No Friend But The Mountains is an extraordinary book by a remarkable author. Behrouz Boochani has now won four major Australian literary prizes – including the 2019 Victorian Prize, worth $125,000 – for his first-hand account of his asylum-seeking journey. The Kurdish writer’s manuscript was painstakingly tapped into thousands of text messages on a cell phone from within Manus Prison, where he has been held captive since 2013. Omid Tofighian, who translated the messages from Farsi, describes the experience of working with Boochani as being ‘rich with multiple narratives’ as they consulted, collaborated and constructed the text for publication. Working oceans apart, these two academics – one a researcher at Sydney University; the other a writer, journalist and scholar held in an Australian offshore prison – developed close bonds.
Prison writing is one possible genre this book could fall into. Boochani and Tofighian have refused to call Manus a detention centre, refugee camp, or other name which might soften the harsh reality that Manus is a prison, where innocent people have been kept against their will under inhumane conditions. The descriptions of life inside Manus Prison compare with those in Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. All are extraordinary accounts of extraordinary experiences. They are harrowing, yet enlightening to read, helping us value our everyday freedoms and the basic human rights we take for granted.