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Sydney Writers' Festival
Cockatoo Island
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 — convicts 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 them 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 — the 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 not 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 and a 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 — and I 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 SIEV X 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 sank.

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 identification numbers.

When I was writing Nights, 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 The Advertiser, 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.

Reading from 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 stranded.

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 him.

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 cleansing.

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 to protect.

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."      Rumi

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 stone.

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.
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Other musings on the Writing Life ...

"Nights in the Asylum is subtle, rich, wise and seductive.'s a gorgeous act of defiance to those who say literary fiction is in trouble."

Nicholas Jose

"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 grief."

Dorothy Johnston
Canberra Times

"The stories spin out in broken form, like a handful of photographs splayed on a 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."

Kay Sexton

" ...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 (click here to vist the SIEVX website) to a burgeoning collective empathy (perhaps guilt) towards refugees genuinely seeking asylum in this country."

Rob Walker

"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."

Delia Falconer
Australian Literary Review