In February 2020, as a Covid-19 outbreak had led to lockdown in Wuhan and was sparking alarm around the globe, a small audience gathered in a Dunedin Methodist church for an evening of conversation between Behrouz Boochani and Professor Alison Phipps. Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish refugee, journalist and film maker who recently achieved both fame and literary acclaim from within the walls of Manus Island Detention Centre for his novel No Friend but the Mountains. Professor Alison Phipps is the UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow. She was in Dunedin as the 2019 De Carle Distinguished lecturer at the University of Otago. Present also were Neil Vallely (Centre for Global Migrations, University of Otago), Ali Mostolizadeh, (Translator and PhD candidate in Sociology and Legal Studies, University of Waterloo) and respected Dunedin poets Emma Neale and Rhian Gallagher.
It’s not often a discussion about human rights abuses and serious political regression ends with a celebration of poetry and music, but given the guests, this was a natural outcome.
The evening’s conversation embraced issues of race, colonialism and the purpose of language. Medicine, in particular psychiatry, wove its way through the narrative, not as an altruistic, heroic vehicle for healing, but as a spectre of oppression and control.