Book Review - A Country Too Far: Writings On Asylum Seekers

A Country Too Far, co-edited by Rosie Scott and Tom Keneally, is a timely attempt to set the record straight about asylum seekers in Australia, to counter the negative media propaganda and to protest at the government's treatment of them. Featuring some of Australia's finest writers, it is an immensely readable, humane collection of fiction, memoir, poetry and essays.

Keneally's most famous work, Schindler's List, was about the courage of one man who saved the lives of over a thousand Jews at great risk to himself. Schindler was no saint, but he learned to feel empathy for his Jewish factory workers. In his powerful essay 'A Folly of History', Keneally calls for a similar understanding and compassion to be extended to asylum seekers and underlines the fact that children are among the victims of Australia's inhumane policies.

Several authors draw the parallel between the experiences of Jews seeking safety during the Holocaust and Australia's contemporary treatment of the dispossessed. In an extract from her award-winning novel, All That I Am, Anna Funder recalls the plight of German refugees fleeing the Nazis aboard the St Louis. Cuba, the United States and Canada refused asylum and turned the ship away. Funder perfectly summarises the aims and import of the anthology when she writes: "it is an act of imagining the lives of others, and as such an act of compassion as holy as act designed to make sure we do not stop ourselves from imagining properly and in every human detail, the plight of asylum act designed to make sure that we do not stop there: that we do something. We need to honour our obligations to them, and to ourselves."

Many of the writers do just that - they imagine what it is like to be an asylum seeker fleeing terror or destitution. What it means to leave behind one's home and loved ones, to pay smugglers extortionate amounts of money only to risk losing everything at sea. And then, after everything, to be detained for years on end as if one is a criminal.

Rodney Hall and Arnold Zable vividly imagine what it is like to cross dangerous waters in leaking boats. Their stories remind us that it is fear and desperation that drives people to make this life-threatening journey. They forcefully stress the need for asylum seekers to be treated compassionately on arrival, to be offered safe refuge swiftly and without unnecessary imprisonment.

Scott writes poignantly about a woman who befriends an asylum seeker, tries to instil in him some hope, but can't save him from committing suicide. Frequently, asylum seekers say the wrong thing on arrival and it is later used against them. As Scott's character remarks, it is simply because "[t]hey're interviewed by officials the day they arrive. They're terrified and exhausted after their ordeal. They don't understand English."

Denise Leith's piece about one asylum seeker's attempts to find peace by growing seeds and tending a vegetable patch is equally memorable. Attempting to deal with all that he has lost, he muses "I must not think of that thing I cannot even begin to hold in my heart and so I decide that I will think only of the sun on my back and of the life it gives to this beautiful garden."

This stunning anthology is already creating something of a buzz in Australia. Horrified by the number of children detained, Keneally concludes: "We who apologised to the Stolen Generation will have much to apologise for to those among these children who ultimately become Australian. Apology, however, will validate but not ease the present pain."

I want to publish a similar collection here. Britain has a long history of providing safe refuge to those fleeing conflict, poverty or terror and it is something we should be proud of. But most of the stories about asylum seekers that we read about in the media today are negative. I volunteer as a mentor with Freedom from Torture's creative writing programme, Write to Life, and the stories we hear there are about the emotional scars of torture, the pain of leaving family behind and the difficulties of adapting to an unfamiliar language and culture. Building on the success of A Country Too Far, I want the British anthology to directly challenge the negative press given asylum seekers here as well as serving as a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Using the works of celebrated writers is one sure way to generate more positive perspectives of asylum seekers. Writers are uniquely placed to challenge pre-conceived ideas and stereotypes because of their understanding of the power of words and ability to articulate truths.

In Australia, various publishers expressed an interest in A Country Too Far without even seeing a manuscript because of the list of names Keneally and Scott were able to pitch. There was an intense auction which Penguin won. It was published last October to great acclaim.

Monica Ali, William Boyd, Moris Farhi, Elaine Feinstein, Aminatta Forna, Hari Kunzru, Marina Lewycka, Ruth Padel and Alex Wheatle are just some of the writers who have already pledged their support and agreed to contribute to a British anthology. Now I just need to find a publisher with the same brave vision as Penguin Australia.

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