Tag Archives: Omid Tofighian

Journal Blitz 12

‘Blitz’ is becoming less and less appropriate as a title for this series of posts. This one in particular has been a long time coming, but both these journals manage to have relevance to the current headlines. The Overland is co-edited by Evelyn Araluen, whose book of poetry Dropbears has just won the Stella Prize, and the Southerly shines a harsh light on both major Australian parties as a federal election campaign is heating up.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 242 (Autumn 2021)
(The content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

Let me walk you through this issue of Overland.

As usual, I skipped the editorial, beyond noticing that it opens with an apposite reminder of continuity: ‘Overland was founded with dual commitments to literary quality, and to publishing and fostering diverse writers.’

First, 51 pages of articles, kicking off with ‘The invisible sea‘ by Zowie Douglas-Kinghorn, which takes up a fifth of the journal to look at fracking in the Northern Territory: its contribution to climate change, its violation of First Nations people’s rights, its political and economic shortsightedness, its potentially disastrous effect on the Great Artesian Basin (the invisible sea of the title), the treatment of whistleblowers, and the lies, half-lies of distortions of fossil-fuel lobbyists and complicit government agencies. All this is told with a meticulous marshalling of data, and acknowledgement of the ‘data desert’ in which much of the extractive activity takes place, interwoven with moments of poetry, considerations of water as symbol, and snippets of the writer’s life story. The result is that the excellent summary of the state of things is also a personal call to arms:

Rather than ‘saving the children’, we need to equip young people with the resources for an ecologically, socially and economically just future. There is no way we can achieve this without addressing the traumas entrenched in our collective memory. But young people are powerful. We are embodied change, and youth should not be underestimated.

After this atypically long piece comes the very short ‘Libations‘, an impressionistic memoir/meditation by Cherry Zheng, whose mother migrated to Australia at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre; and ‘Hopeless labour‘ by Giles Fielke, another relatively short article that focuses on the way universities exploit their casual staff, though it sends sparks flying in so many directions that it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing.

In ‘A house in the country spells death‘, Aidan Coleman regales us with tales from the unruly life of poet John Forbes – foreshadowing his biography of Forbes due out soon. ‘Reclaiming Space’ by Robert Poposki, subtitled ‘An essay of autotheory’, reflects on the ‘tired and gendered French concept’ of the flâneur, argues that walking is still a good thing, and includes autobiographical anecdotes sequestered in text boxes – anecdotes that don’t obviously relate to flânerie or any kind of walking.

Second, the poetry section, starting with the judges’ notes on the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, and the four winning poems. (This is the first issue under the new editorial team to include prize results, and there are two!)

It may be parochial of me, but I’m delighted that Sara M Saleh of Western Sydney won the prize with ‘Border Control: Meditations‘. It and the runners-up are all here, plus another generous seven page feast of poetry.

More parochialism from me; The fiction section, which comes next, starts with judges’ notes on the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize 2021, followed by the winning story, ‘The Case of G: A Child Raised by Trains‘ by Inner-Western Sydney poet Tricia Dearborn, a wonderfully creepy scientific paper, complete with footnotes, whose title is self-explanatory.

The runners-up are all worth reading: the protagonist of ‘Anchor point‘ by Allison Browning is on the phone to Lifeline as she contemplates suicide; in ‘Mary Regard the Virgin’ by Jo Langdon (not on the website) it’s the politics of girls in high school; ‘Why green when silver‘ by Jordan De Visser has an older sibling’s relationship to a much younger brother that I’m not sure I followed completely; the title character of ‘The wild red herbivore‘ by Karen A Johnson is bushfire, and in this quiet, almost meditative fiction, it’s pretty much an offstage character.

The guest artist for this issue is Stephanie Ochona.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Janet Galbraith, Hani Abdile, Omid Tofighian, Behrouz Boochani (guest editors), Southerly 79.2: Writing Through Fences – Archipelago of Letters (2021)

After a two-year hiatus, during which subscribers received an alarming but mercifully incorrect email notifying them that their standing orders had been cancelled, Southerly is back.

This issue is a departure: an anthology of writing sparked by the hardships imposed on refugees and people seeking asylum by Australia’s immigration policies. Most of the writing is by people who have been or currently are in detention. There are also pieces by allies and advocates. Of the guest editors, two are themselves refugees, Hani Abdile from Somalia and Behrouz Boochani from Kurdistan/Iran; Omid Tofighian famously translated Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains from Farsi; and Janet Galbraith is the founder of the Writing Through Fences project, in which artists and writers who are refugees and asylum seekers work with non-refugee artists and writers who ‘are involved in collaborative, amplification and resourcing roles’ (the project web site is at this link).

A statement from Behrouz Boochani, quoted in Elizabeth McMahon’s Introduction, encapsulates the raison d’être for the project, and for this issue of Southerly:

Where we are is too hard. I think only in literary language can people understand our life and our condition.

In these pages, many minds grapple with that literary challenge. Some, many of them anonymous, write from detention; others after release and resettlement in other countries; some as journalists, allies or advocates; some as literary critics and/or theorisers; some as students writing to Behrouz Boochani about his book No Friend but the Mountains as part of a university exam while in Covid–19 isolation.

The language ranges from raw statements of painful emotion to capital-T Theory. There are folk tales, sweet anecdotes (I love the one about the cat in an Indonesian detention centre), poems, chronologies, reflections on translation, interviews and obituaries, as well as a scattering of visual art.

Many of the texts are translated into English. Some incorporate Tok Pisin as a sharp reminder that English is the language of the detainers and that for the detainees on Manus Island there is a chance of closeness with the locals, whose language is not English.

The collection makes for confronting reading. This is a side of Australia that most of us avert our gaze from. The title of each item includes a date and place, and in some cases the age of the writer. There is no looking away from the poems written by teenagers who have been in detention for years. Nur Azur, for example, tells her story in ‘Unfinished Sty of a Girl Born Stateless’. Born in 2001 of a Karen mother and a Rohingya father, she tried several times as a child to reach Australia, and in 2020, the time of writing, was still in a terrible limbo, partly of Australia’s making, in Indonesia. She writes:

Imagine:
Still there is not enough money for your baby and for food. Often there is only rice and salt. For 7 years, each time you ask the UNHCR about your resettlement process they reply: ‘We have already sent your files to the third countries, and they are under process.’ You have never received any proper information from the UNHCR regarding your resettlement, and neither have you seen any improvement or hopeful developments in your life.

Most mornings, when I wake up, my first thought is that I long to see a change in my life. Drifting into daydream, I escape into a world where I see myself going to school, studying, drawing, painting and doing homework with a large number of students. But when I get up, my dreams are shattered and all I can see is a small smoky room.

(‘Unfinished Story of a Girl Born Stateless’, page 243)

The most dramatic and harrowing piece is ‘siege’, a 23-page compilation of tweets written by detainees on Manus Island during the weeks-long stand-off when the Australian government set about closing down their camp and, in the end, forcibly removing hundreds of men to ill-prepared camps elsewhere in the island.

Ever since John Howard prevented journalists from visiting the people saved from drowning by Captain Arne Rinnan of the MV Tampa in 2001, successive Australian governments have done their best to ensure that people detained offshore and on the mainland are kept anonymous. Behrouz Boochani and the Murugappans (the ‘Biloela family’) are rare individuals who have breached that wall. This collection, and other projects like it*, take to it with a battering ram. If they could read a wide audience, surely the rage, sorrow, pain and heroic generosity of spirit in these pages would sweep into the dustbin of history the three-word slogans and mealy-mouthed policy utterances of our political leaders.

Omid Tofighian’s comment on Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains is just as true of this Southerly:

Also, equally as important, the book has transformed the image of refugees as weak, needy and broken masses of people into creative, intelligent and assertive individuals.

(‘Australian Border Violence, Race, and Translating No Friend but the Mountains‘ an interview with Al Abram in Cairo, p 223)

Sometimes I feel as if the unstated motto of my blog is, ‘Things I’ve read so you don’t have to.’ This is not one of those times. Southerly isn’t the most readily available publication in the world, and this issue is certainly not a fun read, but if you have a chance I urge you to read and engage with it.


* One that I’m aware of is Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts Project. As part of her installation at Sydney Circular Quay in 2016, messages were smuggled from Manus Island and Nauru on pieces of muslin. Photographs of a number of these messages were published in the Guardian on 7 December 2016 – at this link.

SWF 2019: Friday

I was in England when last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival broke away from its harbourside venue, so this is my first Festival at the Carriageworks. I miss stepping out of dim rooms full of bright words into the dazzle, or sometimes drizzle, of postcard Sydney. But I can walk there and back, which is something.


My SWF this year kicked off with a 10 o’clock session on Friday: Taking Flight: Stories of Expulsion and Migration

Julian Burnside chaired a conversation with German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, and Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, which is still on my To Be Read pile.

All three participants were interesting, more than that, compelling. Jenny Erpenbeck’s most recent novel Go, Went, Gone is based on a year befriending and documenting the experiences of migrants in Berlin – the kind of migrants who would be called refugees or asylum seekers in Australia, but have been defined out of that category in Germany. It emerged that the characters in her novel are all real people with changed names, except the main character, named Richard, who she admitted is herself. Asked by Julian Burnside abut the many references to classic Greek and Roman gods, she explained that part of her goal was to make it clear that northern African peoples aren’t the Cultural Others that mainstream media would paint them – that much of that ancient culture was shared by Europe and Africa. In the very brief Q and A, asked if sessions like this and perhaps novels like hers weren’t preaching to the converted, she said that migrants are generally portrayed as millions of displaced people deserving pity or stirring dread: what fiction can do is help us realise that ‘the millions are not millions’, but each one has a story, and these stories show our connection as humans.

Omid Tofighian has an impressive CV in his own right and a scholar and activist. He was on the panel as translator of Behrouz Bouchani’s book. He was fascinating about the process of translation from Farsi to English. (Incidentally, Farsi is an Indo-European language, with many similarities to German in how its sentences are constructed.) About 40 percent English version is in verse: this is because in many passages Behrouz’s long Farsi sentences had to be broken up into smaller sentences to make them work in English, and in that process what had been beautiful Farsi prose begged to be presented as English verse. Translator and author worked closely together on the translation. Replying to an audience member who asked for a practical solution to the problem of offshore detention, ‘the key word being practical’, he said two things were necessary: first to analyse and broadcast the financial dimensions of the detention industry, in particular what he and Behrouz call the horrific surrealism of Manus, which creates vast profits for a small number of people; and second to challenge the ideology that sees refugees as passive and not fully human. On the preaching to the converted question, he said that the thing about Behrouz is that he is holding a mirror up to Australian society in general, not pleading his own case as victim or seeking a benefactor: he is calling out Australians in general to reflect on our history of harshness towards the marginalised, from the beginning of colonisation.

Julian Burnside in the chair promised at the start that we were about to hear a conversation between the two others on the stage. In the event there was very little, if any conversation between Jenny and Omid. This seemed to be mainly because there was no obvious bridge between their subjects and were both giving us information, but also because Julian Burnside, admirable activist and advocate, had his own point of view and contribution to make.

The session was marred for me bursts of laughter and applause from the adjacent hall, actually part of the same vast space separated only by thick hanging curtains. And the man next to me should be given an award of some kind. He spent a lot of the time fanning himself with a newspaper, which tended to obscure my view of the stage, send a blast of air to the woman on the other side (we talked after the show), and make creaking sounds that disturbed the people in front of him as well as us. Every now and then he would reach down to a paper bag on his lap and rustle it a bit for no obvious reason. And then his phone rang, he answered it, he left by a gap in the curtain at the front left, and after a couple of minutes came back to rejoin his paper bag and his fan. I’m pretty sure if I’d asked him to tone it down he would have done so, but I was stupidly wimpy.


At half past eleven, Christos Tsiolkas chaired An Irrevocable Condition, a conversation with Melanie Cheng, Moreno Giovannoni (my review of his The Fireflies of Autumn here) and Melina Marchetta.

The title of the session came from James Baldwin, who wrote, ‘perhaps home is not a place, but an irrevocable condition.’ I don’t know how the quote related to the conversation, but it was a brilliant conversation. Tsiolkas kicked it off by asking, ‘Where are you from?’, a question he acknowledged is often rude or hostile, but can be a way to open connection. Certainly in this case that’s how it worked. The panel members told of complex relationships with the countries of their parents’ origins – sometimes their own birth or childhood countries, others experienced only in the communities in Australia.

Christos invited each of the others to read from their work. This is always the best thing in these panels, and in this case it was beautifully integrated into the conversation, as they were also invited to reflect on how the passages they read were part of developing an inclusive Australian language.

It was a wonderfully warm, generous conversation. The four panellists had had an interesting conversation in the green room, which they referred to frequently – the mutual appreciation of each other’s writing was palpable. Christos told of a recent visit with his mother to Richmond, where he was a child. She looked around and said, ‘Christos, it’s not the same,’ namong, as he said a kind of double migration: first from Greece to Richmond, and then from Richmond to a whole other suburb. This prompted someone to say that although they had been talking about the experience of being migrants, there was something universal there as well: the childhood home no longer exists for any of us. The panel members had a fabulous range of stories about their experience of the nominal home country.

The panellists all agreed that home is where their family and friends are: the family and community that they live among now. Cosmopolitanism is great, but hard for many people, and a local community gives something that meets our deep needs.

As the lights came up, before filing out into the lunchtime crowd, I had a chat with the elderly woman who had been sitting on my left. (Elderly in this case could mean younger than me, but hey!) After we’d told each other how much we’d enjoyed the session, she said, ‘I’m fro South Africa, and I love living here. But I realise I’ve been unfair to other South Africans who complain about Australia – I’ve just thought they should appreciate what they’ve got here, but now I feel I haven’t been understanding enough about their pain.’


4.30 pm Home Truths

 This session was nominally about home, and would have made a thematic hat trick for my festival so far, but after briefly covering their discomfort at being categorised as Western Sydney Writers, Fiona Wright (click here for previous mentions in this blog) and Luke Carman (ditto here) got the bit between their collective teeth and gave us a very interesting chat about mental illness. 

Like Carman has a great gift for deadpan comedy about uncomfortable topics – in this case a psychotic episode and its aftermath. By contrast, Fiona laughs a lot, cheerfully asserting that she’s allowed to use words like ‘crazy’, at least when talking about herself. (Incidentally, I tend to be with Raimond Gaita in preferring the scary word ‘mad’ over the blandly medical ‘mentally ill’ to name a truly scary phenomenon.)

Ashley Kalagian Blunt did an excellent, self-effacing job of enabling the conversation. The Western Sydney gambit didn’t lead to much, but asking them each to name a favourite piece in the other’s book of essays and to say why was a brilliant way of setting them free to enjoy each other, their literary friendship, and their experiences with the mental health system.

Fiona said her first book of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes; her second, The World Was Whole, which is on the pile beside my desk, is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is fragile. She mentioned her poetry, adding with mock defensiveness, ‘Don’t judge me!’ (I do judge, and the verdict is beyond favourable.)

Prompted by Ashley, Luke gave a wonderful account of the genesis of one of the essays in his book: he picked ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’, in which he set out to write something that would enrage some people he was feuding with. It did that, as well as pretty much alienating everyone who read it. He decided to include it in the book all the same, as it fitted with the madness theme of the collection – an example of something written by a person who was off the air. (I just found the essay inits Meanjin incarnation, here.)


We went home for dinner, and watched a little tele, including Ece Temelkuran on the Drum. We’re seeing her in Sunday at the Festival.

Then we were back at the Carriageworks for Story Club at 9 o’clock.

Story Club is a monthly event that’s been running for 11 years at the Giant Dwarf in Sydney, created and hosted by Ben Jenkins and Zoe Norton Lodge. This evening’s hour was supposed to have a theme, ‘Fool Me Once’, in keeping with the Festival’s over-all theme, ‘Lie to Me’. As everywhere else I’ve seen at the Festival so far, the theme was completely ignored. Well not completely: it was named. But as Ben, then Alex Lee (a regular on the now defunct The Checkout with Ben and Zoe), journalist Jacqueline Maley and fonally Zoe took the stage to read stories from their lives from a big red book, if a theme emerged it was in two mercifully separate parts: excessive consumption of alcohol and the tribulations of early motherhood. Breasts, sleeplessness, public humiliation and family reunions gave rise to much merriment.

And so home to bed.