elements of a political struggle—the struggles in the long history of colonialism.

Set within the frame of flight from mortal danger and the logic of colonialism, refugee writing quickly takes on certain patterns and forms.

Post-colonial studies has welcomed refugee writing and provided some useful categorical tools for reading it. A primary distinction is made between kinds of migrants, distinguishing privileged forms of migration, such as “diasporic” (a mass escape from a shared oppressor) and “exilic” (a personal journey away from unbearable circumstances) from the migrations of “refugees,” who must leave home or suffer intolerably. Among refugees, nations would like to distinguish between “political” and “economic” migrants, but the academics answer with a helpful term—“basic needs refugees”—to describe all who are forced to leave (which is to say their reasons are not our concern). Set within the frame of flight from mortal danger and the logic of colonialism, refugee writing quickly takes on certain patterns and forms. It really doesn’t matter what the writers think they’re doing—to become legible their compositions must conform enough with the frameworks of reading that they’re widely shared and talked about. Further, whatever aspects of their writing do not conform will prove hard to discuss, and probably be dismissed as flaws or shortcomings. Add the filters of professional editing and publishing, plus the market’s relentless needs, and it’s not surprising to find a recognizable form common to all the refugee books. To judge by the six that I read, that form is the prison book—a prolonged injustice, including captivity, ends with the restoration of law and, with it, freedom.

I’d rather read them as captivity narratives and see what changes. In most captivity narratives, as in refugee writing, known law has disappeared and with it the capacity to plot a future. The only imaginable future is when will I wake up from this nightmare? The future waits on the end of captivity and a return to civilization; although, in the cases of the refugees, “civilization” is still dauntingly mysterious and abusive, perhaps worse than the wilderness in which they’ve wandered. Some accounts, including Cabeza de Vaca’s and Passaray’s, take us so deep into captivity, beyond the point of no return, that we begin to witness what happens when all hope of return is lost. Seven years into their ordeal, Cabeza de Vaca and his three Christian companions are thought by the indigenous people who host them to be magical healers. They must minister to the needs of the sick:

When I arrived I found his eyes rolled up, and the pulse gone, he having all the appearances of death, as they seemed to me and as Dorantes said. I removed a mat with which he was covered, and supplicated our Lord as fervently as I could, that He would be pleased to give health to him, and to the rest that might have need of it. After he had been blessed and breathed upon many times, they brought me his bow, and gave me a basket of pounded prickly pears…We then went back to our lodgings. Those to whom we gave the fruit tarried, and returned at night to their houses, reporting that he who had been dead and for whom I wrought before them, had got up whole and walked, had eaten and spoken with them and that all to whom I had ministered were well and much pleased. This caused great wonder and fear, and throughout the land the people talked of nothing else. All to whom the fame of it reached, came to seek us that we should cure them and bless their children.

For more than a year they wander from the Gulf of Mexico, through the mountain deserts of Texas and Juarez and Chihuahua, all the way to the Pacific Coast, their reputation preceding them in a delirium of plenty:

We left there, and traveled through so many sorts of people, of such diverse languages, the memory fails to recall them. They ever plundered each other, and those that lost, like those that gained, were fully content. We drew so many followers that we had not use for their services. While on our way through these vales, every Indian carried a club three palms in length, and kept on the alert. On raising a hare, which animals are abundant, they surround it directly and throw numerous clubs at it with astonishing precision. Thus they cause it to run from one to another; so that, according to my thinking, it is the most pleasing sport which can be imagined, as oftentimes the animal runs into the hand. So many did they give us that at night when we stopped we had eight or ten back-loads apiece…Frequently we were accompanied by three or four thousand persons, and as we had to breathe upon and sanctify the food and drink for each, and grant permission to do the many things they would come to ask, it may be seen how great was the annoyance. The women first brought us prickly pears, spiders, worms, and whatever else they could gather; for even were they famishing, they would eat nothing unless we gave it them. In company with these, we crossed a great river coming from the north, and passing over some plains thirty leagues in extent, we found many persons coming a long distance to receive us, who met us on the road over which we were to travel, and welcomed us in the manner of those we had left.

One longs for Tofighian’s gloss on this!

Young Gulwali Passaray encounters the inverse, a world in which his humanity is so completely destroyed he becomes a kind of animal, a “subspecies,” as he writes. Humanity and animals intermix in both the captivity narratives and refugee writing. For stateless denizens of the Global South, forced to survive in Europe, it is the same as it was for early European settlers forced to survive among “savages.” The line dividing human from animal is erased. Passaray makes it to Greece after two days at sea, nearly wrecking on a shore the smugglers mistakenly thought was Greece. Their small boat goes under as the coast guard arrives. An angelic blue-eyed lady feeds Gulwali fish and chocolate, and his bowels explode in a paroxysm of shit. They’re given blankets and taken to safety. In the port city of Patras he finds, “a glut of refugees living on the streets, under bits of plastic sheeting or in tents made from branches. They cooked in the road…I couldn’t believe this was Europe.” A worse European barbarity still awaits him—isolation. In his tradition-bound Afghan family, Gulwali “had never been alone. I had always been in a group of men and always had someone looking out for me. At home I had shared my grandparents’ room.” Now the refugee centre gives him a bed in a private room. “This was the first time I had ever had a room to myself. I didn’t like the feeling.”

The refugee’s displacement into a baffling wilderness, like the captive’s, also undoes the regular passage of time. Mary Rowlandson’s three months among the Nipmuc tribe are not conveyed as a series of days or weeks, but as a sequence of twenty “removes,” leave-takings in which time sprawls and the known world diminishes across an ever-widening distance. The Nipmuc are actually traveling in circles for less than a season, but Rowlandson’s “removes” are so unidirectional—always moving away—that the journey reads like Dante’s descent into hell, unmarked by time. Samar Yazbek, recalling her reverse journey, back into Syria during the war that had displaced her (The Crossing), says that “Even as I recall these events, it seems impossible to write about them in any kind of sequence that makes sense. There’s no way I can narrate this in any kind of order. There’s nothing I can do but break up time.” Also, most captives and refugees dwell on the strangeness of food. Cabeza de Vaca describes a delicacy made of squashed cactus fruits and mud, mostly mud. Handed off to a Pakistani smuggler, Passaray asks, “why would an Afghan hand us over to a dal eater?” Experiences that we can see from outside as political (the Nipmuc’s negotiations to free Mary Rowlandson; Cabeza de Vaca’s authority as a healer; Passaray’s haughty disciplining of his sisters, and his ascent as an unlikely leader among his migrant comrades; Abu Bakr’s father’s success providing for his family) are experienced and narrated as spiritual—internal matters of piety, prayer, and blessings. It isn’t only because these are religious people facing terrible hardship: a kind of disappearance of the political has been forced upon them. Less than human, they lose access to the inter-subjective space of politics. Their voices are never heard, except by God.

Refugee writing is a report from the future.

Clearly their voices should be heard, and for our sake more so than theirs. Refugee writing is a report from the future. Its most urgent revelations aren’t in the announcement of a new class of victims to rescue or mourn, but in the creation of a new political space, a human community outside of nation-states. These aren’t prison books. The lines have all been moved, to the point of disappearance. There is no inside or outside, only nearness and distance. Refugees have glimpsed this condition, however horrific and life-threatening it may be. To speak positively of it now is like praising the good life on Mars: any livable futures still wait on the far side of impossible struggles, risks, and suffering. Those who’ve drawn nearest to it are still adrift in a vast darkness, and should first of all be brought back home to breathe. Their survival is paramount, which is why we prefer reading books that hew to redemptive narratives, stories of rescue or heroic return.

We’re lucky to be reading. Imagine living these lives. Reading lets us draw near, and still come back up for breath. Writing does too. There’s a reason that dozens of very good writers came into legibility at Manus Island prison. To judge by the work that Janet Galbraith’s Writing Through Fences project brought into English, including Behrouz Boochani’s, writing lets refugees draw closer to the uncertain future they’ve been pushed toward, and still survive to bring it back. Writing and reading finesse nearness out of distance; they’re essential tools, like telescopes and rockets for outer space exploration.

While the stateless whose lives are held captive by this volatile future are learning how to write it, we who are less at risk must learn how to read. Early captivity narratives remind us to value mystery and try to stay with the trouble it makes. The certainty with which Mary Rowlandson ascribed her Nipmuc captors’ choices to ignorance and “devilry” can be seen for the frightened blindness that it was. She’d fallen into the society of a thousands-of-years-old culture that was illegible to her. Four hundred years later, we see the full scope of settler ignorance and the awful costs of its victory. When twelve-year-old Gulwali Passaray finds comfort in the chaotic life of an Iranian smuggler he calls Black Wolf, into whose big family he can easily blend by using his childish charms to win hugs and sympathy from Black Wolf’s elderly mother and beautiful wife, we ought to regret his heroic choice to leave and continue on his journey, just as much as he did. What would have happened had he stayed? He would not have won political asylum (as he finally did in England), but he would have grown up as a stateless man in a rural village near Urmia, and never arrived in that lonely private room.

Illustration of two eyes with prison bars. Between them floats a question mark made from books

Captivity narratives also remind us to question the rescue. Seen from our time, Mary Rowlandson’s return was not a happy ending. The modern nation-state is not the Athens that Socrates longed for. There’s no law, only an economic wilderness—a purpose-built, global system of expulsion. Not nations any longer, but a border-industrial complex, and within those borders, a prison-industrial complex. As Ahmet Altan said when he was briefly released from prison (before being rearrested and locked up a second time): “When they imprison you, you’re a victim of injustice. When you are released you become an accomplice.”

Refugee writing is the literature of a post-national world. How do we read it? Refugees write from the midst of trouble, and we must join them there, both to understand and as an act of solidarity. We learn to read by answering the call that literature makes. As this series’ initial essay, “Potatoes or Rice?” puts it: “Literature proves nothing. It asks us to judge for ourselves. More, it invites—even seduces—us into taking that risk by whispering in each reader’s ear, you know what I’m talking about…. This intimate investiture draws us out into the open, into the book’s plurality of readers, by granting us the authority to disclose our own meanings and have them heard. Literature opens a space of appearance in which we become equals, needing no defense. This contentious plurality, the vivid cacophony of contradictory readings in a polity of literature, is where I find my agency and belonging.”

Activism is urgent. Its fires must burn bright. The conditions in which many of these refugees live are inhuman. Every effort should be made to restore their human rights and grant them whatever advantages they desire from state citizenship. But in literature a great deal more is possible. Reading can let us feed those instrumental fires while also moving deeper into the twilight, where texts become useless, unresolved, and confusing, lodging us deep into the troubles from which they are born. What if the arrival of the refugees didn’t mark their rescue, but ours? What if they are our teachers? If we follow them away from the fires, we might see farther into the night.

Books cited in this essay:

  • Plato, Crito and Phaedo
  • Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
  • Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, The Relation of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
  • Mary White Rowlandson, Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson
  • Hugo Grotius, Commentary on the Apostle Matthew
  • Louise Michel, The Red Virgin
  • Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa
  • Alexander Berkman, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist
  • Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
  • Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks and Letters from Prison
  • Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice
  • Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
  • George Jackson, Soledad Brother
  • Angela Y. Davis and Bettina Aptheker (eds), If They Come in the Morning
  • Gulwali Passaray, The Lightless Sky
  • Samar Yazbek, The Crossing
  • Malala Yousafzai, We Are Displaced
  • Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, Homes
  • Sandra Uwiringiyimana, How Dare the Sun Rise
  • Ahmet Altan, I Will Never See the World Again
  • Behrouz Boochani, No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison

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