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  • Life Writing When the World is BurningThe Year in Australia
  • Kylie Cardell (bio)

It is no surprise that in Australia this year a great deal of life writing has continued to emerge in conjunction with pressing social and political issues. The ongoing national crises of refugee and asylum seeker policy, gendered abuse, and racial discrimination continue to surface in both political and literary arenas, while unprecedented bushfires have decimated the country, bringing climate change back onto the public agenda with new fury. The right of individuals to live with dignity, in safety, and free from fear—and the ongoing challenges to these rights suffered in public and domestic domains—is a connecting thread across the year's life writing and a theme the genre is uniquely equipped to amplify.

Writing Asylum

In Australia, one of the most volatile issues for representation has been, for a number of years now, in relation to the experiences and lives of refugees who arrive (or attempt to arrive) in Australia by boat. In 2013, the Kurdish journalist and artist Behrouz Boochani was one of sixty asylum seekers intercepted by Australian authorities on a boat that had left from Indonesia. Between 2013 and 2017, Boochani was forcibly detained at the Australian-run Manus Island immigration detention center in Papua New Guinea (PNG), a facility that closed suddenly (and violently) in 2017 causing displacement and statelessness for hundreds of "unprocessed" detainees. In detainment and exile, Boochani has produced a remarkable body of testimony, including a documentary film and a series of diary-essays for mainstream news media. Boochani's memoir No Friend but the Mountains (2018), written from the Manus camp on a cell phone and delivered over WhatsApp to collaborators in Australia, was awarded in 2019 the Victorian Prize for Literature, Australia's richest literary prize (Wahlquist). Boochani was not permitted to attend the ceremony, a gala event held in Melbourne. When testimony turns to memoir, it takes the form of a prestigious literary product. No longer a [End Page 1] digital stream of text and images but a hardcover, prize-winning book, the account claims coveted territory in the Australian literary sphere—but the author is yet to set foot on the Australian mainland. In No Friend, Boochani testifies in lyrical, shocking detail to the lack of safety and the ongoingness of daily struggle that characterize life in the detention facility—this is "prison literature" and strategic activism, poetry and diary, memoir and novel. His story does work his body cannot; it circulates in the Australian public sphere, raising awareness, encouraging activism, and speaking on behalf of refugees. What the memoir might achieve in terms of legal rights for asylum seekers in Australia remains to be seen, but it is hopeful that No Friend has won such a significant prize this year.

Writing Domestic Abuse

In her memoir Fake: A Startling True Story of Love in a World of Liars, Cheats, Narcissists, Fantasists and Phonies (2019), Stephanie Wood uses life writing to work through an individual experience to achieve both emotional catharsis and visibility for widespread issues of gendered emotional abuse. Stephanie is a successful journalist writing for some of the country's top mainstream media publications when she meets a man named Joe through an online dating service. Newly forty, childless, and a long-term romantic who has nurtured a dream of "the one," Stephanie is also at an emotional nadir. The tension in Wood's story is built on disbelief: the reader can't believe Stephanie is falling for the increasingly implausible stories that Joe is crafting—he explains away a nonexistent house, denies a very much existing wife and children—and Stephanie doesn't believe in herself. Her inner monologue is relentless; she is too needy, too anxious, too untrusting, too possessive. By the time Stephanie manages to end the relationship, she has spiraled into a deep depression. Her recovery involves rediscovering her journalistic power: she teams up with a female colleague, she tracks land records and bankruptcy deeds, and she interviews the "other woman," an ex-partner who Joe was dating at the same time. She consults psychoanalysts about whether or not Joe's behavior might qualify as psychopathic...


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