While at the Sydney Writers Festival I did a lot of dining on my own. I quite enjoy it: watching people, listening. We are endlessly fascinating in our small differences. The ways we coalesce and break apart; hold our histories in our bodies. This is one of the reasons I enjoy writers festivals: they make you alive to stories. They inspire empathy; allow us a safe space in which to broach difficult subjects. We think deeply about how we can do better.
Everywhere I went people’s tongues were hot with the asylum seeker conversation. At the dinner table, on the bus, in the line for coffee or food or the toilet, people were talking about it. Everyone, it seemed, had a guarded opinion. This is something we feel passionately about. The anger – in its different manifestations - was palpable.
I took a taxi to Surry Hills to meet one our authors, John Hughes. The driver told me he is from Afghanistan. ‘My wife is here,’ he said, ‘and my children. But my siblings and parents… they’re in Afghanistan. Near Kunduz. They left it too late to come here. After 9/11, everything shut down.’ I asked him what he thought about our politics in Australia. He shrugged, ‘it makes me sad. So sad.’
I thanked him as he dropped me outside a pub. We wished each other luck.
John has just released a novel with us called Asylum. It is a poetic, allegorical tale of two barbers who cut the hair of people, almost apparitions, as they pass through the doors of the Sanctuary. It is dreamlike. Dark. Disorienting. I asked him where he got the idea for it. He told me, and I asked him to write it down.
The following is John Hughes’ note on the origins of Asylum.
In the European autumn of 2013, I took some leave in Venice to work on a novel about a Russian prince living in exile there after the Revolution. On my first day in Venice a boat sank off the island of Lampedusa and over three hundred asylum seekers drowned.
The Italian response to such an unconscionable tragedy was to declare a National Day of Mourning. No party politics; no pious utterances about people smugglers, border protection, or stopping the boats; no baying of radio talk back hosts. The fact that it was quite simply a human tragedy made, for the immediate response at least, everything else at best irrelevant, and at worst downright barbaric.
As the day wore on, though, I couldn’t help but think what our response back in Australia might have been if something similar happened there. The idea of an Australian National Day of Mourning struck me as so absurd as to be impossible. And the fact that it struck me in this way made me feel so angry I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day but seethe. After that came the sadness and the shame, and finally the despair which even now, three years on, I still can’t shake off.
Asylum began in that anger and despair, when the absence of compassion in almost all Australian public discourse about asylum seekers hit me with such force I found it impossible to resist. The book I’ve finally written is some way from that book I started to write in Venice almost three years ago. It’s grown into a surreal allegory about an enormous experiment whose purpose is not scientific. But the original impulse and its heat are still there in what has emerged. And Australia has not changed; if anything the current election campaign has only shamed us more deeply.
It’s terrible for a writer when he thinks he’s pushed reality to an extreme, stretched a policy to what he believes is its reductio ad absurdum, only to find that he’s been trumped by the real! When allegory becomes realism there’s something very wrong. Suffice to say Asylum has a number of resonances in English, and they are all there in the book.