Sydney Writers' Festival
Stories of Flight & Asylum
3rd June 2007, 11.30am.
l to r: Georgia Blain, Jane Messer,
Elizabeth Stead, Carol Lefevre
Elements of Flight, Aspects of Asylum
Since settlement this island has been a backdrop for abject lives —
working in chains, prison guards afraid to sleep for fear their violent acts
would be reciprocated, orphaned and otherwise lost boys, women and girls
troubled or damaged enough to be incarcerated — Cockatoo Island has seen
all. It is an appropriate space in which to contemplate elements of flight and
aspects of asylum and if there are spirits here they are willing us to
remember, willing us to empathise.
Any act of flight consists of three elements: the first of these is FROM
point of departure, the homeland, the familiar soil, the situation fled;
secondly, there is TO — a destination, either known or unknown, a place of
indifference, of welcome or hostility; connecting these two points — and
necessarily in a bee line, or even the clean arc of an arrow seeking its target
— is the FLIGHT PATH, with its seductive promises of safety and freedom
better life, but also its myriad and often overwhelming dangers.
In 1972, at about this time of year, I left Australia in flight from a
disastrous teenage marriage. My FROM, was Sydney. My TO, was Wellington in NZ,
where I spent some years in self-imposed exile. The flight path I took lay
across the Tasman Sea, and a rough passage it was on the P&O ship Oriana.
Given my almost complete absence of funds, it was an act of extreme
foolishness, but I threw myself into it like someone jumping overboard —
was fortunate. Strangers were, for the most part, kind. Perhaps it was a time
of greater kindness and goodwill back then, with September 11th still decades
away — or perhaps distance just makes it seem so.
I was lucky in the elements of flight. Although my personal life had been
shredded, the country I fled was not in turmoil, I was young and in good health
and, while my wintry destination was indifferent to my presence, there was
never any question that I would be granted entry. The flight path itself was
bland, troubled only by 24 hours of seasickness.
But many are not so fortunate. The places they flee are nightmarish. The
destination is overtly hostile. The flight path is erratic and treacherous. Few
of the 421 passengers who embarked on the ill-fated
in October 2001
ever reached their destination. The flight path claimed 353 lives, among them
146 children, 142 women, at least three of whom were in labour as the boat
If asylum holds out the promise of refuge, inevitably it also implies torment.
The characters in my novel are all in some way seeking refuge. On a minor scale
it may be relief from gambling debts, or from the isolation and drudgery of a
remote truck stop cafe. More seriously, escape is sought from domestic violence
and from grief, while the character of the Afghan immigrant, Aziz, inevitably
raises the political aspect of asylum.
In Afghanistan, the word Aziz is an everyday endearment. It means dear, or
beloved. I chose it as a symbol that, however this character is appraised by
the people he meets, how qualified or described, the name Aziz permanently
defines him as someone's son, someone's brother, neighbour, friend. Someone's
dearest. Someone's beloved.
Oppressive regimes have always sought to dehumanise those they declare to be
outsiders: who could forget Auschwitz, and the tattooed
When I was writing
I corresponded with a young couple who had been
detained first in Woomera and then Baxter Detention Centres. They had been
imprisoned for about 4 years and had no idea when their ordeal might end. The
wife was expecting their first child. My letters were simple messages of
support, news of a world beyond the razor wire and bleak landscape that
surrounded them. I quickly learnt that I had to address letters to them by
their numbers rather than names, otherwise my mail would not be delivered.
Along with the letters to Baxter, I wrote to the editor of
in Adelaide, asking whatever had become of the country that was once so proud
of giving battlers a go. This is a question I am still asking.
Few of us have first hand experience of the terror that compels people to flee
their homelands, or of the loss of personal history, the erasing of self that
occurs when people are permanently separated from the places where their
memories were made.
Nights In The Asylum:
However far he travelled, in any direction, he was searching for a way back.
Always back. Days when his eyes had streamed, when the salty flow of tears
distorted his vision and he had lurched, step to step, field to field, town to
town, carrying no memory of his passage, on those days and on all others he had
been searching every moment for a way back.
What kind of person chose exile? Did anyone ever choose? Officially, he did not
exist. He had no travel documents, no papers, nothing to stake his claim on the
earth which his great grandfathers once hunted with eagles and which, as far as
he could tell, was governed now by guns and money-lenders. Absence defined him.
It was the biggest part of him, just as the emptiness of the sky was always
bigger than the land. And within this vast absence he felt himself to be a
series of disconnected episodes, gestures, and reactions, stung into action and
lumpily strung together by memory.
Memory was the adhesive that bound the universe. If he existed at all it was in
the collective memory of his far-flung family, while they depended for
existence upon his fixing them in the beam of his thoughts. Each morning when
he woke he counted the people, still living, who remembered him. He feared them
diminishing and wondered if the weakness that sprang at him out of nowhere was
a sign that one of his memory-holders had died. He wondered, too, what would
happen when there was no longer anyone alive who remembered him; would he
finally become invisible? Still, at times, the presence of his family was as
solid as the road. He heard their voices, quarrels, laughter, prayers, urging
him on. But oh, how difficult it was to hold absent people and places steady.
Distance had a power, verging on divine, to erase households, towns, cities,
whole continents, all the complex lives, both known and unknown. Distance
rearranged possibilities, luck, coincidence. It destroyed personal history. As
he travelled, his world was erased behind him, absorbed into the void that
extended to infinity from the spot where he stood at this moment, feverish and
He stood with his back to the sun, wiped the sweat from his eyelids and told
himself not to be so stupid. The road still stretched before him, one thousand
miles, or maybe two. Faced with the impossible, the Qur'an guided and comforted
This is My Straight Road, so follow it... (reading ends)
In one sense, the book is about how kindness can be as valuable as love -
kindness can be enough to sustain a life. And the act that helps turn a life
around, or at least gets someone on their feet again, can be quite small. No
one doubts that kindness is important in relationships, yet it is also
important to us as a nation. And like the prison guards here on Cockatoo
Island, who slept locked in the guardhouse for safety, Australia does not sleep
easily. I'd like to think it is because we
are troubled by the sense that a national lack of compassion is certain to
rebound on us.
I left Australia voluntarily again in 1987 and have only recently returned.
Living on the Isle of Man, and halfway through writing this novel, I heard that
a representative of the South Australian government was touring Britain with a
hefty budget, pleading with people to come and settle in SA. I was still
corresponding with the young family in Baxter, marvelling at their courage, at
the tenacity of their hope, and their will to make a life in Australia for
their tiny son. Putting these two together, it was hard not to conclude that
the Australian government was practising a kind of rubber stamp ethnic
This makes me sound like someone with big opinions, but I did not set out to
write a drum-banging piece on asylum. In fact, I have heard David Malouf say
that strong opinions are death to writing and I agree with him. Rather than
being defined by his plight, I hoped that the character of Aziz might be read
as just another character in the book, a man with a back story, albeit a
terrible one. I hoped he would be defined by his otherness but also by his
universal needs, recognisable as human, as a man with a history, with hopes and
fears and dreams, as someone with the yearning we all share to reach out from
isolation, to seek refuge in relationships, in intimacy, in simply being, at
peace in a place of safety.
Isolation is a strong theme in the novel, and its structure of alternating
viewpoints works to emphasise the ways in which characters strive yet never
ultimately connect. Grief can be isolating. Domestic violence often casts a
spell of silence over its victims. Lack of a common language renders people
deaf and mute, and no one is more alone than the man who finds himself stranded
between a homeland he may never return to and a country that denies him refuge.
The back cover of the book sets out the challenge that any of us could become
an asylum seeker given the right conditions. I have never thought this
far-fetched. On the contrary, already there are signs that in decades to come
climate change in fragile ecologies and poorer countries will generate a global
migration crisis. There is no room to be complacent on this. Given prolonged
and extensive drought, for example, we could find ourselves looking around with
increasing desperation, wondering where we can go, wondering who will take us.
Complacency and lack of empathy could destroy the way of life we are so anxious
I will finish with a short piece, which is the first page I wrote towards
Nights In The Asylum.
In the end it was not included because the geography was
wrong and I didn't want to change it, so I just kept it as a prose poem.
Flying Towards Thankfulness.
"Flying towards thankfulness, you become
the rare bird with one wing made of fear,
and one of hope."
He has crossed so many borders that geography is a blur of unfamiliar patterns
underfoot. Filthy cities, the wild countryside: he is uncertain of his exact
position on the map. Month after month, under marbled skies, the warm lands
glow dreamlike behind his eyelids as his lips peel and blister in the cracking
cold. He has grown stick-thin. Hollow. Numb to movement and extremes of
weather. He carries only prayer beads and a stone snatched from the rubble of
their house on the night his family fled Kabul.
He rocks himself to sleep with the names of his kin, wakes mute among
strange tongues vowing never to look back until he reaches a place of refuge.
Seasons turn. Fields ripen crops he cannot name as he devours seeds, roots,
berries, and the meagre flesh of birds and the small animals he kills with his
He has written his name in languages he cannot speak. He has passed
uncounted years without touching a woman. He has forgotten all the places he
has slept. He has remembered his prayers. He has shouted down a crackling
telephone line until his father's far-off whoop of joy breaks him. He believes
the well of loneliness at his core is bottomless. He has lost count of the
jobs, of the times he has been robbed of his wages, of the fevers and chills
that have shaken him. But once, in a field of wheat, the sun burst through
cloud and centred him in a sea of gold. And once, on a train, a woman smiled
and handed him an apple.
Other musings on the Writing Life ...
"Nights in the Asylum
is subtle, rich, wise
and seductive. ...it's a gorgeous
act of defiance to those who say literary fiction is in trouble."
"Nights in the Asylum
is an interesting and accomplished book, far from didactic
in its portrayal of mistreated refugees, or domestic violence, Aziz's and
Zett's stories create a powerful undertow beneath and alongside Miri's
"The stories spin out in broken form, like a handful of photographs splayed on
a table...in between these narratives are snapshots of other people's lives,
tiny bright moments of existence that illuminate the.major tales and cast
shadows in the corners of the stories we are following."
" ...this is an important Australian novel which addresses the contemporary
dilemma of the asylum seeker. The novel comes at a time when the refugee issue
is transforming from one of general apathy towards 'queue-jumpers' around the
time of the SIEVX
to vist the SIEVX website)
to a burgeoning collective empathy (perhaps guilt) towards
refugees genuinely seeking asylum in this country."
"Lefevre writes beautiful, smooth sentences that at times reminded me of
(Michael) Ondaatje's. She lays out her narrative, too, with similar
tranquillity and poise."
Australian Literary Review