LR18 Introduction

Dr. Isabella AlexanderNathani was a photographer for LR5. After graduating from Gallatin, in 2007, she moved to Rabat, Morocco, where she taught English at the national university and offered language courses to migrants and refugees through a community organization. The writing she collected from her students and the photographs she took of them were published in the Writing Program’s book, Where I’m From. She went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology. Her latest book, Burning at Europe’s Borders, was published by Oxford University Press this year, and her related documentary film, The Burning, is scheduled to be released this summer. You can learn more about her work at She writes:

A few months ago, as The Literacy Review team was in the middle of compiling works for this year’s publication, an asylumseeker on the other side of the world was given a rare opportunity to share his story. That opportunity not only changed the life of one man, it sparked an international debate over the rights of those who have been forced to flee their homes. As a humanrights activist, a graduate of the Gallatin School, and a longtime supporter of The Literacy Review, I believe we all have a critical lesson to learn from the words of Behrouz Boochani, which speak to the importance of giving voice to those who have been marginalized and the power of their stories to bring positive social change.

Behrouz Boochani—a KurdishIranian journalist—had spent the past six years in prison, stripped of his most basic human rights, and was still trapped behind bars when his words reached international audiences for the first time. After fleeing persecution in his home country in 2013, Boochani boarded a boat with more than 60 other asylum seekers, only to be intercepted by the Australian Navy and land on Christmas Island—a remote Australian territory just south of Indonesia. Like all asylum seekers, Boochani had been forced to abandon the places and the people he knew and loved. But he did not relinquish his voice—not then and not in the long years that followed.

“When I arrived at Christmas Island six years ago, an immigration official called me into the office and told me that they were going to exile me to Manus Island—someplace in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” he says in the video of his recent acceptance speech for Australia’s top literary award. “I told them that I am a writer. That same person just laughed at me and ordered the guards to exile me to the middle of nowhere.” In the spring of 2019, Boochani was granted the Victorian Prize for Literature, which carries an award of 125,000 Australian dollars, for his recently published book, No Friend but the Mountains: Writings from Manus Prison. He wrote the book in Farsi, sending it to his friend and translator one short message at a time via WhatsApp for fear that his work would be destroyed by detention center guards if discovered. It is a courageous testament to his belief that writing has always been and will remain his most powerful tool of rebellion. Still trapped on Manus Island six years later, Boochani could not accept his prize in person. But the impact of his words has reached far beyond his cell, sparking debate over the “offshoring” of asylum seekers like him to dangerous black sites and the integration of Australia’s radical border security model into the border policies of other nations around the world.

With both populist movements and human migration on the rise around the world, the most pressing challenges we will face as a global community in the coming years are ensuring the basic human rights of those who have been forced to flee home. According to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every man, woman, and child, regardless of their place of birth, has the basic right to seek asylum in other countries. At the very least, it is our global responsibility to ensure that migration journeys do not trap individuals in places as dangerous as—or even more threatening than—those they are fleeing. Boochani’s book speaks to this responsibility. In his acceptance speech, he addresses the global community when he says, “This proves that words still have the power to challenge inhumane systems. . . I have been in a cage for years, but throughout this time my mind has always been producing words, and these words have taken me across many borders. I truly believe words are more powerful than the fences of this place, this prison.”

The Australian government knew the power of words when they designed a campaign that uses stories and images to change the flow of people across international waters. The people of Australia similarly knew the power of stories when they awarded their top literary honor to a man who remains trapped as a result of that campaign. Indeed, Boochani has tried to establish a new language—employing everything from poetry and art to short stories and critical analysis in his attempts to unveil the power structures that have left him exiled for the past six years. Perhaps he has shown us a counternarrative to Australia’s multimedia campaign. The important question that I believe Boochani’s story raises for us all is: How will the rest of us harness the power of storytelling next? The continued success of The Literacy Review provides one clear and powerful answer.